May 2008

Benjamin Jacob Hollars


The O. Henry Prize Stories 2008 edited by Laura Furman

The O. Henry Prizes Stories 2008 continues to reward the same type of story they’ve been championing for the past decade: conventional, hard-boiled tales told in the third-person. When comparing it with the 1997 edition, I was not surprised to find two ‘97 winners -- Alice Munro and Mary Gaitskill -- reappearing in this latest edition as well.

However, various newcomers are represented in the 2008 edition. While some might find it troubling that one of the most prestigious writing prizes in the nation refuses to look too far beyond its own aesthetic, we must admit that the included stories continue to be top-rate, despite their similarities in style and execution.

While Anthony Doerr’s “Village 113” and Tony Tulathimutte’s “Scenes from the Life of the Only Girl in Water Shield, Alaska” both take forms more experimental than the other included stories, sadly, these experiments didn’t necessary translate into the most successful stories. Instead, the most powerful ones were those closely aligned to the O. Henry aesthetic described above.

A prime example is Olaf Olafsson’s “On The Lake,” a story that explores the recklessness and cowardice of a father and mother who quietly blame one another for the near-drowning of their son. When two fishermen, the boy’s rescuers, enter the story, we observe the continual decline of the parents’ relationship in subtle conversation.

Equally powerful is another drowning story, Alexi Zentner’s “Touch.” With his perfect knowledge of the environment, Zentner’s depicts the tragedy of a drowned father and daughter peering up through the ice at the surviving townspeople in a cold, Canadian logging town.

Yiyun Li’s “Prison” hones in on grief of another sort: the difficult relationship between an immigrant mother who has recently lost her 16-year-old daughter and a young girl who agrees to surrogate the woman’s next child. Their relationship morphs from friendly to cruel as both struggle to find happiness in their sharing of a womb.

Finally, Michel Faber’s “Bye-bye Natalia” focuses on an e-mail correspondence between a Ukrainian woman and an American man as they court one another half a world away. As they continue investing their hopes in the possibility of a shared life, they traverse the fine line between reality and the impossibility of their expectations.

When taking a step back to examine the collection as a whole, it is evident that the primary criteria for awarding O. Henry Prizes seems to reside where it should: in the restraint and subtlety of the writing. These are stories both sparse and expanding, quiet but echoing; stories that reverberate like a stone skipped in water. While these tales fall on a short spectrum related to the variety of style and craft, we can rest assured they still maintain the power to break hearts all the same. They ease us into a clarity that only thoughtful writing can seduce. They ask us to look wider and stare longer at the tragedies we’d rather shy away from.

The O. Henry Prize Stories 2008 edited by Laura Furman
ISBN: 0307280349
400 Pages