For this year’s collection—short fiction’s version of the All-Star Team—editor Dark has reduced the number of stories from twenty to seventeen in order to include three lengthier pieces.
Refreshingly, each of the three longer stories departs from current fiction’s overly familiar “middle-class quotidian” terrain. Mary Swan’s “The Deep”—given First Prize by judges Mary Gordon, Michael Chabon, and Mona Simpson—takes place during WWI and centers on a pair of peculiarly co-dependent female twins who go overseas as civilian volunteers. In Andrea Barrett’s “Servants of the Map,” a nervous British surveyor traverses the Himalayas of the 1860s, while George Saunders’s brilliant “Pastoralia” (printed, fortunately, from the full text in Saunders’s book of the same name, and not from The New Yorker’s truncated version) is about a hapless fellow playing a caveman in a “historical” theme park. The judges give Second Prize to Dan Chaon’s “Big Me,” an extraordinary piece about a boy in Nebraska who becomes convinced that a stranger on his block is his future self. Meanwhile, ever-reliable Alice Munro takes both Third Prize, with “Floating Bridge,” and a Special Award for Continuing Achievement. This award was last given in 1986, to Joyce Carol Oates, who also appears in this year’s collection, her 29th O. Henry selection. There are a few weird recurrences—in two separate stories, people come across children’s hands—and, as usual, a preoccupation with illness and violence. The inclusion of historical fiction—as well as wonderfully strange fare like Pinckney Benedict’s “Zog-19: A Scientific Romance,” about an alien made of iron and sentient gases who takes over the life and loves of a Seneca Valley farmer—keeps the volume various and interesting, despite a small handful of desultory pieces. Taking this year’s magazine award is The New Yorker, which published five of the seventeen stories.
A strong year for the series.