Twenty pieces of powerhouse short fiction.
Selected by a jury that includes A.M. Homes and Christine Schutt, this gathering of the current crop of PEN/O. Henry Award winners makes its own argument. Even so, volume editor Furman does almost nothing in her introduction to give the stories a context beyond “savage fierceness”; a more vigorous account of the whys and wherefores of the anthology, in the manner of Bill Henderson’s introductions to his Pushcart Prize collections, would have been welcome. If conflict is the necessary foundation for literature, then the collection abounds in it, to greater or lesser effect. Far and away the strongest piece, Tamas Dobozy’s “The Restoration of the Villa Where Tibor Kálmán Once Lived,” has the highly compressed makings of an epic reworking of Les Miserables, its setting a Hungary caught between its fascist rulers and the advancing Red Army, its dominant moods fear and shame. In “Pole, Pole,” Susan Minot outlines the toxicities within family and neighborly dynamics; Chris Adrian allows a grieving man to insult a small child to perfect effect in “The Black Square,” a fine piece of psychological writing; Lily Tuck’s “Ice” encompasses whole worlds, the landscape of the heart imposed upon the landscape of Antarctica, with its great herds of penguins: “They are small and everywhere underfoot and Maud feels as if she is walking among dwarves.” Conflict abounds, yes, but the greatest exemplars of that savage fierceness are stories that deal with the efforts of us puny humans to withstand the elements; much of Jim Shepard’s superb story “Your Fate Hurtles Down at You,” for instance, takes place atop a cliff, with little echoes of Max Frisch’s great yarn “Man in the Holocene” bouncing off the granite, while Matthew Neill Null’s “Something You Can’t Live Without” will give the claustrophobic new reasons to be glad they’re not trapped inside caves full of “blind wormy salamanders, hare-eared bats whose wings were silk fans brushing their faces.”
As Minot observes, there are “three strategies for survival.” We know two of them, fight or flight. As for the third—well, about that this well-chosen selection has much to say.