I recently reviewed a couple of books about patterns; similar subjects, different approaches. One dealt with patterns found in nature, in utilitarian objects, in random occurrences. The other examined the lore behind classic patterns—why the polka in polka dots, the etymology of “seersucker” (from the Hindi śīrśakkar, meaning “milk and sugar,” for the fabric’s alternating rough and smooth stripes). And both dipped a little into gestalt theory—the human tendency to want to find patterns in the disparate elements we see, to organize and sort. It’s a cataloger’s twitch, a taxonomist’s, a stoner’s, a diarist’s, a reviewer’s. I come by mine honestly.
The best fun, of course, is looking for a pattern where there just might not be any. Short story collections, for those of us who read a lot of them—not linked or thematic collections, obviously, but the five or ten or 15 stories that don’t seem to share any elements other than being written by the same person and then placed between two covers. Regularly recurring events are another: is there a theme this year? Is it a reflection of the economy/election cycle/unseasonable weather?
Which is all a kind of roundabout way of saying that every year I find myself speculating about the unseen forces at work behind The Story Prize. Some years it seems like every story read that evening—granted, there are only three at each event, an easy number to invent patterns for—makes me laugh; some years they have all been vaguely haunting. And I wonder: was there some behind-the-scenes zeitgeist driving the judges? If not, why not?—but that’s not the interesting question, of course. If so, why?
This year, the three finalists—Charles Baxter’s There’s Something I Want You to Do (Pantheon), Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles (Random House), and Colum McCann’s Thirteen Ways of Looking (Random House)—all felt particularly compassionate, a palliative kind of compassion, thick with the understanding that we are all hurting or ill or damaged in some way or another, and that it is our job to love each other nonetheless. I could be projecting, of course. This year has been liberally seasoned with unexpected losses and creepy politics; compassion may be the most soothing thought available. Or, as Story Prize host Larry Dark said in his opening remarks, “Welcome to the island of sanity.”
Baxter led off reading from There’s Something I Want You to Do, the sole collection that was explicitly themed. Each story is titled with a cardinal sin or virtue, and each hinges, at some point, on the title phrase—what Baxter termed request moments, some large and some small. There are a number of recurring threads, and characters who surface throughout the book. But, over and over, the act of asking. “If you put a request into a story it becomes a kind of social story,” Baxter explained, “especially if there’s a second part to the request”—a condition, an “if you love me.” Inspired by Hamlet, the Decalogue, Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral,” and a voice that came to him out of nowhere (that turned out, somewhat randomly, to belong to a babysitter he had when he was nine), Baxter set out to write “stories that had a moral life but were not moral,” and he succeeded nicely.
The six stories in Fortune Smiles, Dark told the audience, are the literary equivalents of amusement park rides—an apt description for fiction that finds a weird dark grace (with an equal emphasis on each of those three descriptors) in cancer, a former Stasi prison warden, a man fighting pedophiliac tendencies, Louisiana post-hurricane, and the hologram of an assassinated president. “I’ve learned over the years to trust my obsessions,” Johnson said. He read from the collection’s lead story, “Nirvana,” which featured the aforementioned hologram, and talked with Dark about the challenges of writing technology into fiction—particularly how the need to include cell phones in contemporary fiction, and their suspense-annulling immediacy, has the potential to screw with everything authors hold dear—“What do they to do plot? To brooding?”
McCann read from “Sh’khol,” an arresting story of a translator and her adopted son that posits the conundrum: “There were words, of course, for widow, widower, and orphan, but no noun, no adjective, for a parent who had lost a child.” When he first set out to write the story, said McCann, he thought there was no direct English translation from the Hebrew “because it was so obscene”—but there are other words, in other languages, and thus a story of a mother’s grief lying, coiled and ready to strike, while the Gardaí search frigid Galway waters for her missing son. McCann also spoke about his affinity, as an Irishman and a New Yorker, with Jews—the “other lost tribe!”—in particular James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, who McCann says gave him access to his great-grandda, alive in Dublin in 1904. “I never met him, but I know him through Joyce,” he explained. And he spoke passionately about Narrative 4, the global organization he cofounded that promotes peace through the “radical empathy” of storytelling.
I know: way to bury the lede. Johnson took the prize, for Fortune Smiles, which won the National Book Award last year—fortune indeed smiling on him, and deservedly so. (Adrian Tomine’s graphic collection Killing and Dying (Drawn & Quarterly) was awarded the Spotlight Prize, But with three good readings from three strong collections, you could argue that everyone in attendance was a winner (minus that $20,000, but who’s counting?). It’s good, and necessary, to take an evening away from work and commuting and doing taxes and the appalling circus of political debates and just stretch the muscles of tenderness for an hour or so.
In fact, Dark called it at the beginning of the evening. All three books, he told the audience, share “a tremendous empathy.” And honestly, I can’t think of a better time for that than right now.