Book Review: Ben Berman’s Then Again

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by Beret Olsen

With two volumes of poetry under his belt—Figuring in the Figure (Able Muse Press, 2017) and the award-winning Strange Borderlands (Able Muse Press, 2013)—Ben Berman has turned his pen to a collection of flash fiction. Due out in November, Then Again includes forty-two triptychs strung tightly with a thread of words.

The surface structure of the book is readily visible in the table of contents, which reads like a word association game: “Breaks,” is followed by “Tears,” then “Openings.” Likewise, “Beats” follows “Switches,” then “Currents.” But dig deeper to appreciate the many layers in Berman’s linguistic tapestry. Within each story, the author proves an astonishing gymnast —semantic, geographic, philosophical, and chronological. In a single sentence, he can travel through college, love, and loss, and land in Nepal:

Sometimes you have to let something shatter just so you can see what it’s made of, and after all those months of heartbreak I needed more than a mere break from school—which is how I ended up in Kathmandu, three mangy dogs chasing me through a maze of alleyways. —from “Breaks”

Berman takes a word and tinkers, seeing how far it might stretch without snapping. In “Presents,” for example, Berman assembles a three-layer literary confection using a common ingredient: the Latin praesent-, or “being at hand.” Now wielding it to mean current, then focused, then gift, he steers the reader from inner peace to scattered peas and a dirty diaper.

Inspiration for this body of work came from his young children, who marveled that one arrangement of sounds could have such a jumble of meanings. His aim? “To write about disconnects in a form that stressed deep interconnections, to explore the contradictions of our lives by contemplating the tensions within and between words.”

Though the author calls the stories a “blend of fiction and nonfiction,” each is written in first person and crosses his personal map and history. Turning a page, we are as likely to find him as a parent, a child, or a teacher; in Zimbabwe, at a drive-thru, or in Paris, hankering for a few cubes of cheese. The slippage is not just between connotations, then, but also between cultures, between versions of the self, all while keeping the prose deceptively simple. No matter the age or location of the protagonist, he is trying to make sense of himself through the lenses of past, present, and future. The resulting stories fit snugly but vary widely: some poignant, others provocative, even humorous.

Because no one really wants to hear about that time you held a goat down as blood spurted all over your arms or what it’s like to have parasitic worms burrow into your feet then lay eggs on the walls of your bladder, we figured we’d better bring home some finely crafted masks to hang on our living room walls. —from “Figures”

In fact there is a lot of humor in this slim volume. There are spoon-armed showdowns with three-year-olds, grandfathers in wheelbarrows, and pubescent tongues working like plungers. The games Berman plays with words and ideas makes the opening line of “Balls” a comedic achievement: “Benny had the brains, says Marc, and I had the balls—which would be funnier if he were speaking metaphorically . . .” But proceed cautiously. Some of the pieces that linger longest are the ones that go beyond semantic games. These can sting. In “Sounds,” he listens to the breaths of his sleeping wife and children—hers meditative, theirs restless—while writing about the death of a boy on a bus in Africa, witnessed years before.

While each short work feels effortless and alive, en masse the stories accentuate their structural similarity. Better to read a page or two at a time, so as not to lose sight of the arc and integrity of the discrete narratives. As Berman reveals in the opening story, these “. . . shards and peaks, slivers and alleys, [are] strokes of a single landscape.” Take the time to follow the author into the alley with dogs, to Pitch ‘n’ Putt with a can of beer, or down the aisles of Bed, Bath and Beyond with a screaming toddler. Each handful of sentences reflects a raw truth about self and other—self as other. Sifting through the pieces allows the whole to take form.

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Beret Olsen is a writer, a photographer, and the photo editor for 100 Word Story. Her art, essays, and fiction have appeared in publications including First Class Lit; Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine; the Masters Review; and her blog, Bad Parenting 101.