Book Review: Ben Berman’s Then Again
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.
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.
Review: Christopher DeWan’s Hoopty Time Machines: Fairy Tales for Grown-Ups
by Amanda Krupman
Christopher DeWan, in his debut flash fiction collection, Hoopty Time Machines (Atticus Books, September 2016), creates new “fairy tales for grownups.” Fairy tales, fables, myths, and parables: These are formative narratives, extracting magic from the sensical and then putting that magic back to work. Told and retold, the tales are palimpsests, utilizing deceptively spare structures and loosely associated archetypes. DeWan’s flash fictions are indeed grown-up stories, built on contemporary anxieties. With this collection he joins writers like Donald Barthelme, Kelly Link, Etger Keret, and Carmen Maria Machado in crafting satirical and sly postmodern fabulism that doesn’t so much aim to subvert fairy-tale tropes as much as uproot them and toss them on the compost pile.
Hoopty Time Machine is 45 stories, arriving just prior to the election of another 45—a U.S. President who doesn’t seem so far removed from the Biblical and Grimm villainy of snakes, ogres, and evil stepmothers. Escape fantasies from the age of late capitalism, a superhero’s existential crisis, a son being the only person who can see his estranged parents are trolls, a mother haunted by her murdered child’s ghost and a father disturbed by his witchy teenage daughter’s power—these are some of the 21st-century scenes animated by DeWan’s dark whimsy.
DeWan’s disillusioned female characters are particularly well conceived. In stories like “Goldilocks and the Three Boys” and “The Little Mermaid,” DeWan doesn’t just offer feminist reappraisals of their fates; he imagines them as the complex, brilliant women all of us know in real life, just trying to get along the best they know how. In “Rapunzel’s Tangles,” Rapunzel, an introverted stay-at-home mom forced to play hostess at her husband’s work parties, cuts off her hair in a bob every day only to find it wrapping around the kitchen by nightfall. She has the same problem with her eyebrows, but she finds grooming them to be a kind of meditative hobby she compares to gardening. And yet Rapunzel’s meditations may better be described as a depressive’s ruminations:
Her worries receded into the simple task: tweeze and pluck. Tweeze and pluck. So close to the glass, her face ceased to be hers, and instead became its own landscape—her own face, a faceless alien landscape of pores and follicles, and staring longer, this dissolved further into just shapes, colors, no labels, no words.
A few of the stories work more like a Stephen Wright joke or a Woody Allen anecdote. “Conestoga Wagon” and “Sacramento” are essentially paraprosdokians, ready to be inserted into a certain kind of stand-up comic’s bit. In “The Dinner Party,” guests include Anxiety, Sadness, and Futility. “Indestructible” is five lines of gallows humor in the age of craven politicians who would dismantle the Affordable Care Act.
Other stories in the collection set aside dry wit and dig deeper under the skin. In “The Wallpaper,” rose-colored glasses are too transparent for a woman who papers over her life. In “Intrusion,” a woman turns to masochism in the face of unbearable grief—leading her to, in a stranger-rape role play, ensure a “hate fuck” from her husband by offering the name of their dead child when he asks for a safe word. In “The Signal,” humanity is initially buoyant but then bereft when realizing that the signals sent to us from alien life forms were sent back in the Middle Ages and that any conversation is subject to a thousand-year time lag.
It’s a fecund period for post-apocalyptic stories; joining popular works from television, film, and genre fiction are literary novels like Emily St. Mandel’s Station Eleven and Laura Van Den Berg’s Find Me. But when reading DeWan’s “Blog of the Last Man on Earth,” I’m reminded of an elegiac short story by Tess Allard, published last year in the Black Warrior Review: “The World Holds What It Remembers Most,” which imagines a girl on a bike, riding alone in a desolated world, seeking both meaning and solace through memory. In “Blog of the Last Man on Earth,” we read the protagonist’s journal and witness a transformation through loneliness that has him imagining he is speaking fluent French with Amélie (yes, that Amélie). Blog posts at the opening of the story are labeled simply by day and time (“Monday, 3:45 pm”), but soon become vague markers like “Evening” and “Middle of the Night I Think” and, finally, “The Scurf of All Yesterdays.” Some of DeWan’s most striking imagery is found here at the end of the story, when the protagonist, musing that “[l]eft to our own devices, maybe we all become artists,” begins painting over the billboards, creating murals from his recollections of an Earth that no longer exists. The Last Man on Earth remembers all of the small, quotidian, and precious moments like “present wrapping and unwrapping” and “road trips and road trip games,” but then:
I remember the smell of my mother, the tinkling of the mobile ceramic swans over my crib, the cozy caress of the satin baby blanket. I remember, before that, sweeping forests far as the eye could see; thick, rolling oceans; endless, mind-flattening plains. I remember fields coated with mustard gas; the groans of sinking ships; piercing bullets and bayonets and the sticky warmth of my own blood; I remember rounding Cape Horn, scaling Mount Everest, building the Pyramids brick by behemoth brick; I remember Pangaea, and the terrible, explosive rending of the Moon. I remember the ignition of the Sun, and the swirling center of the galaxy, the whip of its arms screaming through the vacuum. I remember the end of infinite density, the Big Bang, a gasp of breath, a baby’s laugh, a cosmic orgasm, the same spasm of anticipation that comes at the dawn of love, the true fear of loss; and I remember, before all that, the bottomless, bottomless silence like the silence I hear now. It’s all right.
DeWan’s protagonist no longer has any use for his personhood, for what makes him an individual. He strips it all away in favor of painting pictures of scenes from an ancient, collective memory.
In a rich collection of flash, Hoopty Time Machines mines our collective memory and imaginatively spins multilayered versions of stories that have been developed and adapted over generations: stories that live in our bodies, attached to the spine, keeping us upright as we move through the obstinate moment-to-moment and often terrifying unknowns of what’s yet to come.
Amanda Krupman’s work has appeared in publications including Flapperhouse, The Forge Literary Magazine, BLOOM, The New Engagement, and Punk Planet. Amanda received an MFA in Fiction from The New School’s graduate writing program and was recently a recipient of a Jerome Foundation Emerging Artist Residency Award. She teaches writing at Pace University and “From Page to Podcast: Writing Audio Fiction” at Middlebury College. She is currently working on a collection of short fiction. Follow her on Twitter: @akrupman
Review: Stephanie Hutton’s Three Sisters of Stone
Stephanie Hutton’s Three Sisters of Stone (Ellipsis Zine, May 2018) is a novella-in-flash that follows three sisters from childhood through adulthood in Australia, spanning about thirty-five years. Hutton is a clinical psychologist living in the UK who rewards her readers with a psychological precision and an economy of language that deepen the reader’s understanding of these characters and their relationships to each other as she moves through slices of their lives. Details are specific and carefully chosen and result in a depth of character and humanity that has stuck with me long after finishing the compact stories.
The novella is told in fifteen flash stories, each designated with the year of their occurrence, from 1981 to 2013, flanked on either side by a prologue and an epilogue. The middle sister, Bella, narrates the stories. Hutton’s decision lends the novella a sense of wholeness it wouldn’t have if each sister had varyingly told part of the story, and provides a sort of symmetry, a narrative choice that makes it feel like looking forward and backward simultaneously.
The prologue begins the novella with a fantastical look at the adult lives of the sisters we don’t yet know. Drawing on the fable of the “Three Little Pigs,” each sister builds a house of a different material—Agnes an “anti-wolf” home of metal without windows, Bella a home of glass bricks from which she can keep vigil for the wolf, and Chloe a door-less, window-less home allowing anyone—any wolf—access. The choice to literalize each personality makes the reader quickly form a distinct idea about each sister, and the references to a wolf establish a sense of danger and foreboding. This opening also provides a blueprint for how the sisters deal very differently with the abuse and neglect visited on them by their parents.
“Fortune Teller” is one of the best examples of this. The sisters make and play with a paper fortune teller, which ingeniously allows for present character development and also shows the sisters imagining future lives away from their abusive childhood. Agnes, the eldest, folds the fortune teller, and Bella writes the fortunes. “There was no point,” Bella says, “in trying to cheat and choose which fortune would be mine, as Chloe would add the colours on the top of each section last.” Agnes gets lost “in the rhythm of moving the paper machine forwards and backwards,” just as she will later get lost in her accounting job, and chooses a fortune that tells her, “You will find your heart’s desire.” Her reaction is subdued as Bella explains that Agnes’s desires are small and obtainable. I get the sense that perhaps her future dreams have already been reduced to the simple need to not be traumatized and abused.
Chloe chooses next and shows her impatience by only having the paper flower move one time. “You will shine bright,” Bella reads to her. Chloe wriggles her fingers in delight and Bella muses about how stars die, and I began to wonder when Chloe will burn out. Bella, having chosen to let both of her sisters go first, ignores her instincts to pick green and instead chooses blue. Agnes reads to her, “Hmm, blue. What will be will be,” and Bella, disappointed with the results, wonders what would have happened had she chosen green like she wanted. In addition to revealing more about the sisters’ personalities, there’s evidence of the punishing psychological effects abuse has on young girls—the sisters’ hopes for the future diminish from youngest to oldest. This is another way Hutton utilizes the middle sister as narrator—Bella is showing us how abuse is cumulative, with Chloe being least affected because she’s been, by virtue of her age, abused for the shortest amount of time.
The abusive father’s presence is felt throughout the girls’ lives, whether psychologically or physically. Details about him become sparse, which works in a surprising way, giving space to the idea that the sisters are unconcerned with what happens to him. Hutton is adept at working in a kind of relief, making certain things clear by their absence and letting the reader’s imagination do just the right amount of work. The tone is dark and it rarely lets up, an ominousness lurking over the sisters wherever they go and whatever happens to them. Hutton seems fascinated with how darkness envelops this family, with Bella wondering after the disappearance of their father, “[W]hat kind of God takes your angry father away but forgets to cure your mother of her sadness?” Hutton is clearly interested in trauma and how it can ricochet through a family, harm being passed around from one member to others.
Another standout, “What Mother Never Did,” is the first glimpse of all three sisters as adults. The effect is like holding a mirror up to their childhood selves. Who we are as adults is so often who we were as children. Chloe is still wild and boy crazy. Agnes is still socially out of touch and overly responsible, her large, shiny car seeming “too big for a woman who usually drove alone, but it had the highest safety rating.” Bella, as always, is sandwiched in the middle, the peacemaker, and it’s no surprise that she weathers the only alone time any of the women spend with their mother. But this gives “What Mother Never Did” one of the most satisfying endings in the book.
In the epilogue, Bella imagines a trip to the mountains with her sisters to visit “the rocks they called the Three Sisters.” Breaking from the past tense of the rest of the stories, it imagines an impossible day, perfect in its distillation of what each of the sisters would do if they could make the trip and ends, predictably, in darkness. Everything in this novella is dense and rendered in miniature, a generation’s life explored in poignant flashes of childhood and character detail that both satisfy and leave the reader wanting more of these girls. As Bella says in the epilogue, “With our view reduced from miles to metres, we’d feel each other’s breaths and heartbeats, the world shrunk down as if there was only us in it.”
Natalie C. Brown is a writer and editor currently pursuing an MFA in fiction at Texas State University in San Marcos. She loves all things bookish and literary and is a lifelong Astros fan. She lives with her (almost) husband and two dogs in Austin, TX. You can follow her on Twitter at @nataliekins.
Review: A Bright and Pleading Dagger by Nicole Rivas
Each year since 2007, Rose Metal Press holds its Short Short Chapbook Contest, which the press’s founders describe as a way “to showcase one of our favorite forms in a format more typically used for poetry than for prose.” The winning 2018 entry is A Bright and Pleading Dagger by Nicole Rivas, an L.A.-based writer whose work has appeared in such publications as Passages North, The Adroit Journal, and Paste Magazine.
In his thoughtful introduction, poet Rigoberto González lauds Rivas for her “skillful use of compression,” noting how this collection places a “finger on the pressure point” of “‘what girls’ lives do or do not depend on’” (a quote from the book’s title piece).
While what women’s lives depend on can readily be seen as an underlying theme, one might argue that Rivas’s tense, clipped pieces don’t so much place a finger on pressure points, as they do create the impression of a battle-scarred warrior, pointing out each of her wounds with a dispassionate finger, sharing her “war” experiences with other, equally-scarred veterans of life as a woman today.
It is to González’s credit that he recognized Rivas’s theme and the emotional impact of her intense pieces, but it is, perhaps, a different experience for a woman to read them. Each piece, in Rivas’s blunt, matter-of-fact, almost terse style, focuses on experiences many women will recognize all too well:
There is, for example, the ever-present sense of danger inherent in a woman’s vulnerability that permeates the title piece, “A Bright and Pleading Dagger,” in which a teenaged narrator and her friend hitch a ride with two older men. When her friend disappears into a cornfield with one of them, the narrator is left alone with the other: “The belt buckle moved faster. I could hear it tapping against the steering wheel, just like his knuckles had done before. While I knew knuckles belonged to a hand, the penis to a pelvis, it didn’t matter. In the truck, the penis had the presence of a closed fist.”
Rivas reminds the reader that it is not only men who take advantage of that vulnerability; sometimes, it’s other women, as in the startling “Death of an Ortolan,” which originally appeared in Passages North: “On my first date with Penny, I was very nervous because I was only nineteen and Penny was fifty-two.” Penny is the narrator’s gynecologist, too—is there any more vulnerable position for a woman to be in, than in those stirrups? Still, their relationship continues: “I was so nervous, because this was only the third date with a woman I’d ever been on, let alone a gynecologist, my gynecologist, and it was a good thing those napkins were cloth, or else I would’ve ripped them to shreds all over again.” And yet, younger, inexperienced, and vulnerable, the narrator falls under the older woman’s sway.
Few experiences of modern womanhood escape inclusion here. There is the young girl with the heart of a lion in “Bulldog,” who dreams of being strong and fierce, but whose mother—her mother—only laughs at her dreams: “She apologized for laughing, but I had already started the water and didn’t answer. In the shower I made some promises to myself about who I was and who I would always be.”
There is the richly satisfying title character in “The Butcher”: “When no one is watching, she works with bare hands, cleaning chicken carcasses and extracting lolling tongues from cow heads…To the butcher, the inside of a hog’s rib cage is much like the beauty of a vacant skyscraper stairwell. She drums her fingers against each rib like a child running up the steps two at a time.” Her work, her joy, and her passion, are full of blood and warmth and offal, she’s up to her elbows in life and death itself, yet she hides that part away; it’s hard not to draw a parallel here, given how much discomfort any talk of women and bleeding in general can generate for some people.
There is Gretel, dreaming of escaping her life with Hansel in the poignant re-imagining of “Gretel’s Escape”: “She watched Hansel poking into the can with his pinky finger. She was tired of being simultaneously lost and bound to fate. Gretel wanted to do something before she was forced to wit her way out of death by cannibalism, something just for her. Only Gretel knew what that was.”
There is also the entertaining heroine in “The Woman on the Bus,” sharing her painfully familiar experience of being the captive audience of a self-important man: “You become silently infuriated, a simmer bordering on boil. He’s grabbed your attention with his remark about the woman he met on the bus…and now that he has your attention, he forces you—either intentionally or unintentionally—to endure the spectacle of his mastication.”
It may sound to this point that perhaps Rivas has it in for men in general, but that would not be a fair assessment at all. Rather, this sharp, chest-tightening collection draws on what are, sadly, familiar and heart-breakingly common experiences for many women. Rivas shares those in the tight, gristly, almost detached prose of a warrior pointing to each scar as proof of having survived that particular battle. Those who would avert their eyes from those scars, who would prefer to remain oblivious to the battles fought and the pain experienced, probably will not find what they’re looking for in this steely little book. For others, it’s a chance to find a bit of solidarity, and perhaps a bit of enlightenment, too.
Julia Tagliere is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Writer, The Bookends Review, Potomac Review, numerous anthologies, and the juried photography and prose collection Love + Lust. Winner of the 2015 William Faulkner Literary Competition for Best Short Story and the 2017 Writers Center Undiscovered Voices Fellowship, Julia currently resides in Maryland with her family, where she recently completed her M.A. in Writing at John Hopkins University. She serves as an editor with The Baltimore Review and is currently working on her next novel, The Day the Music Didn’t Die.
Book Review: Sarah Layden’s The Story I Tell Myself About Myself
by Frannie McMillan
The 15 stories in Sarah Layden’s new collection of flash fiction, The Story I Tell Myself About Myself (Sonder Press, August 2018), offer readers failed couplings, bad medical news (or anticipated bad news), infertility, death, unexplained physical anomalies, attempted recovery, and a mad libs style fill-in-the-blank story. The Story I Tell Myself About Myself is the 2017 winner of the Sonder Press chapbook competition. A recipient of the Allen and Nirelle Galson Prize for fiction and an Association of Writers & Writing Programs Intro Award, Layden is the author of the novel Trip Through Your Wires, and her short fiction and non-fiction appear in a range of publications.
Described by NUVO writers Dan Grossman and Laura MacPhee as “Slippery, secretive, and sensual, Layden’s short fiction is simply magical,” The Story I Tell Myself About Myself brims with secrets and words left unsaid. There is a Bradbury-esque feeling to these quirky, sometimes otherworldly stories. Reading them is like that moment of realization, hours later, that you said something insensitive, or forgot something that you needed to say.
The first piece, “Hang Up,” introduces readers to a man who has been calling the same woman for fifteen years. He never speaks when he calls, and she tells him stories over the phone. “Hang Up” is such a fitting introduction to this collection because, like the female character in this story, Layden’s voice beckons the reader onward through an array of stories that range from the mundane to the fantastic. The last few lines plead, “You are the story I tell myself, about myself. Stay with me. Stay.”
“Decoy,” a tense, tightly woven story about a woman named Alice, manages to be lightly humorous and gut-wrenching at the same time. I’m left not knowing what happens to Alice’s daughter, Sylvie, by the end. From the ducks on the pond to the “mostly harmless lies” that Alice remembers using as a kid, “camouflaging her whereabouts,” Layden explores the many meanings of the word “decoy.” Even the color of ice on the pond is “a trick of the orange and purple sunset.” Sylvie hopes to “attract the real thing” with her ducks on the windowsill; Alice wonders why people ruin brand-new furniture by making it look shabby, hiding its newness under a beaten façade while also thinking, “the face ought to map your life,” explaining why she declined the Botox proffered by her dentist-turned-date.
“He Waits, Wants” was so perfect that I, having experienced infertility, could hardly stand it. In a delightful twist, Layden creates a world where the male is physically responsible for carrying a child. He charts his cycles, takes his temperature, and pees on the ovulation stick, while his female spouse just wants to go to the bar after they finish having sex. She is annoyed with his constant worrying, but admits to feeling jealousy when the neighbor’s kid “got knocked up at sixteen.” While there is a humorous element to this piece, Layden skillfully illustrates a role reversal that gives both sides a chance to wear the other’s shoes.
“The Woman Who Was a House” features a woman whose body was an actual house, vacant after her family moved to the Caribbean to pursue a life as underwater Civil War reenactors. “The Woman with No Skin” deals with a character whose protective suit became covered in the words of others. Both pieces explore some of the ways women adapt to being taken advantage of or hurt by the world. In “Arrested Development” readers meet Vera, a woman who never grew and still looks like a child. Like the female character in “New Thing,” Vera is “waiting for the knock at the door that would change her life, but it was usually the mailman with a package she had specifically ordered.” Layden portrays women who are making the best of their circumstances, surviving life at a day-to-day pace. While women take center stage in this collection, “Comet’s Return,” “Marv’s 11 Steps,” and “Two Hearts,” showcase Layden’s ability to write a believable and compelling male perspective.
Male or female, Layden’s characters are faithful to their routines. The characters in each story are connected to various daily rituals or lifestyles. Some seem to question these practices, and some seem oblivious to them. For example, the man in “Hang Up” always calls the woman, and she always tells him a story. The woman in “The Rest of Your Life” always takes a moment to wink at her reflection in the elevator. “Sex in Secret” considers the old habits of sexual encounters before the digital age created new ones. The couple in “He Waits, Wants” is tied to the schedule dictated by infertility. Davey considers his own habits in the context of his father’s lifelong pattern of alcoholism and womanizing in “Comet’s Return.” “The Woman Who Was a House” replays old family films through the projector in her lungs. Vera is tied to her routine of watching television and eating junk food while she waits for her life to change in “Arrested Development.” Marv, the title character in “Marv’s 11 Steps,” is so loyal to his daily routine of visiting the newsstand that the narrator observes “daily he paced this sidewalk, a short Marv-sized path worn into the cement.” Marv visits the same bar, makes the same joke as the same song plays on the jukebox every night, his feet “stepping in the same cracked pattern” on the dance floor. “Collision Physics for the Math-Averse” considers how these patterns and routines can shift and alter lives. The Story I Tell Myself About Myself gives you no choice but this: stay. Stay with these characters and listen to what they have to tell you.
The Story I Tell Myself About Myself is available from Sonder Press and elsewhere online.
Frannie McMillan’s poetry has appeared in The Coachella Review, K’in Literary Journal, The Indianapolis Review, and others. She is currently at work on her first chapbook, You Ain’t By Yourself. By day, she connects young people with books as a secondary librarian in Richmond, Virginia. You can find her on Twitter @franniemaq.
Book Review: Sophie Van Llewyn’s Bottled Goods
by Tiffany Sciacca
Sophie Van Llewyn’s debut flash novella, Bottled Goods, (Fairlight Books, July 2018) is the perfect place to start whether you are a longtime fan of flash fiction or new to this still evolving and exciting genre.
Bottled Goods, a collection of 51 stories, some as brief as a thought, others going for several pages, follows the life of Alina, native of communist Romania in the 1970s. Alina weds Liviu, yet their promising future is soon upended when Alina’s brother in law decides to defect to the West. Bottled Goods not only describes the toll taken on Alina and Liviu’s relationship but also other members of her family. It’s a fascinating watch, a slow descent like a series of coins going down a spiral wishing well.
From the title of the first story, “The Low People in Our Family,” I knew I was in for an interesting tale. In this story, we meet members of Alina’s family, one in passing. The opening is normal enough—the characters are on their way to a loved one’s funeral—and it is easy to get lulled into the banality of the journey; yet by the end, when her aunt tells her about her grandfather, who the communists were after and whose friends, were “killed, beaten, tortured,” I was left feeling uneasy but wanting more.
A better glimpse of Alina is revealed in the second piece, “Glazed Apples,” where she works in the midst of luxury at a Romanian resort but is confined to its underbelly. A clear line divides the haves and have-nots, with Alina firmly placed in the latter category. Although under communist rule, her job as a tourist guide allows her experiences she’d never have had otherwise, like setting eyes on the sea. And she must not only sell her country to visiting foreigners, but also her happiness as a citizen. It is at the resort where she meets Liviu and we witness the beginning of their relationship.
In “Prima Noctis,” we are uninvited guests at Alina’s wedding. This should be the happiest moment in her life but already we see what makes them different: the all-important fault line. Alina, who herself feels like an outsider “trapped in the bride’s body,” has come from money. Liviu’s family—rough, mountain people without airs—and the distinction Alina makes in her mind is startling as she feels “as dirty as any of them, a princess dragged through the mud.”
Bottled Goods is full of unique forms. From wish lists, as in “Dear Father Frost,” where we get a peek into Alina’s heart. Yearnings from the material, like a pair of Levi’s, to the practical needs, a portable electric stove. There are also entries in a diary, her handheld confessional, How-To lists, used to account meticulously for her missteps. And in “Quotes From My Mother (Commented) – Part I” we learn of Alina’s mother’s disapproval of her daughter’s marriage from the very first line. It is a point that she makes more than once, planting a seed that doesn’t take too long to take root. Postcards written to this same difficult and overbearing mother are another medium that allows the reader to follow the unraveling of Alina and Liviu’s story, though strictly from her perspective. I also appreciated the shift in voice throughout. Delivery is everything here and Van Llewyn displays the depth of her craft.
There are harbingers of ill-fated love and betrayal that go unnoticed, some more blatant including that elusive pair of Levi’s from “Dear Father Frost” and some that even the reader might miss on the first read. And as a marriage weakens, a country tightens its grip around the couple—love, trust, and loyalties tested throughout.
The defection of Alina’s brother-in-law does bring trouble, yes, but it is someone else’s misstep that proves detrimental. In the end, you may wonder if it was bad luck or a bad choice that seals everyone’s fate. Pay close attention and you will find the answer along with healthy doses of irony and karma.
Van Llewyn’s use of language is hypnotic and the worlds she creates stark and grotesque, calling to mind Shirley Jackson or Muriel Spark. With just the right details, whether it is the curve of a black Volga, sounds of bracelets around a wrist or faces “like cassettes with their tape pulled out,” your eyes will devour the pages as you are led through stories that turn from the supernatural to the hyper-real. Sophie Van Llewyn knows her Romanian history and lore but nothing feels forced or unnatural and you will find yourself hitting the last page of Bottled Goods quicker than you wanted.
Bottled Goods is available from Fairlight Books and elsewhere online.
Tiffany Sciacca is a writer who has recently moved from Sicily back to Illinois. She is currently a staff writer at Luna Luna Magazine. Her work has appeared in SOFTBLOW, Angry Old Man Magazine, Plague, and Moonchild Magazine. When not writing she binges Nordic Noir and giallos.
Book Review: Dana Diehl’s TV Girls
by Kelly Lynn Thomas
Dana Diehl’s new chapbook, TV Girls (New Delta Review, August 2018), is a collection of short stories based on reality TV shows and celebrities. You don’t need to be familiar with The Bachelor or Sister Wives to enjoy the characters or their struggles, though. Whatever you’ve gleaned from reading People headlines in the grocery store checkout line and from your friends’ Facebook feeds is enough of an entry point. The six stories in the collection aren’t exactly satire, but they aren’t exactly homages to reality TV either. They’re something in between, a chimaera of expectation-skewering, healthy cynicism, fascination with human behavior, voyeurism, and feminist commentary.
The poet Chen Chen, who selected Diehl’s manuscript as the 2017-2018 New Delta Review Chapbook Series winner, says of it, “Story after story, Diehl discovers fraught vulnerabilities and startling truths in the lives of girls and women confronting the expectations of TV, lovers, family, and one another.” An apt description, as reading TV Girls felt like being an archaeologist from the future, excavating 21st-century life, uncovering its dirty laundry and hidden secrets one by one.
The collection’s eponymous story, presumably based on The Bachelor, explores a group of 25 women “looking for love.” None of the women are named, only referred to with letters, and they drop out of the story one by one as they leave the set, seemingly having failed their quest. But of course, the quest was artificial from the beginning, and the story reminds the reader of this harsh fact over and over again. “The TV girls believe they can find love on national television,” the unnamed narrator states at the beginning. Right from the start, we know it’s a lost cause. What’s more, we as readers and watchers know that the TV girls themselves know it’s a lost cause. “Each TV girl says, he’s really, really the one.”
We know he’s not, but that’s part of reality TV’s charm—we get to watch other people make a mess of their lives from the comfort of our living rooms. The tension in this story comes not from which girl will wind up with the “Potential Husband,” but from the narrator’s increasingly naked desire to see things go wrong, and the more explosive, the more dramatic, the better. That theme comes up again in the collection’s final story, “Conjoined,” a story about conjoined twins Jenna and Lily, who also happen to be the last girls on earth. Before the world ended, they had their own reality show, and now they live in abandoned TV sets in Los Angeles. Their lives were always scripted, and even with no audience left, it’s as if they are performing, struggling to maintain appearances. “When everyone was already looking, there was no point in trying to hide,” the girls muse.
Because of course, Diehl’s stories are as much about the people who watch reality television as the shows and celebrities themselves. They push and pull against that base desire we all feel to watch the train wreck, mouths agape at the rubble, the blood, the fire. As a culture, we’re obsessed with reality TV because it allows us to indulge in fantasy and drama, not in spite of it.
Even the stories that aren’t directly based on specific reality TV shows have a reality TV show feel. In “Must-Haves,” a couple goes house shopping, and the story is told through a list of the things their new house has to possess. No fewer than three bedrooms to accommodate future children. A finished basement to shelter the family in case of tornado or hurricane. A claw-foot tub in which the narrator can escape an affair she imagines her spouse will have in the future.
This narrator imagines all the worst-case scenarios: fire, famine, the end of the world. The couple is young, and it’s easy to picture them, though Diehl never actually describes them physically. He’s a smartly dressed professional with a high salary and an eye on the corporate ladder. She’s the artsy type working on her first book. Both of them are fit and attractive with straight, white teeth.
It’s no leap to imagine them on a show like House Hunters, searching and searching for the right home, never finding it because of some minuscule flaw, like the “wrong” paint color or the lack of that claw-foot tub. Happiness knocks on their door, but they are too afraid to answer it, too afraid to face the possibility of failure, so their potential remains unfulfilled. The viewer remains on the couch, safely watching the drama of strangers’ lives, never venturing out to live her own life.
Regardless of the source material, Dana Diehl has a knack for the poignant detail. One of my favorites is from “Buddy,” a story about Cake Boss star Buddy Valastro. When he gets his family lost at sea, the narrator notes that “Most of the cakes he makes for his show are beautiful but flavorless, made of refrigerated sheet cake and covered with fondant.” It’s the artifice again, the beautiful lie. Appearances aren’t everything, though we all pretend they are.
Ultimately, TV Girls left me acutely aware of the way our culture has found innumerable ways to commodify the very act of living. We consume these stories, gobble them up, and we can’t get enough of them. The viewer is just as culpable for this spectacle as the people who are directly involved—and perhaps even more so. In a way, these six stories feel like cautionary tales. Instead of warning against vanity and vice, they remind us that happiness and fulfillment only come if we are willing to get down in the dirt, wrestle with our desires and shortcomings, failing, but in our failure finding truth.
Kelly Lynn Thomas reads, writes, and sometimes sews in Pittsburgh, PA. She lives with her partner, one dog, and a constant migraine. Her fiction has appeared in Permafrost, Sou’wester, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and was nominated for a 2017 Pushcart. Kelly received her MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University, is a coordinator for the VIDA Count, and can always be found with a large mug of tea.
Book Review: Mandy Huggins’ Brightly Coloured Horses
by C.A. Schaefer
The title of Mandy Huggins’ collection, Brightly Coloured Horses (Chapeltown Books, 2018), evokes images of a childhood toy box. The stories inside this treasure chest are beautifully jumbled into an assortment that echo, overlap, and subvert each other. The epigraph, a quotation from Willa Cather that argues that “there are only two or three human stories,” serves not only as philosophical guide to the collection, but as a reminder that familiarity between stories is not a trap to avoid, but a strategy to be embraced.
Every story invites us to peer into the lives of its characters, returning to familiar narratives of loss and betrayal, or else healing and reparation. The collection circles the question of what it means to be with another person. Characters converge and then separate, or join together in astonishing love. In the title story, the narrator feels a profound and terrible isolation from her lover, realizing that even in the middle of a Parisian idyll, only she will recall these images and sensations as vividly as she does; her lover will return to his marriage, dismissing this experience and allowing it to fade. “She had felt sure that this moment would save them, but it was too busy, too impersonal.” Some relationships refuse redemption; in “Shooting Stars,” a wife imagines adultery a thousand times before she commits it. This wife, like so many of Huggins’ narrators, has moments of keenly devastating insight. “No one can protect her from what she wanted,” she says in a moment of realization. In “Fatal Flaw,” the narrator echoes her, declaring life as “the possibility of damage from which there can be no recovery.”
It is frequently Huggins’ vivid and precise descriptions of objects that speak to the connections between her characters. Some objects offer an elusive hope of redemption: a pair of yellow shoes serve as a harbinger of hope for a desperate young woman in “Twenty Dollar Shoes;” a jar of bean paste that sustains a memory of a lost beloved from “The Last of Michiko;” in “Kisses,” a biscuit dipped in tea acts as a substitute for a kiss. Other objects portend disaster. A small red ball, carelessly tossed out a window, catalyzes a horrifying accident in “Blood Red.” In “Car by Car,” a shining “curvaceous coupe” is witness to the end of a relationship and the fragments of the self that are inevitably lost during a separation.
But Brightly Coloured Horses sometimes warns us against believing too much in the redemptive power of these objects. In “The Turquoise Silk,” a child enamored with her mother’s “glittering tangle of diamante bracelets, necklaces of tiny iridescent shells, and cocktail rings set with rubies, amethysts, topaz, and amber” is devastated to realize that her mother values order and beauty over her child’s chaotic desires. “The Right Castanets” offers a story steeped in yearning, a child who tries to erase her father’s adulterous transgressions by searching for a perfect gift that he can offer her. But these objects fail to redeem and transfigure. In the end, they remain simply things, as they do in “Perfect Word,” which muses on the failure of these transformations. “The body of Christ can’t save me,” the mourning narrator muses, “only the blood of Christ: the wine that I drink to lessen the unexpected weight of grief.” In “Only the Best,” a wryly tragic variation on “Gift of the Magi,” an impractical object illuminates how profound the disconnection between a husband and wife can be.
Huggins turns away from the inanimate and towards the animal world throughout her collection. The sweetness and horror of animal behavior highlights some of the absurdities of human relationships. In “Nelson,” a small and beloved cat is discovered swirling limply in a washing machine. Although it miraculously survives, the cat and the narrator’s lover flee the next day, leaving the narrator bereft and waiting. The united actions of a pair of dung beetles, staggering together towards a blade of grass in “The Dung Beetle Race” is far more faithful than a human’s promise to return. Throughout the collection, dead rabbits, swooping seagulls, tiny crabs, and beautifully free dogs offer glimpses of a life deeper and richer than the tragicomedy of broken human relationships.
Huggins’ work is perhaps most piercing and revelatory in her moments of ambivalence. In “Whatever Speed She Dared,” a woman contemplates free and wild driving but hesitates because of a shadowy memory of bodies buried in peat. The narration only offers this incomplete reason, and refuses any further questions. Huggins allows us glimpses of understanding in these stories: the memory of a body, a trapped goose, or a moment of grace offered by the rain.
In a few of the pieces, however, these revelations don’t resonate as deeply as others do. Sometimes the pieces incorporate more thorough exposition, and their mysteries are resolved too quickly and completely. Sometimes, too, the language slips away from beautiful strangeness, and instead offers the occasional cliché. These are rare occasions in the collection, though; most of the stories linger beautifully, and their familiar chords begin to overlap in my memory, so that I am not always able to separate one story from another. These stories speak to each other, celebrating nuance, contradiction, and confusion. There may be, as Brightly Coloured Horses reminds us, only two or three stories, but their variations are both imaginative and tender.
C.A. Schaefer’s stories and creative nonfiction have appeared in Indiana Review, Mid-American Review, Phantom Drift, Passages North, and other journals. A former editor of Quarterly West, she holds a Ph.D. from the University of Utah. She currently teaches writing and other humanities courses in Salt Lake City.
Book Review: Alligators at Night by Meg Pokrass
by Julia Tagliere
Brad Watson (author of Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives) dubbed Pokrass the “new monarch of the delightful and enigmatic tiny kingdom of micro- and flash fiction.” Incredibly prolific, Pokrass has written four previous collections and a book of prose poetry. Her stories and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in more than 300 publications.
Alligators at Night, published in July 2018, is Pokrass’ fifth collection. Comprising 72 pieces, many of which first appeared in publications such as Atticus Review, Necessary Fiction, and Jellyfish Review, this fascinating collection does not present an easily discernible underlying thread, at least in terms of subject matter. There are dead or dying pets (“You and Your Middle-Aged Cat”; “Being Sheila”); aging women (“Invisible”); old divorces and new beginnings (“Therapy Cat”; “Why Not Now”; “Starting Over”). Many of the pieces do, however, share a unique emotional theme: loss—not past loss or current, but rather, anticipated.
In the title piece, for example, the narrator and her husband are walking at night, listening to the “sound of alligators crooning like deranged, nocturnal cows” when she observes, “…what you sometimes want is to never actually get there. He has not yet had his dose of whiskey…You have not yet said you have a migraine, and that you don’t really feel like snuggling…You have not yet cried or threatened to leave…” Or in “The Benefits of Krill,” when the narrator tells her favorite cashier at the market by her pharmacy job that “Duncan has lung cancer and that soon the pharmacy will be gone. I need to become more memorable to him, and soon…” Four words is all it takes in “Separation”: “After packing, I find myself staring at his penis…It is friendly-looking. I will miss it.” These are all futures that have not yet come to pass within Pokrass’ narratives, but that wound nonetheless with their very inevitability.
Just as David Gaffney writes in “Stories in Your Pocket: How to Write Flash Fiction,” reading Alligators at Night feels like you’ve “been run over by a lorry full of fridges,” but in the very best of ways. Each precision-crafted story strikes an emotional chord and hits it hard, hammering away at different feelings so that it is difficult to read more than a handful at a time. I found myself needing to take frequent breaks to reflect on and process what a particular piece made me feel—and feel, I did.
Take, for example, “Dismount,” where a little girl beams a smile at her father, visiting her unexpectedly outside of his arranged time, a smile so enthusiastic she dribbles saliva: “…she walked out into the sunlight holding his big-fingers with no fear.” There is, of course, a subtle darkness mingling with the girl’s joy at his appearance—his displeasure at her dribbling, the “darkish stairwell,” her freckles “landing like buzzards around her nose”—but as I read it, all I can feel is her joy: “She was his princess on Sundays.”
Pokrass swings deftly between swells of joy like this to floods of darker emotion, as in her poignant “Man Against Nature.” She sets the reader up with a cozy scene of a couple watching a nature-survival show on TV, fragrant soup cooking in the background, only to slo-mo gut punch the reader with her last few lines, revealing the stark, painful contrast between the couple’s reality and the reality they’re watching on TV.
It’s not all darkness, however—far from it. Pokrass certainly excels at emotional wallops, but she also possesses terrific humor. She reveals this mainly through her characters, who make me snort out loud at something one or the other of them says. From “Albino”: “We went to a thrift store and joked about trying on hats and getting lice. ‘Miami Lice,’ he said.” Or the little girl idolizing her older sister, in “Playing the Chicken”: “I love it when she says fuck. She says it often and I like to sing it in my head. Last year, I was kicked out of girl scouts for saying that perfect word.”
Part of Pokrass’ talent in wrenching such intense emotions from her reader comes from the vividness of her descriptions. She has a brutally clear, unsparing way of forcing readers’ eyes wide open, insisting they see what she wants them to see. A few of my favorite examples: “I’d gotten so used to Mike’s nudity that I’d stopped noticing his penis crouched like a worried squirrel.” (“Wouldn’t You Like Some Sun?”) Or the woman friend “of a certain age” at lunch in “Invisible,” of whom Pokrass writes this: “Looking at her meaty arms, I thought of pie-crust dough.” From “You Are Better Than This”: “Like a drunk car on the highway, her lips followed the road of his hair. She could taste the salt of a tidal basin.” Pokrass hits all the senses with her descriptions—which only deepens the reader’s visceral emotional responses.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess I’m a recent convert to reading flash fiction, but this potent collection has completely won me over with its complexity, intensity, and gratification. Veteran flash readers and fans of Pokrass will certainly not be disappointed by Alligators at Night; newcomers to the genre, like me, will find an outstanding way to get acquainted.
Alligators at Night is available from Ad Hoc Fiction.
Julia Tagliere is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Writer, The Bookends Review, Potomac Review, numerous anthologies, and the juried photography and prose collection Love + Lust. Winner of the 2015 William Faulkner Literary Competition for Best Short Story and the 2017 Writers Center Undiscovered Voices Fellowship, Julia currently resides in Maryland with her family, where she recently completed her M.A. in Writing at John Hopkins University. She serves as an editor with The Baltimore Review and is currently working on her next novel, The Day the Music Didn’t Die.
Review: Karen Donovan’s Aard-vark to Axolotl
by Ashley McGreary
Opening any collection of short fiction is like losing your senses to a curio cabinet of wonder, but Karen Donovan’s Aard-vark to Axolotl (Etruscan Press, April 2018) takes this precept to an almost literal interpretation. Based on a set of illustrations from the pages of her grandfather’s 1925 Webster’s New International Dictionary, this series of seventy-eight micro stories and prose poems represents an eclectic, lyrical, razor-sharp foray into the sphere of alternative definition, with its true allegiance laying somewhere between a lexicon and a bestiary. Like any cabinet of curiosity, each piece can be taken out, examined separately, and weighed in the humid cup of your hand, yet despite this microcosmic intimacy, its sheer breathless scope means that its fascination can never truly be exhausted. Karan Donovan is also the author of two collections of poetry: Fugitive Red, which won the Juniper Prize, and Your Enzymes Are Calling the Ancients, winner of the Lexi Rudnitsky Editor’s Choice Award. Her recognizant contribution to literature is summed up in Ander Manson’s words: “This blurb won’t help save you, but Aard-vark to Axolotl just might.”
Logically, for a work whose title celebrates the kingdom Animalia, this series begins by examining the complex interrelationships between humans and animals, with its opening gambit: “Earth Pig” rendering our hypocrisies in blood across the page, while equally evoking a psychological proximity that makes the rationalized violence of the piece truly jarring. In a wonderfully postmodern inscription, the titular Aard-vark greet the possibilities of a new day, which include the chance of its own individual extinction, a fact that resonates across all life. This state of interconnection is further advanced in “A Lustrous, Pearly Interior,” which uses the backdrop of a beach, and its calcium carbonate substrate of history, to evince a deep sense of isolation and meaninglessness, against which even language itself is impuissant. The animal and human condition run together like an agate seam through this chapbook, creating a sense of lineage and inheritance that is echoed in the distant-but-still-touching experiences of grandfather and granddaughter. At its heart, this work attempts to define not just the physicality of an object: “Achene of Buttercup in vertical section, showing solitary seed,” but its abstract, metaphysical properties: “When she left, she folded her wasted body through a crack in space-time and bloomed out on the other side, pulling the long bright skein of my brain’s neural pathways with her.” It is a tour de force, which transcribes the dictionary into emotion.
Each micro-piece is accompanied by an original illustration, which acts like a holdfast in the oceanic possibility of language. Beside it, Donovan’s hyper-condensed prose spans a universe in form and tone, rendering each piece with a unique, imperishable signature. From the numbered diagram of “View From Southwest Airliner on Final Approach to Province,” to the jazz-like call and response of “Constraints Are Better Than Freedom,” and the self-depreciating, staccato sentences of “Makeover,” to the nested involvement of “Dinner Date’s” twenty-seven words, Aard-vark to Axolotl explores ideas of perspective, interpretation, pleasure and disappointment, creativity, ineffability, and the condition of being untethered from ones culture: in short, everything it means to be human.
The collection also focuses its lens on the darker side of the human experience too, with sequences such as “Burn Notice” depicting a spiralling lack of control, which unwinds from a superficial sunburn to “The towers and with them my psyche. My bridges ever since,” articulating an irretrievable state of entropy; and “Sales Job,” whose jaunty tone hides a tenebrous scepticism concerning our inability to escape the corporate order and its false-benign smile.
Parallel to the natural world in Aard-vark to Axolotl is the urban environment, and the efficiency or redundancy of technology, with “No Signal Detected” and “The Accident” offering rival perspectives. In the first micro-piece, a couple resist the tide of progress by persevering with their old “rabbit ears” aerial and its temperamental reception; after far too long of this, they finally buy a smart, new antennae, which, like their old one only works when it is “propped up at exactly the right angle over in the corner of the room on top of the CD player,” showing the cynical failure of technology to improve anything other than material aesthetics. The second micro-piece, comparatively, advocates the propensity of technology to remake life as secure and perfectible through the illusion of depth. Following a jarring cycling accident, the speaker trades the risk of reality for “the stationary bike at the Y, the one that’s like a videogame” and is satisfied with the substitution, a stance which challenges our own perspectives on modernity. Donovan’s collection is, indisputably, a work of and for our time, but it also represents a pantheon across all times, with its tendrils trailing between past, present, and future. The existential resonance in “Mesozoic’s” line: “Ask the experts where my bones lie: there, on the other side of catastrophe,” implicates both the fragility and endurance of life, and the ease with which all animation passes into history; while “Other Floral Borders I Have Known” paints a cradle to grave montage through the adornment of flowers, capturing the essence of existence as beautiful, fading, and brief.
To return, punctually, to the curio cabinet metaphor, it is impossible to appreciate everything in Donovan’s work through a single encounter, Aard-vark to Axolotl is a collection that not only stands up to a third, fourth, fifth reading, but actively encourages it. With a tone that shifts from lyrical, to scathing, deprecating, eccentric, empowering and introspective, this collection provides, at its core, a rumination on how we use language to construct and define the world around us, as well as the place of writing within that structure. “It was then I understood,” Donovan records, in conjunction to the etching of an Archer Fish, “I had a razor-tipped device inside me that could spear any prey I desired.” The rest, they say, is history, because the power of good writing has been hooking people ever since. Though most readers don’t prefer a comparison to fish.
Ashley McGreary is a fledgling writer with a degree in English and Creative Writing, currently working towards an MA in English Literature. She is at the extreme end of starting out, but hopes eventually to shape a career out of the two things that set her soul on fire: literature and writing.
Review—New Micro: Exceptionally Short Stories
New Micro: Exceptionally Short Stories (Norton, 2018)
Edited by James Thomas and Robert Scotellaro
Reviewed by Kara Oakleaf
The challenge of flash fiction is often what to leave out – limiting yourself to 1,000 words leaves little room for anything other than the absolute essentials of a story. Microfiction strips things down even further, fitting a full narrative into fewer than 300 words.
In New Micro: Exceptionally Short Stories, editors James Thomas and Robert Scotellaro have assembled an impressive collection of these stories, pulling the best micros from online and print journals, story collections and anthologies. The collection features some of the most recognizable names of short fiction and flash, including Amy Hempel, Stuart Dybek, Joyce Carol Oates, John Edgar Wideman, Joy Williams, and Kathy Fish, alongside newer writers. Most of the stories – 140 total, from 90 different writers – are from more recent publications, but a few are from writers who have been experimenting with this extremely short form since the 1970s.
In his foreword, Robert Shapard says microfiction can be “as intense as poetry,” and this feels especially true of the stories in New Micro. I found myself reading this book the same way I often read a poetry collection, getting through only one or two stories at a time before I wanted to pause, let those stories swim around in my head for a while before coming back for more. These stories look small on the page, but each of them demands that readers give it room to expand long after they’ve set down the book.
The opening story, “Letting Go” by Pamela Painter, establishes a high bar for that intensity Shapard mentions in the foreword. It starts out as a contemplative piece – a woman alone on vacation encounters a young, happy couple as she thinks about her ex – but the events turn quickly when the narrator witnesses something shocking that haunts her, and the reader, long after the end of the story.
Other pieces in the collection also play with the idea of witness, exploring moments when a character brushes up against a scene they aren’t fully a part of, but are nonetheless changed by. Molly Giles’ “Protest” features two thirteen-year-old girls lying in the middle of the road, stopping traffic and creating chaos. The girls are the catalyst for the narrative, but what makes the story is the image of young boys watching them, fascinated with this strange glimpse of what might wait for them in adolescence. John Edgar Wideman’s “Witness” shows us a fifteen-year-old boy murdered, the police on the scene, and finally, the boy’s family mourning at the spot where he died, all from the vantage point of the narrator’s balcony. In “New Rollerskates” by Erin Dionne, a young girl sits outside an apartment building, keeping the secret of what she knows is happening inside – until she doesn’t. And Kathleen McGookey’s “Another Drowning, Miner Lake,” has another take on this kind of story: a narrator swimming in a lake, disturbingly unaffected by the knowledge that a woman drowned there the night before.
Micros lend themselves well to the extraordinary, and several pieces in the collection experiment with unexpected or fantastic premises. The narrator of Thaisa Frank’s The New Thieves replaces herself with a camouflaged woman, testing to see if her lover will notice. A repairman gets stuck in a furnace duct for days in Kevin Griffith’s “Furnace,” and chats with the family through one of the grates in the floor. Nin Andrews’ two stories are written from the perspective of an orgasm. A surgeon cuts a patient’s flesh in the shape of his home country in James Claffey’s Kingmaker. Whole populations abandon their homes to become hermits in Ana María Shua’s Hermit. Stories that might fall apart in longer form are expertly held together by these writers who ground their characters so firmly in unbelievable premises that you’re drawn in before you have a chance to question it.
Some stories use this miniature form to tackle big subjects. Brian Cooper’s “Hurricane Ride” and Francine Witte’s “Jetty Explains the Universe” bring together everyday scenes – carnival rides and the lives of housecats – with expansive questions about the nature of the universe. Michael Czyzniejewski’s “Intrigued by Reincarnation, Skip Dillard Embraces Buddhism” begins with a light, humorous tone before focusing on the allure of starting over, of slipping out of your own life and into another anonymous one.
Other stories tackle more familiar and realistic territory – marriages, affairs, and the birth and death of loved ones – but create an unexpected impact. In Josh Russell’s “Our Boys,” the simple experience of a parent mixing up his two sons’ baby pictures leads to the unsettling question of how well we really know the ones we’re closest to. Zachery Schomberg’s “Death Letter” gives a powerful twist to a break-up story. In Tom Hazuka’s “Utilitarianism,” the narrator sees a change in his parents’ relationship, and we suddenly feel that we understand the entirety of this decades-long marriage. And in Gay Degani’s “An Abbreviated Glossary” and Damian Dressick’s “Four Hard Facts About Water,” the authors use lists to narrate the worst kinds of grief, and hit the reader hard in the moment when their characters’ pain cuts sharply through the story’s structure.
The stories collected here are broad and diverse, difficult to narrow down, but if any single thing unifies them, it’s the language. Stories like Bonnie Jo Campbell’s “Sleepover”and Tara Laskowski’s “Dendrochronology” end on vivid, resonant images that bring every other detail into sharper focus. The rhythm and repetition in the single-paragraph stories “Flying” by Jeff Landon and “Black Cat” by Josh Russell are almost spell-like and completely transport you into the narrators’ memories. Every word carries extra weight in these stories, and it’s this attention to language, as much as their length, that makes the stories in in New Micro comparable to poetry.
And yet, these stories are clearly in their own genre. If what poetry does is crystalize a particular moment and invite the reader to linger there, microfiction crystalizes moments that immediately demand the reader imagine what lies beyond the story. Because there is a full world created by each of these stories. Micros may have the intensity and the economy of language of poetry, but this collection shows that they are distinctly narrative. As short as they are, the stories in New Micro are fully formed works of fiction, encapsulating nuanced characters, the scope of a long marriage, or the way small moments shape a day, or a year, or a lifetime. In every case, they outlive their size.
Kara Oakleaf‘s work appears or is forthcoming in journals including Wigleaf, SmokeLong Quarterly, Monkeybicycle, Jellyfish Review, Nimrod, Seven Hills Review, Tahoma Literary Review, and Postcard Poems and Prose. She is a graduate of the M.F.A. program at George Mason University, where she now teaches and directs the Fall for the Book literary festival.
Book Review: Barry Gifford’s The Cuban Club
by Pilar DiPietro
Often we think of life in the 1950s as one of wistful innocence and familial ease. We may even term it “the Good Old Days.” Barry Gifford’s The Cuban Club (Seven Stories Press, October 2017), a collection of sixty-seven related stories, pushes back on these notions of nostalgia with the remembrances of Roy. Roy is a first-generation American, Chicagoan by way of Miami in his youth. Trying to make his way through the snarls of puberty, Roy unties the knots of race, marriage and fidelity, death, sex and love, violence, grief, loss, and parent-child relationships.
In the snippets that make up Roy’s memories, the reader gains an understanding of the changing parental, domestic, family and moral roles that were sweeping through America in the 1950s and early 1960s and the effects these changes were having on the next generation. Through Roy’s eyes the reader is given insight: not only the fascinations of youth but the reflections of a changing time. Throughout the stories Gifford maintains Roy’s delightful innocence in the foreground, his youthful misunderstandings often tumbling out of his mouth, though alluding to the real situation that runs deeper, and often darker, behind.
Uniquely, and indeed digitally friendly, Gifford allows the reader to open to any of his stories and feel like it may have been exactly where you left off. There is no need to read this collection in any particular order. Roy’s stories, each approximately three pages long, identify the age at which Roy is recording them. This grounding is helpful in seeing Roy’s progression, his bildungsroman, as he grapples with situations that, perhaps, no boy should be aware of. I recommend mixing up your reading order and enjoying the stories outside linear time.
The book does contain some violence. While uncomfortable at times, it is palatable. Roy’s father, a mid-level racketeer with mob affiliations, is on one hand protective of his son, and yet his fatherly advice frequently verges on the morally hypocritical. For example, after Roy learns that Mean Well Benny’s cut-throated corpse was found in an alley garbage can, Roy’s father says, “Some men’s lives don’t amount to much, son. They get on the wrong road and don’t ever get back on the straight and narrow.” Luckily, Roy’s pops gives more solid lessons: “I’m sorry to say, Roy, I believe in the existence of evil. Hitler, for example, was an evil man who had the ability to inspire and manipulate people into committing the most gruesome acts of villainy.” Although Roy’s father is ambiguously depicted as being involved with illegal enterprises, his pronouncements, along with Pops’, are sound enough to aid in the formation of Roy’s ethical balance. Gifford writes in a manner allowing for reader understanding without author subjectivity.
Roy’s mother, an aging ex-model, ricochets from one boyfriend to another and often leaves Roy in the care of others while she jet-sets in search of love and adventure. By thirty-four she is quite jaded and has been married three times. The conversations between her and her equally disenchanted friend, Kay, are often overheard by Roy who is left to make his own conclusions and seldom have little to do with the actual meaning of the quips. For example, after Kay, speaking of orgasms, tells Roy that his mom has had an epiphany, Roy asks, “Do you have to be a Catholic to have one?” to which Kay answers, “No, Roy, but it probably helps.”
Johnny Murphy, Roy’s friend, teaches Roy about the underside of life, a seedy underbelly seems taken for granted by the characters. When Roy and Johnny decide to play detective after the grisly murder of a young woman is discovered, Johnny off-handedly states, “He raped the girl, strangled her—or maybe, if he was a real pervert, strangled her before raping her.” The eleven-year-old boys go to the crime scene to search for clues and Johnny deduces: “The killer’s a rich guy who lives in a fancy apartment around here, on Lake Shore or Marine Drive.” Indeed, the killer was found to be “a 42-year-old bachelor named Leonard Danzig, an architect,” who had determined the girl was the sister of Jesus Christ and “felt it was his duty to abort what he described as an immoral lineage.” After the killer was captured and committed, Roy asks his mother what she thinks. She tells her son, “You can’t execute all of the sick people in the world, Roy. There are too many. Once you start doing that it would never stop.” Roy then asks if she thinks the world would be better without the killer in it. Gifford’s next lines are typical of his style: “Roy’s mother, who had already been divorced twice and had a third marriage annulled, said, ‘Him and a few other men I can name.’”
Readers will enjoy Roy’s adventures, if not contemplate Gifford’s true intentions. The tales, often having many meanings, are a wonderful mix of ingredients that enfold a boy’s journey of adolescence in urban 1950s America. The result of the collection is a layered spiced cake with each of Roy’s episodes demanding the reader’s introspection of their own identity and values.
Book Review: Sherrie Flick’s Thank Your Lucky Stars
by Cheryl Pappas
Lucky for us, Sherrie Flick has a new collection of stories. Thank Your Lucky Stars (Autumn House Press) comes out in September. If you read flash, you know her name. Flick’s stories have appeared in several anthologies dedicated to flash. She has published a chapbook (I Call This Flirting; Flume Press, 2004), a novel (Reconsidering Happiness; Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2009), and a collection of short stories titled Whiskey, Etc. (Autumn House Press, 2016), which Kathy Fish deemed “a sharp-edged, intelligent, brilliantly written collection of short shorts by a writer at the top of her game.”
In Thank Your Lucky Stars, Flick has arranged 50 stories of varying length—the shortest a paragraph, the longest 21 pages—into four numbered sections. The settings are often suburban towns in the West or Midwest, and Flick uses crickets, birdbaths with calm water, and deer heads as recurrent images throughout to underscore the agonizing quiet of such towns. Most of the stories are about love, but more specifically, finding someone to make a home with. Domestic spaces are the stage, and everyday objects, like two tin coffee cups, resonate with meaning.
Earlier sections contain stories of characters going through that very messy, fumbling search for the right person, moving from house to house, town to town, in the hopes of finally staying put, as exemplified in “Open and Shut.” By the third section, with “Garden Inside,” we see a shift: after leaving one house and its treasured garden, a woman and her husband move into a house with a neglected one and willingly start from scratch. The theme of starting over, already present in the earlier sections, now morphs into transformation. By the fourth section, we see stories about babies, kids, teenagers, a widower. With some exceptions, the book takes us through the stages of growing up, as it were, and finding not a house but a home.
The stories about relationships, on the whole, are about the illusions we wrestle with. “Bottle” begins with a woman cracking open a wine bottle over the edge of the dinner table to get her husband’s attention; she finds breaking things satisfying because he “looked at her then like the first time he’d laid eyes on her.” We see the couple in “Dance” actively trying to avoid pulling away the curtain of a horrific night from their past: Viv spends her day sipping whiskey and martinis on the patio (her drinking companion a deer head she pulls off the den wall), while her husband Matty dutifully serves her and obsessively bakes away his repressions. The “dance” in the title refers to the back and forth of their acquired roles, which they perform unconvincingly, like bad actors in a play. When Matty chastises Viv for her drinking, “You know, y’all shouldn’t be day drinking like losers in here,” Viv snaps back, “There’s just one of me, Matty. Who, may I ask, are you talking about with ‘y’all’?” But they also dance around the truth—one scene tracks the tense moments when they remember the night that a girl was killed and then how they quickly fall back into their agreed-upon forgetfulness.
Other stories in the collection defy a theme at all, like “Caravan, Suburbia,” a three-paragraph tale about a woman spying a mysterious rickety wagon crossing her front yard, and afterwards sensing the “smell of wood smoke, raw upturned earth, the quick scent of passion, and one low, unsung note abandoned in the stray leaves.”
Indeed, there is a range not just in theme. The opening story, “How I Left Ned,” in which a woman stops for corn on the side of the road and makes a dramatic life decision, takes bold leaps in narrative; “House,” however, about a woman who lives alone and peers out the window “like a suspicious widow expecting the worst,” has a slow, meditative pace. I admit, I am drawn to the strangeness and poetry of Flick’s shorter works. The sentences seem to come up from the deep, slowly and patiently, like they’ve been gathered from a Quaker meeting. Her story “Crickets” is just but one example: “They sing like pleasant car alarms again and again. Again and again. In their little black jumpsuits, they take to the crooked sidewalks in droves, not hesitating to leave the flowers and grasses.” Flick marries patience, resonanance, and quality in her flash pieces.
The longer “Still Life,” about a man who plans to end his life, achieves Hemingway-level compression, spanning only one night and the next morning. The story begins mysteriously, with Harry undressing and folding his clothes carefully, tenderly placing them on his bureau. He drinks half a bottle of whiskey. I love that Flick doesn’t reveal what he is up to, not even when she has him walk out the door, at three in the morning, completely naked. We get the middle-of-the-night sights and sounds in poetic prose: “The trees’ silhouetted arms sang hallelujah. The leaves clapped. Harry walked down Maple Street. Dark houses, the faint muffled dog bark, a settling tick tick of a foundation.” I won’t tell you how it ends, but the story continues to offer surprising turns, poetic language, eerie atmosphere, and even humor.
Cheryl Pappas is a writer from Boston. Her fiction and essays have appeared in The Bitter Oleander, Cleaver Magazine, Ploughshares blog, SmokeLong Quarterly, Tin House online, and Essay Daily. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Bennington Writing Seminars. She is currently working on a collection of fables. Her website is cherylpappas.net and you can follow her on Twitter at @fabulistpappas.
Review: Tiny Crimes Leaves Big Impact
by Kim Kankiewicz
It takes audacity to write flash fiction, to assert that a few hundred words can carry the weight of a story. Memorable flash fiction offsets brevity with boldness, transgressing boundaries and embracing risk. Boldness and risk prevail in Tiny Crimes: Very Short Tales of Mystery & Murder (Black Balloon, June 2018), an anthology of flash fiction edited by Lincoln Michel and Nadxieli Nieto. Bringing together forty established and emerging writers, Tiny Crimes features audacious writing about audacious deeds.
Review: No Other Form but This: Nothing Short of 100: Selected Tales from 100 Word Story
By Cheryl Pappas
In what other form can you find a story about old men floating up in the air, or a narrator’s deep dive into the word “glyph” as a way of coming to grips with the end of a love affair? I found myself ever grateful for the flexibility of the flash form when reading the new anthology Nothing Short of 100 (Outpost19, April 2018). Editors Grant Faulkner, Lynn Mundell, and Beret Olsen have compiled 117 little stories in this slim volume. The “tales,” as the editors call them, have been selected from six years (2012–17) of works published in the online journal 100 Word Story. (more…)
Review: Best Small Fictions 2017, A View Into The Collective Subconscious
By Stefen Styrsky
While reading the exceptional stories in The Best Small Fictions 2017, the phrase “in our time” kept bouncing around my head. It’s the title of Hemingway’s first collection, the book that put him on the literary map, filled with examples of what, back then, had no name: Flash Fiction. Hemingway seemed to be on to something with that title. It struck me as the perfect phrase to encapsulate BSF 2017. The subjects of these stories run the gamut: families, death, identity, culture, race, environment. In other words, a glimpse into our current collective subconscious. (more…)
Review: Looking Back, Moving Forward: Reflecting on Life Happening in Jack C. Buck’s Deer Michigan
By Santino Prinzi
In many of the stories in Deer Michigan (Truth Serum Press, 2016), characters reflect on memories of what once was and how the world around them has changed, whether they wanted it to or not. In these moments, we find loss, anger, and regret, as well as happiness and hope.
“Hoop Dreams” is a coming-of-age story about young boys obsessed with the NBA and Baywatch. The narrator remembers his childhood in 1998 and how he and his friends were fascinated by Denis Rodman and imitated his behavior: “Purposefully missing shots in order to accumulate more rebounds on the stat sheet, diving on the concrete for loose balls, temporarily dying our hair for a day with green and red Kool-Aid you know, Rodman type of stuff.” This imitation of celebrities or icons feels innocent and playful, and we probably all did the same when we were their age. Rodman’s actions become the boys’ aspirations as he begins dating Carmen Electra because “Dennis wasn’t considered good looking, so it gave hope to all of us teenage losers that we could date one of the Baywatch babes, too,” but already Buck suggests the recollection of this memory is tainted with contempt. The boys are losers, and this imitation of Rodman makes the narrator feel foolish on reflection. Buck then explores the naivety of these boys, “We all thought we were inevitably destined for the NBA, that was a given, but Dennis dating a television supermodel was an added boost of confidence,” and this evokes a feeling of what is natural to believe at that age. That these boys were going to grow up to become NBA stars and date models “was a given” and seems so normal, as we all did when, as children, we believed we would become our heroes one day.
Review: Exploring Violence and Small Moments in Santino Prinzi’s Dots
By Eshani Surya
Imagine the things you do in a day. See those small moments in succession: walk by the preacher on the subway, bake cookies or bread in the oven, try to flirt with the cashier at a local store, watch Netflix with increasing horror as the clock ticks forward, visit the bookstore, listen in on a conversation in a café.
In his debut collection of flash fiction, Dots: and other flashes of perception, Santino Prinzi walks his readers through daily lives, giving small actions and events weight. Prinzi moves away from the autopilot mode that so many of us exist in, trying to find meaning in what is often ignored. Even the stories that depict more specific and difficult circumstances (like “Calls for Ronan,” which deals with a transgender character and her mother’s inability to call her by the correct name) do so without grandiosity. In “Calls for Ronan” the story is told through phone calls, storytelling that reads as tangible rather than philosophizing. The effect of all this is a delicate collection, with stories that breathe whispers into the subconscious mind. On the inevitable day that a reader is mimicking the actions of a character from the book, it is entirely possible that a sentence from a story will rise up out of memory, and that reader will find themselves reconsidering their bodies and motivations.
For all his interest in the mundane, Prinzi others the experience of daily motions, making them deserving of further inspection. In “Halfway to Fifty,” Prinzi takes on Netflix and the phrase that the website asks: “Are you still watching?” For most, this is a screen we have encountered. We hit “Resume,” and go on. But Prinzi situates this image into questions of age and accomplishment. The first person narrator considers Netflix, then the length of centuries, then Facebook, then suicide, before returning to watching television. In this way, Netflix becomes a gateway for showing how technology ties its users to endurance.
Often, this othering is created through explicating violence. Much of the collection deals with forms of violence, both physical and emotional. This is most evident in the stories that handle deteriorating or unmoored relationships. In “Hereditary,” Prinzi depicts a mother and daughter who both kill their abusive husbands in the kitchen. In “Shelf Life,” Lisa and Nick meet in a bookstore. They follow each other through the sections, using the genres to guide the dynamic of their relationship. They end in Crime, where Lisa hides Nick’s unconscious body. These relationships have higher stakes with this clear violence, allowing Prinzi to show how precarious human affairs can be.
But violence is evident in other stories, as well, acting as a tie between the different parts of the collection. “Little Details” is also a relationship story, but it is the violence of betrayal, as a husband paints another woman’s portrait. In “Burnt Out,” a car is engulfed in flames in the night. Here, a blatant act of destruction is embedded into the scene. But even crueler is how the first person narrator talks about Janet in the morning, with no indication of even wanting to help the car’s owner when it caught fire.
Powerfully, most of the stories in Dots: and other flashes of perception consider the inherent violence in human actions. In this thematic space, Santino Prinzi is at the height of his critical prowess, uncovering truths that most people refuse to confront about their so-called mundane lives.
Eshani Surya is a current MFA student in fiction at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where she also teaches undergraduates. Her writing has appeared in Ninth Letter Online, New Delta Review, Lunch Ticket, Flyway: Journal of Writing & Environment, and more. She was the 2016 winner of the Ryan R. Gibbs Award for Flash Fiction from New Delta Review. Eshani also serves as a reader of fiction at Sonora Review. Find her on Twitter @__eshani.
Review and Q&A: ‘Exposure’ Reveals All
According to Webster’s Dictionary, there are generally three commonly used meanings for the word “Exposure:”
- “the fact or condition of being affected by something or experiencing something: the condition of being exposed to something;”
- “the act of revealing secrets about someone or something, and”
- “public attention and notice.”
Katy Resch George’s collection entitled Exposure aptly captures each definition within several beautifully layered stories. The collection contains ten stories of varied length, each story attempting to reveal or expose the characters, starting with the title piece that appeared in issue thirty-three of SmokeLong Quarterly.
I spoke with Katy via email to ask her about the collection, what inspires her, and the literary quality of photography.
Here’s our chat:
Tyrese: I know this may sound biased, but one of my favorite stories in the collection is “Exposure,” the one that appeared in SLQ. What I truly appreciate about this story is how seamless the transition between the characters is in such a short space. Why did you choose this story as the title piece of your collection? What does this story reveal about the collection itself?
KRG: I’m so glad you enjoyed this story. I was thrilled when SLQ published it. One reason I selected “Exposure” to frame the whole collection is because of that moment in the final paragraph, when the nurse is in the movie theater and observes the couple holding hands. She thinks: “… to hold hands in a theater is to say I am watching this movie, but I am also in this life that I share with this person; I bring this life with me wherever I go.” This idea that we contain many lives, or selves, and that we tote them around with us is one that touches nearly all the characters in the collection. Most characters in these stories are trying to reconcile past mistakes, past selves, with their current station, and with their wishes for their future. Often, this process is the heart of the story. To go through it, characters endure a variety of emotional exposures: they have to confront their whole selves– be exposed before themselves, if you will– in order to know why they behave as they do, and what they need to let go of.
Even though “Exposure” is short, it contains some detail that connects directly to all the other stories: a storm, sibling interactions, out-of-season death (and attempting to makes sense of it), making out in (semi) public places, wearing high-heels and its implications about feminine effort, marriage and the power of union, the playing-out of pathologies. There might be more! It was fun to discover those connections.
Also, the word “ exposure” draws attention to a central metaphor in the book, which involves the photographic process of capturing the accumulation of time through long film exposures.
I also think the form of the story– flash fiction but involving multiple characters and circumstances– prepares the reader for what’s coming: a mix of flash fictions and layered, lengthier stories.
Tyrese: Now that you mention it, I can see that thread of a photographic exposure weaved throughout your stories. Yet another definition of that term that is at play. The instant capture of life as we know it, so layered yet so simple is a hard concept to put down on paper, and I think you do this very well. I feel like this is the type of interpretation that only someone who knows about this type of exposure can pull off. Are you a photographer as well as a writer?
KRG: Many years ago photography was a hobby of mine. I satisfied some high school and college electives with photo classes and in college I worked in the darkroom mixing chemicals for the photo students. I loved capturing images but darkroom processes were tedious for me, though I had, and still have, romantic notions about them. I wanted to love it and I so admire photographers who get it.
Tyrese: Along this vein, another story I really enjoyed is “The Last Darkroom.” I thought the ending was particularly interesting as it left me with optimism, despite what we know about the main character’s circumstances and what lies in his immediate future. I love a short story that ends on a positive note, and I find that many writers are almost afraid to do this with contemporary short stories. Do you agree? Can you tell me about how you developed this story and what made you decide to end on such a hopeful tone?
KRG: Wow, thank you. I agree “The Last Darkroom” is especially hopeful at the end. Really, almost all of the stories are ultimately hopeful stories. I mentioned earlier that a lot of the stories show us characters’ efforts to realize a “better” self they want to become. Most of the characters make it, or the story ends with a character behaving in a new way that suggests she is on the right path. “The Last Darkroom” does this in the most clear and heartening way.
I can’t say if writers are afraid to end with optimism. I’m trying now to recall recent stories I’ve read that struck me as hopeful or optimistic and I’m struggling to come up with titles. That might say more about my tastes as a reader than it does about contemporary literary trends. Maybe writers—all people—don’t feel especially optimistic these days, or maybe people turn to the literary arts to exorcise fears or negativity to make room for optimism in their lives off the page. I’m speculating, of course. Maybe authors fear their optimistic endings would come off as saccharine? It could be a worthwhile exercise to draft two endings for a story in progress, both plausible yet surprising, but one grim and one hopeful. And see what feels most true to the characters and what the story needs to say.
“The Last Darkroom” began with the urge to write about people who were alienated and frustrated by modernity, really…people who felt a more “hands-on” approach to life was fading away. This pops up in the story with the darkroom vs. the digital lab, the narrator’s confusion about social media and his love of old cameras, and with his wife’s criticism of education being shrunken and dehumanized by standardized testing. Around the time I started toying with the story, I was thinking about what it would be like to become a parent and the story might be working through related anxieties Not only about physical health, but about new vulnerabilities and what would surely be a encompassing transition! (It has been– my daughter is now 17 months old!)
When I started the story I had no ending in mind—unusual for me. The narrative organically moved to a positive tone. I really loved writing that final scene. These characters, in their grief, had been removed from their vocations, from their marriage—they needed a break. The narrative also needed a break from the pile-up of misfortune, and it struck me as consistent with what we knew of the characters that they could find a way back to each other and their passion, at least for one evening.
Tyrese: What influenced your choice to include flash pieces along with stories of traditional lengths in one collection together? What are the advantages or disadvantages for the reader when digesting the collection as a whole?
KRG: This is a tough question! I collected these stories because they work as a unit to explore the themes I talked about earlier. I think if I tried to break apart “Exposure” and assemble two new collections– one of “traditional” length stories and one of flash fictions– I’d end up with two books investigating the same problems. As a writer and reader I love both forms. My intention was to let the flash fictions offer a more lyrical or formally experimental narrative exploration of themes presented in the lengthier works. Some readers might enjoy having these concentrated shots. But maybe some might find it jarring to go from a 7,000-word story that spans eight years to a 800-word story that covers one hour. I tried to arrange them to avoid that.
Tyrese: Are you working on any new projects?
KRG: Thanks for asking this. I am! I’m wrapping up a novel titled Lent that is about the emotionally fraught relationship of a young woman and her mentally ill mother. Part of the story takes place during the Easter season of Lent, which becomes significant as the young woman, in need of help for a number of reasons, is susceptible to charity that has bad strings attached. The other project is a story collection titled City Park that thinks about how operating out of our fears can make us dangerous.
Katy Resch George’s stories have appeared in Blackbird, West Branch, Pank, Painted Bride Quarterly, and other journal and have been recognized by the annual Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions list and by the storySouth Million Writer’s Awards. She is a recipient of artist grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund and Richmond Culture Works. Katy has taught for the English Departments of Brooklyn College and VCU, and as a faculty lecturer in the Expository Writing Program at New York University. She lives in Richmond, Virginia, with her husband visual artist Josh George and their daughter.
Tyrese L. Coleman is an associate editor with SmokeLong Quarterly.
Encountering the Divine and Mundane in Joy Williams’s Ninety-Nine Stories of God
By Eshani Surya
Joy Williams gives her Antigone Bookstore reading with sunglasses perched on her face, though it is evening and we are inside. Perhaps this is enough to give a sense of the confidence that Williams exudes and lends to her collection of stories. Outside, Tucson rumbles on a Friday night—I can hear the streetcar honking, music blaring from the cars that whiz by a little too fast, patrons making their way to the bars on 4th Ave. This is the land of college students back from summer break just a few weeks ago. But Williams’s voice keeps a steady, calm pace as she reads the micro-fictions that make up Ninety-Nine Stories of God.
She ends her reading with one of my favorite stories, number 98. In it, the Lord—a recurring character throughout the volume—tries to adopt a tortoise. The Lord asks, “May I have two?” He is denied for fear that the tortoises will breed. He is told to find a square of grass from Home Depot. On the way home, both the Lord and the tortoise brood about “this adoption business.” The title, “A New Arrangement,” comes at the end of the story, as all the titles in this collection do.
How ridiculous this premise sounds, and yet what Williams achieves in one succinct story is mighty. In this story and throughout the book, Williams considers human institutions/social niceties, benevolence, and control. She asks what constitutes as God’s intervention? What makes up a story of God? Where is God in stories of tragedy?
Even with the heavier questions, the stories—ranging in length from a few sentences to a few pages—are funny, even funnier when read aloud, as evidenced by the raucous laughter in the bookstore, where Williams is able to make every line a joke just by the weight she gives each word. And she likes making people laugh—I can tell, because when they laugh, she smiles a little below the sunglasses. Humor is integral to this collection; it keeps the stories fun and allows them to explore strangeness, like the Lord never being able to come up with twelve guests for His dinner parties (from number 31). Williams’s descent into peculiarity heightens some of her thematic preoccupations: loneliness, discomfort, imperfection.
This isn’t to say all the stories work. Some don’t quite come together, like 18, which includes drawing of a rolled up tarpaulin and explains that the drawing is not a maze. These are the stories that read like good beginnings or witty one-off observations. With these, the title, which often works as a punch line, doesn’t seem to add much. One might be left asking, “Well, so what?” And sometimes the perfection of each line feels too manufactured, too measured. The distance does make sense for a collection that is about looking at faith, miracles, and the relationship humans have with God and the natural world, but it can also lack energy. Generally, the best stories are the ones that include the Lord, a grounding character who is puzzled by his own creations. The detached tone—one of matter-of-fact confusion—serves these stories the best, by giving a satirical edge to anything the Lord observes.
Still, Joy Williams is a master of language and sentence construction, and for that reason alone it would be worth picking up this collection. Past that, one can enjoy the challenge of encountering the divine in the mundane and the mundane in the divine. Though the book could easily be read in one sitting, a better reading experience would likely be reading a few of the stories at a time, as a sort of amuse-bouche before sleep.
Eshani Surya is a current MFA student in fiction at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where she also teaches undergraduates. A former Associate Editor of SmokeLong Quarterly, her writing has appeared in Ninth Letter Online, Flyway: Journal of Writing & Environment, First Class Lit, and Minetta Review. Eshani also serves as a reader of fiction at Sonora Review. Find her on Twitter @__eshani.
Love and Disappointment in “Goldfish on the Roof”
By Marie Schutt
My first unwitting introduction to flash fiction, or something like it, was when I picked up Yasunari Kawabata’s Palm-of-the-Hand Stories as a bored teenager. Though he’s best known for his novels—Snow Country, Thousand Cranes, Beauty and Sadness, among others—Kawabata wrote his “palm-of-the-hand” stories (a term he coined) over fifty-odd years. They span his writing career and are, as is written in the introduction of my edition of the collection, where the “essence of his art was to be found.”
That book changed what little I understood then about reading and writing fiction, and has continued to shape my approach to writing more than ten years later. Most importantly, it showed me how much of a story can live off of the page, even when its printed attachment to this world counts for less than 1,000 words.
Some of the stories are surreal (“Goldfish on the Roof,” haunts with its carp-invaded mirrors and mothers) some are quick “slice of life” vignettes (the autumnal “The Silverberry Thief” is a personal favorite) and others span months or years of characters’ lives (“The White Flower”). They all, in only so many words, project entire worlds of hope, curiosity, dread, regret, and nostalgia, populated by complex and familiar characters.
“Goldfish on the Roof,” written in 1926, is one story I’ve revisited, and grappled with, multiple times in the years since I first read it.
The story’s protagonist is Chiyoko, a young woman whose father is Japanese and whose mother was a “concubine in Peking.” She is haunted by her heritage and an expressive mirror hanging opposite her bed. Distressing visions appear there: apparitions of the goldfish her father raises in tubs on the roof. “Her mind was worn down like a phonograph needle because of the clarity of these visions.”
Those goldfish become a family obsession. Initially a hobby of her father’s, they eventually become Chiyoko’s responsibility. “Growing more and more melancholy by the day, she did nothing but gaze at them.” Suitors come and go, but all Chiyoko asks of them is to fetch her some water fleas to feed the fish:
“‘Where can I find them?’
“‘You might look around in a ditch.’”
When she is twenty-six, Chiyoko’s father dies and disowns her in his will. Upon hearing the news, a few things happen to her in rapid succession. She sees her mother in the mirror, and then runs to the roof to confront her.
“Where had she come from? And when? Her mother was standing by the fish tank, her face dark. Her mouth was full of lionhead fish. The tail of one of them dangled from her mouth like a tongue. Though the woman saw her daughter, she ignored her as she ate the fish.”
What happens next disturbs and disappoints me on two levels: 1. Chiyoko pushes her mother to her death, and 2. Kawabata abruptly follows that powerful passage up with a literal “and then she lived happily ever after” to end the piece:
“With this, Chiyoko was freed from her mother and father. She regained her youth and set out on a life of happiness.”
This tightly written and emotionally complex story deserves a much more effective ending than that. The reader is shunted from a potent and lingering image – “Her mother tumbled against the glazed brick and died with the goldfish in her mouth” – to this bland and unconvincing non-ending, which feels as though it was tacked on as an afterthought. As though, what the hell, maybe Chiyoko deserves a little something for all her suffering, after all.
This is why I love and hate “Goldfish on the Roof.”
I love it for its weirdness, for its tense layering of family dynamics, for its dreamlike descriptions, for allowing Chiyoko and her world to be formed out of a masterful give and take of dark and light rather than hard-drawn lines and character clichés – and for accomplishing all of this in a little over 1,000 words. The same things that I love about many of Kawabata’s stories.
I hate it for that ending. An ending, I feel, that betrays the reader, and undermines everything that the story had achieved leading up to those last few lines.
Kawabata’s stories were my first lessons in economy of language. The “palm-of-the-hand stories” occupy small spaces, but possess limitless expansive power, and that unexpected power of evocation blew open my early notions of how storytelling could—and should—be achieved. This was a precious thing for a young aspiring writer to discover.
But, no artist is perfect. Everyone misses the mark sometimes, and I think the reason that “Goldfish on the Roof” has remained important to me is that it embodies both the best and the worst of what I’ve encountered in flash fiction: captivating storytelling with the power to thoroughly immerse the reader in a small space, and an awkward, unsuccessful attempt to give closure to that story within the same space.
Compressing the space and the time in which we get to tell a story magnifies every stylistic choice, forces us to whittle the story down to its essentials. That is, ultimately, the thing that pulls me to flash fiction: it demands the essentials. Kawabata’s stories make their own demands, and sometimes they aren’t met. But I have learned to value those stories as much as any other, because their imperfection offers a glimpse into the workings of a great author’s craft that no engaged writer can afford to ignore.
Marie Schutt is a writer and editor based in Chicago. She edits Liminoid Magazine, which is launching its fifth issue in October 2016. Her fiction can be found in Sundog Lit. She is currently working on a novel and a collection of short stories.
Lost at Sea: On Falling for Atlas of Remote Islands
This week Matt Weinkam shares his unabashed love for Judith Schalansky’s beautiful book Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will and its recent Pocket Atlas reissue.
By Matt Weinkam
I’m in love with a book. Can I say that? There is a book that I love like a person. I think it is intelligent, funny at times, independent in spirit, honest. This book delights me but also challenges me. It takes me new places, teaches me new things. I’m attracted to it, I’ll admit. It is quite beautiful. When I spy it from across the room peeking out from my bookshelf or lying seductively open on my bedside table I feel things. Maybe you have a book like this, a book that glows when you touch it, that you think about when it’s not around, the book that you’d run back into a burning building to save. For me that book is Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will written, designed, and typeset by Judith Schalansky, and translated from German by Christine Lo.
The book is exactly what it says it is: a collection of fifty remote islands from around the globe. For each island Schalansky drew a detailed map, collected information about its location and history and inhabitants, and wrote stories essays prose poems difficult-to-categorize pieces to reveal something of the island’s essence. You are likely familiar with some of the islands already: Easter Island, Iwo Jima, Christmas Island, St Helena where Napoleon was exiled, Howland Island where Amelia Earhart was set to refuel before she disappeared into the Pacific. Others will feel like a discovery. There’s Napuka, also known as Disappointment Islands, where Ferdinand Magellan and his starving crew stopped briefly while circling the globe only to find it devoid of food or fresh water. Norfold Island, site of the most feared penal colony of the British Empire. And Tikopia, where the local inhabitants enforce a strict population limit in order to survive sustainably.
It’s no accident the stories that accompany many of these islands are grim. Schalansky’s introduction is titled “Paradise is an island, but so is hell.” Anyone looking for idyllic descriptions of pristine beaches or exotic plants will be deeply disappointed by this book. “What I found,” Schalansky writes about the research process, “were not models of romantic, alternative ways of living, but islands one might wish had remained undiscovered: unsettlingly barren places whose riches lay in the multitude of terrible events that had befallen them.” A majority of the islands come with descriptions of desolation and disease, horror stories of what humans do to one another and to the earth when no one is looking. The most haunting story to me is of St Kilda, an island off the coast of the UK where two-thirds of newborn babies die within the first week of their lives due to a mysterious illness. “The islanders whisper that it is the will of the Almighty. But these are the words of pious men. The women who endure so many pregnancies and bear so few children who survive the eight-day sickness remain silent.”
Dark, I know. So why do I love it? Partly for Schalansky’s prose. In just a few hundred words she brings each island to life while also asking big questions about the history of colonialism, the future of climate change, the effects of science and religion, and the assumptions and ideologies that trap those of us on these big islands called continents. Even if the book didn’t contain any images the words alone would make it worth your time.
But the images? The design? It’s no accident Atlas of Remote Islands won a prize for the most beautiful German book—the whole thing is a work of art. The maps of each island are intricate yet clear. The typeface and page layout engage without distracting. And I love how the orange highlights in the text compliment the blue of the ocean in each image. You will spend as much time studying the map of each island as you will spend reading the text that accompanies it. Each detail contains a story. How far is it from the nearest bodies of land? How many people live on the island? What country owns it? What are the names of its mountains and coves and streams and settlements? I’m particularly fond of the miniature globe graphic that accompanies each island. Schalansky places the island in the center of the map so that we view the earth from the point of view of those who live there. Such a simple design choice provides a revolutionary perspective of the planet. It can spark your imagination.
Atlas of Remote Islands could have been just another regular coffee table book: big on pictures, small on ideas. Instead it’s a complex, evocative, insightful, and challenging work of literature and art. It is, in other words, worthy of love. In an introduction to the new paperback edition, Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands, Schalansky writes, “Now that it is possible to travel right round the globe, the real challenge lies in staying at home and discovering the world from there.” Get a copy of this book. Fall in love with it. Go on an adventure.
Matt Weinkam’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, New South, Midwestern Gothic, Sonora Review, and Covered w/ Fur. He is currently in the MFA program at Northern Michigan University where he is co-managing editor at Passages North and a founding editor of Threadcount, an online journal of hybrid prose.
Review and Q&A: ‘The Family Arcana’ Deals Out a Full House
Here’s a genius idea: take a creepy gothic story about a family living in a possibly haunted house and break it up and put the pieces on playing cards. Jedediah Berry and the folks at Ninepin Press did just that with “The Family Arcana: A Story in Cards” and the results are brilliant and wonderful.
The instructions are simple: shuffle the deck however you want and start reading. You can read this story in any direction, but no matter which direction you read the cards, the different micro-flashes illuminate the odd but charming family that Berry has portrayed here.
Each card reads like it’s own micro-flash—some dark and creepy:
“A man comes around, offering to sharpen our knives. We offer to show him how it’s really done.”
And some with a lighter charming sense of humor:
“In a part of the attic that no one knows but us, we sit on the floor and on the rafters and on old broken chairs, and movements are made and seconded, and votes are cast, and in this way decisions are made. You probably want to know what we’re voting on now, but that isn’t how this goes.”
It’s hard to keep track of all the family members here—endless aunts and uncles, it seems—but after awhile it’s more about the quirky logic and rituals of these people. The true delight is getting lost in this house for a time, then being able to shuffle your deck and do it all over again.
I was so fascinated with both the story itself and its form that I had to catch up with Berry via email to ask him more about the behind-the-scenes. Here’s our chat:
I wrote “The Family Arcana” by hand on index cards, limiting myself to one side of one card for each section. For the few years that I worked on the story, I always kept a little stack of index cards handy, and I’d take them out whenever a new snippet of language occurred to me. Sometimes I’d write a few cards in a sitting, sometimes just one. Once or twice, I wrote a dozen in quick succession.
Do you have a favorite or preferred way to read the text?
I’ve heard of people getting interesting results by playing games of solitaire and reading the stacks, or playing poker and reading their hands. These days, what I most enjoy is getting to shuffle and read it in front of an audience. Not because I’m a natural performer by any means, but because I enjoy the tension of not knowing exactly what’s going to happen. It’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to being a magician.
How did you choose which fragments ended up on which card?
Toward the end of the revision process, I did start assigning the texts to specific suits and ranks. There’s a system to it—the hearts, for example, are all about Mother and Father, and the diamonds all have to do with the setting—but it’s a purposefully imperfect system. I wanted to achieve a certain kind of balance without making the structure too rigid.
I love how the characters have this creepiness about them but also have a really great dark sense of humor. How did they develop for you as people as you wrote this?
I think of them as both playful and wounded. The story they tell comes from a place of suffering, but they delight in the telling. They’re scoundrels and tricksters, but there’s a fierceness in their love for one another and for their home. I felt a real sense of urgency while writing of this story, and I think it has everything to do with that balance of hurt and humor.
What other alternative-text or hybrid projects are you working on now? What’s next?
I just finished work on an interactive science fiction story called “Fabricationist DeWit Remakes the World.” It’s freely available online, and it uses a branching structure to tell a story with more than one possible ending. Also, as an editor at Ninepin Press, I’m looking forward to publishing works in unusual forms by other writers. We have one new project in the works, with more on the way soon.
Tara Laskowski has been the editor of SmokeLong Quarterly since 2010.