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.
And of course that also means there are stories about politics, not to mention the nasty little dogmas that somehow still lurk underneath the rock of American society. Take Alex Simand’s “Election Cycle,” with its spot-on first line: “The circus comes crashing through the wall of your home, all tents and stripes and ballot slips like peanut shells scattered on fine white tile.” It certainly does recall the insanity of 2016. The story is a neuron pulse of text.
“The Crossing” by Mona Leigh Rose weaves together the stories of wealthy American teenagers who try to throw themselves beneath trains at a certain railroad crossing and the Hispanic-American guard employed to stop them. These boys and girls are despondent over the fact that their lives aren’t perfect. For Jose, the guard, trains are what brought his family to a better life, not a method of suicide. The worst thing that ever happened to these rich kids was that they graduated salutatorian or only got into their second-choice college. They don’t know how good they have it. “The Crossing” is a haunting story of perspective.
A similar situation appears in Oscar Mancinas’s “Tourista.” Ernesto is the only Mexican-American student at a New England university. The admissions office asks him to escort a prospective student and his father on a tour of the campus because the pair, visiting from Mexico, have requested a Mexican guide. Something Ernesto mentions about his mother’s hometown abruptly cools the friendly attitude his charges displayed when they first met. Instead of a story of perspective, it’s a story of perception: how the simple, reductive ways we regard each other decreases our humanity.
Several stories counter that sentiment with a focus on immigrants and marginalized voices. Two powerful examples are Gen Del Raye’s “The Truth About Distance” and “Culture House” by Na’amen Gobert Tilahun. The former details an immigrant’s agony of separation from family and home. The latter turns the idea of a dominant society into a literal communicable virus. The narrator lives in a hermetically sealed house to prevent infection and thus preserve his language and culture which would otherwise succumb and disappear.
Graves and the digging of them appear twice. Is that a higher than normal incidence? If so, I wonder what it says about the confidence we hold regarding the future, as neither is a hopeful image or a hopeful act. Both stories play like dreams, with large gaps in the narrative that make them all that more ominous.
“My parents are in the backyard, digging their graves,” goes Allegra Hyde’s “Syndication,” which occurs in a past era when phones possessed dial tones, you could prank call people, and local TV stations ran reruns of popular shows. Let’s just say things just don’t get much better for those parents after that first sentence, despite that the story itself does.
“States of Matter” is the first crime-fiction flash I’ve ever read. It originally appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Tara Laskowski’s piece is a wonder of economy. My mind’s eye imagined a classic film-noir: high-relief chiaroscuro lighting, sinister doings, a woman who convinces a grave digger to murder someone, a love affair. It’s all here. In barely more than a page.
You’d expect the anomie of modern life dictate that today’s flash mostly invoke distancing computer screens, babbling TVs, buzzing phones, and the numbness of traffic jams. Those items do appear, but as series editor Tara L. Masih mentions in her introduction to the volume, nearly sixty percent of this year’s nominees contained birds. A second reading of BSF revealed that it wasn’t just birds. The natural world—dogs, farms, horses, rabbits, flowers—infuses the volume. The Flash collective has made an unconscious turn toward the organic, the growing.
In “Hatchlings” by William Woolfitt, the young narrator helps his older brothers protect sea-turtle eggs from poachers. In the process, he gains an adult’s sad wisdom. Erin Calabria’s haunting “The Last Fragile Thing” starts “I knew he was going to leave even before that winter, the air stitched with sleet while the two of us led the horses back and forth from Old Hugh’s stable…” Karen Brennan comes right out and says it: “birds were a metaphor for the dread I felt.” Her story, appropriately titled “10 Birds” uses that cheeky statement for a deeper plumb into the narrator’s emotional life, her hopes, and her fears. Cameron Quincy Todd in “We Are All Relatively Safe Here,” a story that begins with bunnies (and made me wince imagining what might come next), hints at the reason so many animals appear. “Even the animal knows what is essential.”
But what is essential?
It came to me after reading Matt Sailor’s chilling, dystopian “Sea Air.” A family goes on vacation to the beach “that had been the distant suburbs until the rise.” From the hotel balcony they can see “the tops of drowned buildings on the horizon, where the city had been.” Given recent events it certainly feels as if nature has decided to show humanity what’s what. Our collective unconscious reels at the current state of things. Writers are invoking the natural world and harkening back to a time when nature was our companion rather than something out to get us. For which we can only blame ourselves. The haunting close to Jen Knox’s “Lottery Days” suggests that idea. “I never told you that I kept the garden for you, a swell of life that you will never see. We never admitted such sentimental things. But it’s here now, your garden. It thrives for you beneath a sometimes blue sky.”
Give us succor these essential stories implore the earth. Give us meaning they ask the world. We need you and haven’t forgotten you they say. Forgive us.
In our time, indeed.