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.
New Micro: Exceptionally Short Stories (Norton, 2018)
Edited by James Thomas and Robert Scotellaro
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.