by Kelly Lynn Thomas
The first line of Mason Binkley’s debut flash fiction chapbook reads, “The larger a fetus becomes, the more it resembles a grenade.” From there, Familial Disturbances (Ellipsis Zine, 2019) grows into a literary grenade of sorts, each story setting off a tiny explosion in the reader’s mind.
The collection, just thirty pages, is broken into six sections, each exploring a different aspect of family connection. Cheating husbands and negligent parents trample the hearts of their wives and children. Old men revel in their middle-aged and elderly entitlement, oblivious to the harm they cause.
Binkley’s writing toes the edges of the fantastic without ever quite crossing the line into it. Language serves both as bridge and barrier between the real and unreal. While certain stories feel surreal, or out of time, or downright strange, they are nonetheless rooted in the here and now, the grinding gears of physics and pulsing life.
The narrator in “Feeding,” the story quoted above, compares her pregnancy to that of a spider who has been impregnated with a parasitic wasp larvae, going so far as to call her gestating baby “little wasp” and buzzing at her stomach. But despite her fantasies of eating her unfaithful husband like a different species of spider and her dreams of being paralyzed in a spider web, we understand none of these are truly happening.
The violence of pregnancy and birth, and even of child raising, comes up frequently. Like “Feeding,” “Twenty Little Fingers” also explores the physical and mental toll pregnancy takes on the body. Only one story, “A Prayer in Negation,” portrays the mother-child bond as strong and tender, but even this story revolves around the possibility of violence.
“A Prayer in Negation” shows a mother sending her daughter off to kindergarten, her mind focused not on pride at her daughter’s milestone, but on the possibility of a school shooting and her daughter’s death. “The bullet from the AR-15 could not tear a wound in her chest the size of the orange in her lunchbox,” the narrator says as she watches her daughter enter the school building.
It’s one of the few stories that expands beyond the family to address the issues of the wider world in a direct way, and while it’s impactful for its subject matter and execution, it does feel somewhat out of place in this collection.
The other two stories that expand outward in a concrete way are “Cognitive Dissonance,” which stretches beyond a man’s grief to address Native American genocide, and “Tutelage,” a story about a mother addicted to oxycodone and her daughter who died from a heroine overdose. Unlike “A Prayer in Negation,” these two feel more connected to the rest of the collection because of the incredibly flawed main characters.
We understand that “Pastor Ted” in “Cognitive Dissonance” would not have stood against Native genocide despite his devastation at his wife’s sudden but peaceful passing in her garden that happens to be located on a site where many native children died. Similarly, the mother in “Tutelage” blames herself for the back injury that led to her addiction, and what she perceives as the negligent parenting that led to her daughter stealing her pills and eventually overdosing. She is both victim and perpetrator, grieved and grieving. With “A Prayer in Negation,” we feel nothing but heartbreak and fear for this mother watching her child possibly run to her death.
Binkley’s prose and mastery of micro plot make it easy to forgive him for this, and other, minor mishaps (the occasional description that doesn’t quite hit, the prevalence of cheating husbands to come home smelling like “floral” or “citrusy” perfume).
Aside from this nitpick, the collection feels like a cohesive whole. The organization of the sections mirrors the cycle of life, beginning with “Labor Complications” (pregnancy and birth), moving through “School in the Age of Mass Destruction” and “Homewreckers” to “Parental Violence” (adolescence), and then on to “Obnoxious Old Men” (old age) and “Gone” (death).
Each of the six sections in Familial Disturbances has its own standout story. In “Homewreckers,” it’s “How to Move Up!” a faux how-to guide written by an eighteen-year-old woman who has her eye on a rich man already married with children. When describing the man’s wife in a bikini, the narrator says, “She has a disgusting scar on her left hip and apparently doesn’t believe in shaving her pubes. How could Michael ever be happy with her?”
The narrator’s desire not to become her own self, but instead to take over someone else’s life, as well as her disdain for age, reveal her own internalized fears and complexes. But within the confines of the story, she never acts on her desire, only photographs Michael and his family from afar.
In contrast is the female narrator in “Now He’s Mine,” who goes as far as bribing an undertaker to bring her dead lover’s corpse to her house. There, she dances with his skeleton on Sunday mornings while his widow sits in church; a story worthy of Faulkner or Poe in its gothic creepiness.
Whether he’s writing from the perspective of an eighteen-year-old gold digger, a resentfully pregnant wife, an old man with no self-awareness, or a teen boy stuck in a bunker with his insane father convinced Y2K means the end of the world, Binkley has a knack for making each one feel authentic. These characters are all miserable, but as Tolstoy said (sort of), they’re each miserable in their own way, forcing us as readers to reflect on our own miseries, our own choices, our own self-made prisons.
The final story in the collection, “Untimely,” is a micro fiction that shows off the best of Binkley’s writing skills. A man sits alone at a concert, an empty seat beside him where his wife should have been sitting. Her suicide is implied but not directly addressed. In fewer than 250 words, Binkley captures this woman’s unfulfilled potential and hints at the life she shared with her husband. It’s the perfect story to end the collection on—it echoes beyond the last sentence, its own abrupt ending standing in for every happy ending that could have been, but wasn’t.
Kelly Lynn Thomas reads a lot and writes strange fiction in Pittsburgh, PA. She lives with her partner, one dog, a cat, and a constant migraine. Her work has appeared in Permafrost, Sou’wester, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and other journals. 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. Find her on Twitter @kellylynnthomas.