Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories from Around the World (W. Norton & Company); editors: James Thomas, Robert Shapard, and Christopher Merrill
The editors of Flash Fiction International have pulled eighty-six stories from across the geographic and literary spectrum to put together this fine volume. The stories vary in form, content, tone, and setting, which contributes to the reader’s enjoyment of the volume. You never know what you’ll encounter next. The sheer number of narratives allows the reader to experience the ways in which our diverse experiences and cultures reflect similar concerns: a desire for love, for safety, for thought, for work and play, for a place to call home. This rather large collection of varied experiences is only possible in flash fiction or poetry due to the stories’ brevity. And I’d argue that flash provides the best style for such a collection—a hybrid between poetry and prose. Flash is a between place for now, without borders or walls. It has only one real job: to engage the reader. And that engagement can be accomplished in a myriad of ways.
The stories in Flash Fiction International range across a wide set of life experiences, socioeconomic statuses, genders, interests, and countries. There is a story about the Three Gorges Dam, one about a bombing in Sri Lanka, a story about a haircut and one about parenting. In short, the volume is full of stories that cover the vast human spectrum of experience, from the mundane to the tragic. The stories come from several countries—Ireland, China, Japan, Israel, Britain, South Africa, Argentina and New Zealand—to name a few. And the thread that holds the volume together is that of human desire and need: to love, to think, to amuse, and eventually the stories start to make a pattern that we recognize as a reflection of our quiet and desperate lives.
People don’t debate much about how flash is best written as they do in fiction. This is why flash is such an open-ended pleasure—philosophy, adventure, epigram, or a very good short story, all sit side by side. The introduction to this volume says that flash is the perfect length for the internet age. Certainly flash fits neatly into an internet-length attention span. However, it also has served well throughout time, brevity being the soul of wit and Hemingway and his icebergs. In short, flash has and likely always will be a viable and interesting form. Writing is a transaction between reader and writer—a transaction as old as human language I’d guess: I’ll sit around and listen to a story, and as long as you tell it well enough, I’ll ask you to tell me another one and toss another log on the fire. Just move me.
Of course, the real question is whether the stories are any good, and rest assured, they are. The editors used a staff of twelve readers, varied in gender and walks of life to ensure a wide reading palate. They also searched for great work across the world. The stories of the masters: Kafka, Kawabata, Milosz and Maugham populate this volume as well, highlighting the continuity and viability of the form throughout literary history.
By and large the best stories in this volume are from the United States, which may be the case because the editors are American and because Americans write a lot of flash fiction. The second story in the collection, “Please Hold Me the Forgotten Way,” by H.J. Shepard, is a powerhouse. An unnamed narrator describes a woman preparing to shave her lover’s head , “His hair was dark and soft and curled a little because it was getting long.” This is the story’s opening, and throughout it hums with lyricism and desire in descriptions such as, “the sweet dark smell of his scalp on her hands.” The story is rich with detail and the sharp pull of desire, “the explosion in her fingertips” when she sees him through the window, the way his back feels pressed against her as she shaves his head. If the story were merely this sensual recollection of a haircut it would be quite good. And yet the story has another layer, “The cold winter sunlight pooled in through the window and lit her hands folded on her lap, and she hoped he would remember her like this when he was an old man.” The end of this haunting story unfolds after the shave when the woman catches sight of them both in the mirror, “He looked sick and cold, and she looked as if she had been crying for him for a very long time.” The story hums with a quiet kind of desperation from start to finish. Is he her ex-lover? Her ex-husband? A young lover or a man dying of cancer? The story doesn’t yield its secrets but leaves you there, suspended in that mirror, picturing the two reflections of these people you’ve just met, and aching.
The story that follows is from Iraq, about a father’s homecoming from jail, the strangeness he feels in the world he’d left behind. And the story after that is from Mexico, about the lost souls at the bottom of a baptismal font waiting to be reborn at the naming day. Both of these stories are successful stories, which leave the reader as quickly as they came, like a warm summer rain, and together, the three stories highlight the pleasure of flash, the real world moment juxtaposed with an idea about life after death and this too jostling for space with a lyric rendition of a life lived out through a haircut.
“The Attraction of Asphalt,” a story from Germany, tells of a girl who is constantly prepared to leap from the car on her mother’s signal, as they wind chaotically on mountain roads. The story is suffused with tension and a kind of terror. The story is a metaphorical foray into the consciousness of a terrified daughter living with a deranged parent, an all too familiar plight, but played to perfection in this story that shows no sign of ending.
Not all of the stories are successful narratively. Some of the stories, particularly some from outside of the United States, stretch the bounds of reality too far, relying too much on the dramatic moment to do the work rather than building the story throughout. It’s difficult to inhabit an unfamiliar world, culture, or particular historical moment in a scant few words. The universality of things like parenthood, death and marriage largely and effectively transcend cultural boundaries. However, a number of the selections dealt with historical moments or dramatic actions that were more country- or time-specific. Some of these stories often felt as if they were reaching for more: a big or momentous ending, a mother stabbing her child, a husband that runs people over in his car at night, a bombing. And though I know a bit about the countries in which these stories are set, occasionally the thumbnail sketch wasn’t casino enough to enable me, as the reader, to inhabit the place. Certainly, this may stem from my being an American, but I wonder too how much of it is a limit of the genre, a word count problem? At its best, fiction provides just this sort of transcendence, but it’s worth asking if the limited word count of flash makes this task more difficult.
That said, many of the stories from beyond the U.S. were works of wonder. “The Lord of the Flies,” by Marco Denevi from Argentina, pulls a delightful stunt, walking the reader through the theology of flies. How they might develop a divinity and an afterlife, ending in this delightful foray: “The Hell for condemned flies was a place without excrement, without waste, trash, stink, without anything of anything; a place sparkling with cleanliness and illuminated by a bright white light; in other words, an ungodly place.”
It’s occasionally difficult in a volume this large to make the sequential stories seem meaningful. However, two successive stories, “The Baby,” by Maria Negroni, and “Aglaglagl” by Bruce Rogers deserve special commendation. The first is about a child’s shifting state, a child’s quicksilver shifting relative to adult time. And the second story, “Algalgalg,” is about a child learning the world first without words, and then slowly having to acclimate themselves to the world of words, a new and strange place. I sent these stories to mothers I know and the second made both of them cry. These two stories from Argentina and the United States are both successful because the experience of parenthood is universal.
The end of the anthology has a variety of quotes from famous authors about the nature or meaning of flash fiction. However, after reading through them I remain unconvinced that anyone has exactly pinned flash down. Thank God, as that elusiveness is a large part of flash’s charm. It has not undergone the seismic pressure that the novel has—a form that people have always been eager to define in one particular way or another, and not always to its benefit. Neither writing nor human communication should be narrowly defined as speech acts or a realist novel. Writing should convey a myriad of things, as varied as the thoughts of human beings as they splash and plunge through life. And flash, particularly in this volume, gives us a varied sense of that life, fireflies floating over volcanoes, weekends in the country with family, life with someone and without them. And all we are left with is beauty, and connection, the sharp pang of recognition or the snap of a story falling into place. From “Skull of a Sheep,” by James Claffey, about a car speeding out of Dublin towards vacation:
“You are in a car speeding through Dublin toward the West year after year the journey uncoils past the same landmarks Kilmainham Jail strapped to a chair bullet to the brain on by the Rowntree Mackintosh factory where the black and yellow and orange and red fruit gums and sugar-covered pastilles spit out of humming machines through the streets by the Deadman’s Inn where in the last century the cellar was a makeshift mortuary for corpses carried in from stagecoaches and a little further up the road the Spa Hotel perched on a hillside like some angular magpie on a branch and out the road we whizz by the Hitching Post and the Salmon Leap Inn into the country the green sward dotted with black-and-white cows cudding the grass tripartite stomachs long-lashed eyes lulled creatures…”
Yes. That’s what I was looking for.