Having studied creative writing in both the US and the UK recently, I can attest that “small fictions,” to borrow the pithy designation from the editors of The Best Small Fictions 2015 (Queen’s Ferry Press), are being dealt out to students like confectionaries. Forget reading (or writing) on your lunch break: this is literature to read (or write) during the lunch rush. Fueled by a consortium of blog writers, non-English majors, professional actors and part-time Tweetists—in addition to the usual literary suspects—the small fictions insurgency has now received a royal treatment from the youthful Queen’s Ferry Press. Due out Oct. 6, TBSF2015 anthologizes small fictions in their current permutations around the world, further legitimizing this mutable and ubiquitous new genre.
Fifty-five writers are represented here, some eminent—such as Stuart Dybek, Michael Martone, and Bobbie Ann Mason—others emergent, but all venturing to speak their piece in a few pages or less. There is no shortage of diversity in TBSF2015. Intense personal explorations of human behavior under protracted abuse, as related in “By Heart” by Dee Cohen or “Mama Says” by Cassandra Lopez, are balanced by more playful excursions in language, such as Ron Carlson’s “You Must Intercept The Blue Box Before It Gets To The City.” Ana Lea Jancewicz’ “Marriage” and Kathryn Savage’s “Winter” dig beneath the banality of everyday life to uncover both glory and disgrace. Magical realism too is given a feathery but vibrant rendering in Blake Kimzey’s “The Boy and the Bear”.
The anthology includes two successful stabs at the risky second-person point-of-view in “Something Overhead” by Yennie Cheung and “At Home with Rapper’s Delight” by Chris L. Terry. These stories pull of the exacting feet of making “you” a believable, flesh-and-blood character. Michael Garriga’s “Pistols at Twenty Paces” explodes the tri-vergent perspectives on the last recorded duel in Hancock County, Mississippi, on April 23, 1866, while Julia Strayer’s “Let’s Say” desperately communicates a woman’s anxieties during her fatal wounding. Dan Gilmore’s jazzy, free-wheeling “Happiest Black White Man Alive” is stylistically miles away from, say, Jeff Streeby’s stoic dissection of dust and horses in “El Paso: July;” revealing how the world of small fictions may encompass both swift narration and cool reflection. The anthology further introduces what I can only describe as ‘social media fictions.’ The best of these may be Stephen Orloske’s twenty-seven word long “Twitter fiction,” which will have you beating your head against the wall in astonished delight for much longer than it took to read the thing.
Several pieces in The Best Small Fictions 2015 are so stirring, the reader may in fact wish they were longer, if only for the opportunity to keep exploring such compelling and often disturbing universes. In James Claffey’s episodic history of violence, “The Third Time My Father Tried to Kill Me,” for example, every word contributes to an unrelenting sense of menace. Here, the narrator perturbs the reader with detached rationalization of his father’s behavior:
“Maybe when my arms stopped twitching he got
nervous, because next thing I knew, I was on the sand, lying
on my back, and him pushing on my belly until the saltwater
spumed skyward and I turned blue to white and gulped air.”
Zack Bean’s “Bad Boys” bares a similar construction to Claffey’s piece; yet Bean’s speaker is a villain, rather than a victim, most frightening because he comprehends the essence of his downward spiral, and can articulate its exhilaration so well:
“And nobody has to tell us what else the bad boys do—
we’ve already slipped into the natural order of things. Like
predators who’ve picked up a fresh scent, we’re sniffing out
our paths, through fistfights and broken windows, through
cigarettes and jewelry that nobody paid for, through the bottoms
of whiskey bottles and into backseats of old sedans with
girls whose names we’ve forgotten, and on and on through
the endless nights—”
Before our eyes, what began as a compelling coming-of-age story becomes a self-administered expose of criminality—Bean’s brief fictional equivalent to an autobiography of Jesse James or John Dilinger, if such a book ever existed.
Emma Bolden’s haunting “Before She Was A Memory” impels the reader to slow down and methodically consider non-sequiturs that comprise much of the narration:
“Then the savage intrusion of empty space.
It was June. I didn’t have a cardigan. And for
more than a moment she could’ve been anyone’s daughter.”
Bolden’s ambiguous piece reads like a fractured confession or a witness’ sober testimony, enriched with a poet’s sensitivity to the cadence of remembrance.
Anya Yurchyshyn’s satirical “The Director” swiftly avoids the cleverness that occasionally befalls other small fictions in the anthology. Its titular “director” is a case-study in materialism and vanity, whose shallow behavior and attitudes bemuse and appall in equal measure. Here, the narrator appraises domestic objects with deadpan gusto, but precludes the urn of his/her late mother among them:
“My mother in the ugly vase and the waxy plant were in
the vicinity of some flea market souvenirs from India, the
Cape. My floorboards are from a barn down in old Mexico.
My bathroom art is provocative.”
Humorous yet restrained, Yurchyshyn infuses her work with a tantalizing moral undercurrent.
One of the most powerful and enigmatic small fictions in this anthology is David Mellerick Lynch’s “The Lunar Deep.” Not since “The Lines of the Hand” by Julio Cortázar has a small fiction filled me with so much awe and rapture and intrigue—and Lynch’s story (or is it a crystalline prose poem? A twilight meditation on mortality?) is considerably more eloquent than Cortázar’s. The luminous opening paragraph sets the tone for the piece:
“My old dad, as his wits weighed anchor, decreed himself a
Noah of the still and the dead and went about with a notepad
cataloguing stones and stars and other bleak insensate
things that they might be redeemed, at Judgement Day, from
the final deluge of obscurity. It was a job of slow and rococo
care but a man should, after all, enjoy the ballast of a hobby
in his decline.”
Lynch’s capacious language and rhythm here is reminiscent of Saul Bellow’s opening paragraph to The Adventures of Augie March. Whereas Augie asserts a troubadour’s sense of self-confidence, however (going at things as he taught himself, “freestyle”), Lynch’s narrator harnesses loquacity and penetrating insight into an examination of his ailing father. Valiantly toasting the sacred and profane without sentiment or moroseness, “The Lunar Deep” more than validates Phong Nguyen’s claim, in the afterword to TBSF2015, that successful small fictions “suggest a much larger context—a story that is far vaster than the words on the page.”
In his introduction, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler says that “we listen to small fictions like nightsounds from afar. They enter us briefly, in sweetness or sassiness, in hilarity or aching sadness, but they leave us imprinted with freshly experienced truth.” The Best Small Fictions 2015 achieves this bright, burning end through its broad sweep of stories, leaving the open-minded, open-hearted reader breathless.