Thursday, August 27, 2009

Short (short) story day

Self-proclaimed short story month, post number 26.

Flash fiction (or short short fiction, as it’s sometimes called) is a tough genre. You have to deliver a punch in a few hundred words, and many times the urge for that punch makes the story indistinguishable from a joke. Besides, many good literary devices need some elbowroom, and, well, flash fiction is all about not having that kind of space. Every word that goes in displaces a handful. Some stories flitter and pass away silently by the curb. Some stories become surreal, as to make you feel tsk-tsked for not having gotten it. Some stories deliver.

As part of this short story month, I decided to make a small sampler of noteworthy flash fiction. I picked from a self-constrained version of flash fiction: the 500-word pieces from the magazine Quick Fiction, already 15 print numbers old and still going. I chose four pieces that are available online: Claudia Smith’s “Groove,” Anthony Tognazzini’s “Westminster March,” Rebecca Donnelly’s “One Word a Day, Five Hundred Days,” and David Schuman’s “Spot.”

In less than 350 words, “Groove” manages to create a vivid picture of a marriage with a few well-placed brushstrokes. The small details of the couple’s life together (the fruit, the knit hats) all blend in nicely to create a sense of a person struggling hard to adapt. These lines were well done, I thought: “His family was large and old, occupying most of a small cemetery on the hill at the edge of a small town. She knew he would never leave them. This might mean he would never leave her.”

“Westminster March” cheats a little, reaching almost 800 words. It produces these long, drawn-out sentences that mimic an eighth-grader’s language and logic. The story describes a rich clarinet player’s relationship with a poorer but abler clarinet player at school. There is something about the tone that, in the end, didn’t seem persuasive: perhaps it’s phrases like “excruciating injections to counteract the rabies virus” bobbing up from a sea of simple sentences and self-justifying thrusts. But there are flashes that seem unconvincing. The profound hatred between the narrator and Terreto (an attitude that gives shape to the text itself) appeared somewhat excessive.

“One Word a Day, Five Hundred Days” churns out exactly 500 words, true to its title. The story describes the life of a young creative writing student who aims to write a 500-word story, a word a day. It’s narrated by that student’s father, who puzzles at this project, which nevertheless ends up growing on him. I don’t find the father’s voice very convincing, or any quotables to share here, but it’s funny to see how words seep from her.

“Spot” stays well below the 400-word mark. It’s a good idea: a woman leaves the narrator, and he thinks of what she would’ve named the dog. He describes how he feeds the dog, and what name he’s picked. It’s a clever way to present a substitute for the man’s grief. I don’t like the second sentence: it seems superfluous (and, well, superfluity in short short fiction doesn’t seem right). I would’ve preferred to leave the matter of the dog’s name less resolved than what we get at the end.

So, as I said, here’s a small sampler of flash fiction. Rules have mushroomed with regard to what can be done with this genre (like these, in Spanish), but it’s still difficult to pull it off. The Spanish writer Juan José Millás has been publishing some interesting “artistories” (articuentos, in Spanish) that fit in SMS messages. The stiff word limit will offer a good opportunity for writers to test their skills. Despite the limitations, some interesting products will keep popping up.

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