Lydia Davis is empress of deadpan flash fiction, and I say that with admiration as someone who generally despises the concept of the monarchy. She constructs her stories with a kind of stately assurance, using simple language to convey a point, a truthful observation about a failure of a company, or flawed mechanism of modern day life. In this story the grief of losing a father is placed within a framework of a letter of complaint to the funeral parlour. The funeral parlour in question coming under critique for the use of a portmanteau word, ‘cremains’, to describe the father’s ashes. ‘Cremains’, the narrator holds, sounds like a milk substitute for coffee and has, like other portmanteau words, a dash of comedy to it, which she feels is inappropriate. Such attentiveness to a single word, placing the weight of emotion up against other snigger-worthy brand-name terms like ‘portapotty’ and ‘pooper-scooper’ then rendered by authoritative presentation in a letter serves to draw out the absurdist humour inherent in breezy, dehumanising industry lingo and in our social and commercial constructions around death. All this achieved without a hint of effort in under two minutes.
(Published in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. Hear it read online here)
This story recently placed third in an online flash fiction contest and to my mind is one of those pieces that shows how much can be packed into a small space – like a suitcase that is not just overflowing, but so full it seems to warp the notion of a suitcase at all. It is set on a sweltering summer day at a zoo, in the narrator’s childhood, just after her father ‘had just begun to be noticeably strange’. The girl and her mother walk around looking at the listless animals. They come to the buffalo of the title, and the girl looks at them through a coin-operated set of binoculars. Distracted, she doesn’t see as much as she would like before the coin drops. Her mother refuses to pay more money. There the story ends. The beauty and intensity of the piece lie in the layering of details – from the girl’s corrective shoes, to her mother’s lipstick-smeared white gloves, to the buffaloes, ‘distant, as unrealistic as moon craters’, that together hint at conflicting streams of nostalgia, harm, loss, isolation, the gulf between parent and child, one person and another, all life on earth.
(Published online at Boinkzine)
It was a struggle for me to pick just one of Hannan’s stories. I am in such debt to him as a writer – it was his work that first inspired me to start writing flash fiction. With it, the revelation that the form could be more than just vignette, but could like poetry stand a humming, febrile charge. This story takes place on ‘Ghost Bridge’, with the narrator and the object of their desire, Jack, waiting on a folkloric ghost train to come rushing past. The narrator knows that the reality is that no such train is coming, but uses the time spent waiting to move closer to Jack, thinking of him in the language of food:
‘I’m looking at his face. His skin is rice paper. His veins are overlapping carrot shreds. He’s like a spring roll. I want to close my lips on his neck and inhale. I want to bring those carrots up.’
There’s something both ghostly and slightly disgusting in this image that means it has staying power, as the brain argues over it, troubled like an oyster over a piece of grit. Despite the narrator’s rejection of a haunting, the story itself is haunted by desire, by the sense of a whole town and many sets of tales existing just outside the frame.
(Published online at Dogzplot Fiction)
A sales assistant at a discount store is confronted by an armed robber who is holding a baby. In the tense standoff that occurs before the sales assistant manages to kick the gun away, we learn that they lost a younger brother to drowning after leaving him unattended in the bath, and that their parents are inattentive and distant, possibly because of this one painful moment. The situation explodes into action – and sound – as the gunman retrieves his weapon, fires, and sets off the store’s previously broken music system. There’s time for a suicide and post-incident recovery as the sale assistant’s parents arrive, and run towards them. Kathy Fish knows how to make a story that stays firmly planted in the American vernacular and everyday, yet is just as strong and sturdy as longer works, each emotion and image so satisfactorily depicted, to the point where now, when reading longer realist fiction, I ask myself whether it really needed to be so long, given what Fish can do in a thousand words or less.
(Published online at Published online at Elm Leaves Journal)
A mother and daughter become obsessed with skincare regimens and begin making YouTube beauty videos. Encouraged by their popularity and the influx of free products, they begin to push their bodies and routines to extremes. It might seem like YouTube beauty videos are a soft target for satire, but Wallace doesn’t just toss a barb or two in the direction of the consumerist’s paradise; no, she sets about ratchetting the absurdity of skincare products and standards of likeable prettiness to the point of gothic eeriness –
‘We weren’t getting the impact we wanted, YouTube viewer wise, so we upped our game.
Mum spackled plaster into her wrinkles and applied beige masonry paint.
I had my forehead surgically removed and replaced with the skull of a tiny baby bird. I’ve always felt insecure about my skull, ever since I was a toddler and I first noticed my cranium was disproportionate to my mandible.’
The story then emerges back out again, as the limits of social networking are left behind in daze of ampoule applications, as the narrative draws to its end in a kind of quiet blankness that hints, with implacability, at the fate awaiting all of our bodies, buttered and botoxed or not.
(Published on the Bath Flash Fiction Award website)
Cain’s story collection Creature has a curious effect on me; it seems to act like a kind of balm on my soul every time I dip in and out of it, and I can’t quite work out how this happens. I suppose it’s something to do with the quietude at the heart of it, settings of rooms, moments of rippling, but never overly dramatic interaction. But I think perhaps it is her skill at endings. This story begins with the narrator in a state of tension over their writing (the forcing of the title). She is invited to write out a text of hers on the wall of an art gallery and duly begins this painstaking work. The act of writing is a springboard for her thoughts on writing and self-performance, self-construction with words and deeds, while also managing to allude to the woman of The Yellow Wallpaper, made mad by her prevention from writing, her loss of self. An essential theme as you might guess is the meta nature of writing within writing:
“Here, I have put a hungry, abject woman on the wall for you to ponder; a woman who still feels pleasure. If you read part of this text, you’ll only know a little about her. If you read all of this text, you’ll still only know a little about her.”
And now here I admit that the story is just a little over 1,200 words, so not a flash at all, but broken up into a few sections and with all the air that seems between each paragraph it appears to me to function as much as a flash. This will not be the only piece that is arguable. And yet, because of the after-effect of her writing, I don’t feel any anxiety about length or rule-breaching – now, if you read it, do you?
(From Creature, The Dorothy Project. Read online at Real Pants)
Another bit of a cheat – this is one chapter of Patton Chapman’s novella-in-flash Bell and Bargain, though it qualifies as a standalone, on length. The novella is in the critical anthology My Very End of the Universe, put out by the excellent American Rose Metal Press, which has dedicated itself to flash theory and texts. In her essay preceding the novella, Patton Chapman discusses the idea of this particular use of the condensing of flash: ‘Like a map’s, a narrative’s omissions shape its picture of a world’. In her novella, she tells the story of the early life of Bell, a girl from a working-class 19th century Chicago family with the gift, on birth, of speech. ‘Harbingers’ focuses on the moment when Ann shows her new born daughter to her neighbours:
‘She worried what would happen if the women in the room turned on the child in her arms. Please, Ann seemed to say to them. I have loved your strange and terrible children. Love mine.
“Hello?” Bell said again.
The women, in their handmade dresses with machine-made lace, stayed back.’
Through these little maps, a picture of Bell’s family and milieu builds up, each little corner delineating the emotions and turns of events with the kind of matter-of-fact oddness of a fable. Through this use of plain detail it manages to avoid the tweeness that can make modern fables seem unmoored.
(From Bell and Bargain, in My Very End of the Universe, Rose Metal Press)
In this story, the narrator recounts a journey home from a restaurant with his family. They spot a gathering by the side of the road, where some other families are playing music and dancing beside a life-sized nativity scene. The narrator’s mother gets out of their car and joins the revellers, who are celebrating the new year early. The narrator and his father follow, and they dance for a while on a ledge of land that overlooks the town and the ocean. That’s it. A simple vignette. And yet, and yet. First person narration in the past tense creates, without lengthy Proustian discourse, a subtle, delicate veil of nostalgia over the events. The wholesomeness of the scene is striking too for how rare it is in fiction of this type, which generally tends towards some moment of unsettling, or reflected poignancy or humour. This is just a moment of communion, of winter warmth in the desert.
(Published in the Denver Quareterly 50.4)
This and the following flash, ‘Family’, come from Flash Fiction International, an anthology from Norton, but I’ve managed to source them online. Nine numbered paragraphs tell the life of a resident in Soviet Russia, from his childhood under the northern lights to the moments before his execution by firing squad on Glienicke bridge. In between childhood and death; the evocation of a cold, stirring world of gilded rooms, regional ‘Champagne’, and state secrets.
‘6 are the white tiles he spatters when they ask about his wife’s documents and microfilms, again and again. He tells them about her late hours in the committee building. They apprehend her and she doesn’t come back. Behind the gilded Regency doors, underneath the unlit crystal, he stands in silence while he considers the nature of truth. He takes up a new position.’
It’s one of those pieces you can read endlessly, or imagine as a full-length film or novel. But it isn’t either of those things. The author has chosen to give us slivers. In doing so, she is not denying her readers a longer more immersive work. She is distilling. She is passing us photographs and black-redacted snippets in a manila envelope; this much is enough risk, revelation.
(Read online at Smokelong Quarterly)
Incident and witness, probability, truth, the past, anecdote. In this story, a family bicker about the possibility of lightning striking twice, then sit down to lunch. During that lunch, storm clouds gather and there is a flash of lightning, after which:
“Someone said to look out the window and someone else did, where they saw that someone was now lying on the grass near the house in a wet heap of someone. Someone said, did it happen? Someone said that it had and someone else said that it hadn’t…”
You will notice the immediate conceit of this piece, which is that the family members, an incalculable number, are all referred to as ‘someone’. This happens throughout, and, along with the story’s uncertainty over the truth of the incident, causes a thorough destabilisation of the ideas of characterisation and action. We don’t even know if lightning has struck ‘someone’ in the past, or whether the action has happened now (for either the first time, or at all). The story interrogates the idea of the family story – usually dateless, like this. We all have a ‘someone’ in our families, if we have families, who experienced something unusual and unlikely – or, according to other members of the family, someone is just making things up, or these events happened in a completely different way. It’s clever and startling to see that sense of communal narrative stripped down and made anonymous and strange.
(Read online at necessary fiction.com)
Kharms, the absurdist Russian grandfather of flash fiction, has many pieces that could be included in an anthology of the history of the form. For me, he can be too harmlessly gruesome (stories where one grandmother after another fall out of a window, for example). But this one I enjoy very much, because it does that charming, petty thing of taking a well-known figure and putting them in odd situations, rewriting what one might expect about their way of seeing the world and behaving in it. In these anecdotes, Kharms reforms Pushkin as a kind of benignly weird public nuisance:
‘6. Pushkin liked to throw stones. If he saw stones, then he would start throwing them. Sometimes he would fly into such a temper that he would stand there, red in the face, waving his arms and throwing stones. It really was rather awful!”
Pushkin, in Kharms’ narrative, also reacts badly to being teased by his friends (for having broken his legs and having to use a wheelchair), envies beard growth, and repeatedly falls out of chairs along with his ‘idiot sons’, none of whom know how to sit. What value does all of this have? Perhaps in the fact that it will forever alter your impression of Pushkin. Read Eugene Onegin, and imagine him leering over your shoulder, rock in hand. The world has been changed, just a little bit. For the better or worse is not the point.
(In Today I Wrote Nothing, Duckworth. Read online here)
Flash fiction or prose poem? The fact that this is in Pegeen Kelly’s poetry collection The Orchard would probably give weight to the argument for the latter. But I like to think it is possible to be both. In ‘Windfall’, the narrator relates the strange alterations of a madman to an otherwise natural woodland – sculptures, hidden gardens of eerie flowers now collapsing into neglect, and most hauntingly, an old, black water pond that has been left unattended for years:
‘Though the shapes took on weight and muscle and definite form, it took my mind a long time to accept what I saw. The pond was full of ornamental carp, and they were large, larger than the carp I have seen in museum pools, large as trumpets, and so gold they were almost yellow. In circles, wide and small, the plated fish moved, and there were so many of them they could not be counted, though for a long time I tried to count them.’
In the water, the fish appear in the dank rotten water as shifting layers of precious metals or ripe fruits, with one larger carp below, circling. The narrator feeds them bread, and ponders what she is seeing, the choices of the madman, the overlap of nature, creation, intent and the struggle between that intent and individual comprehension. It’s a lot. It is both poetry and prose, circling, feeding, standing in a dark wood waiting to be considered. I think I could read it endlessly, and still feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. That is how much we can ask from flash, and how much, in the hands of an excellent writer, it can give.
(from The Orchard, BOA Educators, Ltd., 1995. Read online here)