‘Letter to a Funeral Parlour’ by Lydia Davis

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)

‘Buffalo’ by Amanda Fields

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)

‘Above Below’ by Casey Hannan

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)

‘Everything’s Shitty at Price King’ by Kathy Fish

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)

‘My Thirty-Eight Step Korean Cleansing Routine’ by Elisabeth Ingram Wallace

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)

‘I will Force This’ by Amina Cain

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)

‘Harbingers’ by Margaret Patton Chapman

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)