I’m a believer that some story shapes lend themselves more readily to pieces of different lengths. The shape of Mary Helen Specht’s story, “Night Island” (Prairie Schooner, Winter 2014), is risky and surprising, and might not work as well in a longer story or novel. But it’s what allows her six-hundred-word flash fiction piece to resonate at the depth of a much larger story.
The author quickly situates us in tropical Panama using rich sensory details. We find Isabella and Billy, two environmental researchers, on a tropical beach stalking a leatherback turtle, “phosphorescent plankton throwing off light in response to each footstep.” They’re hoping to recover the turtle eggs from the mother’s nesting site, then move them to a more suitable place to bury them—one not easily found by poachers.
While they go about their task, we get hints of Isabella and Billy’s attraction to each other: their arms touching, their legs touching. It’s also revealed that Isabella’s mother is worried about their future together far away in Texas, and that Isabella dislikes the way Billy can become completely immersed in their conservation work to the point of forgetting her completely. The culmination of these details forms an obvious question in the reader’s mind: Is their relationship going to work out?Continue Reading
The opening sections of Alix Ohlin’s wonderful short story “Taxonomy,” (TriQuarterly 146) shows how a simple plot can open into a compelling mystery through just a few quick descriptions.
In the first scene, the narrator Ed stops at a roadside Amish gift shop to try to find an appropriate gift for his daughter. As you might have experienced this holiday season, the more you know someone the more difficult it can be to buy a good present.
“At twenty-four, Meredith hasn’t cuddled a teddy bear in years, but the selection here is startlingly varied: gorillas, monkeys, snakes, and something that, if he squints and holds it at an angle, might be a lemur. What these animals might have to do with the Amish, he doesn’t know, but a lemur is a perfect gift, since that’s the animal Meredith is studying, in Madagascar. Studying and saving, or trying to save. As a budding conservation biologist, she’s researching the many species and subspecies of lemurs, along with their vanishing habitat. So she has explained to Ed—in, frankly, a bit too much detail—in passionate, jargon-heavy emails.”Continue Reading
In Richard Bausch’s classic short story, “What Feels Like the World,” the looming grief over a mother’s death is conveyed through an impending vault at an elementary school gymnastics demonstration. In Amy Hempel’s classic, “When It’s Human Instead of When It’s Dog,” the tragic death of a spouse is portrayed through a carpet stain that refuses to be cleaned. Similarly, in Angie Kim’s “Optimism”—from this winter’s Sycamore Review (Volume 26, Issue 1)—when the protagonist suffers a terrible loss, the trauma is shown masterfully through the concrete and mundane elements of day-to-day life. What’s created is a rich, devastating subtext.
The protagonist Laura loses her toddler Jimmy to a terrible accident. Soon after, she purchases a “computerized doll that looked and cried like her two-year-old son” and begins to re-enact the events that lead up to and followed the tragedy. She repeats these actions, with slight variations, again and again.Continue Reading
Some stories only get better—the more you read, the more you see. Greg Schreur’s opening lines in “Third World Kroger” set catastrophe front and center: “My wife needs more flour for another cake. Since our son Michael was taken and killed about six months ago, she bakes a lot of them.”
That matter-of-fact narrative voice and the jarring connection, somehow, between baking cakes and a murdered child signal a world gone so deeply wrong it is incomprehensible. Yet it is one of Schreur’s gifts that he can, in just these lines and the few that follow, make his characters so appealing we want to know more. Yes, they are deranged: she’s baking cakes and he’s usually in the basement watching reruns of “Charlie’s Angels” and fixating on germs. But I’d be crazy too if one of my kids was murdered. By starting with inconsolable loss flatly stated, Schreur’s story balances—like a luminous, fragile egg on days of equinox—grief and absurdity, obsession and sense, madness and love, and moments of qualified, uncertain survival (but what kind, on what terms?)
In terms of plot, Schreur deftly offers up not one but two stories that, only at the end, fold together. The first, in the present tense, recounts the errand to buy flour. The second, in the past tense, is about what happened to Michael. Driven by memories that crowd and fill every pause and turn of the narrator’s thoughts, the second story dominates, taking up all the air. When the narrator steps into the grocery’s men’s room, he remembers Michael at two, in this same place with his dad and not knowing what pink urinal cakes were. Remembering the flour, he thinks of his wife’s grief and then Michael again, at four, so good on a trip to the mall that the narrator buys him a treat and looks away “for maybe a minute tops”—the minute Michael is snatched. “I searched everywhere, screamed his name, begged complete strangers to find him, sobbed to a police officer, and never let go of the elephant ear I still knew he would enjoy.” Meanwhile, alongside this incurable trouble, the grocery errand turns surreal in the men’s room when someone hurls human waste.Continue Reading
So it’s almost Halloween.
Which means jack o’ lanterns and costumes and pumpkin-spiced everything.
And, of course, Edgar Allan Poe, reigning king of high-school-English-textbook darkness.
Cask of Amontillado, anyone?
As far as literary journal subscriptions go, I only maintain three. I’m one of those writers, and for my sins I mostly miss the great early pieces of writers I come to love years later. This is especially true of new Latina/o writers, who I think most people miss for various reasons, not least of which is the serious lack of hard-hitting journals that focus on new Latina/o work.
That’s not to say there are none though. Huizache, which is probably one of my favorite journals right now, has quietly carved out a space for Latina/o letters both old and new. Over the past three years, they’ve published work by Sandra Cisneros, Domingo Martinez, Héctor Tobar, and Lorna Dee Cervantes, almost without a blip on the literary radar.
I knew I was into Benjamin Reed’s story “Come to Bratislava!” in Big Fiction when the main character, a forty-three year old man named Edgar, makes an observation about the phrase “You are my rock.”
I’ve never liked this way of articulating someone’s importance and essentiality—hearing it uttered usually prompts an eye roll from me. The phrase is shorthand, and that I understand, but I find it irritating anyway. Still, I wasn’t ever able to put my finger on what about it I found grating.
And now I don’t need to because Reed has done it for me. In an early scene in the story, Edgar visits Naama, the employee he’s hired to help him run his rare-book store and the woman he likes: “‘You’re my rock,’ he’d say [to Naama], hoping she’d know he wasn’t joking, hoping also that she wouldn’t force him to elaborate. He could only imagine that she wanted more than to be someone’s heavy, reliable stone.”
Reed nails it—of course we all want to be more than a sure thing, an object used by another person to feel calm and grounded. Who wants to spend too much time around someone who reduces other people—especially those they claim to need—down to an object? (On my first read-through I jotted down in the margin, “YES. This makes me absolutely love this story.” Hey—you all know how I am with my margin notes.)
I’ve recently become friends with a new handful of people, and out of this group, one woman in particular. Then, over the last weekend, I got to see some old friends from grad school, and in talking about our lives and the new people we’ve met since we graduated, I got around to explaining what I like about this new female friend—she’s opinionated, loud, full of feelings, unabashed. I always know where I stand with her. She’s got attitude.
In short, I like me some sass. In my fellow humans, but also in stories, which is probably why I was so into Dinah Cox’s “Three Small Town Stories” published in the most recent issue of Salt Hill. This omniscient narrator has opinions! Lay ‘em on me, narrator. I’m ready to go.
The story is in three vignettes: the first, an account of the robbery of a Kentucky Fried Chicken, damaged by a tornado the year prior; the second, a shared afternoon between two high school sweethearts; and the third, a brief history of a man who killed himself.
Last week I came into the office where I work, sat down, ate an enormous bagel, and laughed so hard that the guy sitting behind me wheeled his chair over to my desk and said, “What’s so funny?”
I pointed at my screen where April Wilder’s story “Creative Writing Instructor Evaluation Form” was up on American Short Fiction. I was only on the third bullet of the story, and already I was unable to keep my shit together enough to avoid disturbing the people around me. (I laughed through the remaining questions, too—sorry, deskmates.)
Wilder’s story is clever and quick. Each time I gave it another read, a new line made me snicker (or the same line did again, prompting another “What are you laughing at?” from a nearby coworker—apparently I laugh loudly and disruptively). I have to say, you guys: there are few things capable of charming me the way a funny story can, and this story? Totally charming.
Written in the form of a course evaluation for a creative writing course, Wilder’s story slowly reveals the relationships between the course instructor, the program director, the students, and finally one student in particular. The questions range from appropriate and expected (“The instructor is organized”) to inappropriate (“The instructor wears a bra to class”) to very specific (“How’d that feel, Pierce? You like that?).
In Issue 34 of Passages North, Karin C. Davidson introduces us to Tulsa, in her story “We Are Here Because of a Horse,” by writing that “Tulsa by night shines like a shattered gold watch.” I’ve arrived in Tulsa much the way her narrator and his wife approach the city here—late at night after traveling all day—and my first impression wasn’t as considered or fair. (Both times I was there I was overwhelmed by the strange combination of exhaustion and excess energy that comes after sitting in a car for ten hours.)
In fiction, the temptation exists to describe place and location as readers might imagine sight unseen. Many American readers (especially those of us hanging out on the east coast) think of mid-sized, fly-over cities as lacking aesthetic charm, grace, and ingenuity. It’s easy to rely on existing assumptions, and a lesser writer might be tempted to write this city, unfamiliar to the narrator, as a plain place, a means to an end, especially since Sam and his wife are here for one purpose—to pick up a horse.