I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying by Matthew Salesses

I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying by Matthew Salesses
Civil Coping Mechanisms
Softcover, 138 pages
ISBN: 978-1-937865-06-1

All but one of the 115 stories in Matthew Salesses’ first novel I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying fit on a single page, and each story has its own title, clever and cheeky declarations such as “My Life Was Always Drunk Dialing Me,” “The Heart Has a Waiting Room,” “She Said ‘My Idea’ Like It Belonged to Her,” and my favorite title, “They Call Time ‘Father.’” Each story is a delight to relish on its own, but together they build up quickly and devilishly into a complete novel governed by a single perspective that is clever, incisive, and perfectly balances malaise and comedy. The short-shorts are narrated by the same unnamed character, a Korean-American man who discovers to his surprise that he fathered a child five years earlier.

imnotsayingsalesses4 The narrator’s son appears with him in the first piece “The Night I Met Her She Said Once You Go Yellow,” which already gives us a glimpse into the bitter humor recurrent through the novel. The first few stories are almost nothing more than incisive observations about his son and his appearance (half white from his mother, and half Asian from the narrator, the likeness to his father unmistakable), interspersed with vague recollections of the mother and anxiety about how this will impact his life. The boy’s presence becomes permanent after his mother’s death, and is a matter of consternation to the narrator who must incorporate this new addition to his juggling act of mistresses, co-habitation, and work.

The narrator is not particularly good at this juggling act, nor at being a father, all of which he readily admits in several painfully self-aware stories. His life is awash in sex, booze, and neglect to escape the pain of consequences from his decisions both past and present, and these instances are presented as sharp entertainment at the same time that they confound and trouble us. What carries us through with hope and anticipation is the gradual arc of the narrator’s progression through fatherhood and partnership, his unfailing recognition of his lack told honestly if sardonically, but also unfailing in his constant presence and participation.

Part of the virtuosity of this novel is the attention to each line of prose. Here’s just one example of such a line, made by the narrator in response to the wifely woman requesting more balance from him: “I texted her: which of these me’s did she want to survive, because one of us wasn’t going to make it?” Another terrific line comes from a story dedicated to Grace Paley: “I hated to be reminded that I was on vacation, not life.” So simple, and yet it serves to encapsulate the narrator’s state of mind through much of the novel. My admiration for Salesses’ creation of many such lines is deepened when I think on the narrative arc and the character progression that the novel accrues with each new short-short. Open the book to any page and you can read the story there on its own; you will be cut by the sharp declarations, yet you’ll chuckle at the black humor too. Another line that dazzles me is this one: “I’d never mentioned a son. His existence spat on the existence of the past.” So smart, and also devastating.

In flash fiction, as in poetry, the ability to say the most with the fewest possible words is what separates the very best writers from everyone else. But even beyond that, it takes guts to put everything into a few sentences per page. I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying provides laughter and heartache. The novel’s pieces connect quickly and concisely, but you will think about each of them, and the sentences that compose them, for a long time afterward.