A Sudden Flash, or Into and Out of the Pan

Reviewers and critics have debated reasons for the advent of flash fiction for years.  A dwindling readerly attention span, they say, is to blame, the frenzied out of breath-ness we suffer in contemporary living.  Micro tales suit a text-byte mentality.  Stories as these fit on a monitor screen, no scrolling down; some may be seen in their entirety, instantly.  Not to mention rising printing costs; editors can include more variety in anthologies and journals when stories are shorter.  Not to mention the urgency attending the century’s end and start of another; not to mention readers losing faith in the way we’ve traditionally narrated—since, as Pamelyn Casto puts it, “ ‘truth’ comes only infrequently and only in flashes.”  Lydia Davis, likewise, calls very short tales a “nervous form of story,” appropriate (she declared in 1986, and would declare more decisively today) “because people find it harder to concentrate on a single thing” and because it’s “harder for anyone to be calm now.”

Writing like this must stand up off the page, and must do so as a poem does, via constriction, concision and depth.  “Very short fictions,” Joyce Carol Oates writes, “are nearly always experimental, exquisitely calibrated, reminiscent of Frost’s definition of a poem—a structure of words that consumes itself as it unfolds, like ice melting on a stove.”  And as Oates knows well, self-consumption and calibration often tend toward tumult or danger.  Fred Chappell notes of the form that “[i]ts two requirements are that it be quite short . . . and that it be troubling.”  Trouble, of course, is just the beginning.  “It should disturb us with its not quite homely or acceptable truths, like Ecclesiastes, like the Parables,” John L’Heureux has observed.  “Ontologically, the short-short story is an exercise in virtuosity that tightens the circle of mystery surrounding what we know, or what we think we know.”

An example of the form at its best, most compressed, most troubling, is Pamela Painter’s “The New Year.”

“The New Year” is in fact a traditional narrative, if hyper-compressed, with bits and glimpses of highly-realized characters and glints of shadowy backstory.  In the same breath, almost, we have a burgeoning conflict and crisis, action that falls and resolves.  A man is found out; he flees, his cooked, salted double paraded and finally sucked under; we have a beginning, middle and end.

Obviously, much of what accounts for magic in stories like this is surprise.  We expect, reading Painter’s opening sequence, a soap opera involving nitrates and nitrites and guns, and who knows, strippers, revenge, maybe the mafia.  What we find instead is oblique, bent, strange, and strangely beautiful: a rueful, histrionic meditation on displacement and loss, a progress of snapshots documenting embrace and denial, recovery as a record of one’s movement through space, of metaphorical drowning.  In nervous, inferential tales like these, questions are raised or half-raised (what does Dominic know? why take meat for a ride? what became of Fiona?) but are deflected.  Darker subsurface matters—regret, guilt, despair and the accompanying shattering—are hinted at, sidestepped, unspoken.  The forecast overall isn’t good.  The new year holds little promise.  What’s “missing” might wash up on the beach, but what’s lost is lost, the story suggests, gone, drowned, sucked away in this circle of mystery we tend to call living, and represent in our stories.

Kirk Nesset is author of two books of short stories, Paradise Road and Mr. Agreeable, as well as a book of translations, Alphabet of the World, and a nonfiction study, The Stories of Raymond Carver; his book of poems, Saint X, appeared last year. He is recipient of the Drue Heinz Prize in Literature, a Pushcart Prize, and grants from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. His stories, poems and translations have appeared in The Paris Review, Southern Review, Kenyon Review, Gettysburg Review, Ploughshares, Agni, Prairie Schooner,and elsewhere. He teaches at Allegheny College, and is writer in residence at Black Forest Writing Seminars (Freiburg, Germany). For more information, visit http://kirknesset.com.