What Works Works

Writers of flash work the rules in various ways, sometimes compressing traditional narrative to create thumbnails of larger, longer tales, all the needed elements rendered in glimpses and glints. (See Pamela Painter’s “The New Year,” for instance, “Honeycomb” by Natalia Singer or “Billy’s Girl” by Gordon Jackson.) Other flashers dispense with tradition and rules fly out the window. Anything goes, and often does. A “fiction” might be comprised as a list, or pastiche, a speech or disembodied dialogue, a rumination on the spiritual worldviews of flies. Flash is itself necessarily a violation, or impossibility, doing so much with so little; its nature is to defy boundaries staked out by form. As such, flash offer writers new freedoms, ways to tell stories that aren’t stories, to narrate in experimental, outlandish ways.

Fictions like these rely on structural quirks and rhetorical vehicles, repetition and/or patterns of objects or images. Steven Shutzman’s “The Bank Robbery” renders a dramatic cliché as existential romance, arranged around a sequence of notes a robber hands to a teller. Opal Palmer Adisa’s “Fruit Series” is an annotated list of exotic fruit, each oblique entry shedding light on a strange, violent family. Other tales utilize recognizable forms, formal templates—case studies, class notes, exams, guides, menus, manuals, jokes, questionnaires, and so on—and create thematic effects. Patricia Marx’s “Pledge Drive,” mimicking listener- or viewer-supported campaigns, is a hilarious, satirical plea for donations to “Patty,” who’ll render any service, it seems, if we send enough money. Tessa Brown’s “In Reference to your Recent Communication” presents a pathologically analytical woman who deconstructs, artifact by artifact, her former boyfriend’s voice mails and emails. Given the possibilities here, a writer is free to adopt or invent, pilfer or plunder. What works works, as far as flash goes; ingenuity and impact are key. The only rule, apparently, is that there are no rules. Or as Stuart Dybek observes: “[t]he short prose piece so frequently inhabits a No-Man’s Land between prose and poetry, narrative and lyric, story and fable, joke and meditation, fragment and whole, that one of its identifying characteristics has been its protean shapes.”

Marco Denevi’s “Lord of the Flies” (translated by José Chavez) is another exemplary non-narrative flash.

Repetition works to good effect here, in concert with voice, assonance, alliteration and sentence rhythm; the words “fly” and “flies” accrue clause by clause, as in a poem. In the way of poetry, too, the tale takes a turn, pivoting on “paradise,” the crux of its developing satire—the first of a series of turns inverting Christianity’s values regarding clean and unclean. Such values are arbitrary, the story suggests, part of a doomed enterprise: the inconceivable conceived in one’s image is false, fatally distorted by self.

In its poetic, scintillatingly non-narrative way, of course, this piece offers more. Denevi wrote “El Dios de las Moscas” in Buenos Aires during Argentina’s “Dirty War,” besieged by a repressive regime (funded in part, one can’t forget, by the American government). The divide in this vein between dirty and clean suggests the purging and cleansing of “suspected dissidents” as well as religion; the “bright white light” at the story’s end is not only God’s but the interrogator’s. In Denevi’s plotless, anthropomorphic amoral fable, light at once transforms and kills, and rules are rules unless rules do not matter. Unless rulers go bad, and government stinks, and heaven is a dazzle of flies.

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.