Three slim books offer glimpses into strange worlds
Three collections of short stories published in fall 2017 give the lie to expectations that writing a “short story” means offering neatness and resolution. All three are collections of “short shorts” or “flash fiction” but they each respond differently to the tightly cinched word limits the authors have set for themselves. Any good writer uses constraint not as a limiting factor, but as inspiration for new twists and swerves. All three of these books are by very good writers.
Joanna Walsh, Worlds from the Word’s End
Joanna Walsh’s new collection lands somewhere between idea and story, sometimes spinning fantasies, sometimes both surreal and banal. An example of the latter is her story “Travelling Light,” which describes a trudging journey to deliver “it,” an unidentified object that dwindles into nothingness as the journey unfolds.
The title of the collection is taken from a story that imagines a country that turned away from speech to text and social media first, and then to pure silence. The narrator wonders at this change, yet notes how pleasant everything has become: “A more liberal, thoughtful community emerged. Or so some of us believed. How could we tell?” Without speech, there is no longer conflict or misunderstanding, but there’s no more history to critique this assertion either. But now that language has been given up, the narrator is only able to recycle clichés. She says to a lover as their relationship unravels, “Don’t be offended. I’m trying to tell it like it is.”
Throughout this collection, Walsh worries at the question of what happens at the edges and ends of the word, and of story with sneaky malapropisms and reworked worn-out phrases. Though the characters are unnamed, her locations unplaced, the dominance of first and second person points of view keep this collection strangely intimate. Narrators are often at a loss, trying to figure out a world that follows unknown rules but must be navigated, regardless. Such stripping of atmosphere and character takes the stories out of the realm of quip or anecdote, despite the often brief span of their explorations.
Ben Loory, Tales of Flying and Falling
Loory’s stories in this, his second collection of flash fiction, fully embrace quip and anecdote. As in Walsh’s stories, most of the characters remain unnamed and exist outside of identifiable times or places, but rather than feeling abstract and adrift, the stories are absurd and abrupt. Loory takes “what ifs” seriously in these bite-sized treats.
The stories are light and airy, as tales of flying and falling ought to be. In “Toward the Earth,” a flying woman and a talking goose have a mid-air conversation that doesn’t seem like it will end well for either of them. In tone too, Loory’s stories effervesce — even when horrible things happen, and they usually do. Structurally, these stories remind me somewhat of an English sonnet, with the classic verso occurring in that last, snappy flourish of a couplet. “The Ocean Next Door” opens with an unnamed woman waking from “a dream that the ocean moves in next door.” It seems like a fairly normal realist story about a woman finding retirement boring but then befriending her new neighbors, a young boy and his father. In what could be a nod to Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, the story, however, ends with these lines:
It’s not a bad life, the woman says to herself.
She reaches out and turns off the tap.
Then she drinks her water and sets the glass down.
And turns from the kitchen and swims out.
After only a few pages, Loory leaves us each time with a wild-eyed sense of “Wait, how did we get here?”
Adam McOmber, My House Gathers Desires
If Loory’s stories seem to be all about the ending, McOmber’s are all beginning. They are closest to traditional stories in terms of character and setting, and they are inspired by folk tale themes. But instead of following through the rise and resolution of a classic narrative, they end just as the key turns in the bloody door, or just as the demon takes possession. His short stories move across time and space, from the American Civil War to Versailles to a speculative future where game and reality mingle. Each story is about humans encountering the uncanny, whose seductive power looms as threat. Threaded throughout is a queer aesthetic that frames gay love with doom. One line, from the story “Metempsychosis,” can perhaps sum up these stories: “This isn’t a house of horrors, Annalise. It is merely a showing of history.” But history is horror in these stories — one person’s homage to nostalgia is another’s traumatic revenant. Museums, galleries, and historical buildings come up repeatedly as hopeful entrances to new worlds, but each time, the edges of McOmber’s worlds collapse, protrude, and engulf, destabilizing the characters’ worlds, and causing the stories themselves to cut to black.
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With slight stories like this, the reader can choose if they’ll read them as postcards or as fables. Each story could certainly be read as symbolic if you’re so inclined. McOmber’s stories seep with the fear of what happens to people who make themselves vulnerable to violence simply by seeking the love of another. To take just one example from Loory’s quick-witted tales, “The Rock Eater” literalizes our commitment to willful self-damage in the face of overwhelming evidence of our self-destruction. And rather like Samuel Beckett’s fiction, the frequently unreliable narrators in Walsh’s book offers insight into our delusions of autonomy and control. Or you can just enjoy the shivers of weirdness and transport each story offers you, eating them up like one slice of peculiar fruit after another. In either case, these lean stories, taken together, accrete into significance.