Review: My Very End of the Universe
Five Novellas-in-Flash | A Study of the Form
5 ½” x 8” perfect-bound trade paperback
Rose Metal Press
Review originally published on 2/19/15
In My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form, Rose Metal Press has started an interesting conversation supporting the creation of a new genre called novella-in-flash. People interested in literary form and flash fiction will love the format of this book.
Abigail Beckel and Kathleen Rooney introduce it with an essay that defines and champions the form novella-in-flash as “novellas composed entirely of standalone flash fiction pieces organized into a full narrative arc” (p. vii). They then serve up five examples of novellas-in-flash, each of which is prefaced by short process essays by their authors regarding experience with the form.
Each story collection had its own value, but reading them in the concert of trying to grasp a definition of this slightly elusive format made it even more interesting. Reading the authors’ opinions on the form, and how they each approached it, magnified that yet even more. One of the cases for novella-in-flash is the classic argument of the sum being greater than the whole of its parts and that power of gestalt was in full force with this book. The effect is it’s so much more than just an anthology and just a craft book.
So how do you review a book like this? The compressed flash review way would be: Read it. Love it. Share it.
For the expanded review, I think it’s worth a look at the five stories and a look at the form discussion. The contradiction of writing a long review for a book about compressed writing is not lost on me. I just couldn’t find any other way to do it justice, so I’d like to summarize the five novellas and then finish with a summary of the craft discussion.
There is a lot for the authors of these collections to be proud of. All five of them told memorable stories with well-developed characters, regardless of the form. Had the anthology not included the craft discussion, the stories would have still worked well together and carried their own weight as an effective anthology.
Tiff Holland’s was called Betty Superman and told the tale from the perspective of the daughter of an eccentric and dominating mother affectionately called Betty Superman. That affection had its dark turns, though. When she gets back from her first shooting range experience, the daughter muses about her newfound talent and about Betty Superman, realizing that,
I could always shoot her. (“First Husband,” p. 24).
The novella-in-flash by Meg Pokrass was called Here, Where We Live. It, too, was a mother-daughter piece narrated by the daughter. In this one, the father dies in an accident, the mother has breast cancer, and the maturing daughter deals with these issues. There also is a problematic stepfather and there are beautiful lines about her mother such as,
[…] we sit there tightly holding hands, Mom and I, like helium balloons trying to stay down here on Earth (“Helium,” p. 91).
Aaron Teel’s novella-in-flash, Shampoo Horns, is the story of a young boy living in a trailer park where he navigates his parents, a crazy older brother, and hormones that ignite funny behaviors around the females of the trailer park.
When she leaned over me, a cross on a chain slipped free of her shirt and I touched it with my tongue. I thought wildly that Dad, sunburned and tired with his baseball and beer, had never done anything like that. (“Broken English,” p.139)
Of course, there is a tornado, too, but it delivers a fitting end to the novella.
If I had to judge the five novellas-in-flash, it would be a difficult decision, but I think I’d give the blue ribbon to Margaret Patton Chapman’s Bell and Bargain. It is a unique fairytale-like story about Bell, a special girl born with the ability to talk. It covers a fair amount of her life with her two older brothers as strong supporting characters and the life and death of her mother completing the arc. This one seemed to me to be the best way to show someone what the form can be.
Chris Bower’s was The Family Dogs. In his essay, he sets the framework for his piece by describing his family’s storytelling rituals and how their canon evolved to mythlike stature. His novella is primarily told from the perspective of the youth, Al, relating the stories of his family. In an interesting choice, he has a second section that is only one chapter told from the perspective of Al’s brother, Jim. It’s the most unique example of the form, and Chris masters the hinted story allowing his collection to carry depth way beyond its small word count.
But what exactly is a novella-in-flash? What makes it more than just a chapbook? Does it need its own label? Are these flash pieces really standalone? These are questions I was asking myself the entire time I read the book. The answers seemed tricky. I found myself on both sides of the question, but I was always enjoying the process.
Even flash fiction itself can be tricky to define. Some of the best writers of it (Amy Hempel, Raymond Carver, and Grace Paley) wrote it before the term was even coined. Maybe labels can hold us back? A teacher I had this summer said she felt like flash was just unfinished stories, but then she proceeded to teach us through several examples of brilliant flash. The agreed definition seems to be pieces fewer than 1,001 words, although there are dedicated flash sites that specialize in even smaller counts. There is something intangible that makes flash fiction flash. I know from my own experiences of success and failure at writing it, and from being a reader for an online literary magazine, that length, alone, doesn’t make it so. I think Justice Stewart’s obscenity standard of “I know it when I see it” might apply here and for the novella-in-flash, too. Even the authors in this collection sometimes struggled with the novella-in-flash definition, and I thought some of the five pieces didn’t match their own definitions, which was fine. Maybe it’s subjective? Maybe that’s just how art works?
One of the more interesting aspects was how each of these authors “discovered” the novella-in-flash form and how much that was an element of the process as much as an end product. I think Tiff Holland was still in this discovery mode when she wrote her craft essay because she began by arguing her story of Betty “had” to be novella-in-flash; it couldn’t be a novel because her character was too big — she would have
been like Godzilla — she would have trampled everything else. She required enough room to come fully into view, hence the use of the novella format, but she still needed to be tightly contained, hence the use of flash.
That’s an interesting justification for compression, but then she concludes her essay with,
Only now that I’m used to her can I imagine Betty loose in a novel […] (“Written in Stone,” p. 9).
I agree she has developed characters and a family dynamic here big enough for a novel, but I felt of the five this was the one most asking to be extended into a longer form to accomplish its finest arc.
Meg Pokrass described a wonderful “aha” moment she had:
It excited me that while searching […] for my old writings, new ideas begin to form in my mind about the narrative arc for Here, Where We Live, and the significant characters began to take shape. As I stitched the stories together, the juxtapositions brought with them fresh energy and new meaning. (“Breaking the Pattern to Make the Pattern,” p.48).
It was very obvious the authors were dedicated not only to sharing their stories but to contributing something special to the craft discussion. Aaron Teel summarized the form well:
If flash fetishizes the moment, the novella-in-flash provides a space for myriad moments to coexist, rub up against, and reverberate off of one another. If flash is allergic to exposition and summary — if it revels in language and detail and scene — then the novella-in-flash allows the details to accumulate and the images to grow and twist and repeat. (“A Brief Crack of Light,” p. 102).
Margaret Patton Chapman wrote her essay in three parts that provided an in-depth look from many different angles. My favorite was her anecdote of discovering something she had always abstractly thought about maps and creativity, and then finding it depicted in Peter Turchi’s Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer. Margaret relates her experiences of teaching this to kids of different ages, and it’s a great story of the power and connection possible with meta-thinking. She also makes a good argument for the lack of a need to pin down a specific definition or justification for the form:
Perhaps the novella-in-flash also needs to offer no explanation except that it is what it is: glimpses of secrets, artifacts and clues; a map not to, but of, treasures; small things pieced together into a whole. (“Writing the Novella-in-flash,” p.180).
Chris Bower might have the most unique take on the form. He relates a funny story about why his writing originates in poems, short lines, and stanzas. His approach to the form is the most compressed; he flaunts exclusion in a good way.
While it seems like a lot to ask a reader, my expectation is that the readers of this genre are already ready and willing to undertake the challenge of building their own bridges. (“A Truth Deeper Than the Truth,” p. 261).
Bower deploys this powerfully. His novella-in-flash only totaled about 5,000 words, but it contained a very effective cumulative arc. Many of his chapters were “hint” fiction, an even more compressed form that contains only a few sentences, and most of the story was implicit.
Beckel and Rooney
envisioned a book that was both a gripping, gratifying read and a tool for teaching and learning.
They certainly accomplished that. They have great material for a classroom or for an AWP presentation. I feel like I should have been able to compress a review in the same way their authors tightened their stories, but I hope you’ll feel the same way I did about this book, and you’ll want to carry on the conversation. I’m available at @SilverbackedG where we can keep it to 140 characters — or if need be, we can always tweet in parts of 15!