Review: My Very End of the Universe

Al Kratz
Al Kratz
Jul 1, 2016 · 8 min read
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Various Authors
Five Novellas-in-Flash | A Study of the Form
306 pages
5 ½” x 8” perfect-bound trade paperback
ISBN 978–0–9887645–8–3
First Edition
Rose Metal Press
Brookline, Massachusetts
Available HERE
$15.95
Review originally published on 2/19/15


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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).

[…] we sit there tightly holding hands, Mom and I, like helium balloons trying to stay down here on Earth (“Helium,” p. 91).

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)

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.

Only now that I’m used to her can I imagine Betty loose in a novel […] (“Written in Stone,” p. 9).

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).

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).

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).

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).

Beckel and Rooney

envisioned a book that was both a gripping, gratifying read and a tool for teaching and learning.

The Coil

Literature to change your lightbulb.

Al Kratz

Written by

Al Kratz

Al's novella-in-flash was recently short listed in the Bath Flash Fiction Award. His publications are listed at alkratz.blogspot.com.

The Coil

The Coil

Literature to change your lightbulb.

Al Kratz

Written by

Al Kratz

Al's novella-in-flash was recently short listed in the Bath Flash Fiction Award. His publications are listed at alkratz.blogspot.com.

The Coil

The Coil

Literature to change your lightbulb.

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