flash fiction

You Can Finish This Later

Let’s start with the dimensions: seven inches tall by four-and-a-quarter inches wide by about an eighth of an inch thick. In other words, You Can Finish This Later is, at least in physical terms, a small book — or perhaps “portable” is a better word. You can keep a copy in the breast pocket of a dress shirt, if you’re so inclined, or in the back pocket of your blue jeans, or in the front pocket of an overcoat. I mention this because I think everyone should, in fact, keep a copy of this tiny gem on hand, at least for a little while, and page through it from time to time the way others might page through a pocket copy of the New Testament or the US Constitution. It will make you feel better about yourself. It will make you feel less alone in the world. It will give you hope.

Though this particular chapbook is actually a collection of very short fiction, I was convinced from page one that I was reading the confessions of an actual human being. Thoughts on abandoned dogs. Ruminations on how to meet women. Lamentations on the lack of decent chairs in the universe. What begins to emerge from the blurry edges of Mike Parish’s micronarratives is not just a portrait of a lonely artist as a young man, but a portrait of humanity’s shared loneliness — an image of the thoughts we all have, or variations thereof, that we hesitate to share for fear of further alienation. Parish strips away the self-consciousness of his narrators and allows them to share their deepest secrets, their most uncertain moments. That these moments and secrets are, more often than not, of the most mundane variety underscores the humanity of this collection.

And, now, back to the dimensions. What if each of us carried a tiny chapbook around at all times? Thirty pages or so of tiny vignettes? Slices of our lives? The sad moments, the lonely moments, but also the happy moments, the moments of quotidian transcendence? And what if these vignettes weren’t fictional but true? What if we gathered the most telling moments of our lives and shared them with each other in trim, elegant volumes like this one?

When we met new people in such a world, we could exchange our tiny books, sit down for about a half-hour or so, and peruse each other’s souls. It would be like handing over  passports as we cross the infinite country that spans the borders between us: I’ve been here and here and here and here, and I see you’ve been there and there and there and there, and — look at that! — we’ve both been here and there, and we both came back alive! Isn’t that something?

Imagine the implications… The dating scene (one focus of You Can Finish This Later) would become infinitely less complicated as the unattached passed tiny books back and forth in an effort to get to know each other and search for like-minded mates. And car accidents! Imagine swapping a collection of tiny narratives along with your insurance information at the site of your next fender-bender: suddenly the asshole who rear-ended you isn’t so bad. I mean, sure, he’s still the asshole who rear-ended you, but he’s a human asshole, just like you. And as each of you takes some time to read the other’s book, your passions cool, your heart rates return to normal, and you can discuss the situation like rational adults.

What I’m saying is that it would be a truly wonderful world if everyone wrote a little book like You Can Finish This Later, but the next-best thing would be a world in which everyone were to read a book like this one. Illustrated by Dan Tarnowski with a series of child-like drawings that call to mind the art of John Lennon’s early fiction collections In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works, You Can Finish This Later offers a glimpse of the exquisite loneliness of the human animal in a way that never gives into despair but, on the contrary, offers hope for us all. We can connect, Parish insists on every page. We only have to try.

Dogzplot 2009

dogzplotBarry Graham and company are back again with another collection of zany, manic, and at times maddening flash fiction–and this edition of the Dogzplot Annual is their best yet. Eschewing a traditional foreword or letter from the editor explaining the journal’s philosophy, thoughts on the state of the written word, or any other self-gratifying material that readers generally skip over anyway, the book’s front matter simply offers the following description (or is it a warning?): 200 WORDS OR LESS. Yet brevity is all the pieces have in common. Well, okay, they also have quality in common, but, stylistically and thematically, the collection is all over the map.

In “The Evolution of Masturbation,” for example, Ani Smith meditates not, as the title might suggest, upon masturbation but upon the biological processes (cell-division, etc.) that occur during gestation. Given that the focus of the piece is the gestation of women, it’s not surprising that some of Smith’s language (e.g., “two by two, everything two by two”) hearkens to Feminist theorist Luce Irigaray’s “The Sex Which is Not One,” but the final line of the piece, which describes the vagina as “a cubby hole for worthless possessions” feels like a particularly savage response to Ezra Pound’s “Portrait d’une Femme,” in which the femme in question is described, more or less, as the sum total of all the useless junk that her suitors have left her.

Then there’s “The Particulars” by Bartley Seigel, which reads like a word game. Sentences like “She is peopled with ghost fires speaking through voice pipes, her thinking a feeling fractured” must, the reader assumes, mean something–but what? And I don’t say this snidely at all. I say it because I want to know, and because the sentence demands that the reader stay with it. In other words, this isn’t disposable writing. This is writing that requires attention, writing that challenges.

My favorite piece in the collection is “Dead Ringer” by Ravi Mangla. Its premise is that the narrator has discovered a perfect double for his dead father walking the aisles of a Sam’s Club. Needless to say, wacky highjinks involving a sort-of blind date with the narrator’s mother ensue, and the result is a twisted window into middle-American family values.

Overall, a great, fast-paced collection–highly recommended for fans of flash fiction or for anyone who’s curious to see what flash fiction is all about (and how many different forms it can take).

The National Virginity Pledge

The National Virginity PledgeAs the driving force behind the flash-fiction journal Dogzplot and the Achilles chapbook series, Barry Graham was well on his way to making a name for himself in indie publishing circles before his latest collection of “short stories and other lies” came on the market. With the publication of The National Viriginity Pledge, he comes one step closer to having a full-scale juggernaut on his hands. A frenetic, jangled, edgy, tragic, disturbing joyride through angst-ridden Middle America, The National Virginity Pledge feels like a cross between a David Lynch movie and a trip to your favorite dysfunctional uncle’s house — and I mean this in the best way possible.

Let’s start with the David Lynch movie. The first image we get in the collection is that of a vaguely-remembered hit and run accident that leads the story’s protagonist to separate negotiations with a prostitute and a used car dealer in a seedy motel bar in Las Vegas. From here, Graham moves the reader through a series of short stories and vignettes that, through a process of accretion, begins to chip away at comfortable notions like individuality and identity. The hit-and-run driver we saw in the first story may or may not be the online gambler who watches from inside a closet while his girlfriend has sex with a stranger. In turn, the gambler also may or may not be worn-down father who loses and later contemplates killing his children’s hamster. Throughout the collection, Graham provides enough details to suggest that, yes, these are all probably different characters, but the unifying theme of desperation that runs through their lives–and the uncannily identical forms that this desperation takes–hints that they may all be one and the same. Of course, this may well be the point of the collection: the details may be slightly off, but there’s a striking (and horrifying) sameness to the near-infinite number of variations on the American dream throughout the country. We’re not leading lives of quiet desperation, The National Virginity Pledge insists. We’re all leading the same life of quiet desperation–because each of our own lives is more or less interchangeable with everyone else’s.

But then there’s your favorite dysfunctional uncle’s house. As disturbing as they can be, there’s something endearing and familiar about the characters in Graham’s collection. There’s the guy who keeps digging a deeper grave when, after giving the matter some thought, tells his girlfriend that he’d sleep with Monica Lewinsky if he had the chance. Then there’s the woman who honestly believes that winning an Atlantic City bikini competition will lead to something big. There are gamblers and strippers and people in cars. There are people trapped in bad relationships, and people stuck in dead-end jobs. But they’re not just strangers. They’re people we come to care about, and this is possibly Graham’s greatest gift as a storyteller: he depicts what we might otherwise dismiss as the dregs of society in a way that reminds us of their humanity. And of how much we have in common with them.

One other thing worth noting about The National Virginity Pledge is that it’s published by Another Sky Press, which, according to the book’s front matter, operates “under a progressive publishing and distribution paradigm that aims to directly benefit both audience and author.” In short, you can read digital copies of Another Sky Press titles free of charge and pay for what you like–a little like public broadcasting. Additionally, Another Sky offers a sliding scale for bound titles; there’s a set minimum price for each book ($2.68 for The National Virginity Pledge, for example–a great deal in any economy), but you can pay more if you really like the book–not, I suppose, unlike tipping your bartender. And if Graham’s work is any indication of the caliber of titles this press is producing, Another Sky is absolutely worth supporting.

Final thought: I don’t know what font was used in this collection, but its capital Q is pretty amazing. Shell out the $2.68, and turn to page 14 to see what I’m talking about.