At the end of last year, I was lucky enough to take part in a wonderful workshop led by Gaynor Jones called "Go Weird or Go Home." Its focus was on exploring subject matter and ways of writing that are imbued with a certain oddness, unusual narrative structures, seemingly normal stories with a weird element thrown in the mix. As Gaynor says "weird stories are having a moment right now" (or something to that extent!) and so, in this blog post, I'm showcasing some brilliantly odd bits of flash fiction I've come across in the last few months.
At first glance, a story about someone's husband being transformed into a ray of light or two lovers whose noses fuse together might seem like the stuff of fantasy or science fiction rather than "serious" literature. But when these sorts of stories are done well, they explore emotions and themes in the same way as more "conventional" ones. They might be surreal or absurd in nature but they hold a mirror up to the world and invite the reader to dig down into their layers in order to reveal their hidden truths.
Having layers is something I always look for in flash fiction. I want to read once for the pleasure of the narrative and for the story to have a depth to it that propels me onto a second, third or forth read. I think these weird stories lend themselves to that. The surface layer, being unusual in subject matter or form, reels you in. It has a hook to it and stands out from the crowd (important given how much short form writing is currently being published). This weirdness then hides an allegory or an exploration of the human condition that the reader has to work a bit harder for. It leaves them with questions to answer and stays with them in a much more stand-out way than a more mundane narrative might.
The six pieces of flash fiction I've picked out this month include a father talking to an imaginary son, a soaring, fragmentary ode to Manhattan, a girl in therapy, and a woman who disappears, realises she is dead, then remembers when she could fly. They are the sort of stories that demand to be read several times over to unpick their depths. And, hopefully, they show that adding a touch of weirdness doesn't preclude them from being thought of as "serious" literature. As always, read and enjoy!
Christopher Allen | Gone Lawn
There is a danger in a story where one of the two main characters is an imaginary child that the emotional impact might be lessened or lost. Not here, though. The opening paragraph sets the foundations for a piece that delivers a heart-breaking journey. The word choice "obsessed" in the first sentence paints the imaginary son with a personality. He is specifically in "fourth grade" rather than just "in school". In the third sentence, the perspective moves from "he" to "we" setting the father-son pairing as a team. And then the reader is invited to become part of that - "You can imagine what a mess that was." Curiosity is not something we tend to associate with imaginary beings so I think the focus on the son's questions is a clever choice in creating an emotional connection between the reader and the child. They also add a splash of humour, a nice tonal contrast. I really like the foreshadowing in the clod of dirt crumbling "through his imaginary fingers" - and again, halfway down in "To exist is not to live." From here, the piece builds and builds towards its gut-punch ending, and I come away with a sense of sadness that this imaginary child "never lived." Like all good pieces of flash, the reader is left with questions that extend beyond what is on the page - why does the narrator have an imaginary son? In what way is the imaginary son a reflection on the narrator and the narrator's state of mind?
Dana Diehl | Threadcount
I often talk about hooks that make the reader want to continue reading and the opening sentence to this piece is so effective. It advertises the story as something that needs to be read. I also really like the contrast between "beam of light" (perfect, sterile) with "bones and guts", "chronic heartburn and bad morning breath" (imperfect, human). These cleverly suggest how the narrator feels / felt about her husband. Similarly, in the second paragraph, we get a sense of her confusion through the humorous "neuro-somethings" and the "data-web-stream-thinger." There is some lovely attention to language throughout this piece - the alliteration in "Pistons. Pixels. Processors" followed by the "great glaciers" of Greenland; the "knuckle-sized pit of cancer" in the next paragraph is a wonderfully horrific image. Whilst the narrative is infused with science-fiction, we can easily connect with it because so much care has been taken to unpick the narrator / husband relationship in their different reactions to their friends "transcending" and their weary argument that feels so everyday. The piece explores big questions about life and death and you need to read it a few times through to appreciate its many layers.
Joe Bedford | Lunate
Rather than the narrative content, here it is the writing itself that defies our expectations. It seems chaotic. The first read through feels like a free-fall. But even without completely understanding what is going on, there is an essence to the writing that is stunning. Everything is linked back to the orchestra - the Americans speaking "in muted trumpets", "the cymbal-work of the river", "the endless musical canals." The physical gaps between phrases are like pauses in the music and the sentences interrupted by line breaks remind me of page turns. The writing brings Manhattan to life in all its bustling glory. I like how the rhythm is played around with in these descriptions. The use of lists act like an accelerando. There are long, winding sentences juxtaposed with shorter, sharper ones that evoke the essence of Gerschwin's rubato. And underneath it all, of course, there are notes of threat. The narrator is "shackled" by the earphones in the first sentence. Later, the "blue of the American flag" is described as "unfettered." There are other blues in the "Steel-blue American rhythm" that "escorts" the narrator to the airport and the "gargantuan blue of the sky." And what is brilliant is that all these disparate elements knit together after a couple of reads to form something that is cohesive and truly unforgettable.
Rick White | Ellipsis Zine
This story unravels like a ball of wool. The title is an enigma that hints at something odd but to begin with, it is the bracketed part that is to the fore. This is about a girl in therapy and the flecks of something other blend into the background - the description of the therapist's "jackdaw fringe", the focus on lying on the couch ("the perfect warm patch for a snooze"). I really like the inventive similes - "like a heron on a riverbank" perfectly describes the therapist's motion but also enhances the cat part of Tabitha's personality as we move towards her urge to "paw-slap" and "push the paperweight to the floor" with a "laconic swish." The second segment feels almost un-tethered in a similar manner to Joe's piece above. It is surreal, absurd, darkly humorous. I love the footnotes and how they add an extra dimension to the writing. It is full of soaring sentences - "lighter, spritelier, spry and nimble" - the sort of writing that demands to be read aloud. And just as "Tabitha winds it back", the final piece of the puzzle is put in place, the emotional reveal of why she's in therapy "as Disintegration starts to play."
Leonora Desar | New Flash Fiction Review
One of the things that all these stories have in common is that they use their 'oddness' to explore something real or important. Here, on the surface, we have three micros about a character who (a) partially disappears, (b) realises they are dead and (c) learns to fly - but beneath that is something much more sinister about womanhood and emancipation. I love the tone of voice. It is so casual. The sentences are kept short. There is an absurdist undertone to the observations - "My body wasn’t used to being addressed in the plural." It belies the grittiness of what's underneath - notice how "helping the boss masturbate" is sandwiched between "filing" and "picking up phones" as if it's just another admin task. In the second micro, there is so much in the white space between the sentences, the more you read it, the more meaning you find in it - the breadcrumbs of the husband "pretending [it] wasn't so", "It got dark", the digging of the hole. Finally, I like how the third micro pulls everything together. It is perhaps the most explicit of the three and I find such sadness in that final image of the ceiling that "seemed so far away."
Nick Perilli | Milk Candy Review
It seems only fitting to finish this month with a story called "An Ending." This begins as a love story. "So enamored and in radiant love, they held on to that swell of contact until the skin on their lips and tips of their noses fused together." The tone of the writing here reflects the content; the word choices of "enamored", "radiant" and "swell". Then we are asked to reflect on what this is an ending of. The back story we are given is "the loss, the danger, the revenge and the lesson" and my first thought was that we are at the end of a movie (action? fantasy?) after the credits have rolled. I love that it is left ambiguous - an unnamed trauma that they are dealing with together. It enhances the melancholy of that third paragraph where "their brains [slice] the other one out of their vision as irrelevant information." There is so much encapsulated in this idea about relationships and love. Overall, I really like how this story invites us to think about what happens after other films, books, plays etc. have finished and reminds us, perhaps, that the possibilities are endless and that the endings aren't always the happy ones.
If you've enjoyed this month's selection of pieces by Christopher, Dana, Joe, Leonora, Nick and Rick, please let them know on Twitter or leave a comment below...
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