Book Reviews · 10/05/2015

Flash Fiction International

Edited by James Thomas, Robert Shapard, Christopher Merrill


W.W. Norton, 2015

Readers of the 2015 Flash Fiction International anthology, the latest in an intermittent series edited by James Thomas and Robert Shapard (who have published work by this reviewer), will find length a narrow standard for judging the qualities and effects of flash, or ultimately any type of fiction. Along with co-editor Christopher Merrill, Thomas and Shapard have assembled a collection of 86 stories from around the world, most 2-3 pages long, in which narrative effects are intensified rather than reduced by brevity.

Some flash writers mimic conventional forms in order to suggest a larger story. While very short stories are not unique to the Internet age — Flash Fiction International includes a piece by the ancient Roman Petronius, author of The Satyricon — there is no end of inspiration in the texts, spam, tweets, and other verbiage that crowds our screens and in-boxes. Etgar Keret imagines “the best story in the world” in the collection’s metafictional opener, “The Story, Victorious.” Taking the form of an effusive literary blurb, the story ponders everything from the art and commerce of literature to global politics to the fickleness of the reading public: “at the end of this story, one lucky winner — randomly selected from among all the correct readers — will receive a brand-new Mazda Lantis with a metallic gray finish.”

Sherman Alexie’s fable-like “Idolatry” follows Marie’s failed audition for a reality TV singing competition. Her hopes are dashed with bleak humor in the space of two sentences:

She’d only sung the first verse before [the British judge] stopped her.
“You are a terrible singer,” he said. “Never sing again.”

When Marie protests that family, friends, and vocal coaches are convinced of her talent, the judge responds coldly that she has been deceived. The moral of Alexie’s fable is bitter wisdom if we extrapolate from the protagonist’s short-lived aspirations: “In this world, we must love the liars or go unloved.”

The effect of narrative condensation can be poetic; like lines in verse, characters, settings, or moments in time are vividly juxtaposed in surprising and revealing ways. In Muna Fadhil’s “Prisoner of War,” Saleh is imprisoned by Iran for 18 years before being returned to what’s left of his Iraqi family. Flashing back and forth between his capture and life after release, the reader experiences Saleh’s disorientation in a present that is never far removed from a traumatic past. At the conclusion of Shabnam Nadiya’s “Eating Bone,” Disha contemplates a roast chicken she buys from a street vendor; preceded by an evocative sketch of her troubled marriage, the image of the chicken “on its back, legs splayed, dead yet inviting” uncomfortably reflects Disha’s experiences as a woman.

Juan Carlos Botero’s “The Past” could be called a slice-of-life, given the minimal setting and action — a man listening to his lover in bed confess her infidelity. Yet the impact of the story’s central revelation is far-reaching:

So: all the times she visited her mother, the weekends when work kept her away from him, the times she got back late from the office, the times the phone rang and she hung up after saying “wrong number,” began stripping themselves of their innocence and assumed new meanings, ones with cast-iron signs of betrayal.

If plot represents a character changing over time, stories like “The Past” are plotted with far more rigor than the short story or novella. The change in Botero’s narrative occurs at the level of perception; once the infidelity is revealed, it changes the way the whole relationship is recalled. Actions are symptomatic of perception; at its most fundamental level, infidelity implicates how we see the other, the self, and the world at large: “he began to see that the past was not a fixed route, rigid and frozen in time, as he had always believed, but rather quite the opposite, a fragile journey, malleable and, above all, vulnerable.”

Like the knife in Ana María Shua’s “Without a Net,” a triptych of stories linked by circus imagery, condensation dissects experience, revealing layers. The sequence concludes with “Political Correctness,” which imagines a world in which the spectacle of danger is deemed inappropriate; “the knife thrower hurls his weapons against an outline of a human being.” Inevitably, the violence withheld from public display is merely saved for private life as offstage, “the knife thrower boasts of being able to hit his wife or any other woman in the eye from twenty paces.”

The volume concludes with “Flash Theory,” a series of aphorisms in which authors wrestle with the nature of flash. Charles Baxter suggests, “These are tunes for the end of time, for those in an information age who are sick of data.” Jayne Anne Phillips resorts to poetic imagery: “The one-page fiction should hang in the air of the mind like an image made of smoke.” These and other insights underscore the possibilities of a genre with much more stamina than its name implies.

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James Thomas has received two NEA grants and a Stegner Fellowship; he lives in Xenia, Ohio. Robert Shapard directed the University of Hawaii MFA program and now lives in Austin, Texas. Christopher Merrill directs the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.

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Pedro Ponce is currently working on Dreamland, a novel, excerpts of which have been published in the online journal Transmission. His flash fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including New Flash Fiction Review, Cease, Cows, Midway Journal, Gargoyle, Pure Slush, Opium Magazine, PANK, Sudden Fiction Latino, Gigantic, Bateau, and Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine.