by RK Biswas
My Very End of the Universe
Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form
Published by Rose Metal Press
Even to a relatively indifferent practitioner of this particular art like me, it is clear. Exciting things are happening to narrative forms when it comes to the short crisp ones popularly known as flash fiction. The excitement is not about old wine in new and newer bottles. These are genuine experiments that seem to have sprung from collective creative will. Something that Abigail Beckel and Kathleen Rooney of Rose Metal Press realized within a few years of running their chapbook contest for flash fiction manuscripts.
Beckel and Rooney read more and more submissions containing linked flash fictions, with characters and settings spilling over even as each piece retained its stand-alone characteristics. They found manuscripts that read like single narratives, after they’d finished reading and looked back on the whole text. In 2011 their collection, which had five chapbooks chosen from their 2009 and 2010 contests, included two novellas-in-flash. These were Elizabeth J Colen’s Dear Mother Monster, Dear Daughter Mistake and Tim Jones Yelvington’s Evan’s House and Other Boys Who Live There. In the 2011 contest as well, they had a novella-in-flash winner—Betty Superman by Tiff Holland. And in 2012, Rose Metal Press’s guest judge, Randall Brown, chose Aaron Teel’s novella-in-flash Shampoo Horns. Little wonder that the editors of Rose Metal Press were excited by this ‘trend,’ and began to seriously explore ways to showcase the form, resulting in My Very End of the Universe and a Study of the Form, a book that according to Beckel and Rooney would be a “gripping, gratifying read and a tool for teaching and learning.”
With two winning chapbooks already in hand, they sought out three other authors who were working with the novella-in-flash form. They acquired Chris Bower’s The Family Dogs, Margaret Patton Chapman’s Bell and Bargain and Meg Pokrass’s Here Where We Live. All five authors used the novella-in-flash form in their own individual ways, as they explored complicated family relationships and concepts of home and family. The authors also included short essays that explained their ideas of the form and how they had applied them to their stories. The title came from a sentence in the story—Betty Superman—in the book. My Very End of the Universe (and I have to quote the editors because I can’t say it better) “seemed to sum up a magic particular to novellas-in-flash: the ability to focus intensely and specifically—a primary attribute of flash—on a character’s world for a sustained period of time—a key element in a novella.”
The first novella in the collection is Tiff Holland’s Betty Superman, a series of ten linked flash fictions exploring a mother-daughter relationship. In her introduction Holland writes that she finds flash “an art of pure essence—the spark, the quick uptick, the unblurred moment.” Specific to Betty Superman, Holland’s central character demanded this form, as in a novel she would have (according to her creator) grown to uncontrollable gigantic proportions, a “Godzilla.” Later as she delved into the realm of flash, she found herself being pulled in by “Betty” and her life, following her wherever she led. Holland found the individual stories forming a natural arc by themselves that lead to the bigger whole.
Betty Superman is written in the first person, and we view Betty through the eyes of her daughter. The first chapter—Dragon Lady—was written, according to Holland, like a character sketch composed as a narrative poem. At first, it appears to be just a colorful description of an interesting and eccentric character. The nuances become more apparent as one progresses into the novella, and the narrator’s voice opens up more and more about the complex relationship between the two women. The descriptions given in the first chapter also help create a better understanding of “Betty” in action and her relationship with the narrator, who confesses as she recalls her mother’s fist meeting with her future first husband, “I am a hell of a shot. Already it would have occurred to me, I could always shoot her.”As the stories unfold and the bigger story emerges, there is greater acceptance with age and diminishing health of both, though it is still there—”the floors of my childhood covered with the shards of broken knickknacks.” A clearer expression of love between daughter and mother emerges in the end. “She doesn’t rub the lipstick in the way she used to even when I was in my thirties, and I don’t rub it away either.”
The second novella, Here Where We Live is by Meg Pokrass. In her introduction, she compares novella-in-flash with stitching patchwork quilts; taking fragments and pieces to create art that is layered. Both art forms require improvising for both content and structure. As Pokrass puts it, “A novella-in-flash writer and a crazy quilt artist both become familiar in navigating incompletion and juxtaposition.” The idea is, according to her, to delve into “unlikely places” and putting together an “untraditional whole.” The stories can stand alone, and also move the narration forward.
Comprising twenty two chapters, Here Where We Live has been put together by pulling out poems and stories from the last twenty years, “from her metaphorical scrap bag,” some of which were narratives about a teen aged girl and her mother. During her search among her older work, Pokrass rediscovered the characters, the important ones, and found new ideas. She formed what was to become the narrative arc of the novella by imagining what may happen when things go wrong in a young person’s life, exploring the various ways to cope with stress and happiness, and more importantly wisdom. At the same time, her repeat journey/s through the old and apparently familiar landscapes threw up “fresh energy and new meaning”, and an “unexpected new order that ends up feeling just right.” The novella-in-flash according to Meg Pokrass mirrors life. Just as one can never visualize the narrative arc in life as it is being lived, but only after it is over, so with this form the reader goes along with the flow, relating to each piece and then looking back on the journey to understand the path it took.
Here Where We Live is the story of Abby, a sensitive and gifted child, grappling with her father’s death, mother’s cancer and her own growing up issues. Written with a poet’s eye, Pokrass takes us through a seemingly disjointed journey with Abby as she tackles their new life in Santa Barbara with her ailing mother, their grandmother’s run down house in a less prosperous part of the town, her friend Junie who shares nothing in common with her, Junie’s bother Kyle, and her mother’s boyfriend Daniel. There is sorrow, anger and a bleak landscape, because “you can’t stop mold from being itself.” Yet, through Abby’s slow and difficult steps towards gaining control of her life, her agony and deliberations and observations, her heart never loses faith—“there are very good men in the world, but like earth worms, they are not easily visible.” In the end, light shines, as warm as the hand on her breast, as she finds the right person and gets rid of the wrong one from her mother’s life and hers too; when she holds on to what is good for them both, “because they are helium balloons trying to stay down on Earth.”
Aaron Teel’s Shampoo Horns is a nineteen-chapter long novella-in-flash that at first glance gives the (deceptive) impression of a boy’s growing-up-in-the-summer story, but the shampoo horns the protagonist sports in the bathtub, in the title story, are no more innocent than the events that follow.
According to Teel, a novella-in-flash takes the best of flash and marries it with the longer form or novel, providing “space for myriad moments to co-exist, rub up against, and reverberate off one another,” turning a series of snapshots into a slide show. When creating this work, Teel took stories that followed the will of memories, not chronologically, but linked through associations, images, turning Shampoo Horns into a place for his characters to “dwell and roam around in rather than move through in an unbroken line.” To further elucidate the technique Teel uses, I quote him: “when a succession of moments has receded far enough away, the memories that remain are mixed up and weird, disconnected, out of time—they come to me in flashes. To the extent that memory is the hidden conceit in Shampoo Horns, the novella-in-flash is its ideal form.”
Shampoo Horns is a remembered past, brought to life into the present just the way the individual memories appeared to the now grown up, lanky and red-haired protagonist—Cherry (or Mathew as he was christened but never named). We know that Cherry is looking back into his past, but we never see his grown-up face. It’s as if he is the video camera, held clumsily by his reader, us, you, me, walking through the trailer park, crossing timelines in same the way one swings a leg across a chain-link fence and crosses over. The initial innocence of shampoo horns dissipates like soap bubbles when Cherry’s half-brother, Clay, enters his life, at once fascinating the twelve year old Cherry, horrifying, and even repelling him. “Clay is rebellious and mean, and I know I will never be as cool as him,” is just the tip of the ice berg. Clay has the devil’s brand in his bones, (except that this is what their dad says to Cherry) and he thinks nothing of giving vent to his anger, resentment and sheer malice upon the small and weak, be it Cherry or his best friend Tater Tot. Clay’s violent disposition can only be matched by a tornado, and one does come, ripping through their homes, turning their whole trailer park neighborhood into a catastrophic pile up of trailer vans and tossed up belongings. Teel begins his story on the eve of this natural disaster, and pulls us into the narrative, piece meal, one emerging memory at a time, and finally brings us back full circle to the beginning. Except, now we cannot but ponder about the now grown up Cherry, the kind of person he may or may not have become.
For Margaret Patton Chapman, author of Bell and Bargain, the novella-in-flash form enabled her to tell a story spanning from birth to adolescence and to flesh out characters in ways that would have proved tough in more traditional story telling forms. The small individual narratives of flash float on white space, signifying there is more to the story. In her own words, “Each of the pieces of this work came out as little bits, glimpses and fragments, each a clue to the story but each mysterious even for me.”
The longest novella-in-flash in the collection Bell and Bargain (spanning 31 chapters) is a fable, not set in mythical times. But during a time in American history when everything is roiling, sooty and grimy, harsh and cruel, reaching towards a future bursting with needs—when railroads were built, and men and women went prospecting for gold, and sharp shooting outlaws ruled and were in turn killed. When Bell is born, her mother, the neighbors and also the reader believes an enchanted child has come into the world. It is both fascinating and frightening, and initially gainful for the fatherless family. Bell’s two older brothers are as different as slate and chalk, but stay loyal to Bell in their own ways. The enchantment soon turns into a curse, especially for Bell. The story of their lives turn as bleak as the ashes left from the fire that razed their home. Yet, in the face of tragedy, when love is an ink sodden pill to swallow, Bell rings in change within her and emerges from her situation into the future. In the end, there is no promise, but hope.
One cannot say more about the story. Not because it will give the plot away, but because this story cannot be described. Bell’s story must be read and felt. Its spaces must be allowed to envelop the reader as well as be experienced as respite between one point in the narrative and the next. Because it is in the spaces that Bell’s and this novella-in-flash’s enchantment and mystery lie. As Chapman says in her introduction about her protagonist, “Bell is very much a character from a fairytale: the wished for daughter, the youngest, the magical child. Her story and character are influenced by two famously voiced and silenced young women from classic fairy tales: the little mermaid and the princess sister from a number of versions of the Swan Brothers’ tale. Both are tragic figures who give away their voices for men. Both also point to the relationship between self and voice and demonstrate how dangerous the world can be for an unvoiced woman; both characters make trades that end in barely redeemed tragedies…Bell’s strangeness does not offer explanation. The lack of it assures us that her world is not the same as ours. Perhaps the novella-in-flash also needs 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.” As the novella-in-flash Bell and Bargain illustrates, so poignantly.
Chris Bower’s novella-in-flash, The Family Dogs, nineteen chapters of flash pieces long and unevenly but significantly divided into two parts, starts off with a poem, by way of introduction, which in retrospect reveals a lot more about the narrative, except that by then it is too late because the whole work has already been read! This is the last in the collection, and the most surreal; even the introduction is blurred or rather allowed to leak into the novella. Narrated in the first person, The Family Dogs may appear to be an autobiographical work at a superficial level. The autobiographical element stems from Bower’s own family anecdotes, as revealed in the introduction. If you come from a family of story tellers, where actual events and situations are added to until they “reveal a deeper truth than the truth.”
Bower says in his introduction: “In our lives we are sometimes allowed only glimpses into other people’s lives, singular moments with characters we will never deeply know. How we twist and turn what we have seen or heard or felt has always been fascinating to me. I have always loved fragments, because they give me permission to fill in the blanks, to imagine the rest, and I think the novella-in-flash was the next logical step, to take these tiny pieces, each with a stand-alone agenda and glue them into a larger story.”
So Al, the main protagonist of The Family Dogs, lives in his own world, of bits and pieces of imaginings and family stories through which we are given a picture of what his family is like, what his life among them is like. It’s a collage, pretty much complete, but with an area that is left to hang a bit outside the frame—the story told from the point of view of Matt, Al’s brother.
Bower begins the narrative with his birth, an outrageous situation that sets the tone of the rest of the flashes that follow; lays down, for the reader, the benchmark by which to judge the narrative. Some of the pieces are indeed tiny, mere paragraphs floating in an absence of words that manage to convey more. One gets the impression that Al is perhaps running down a lane, peeping into homes that house his memories, sometimes lingering sometimes as if he has snuck in through the basement window. Each home is in its own fenced in place, but all of them face the lane. There is a breathless quality, almost as if Al is impatient, even when he needs to remember his mother’s death, and will not wait to stop and see if his reader’s with him. Yet, when Matt takes over the telling, the very last piece, the pace is slower, more in control, as if he has thought it all out carefully, like he wants to make sure there is no mistake. Perhaps because he needs to share a vital piece of information about his brother Al, and the stories he needed to tell. And, like a good short story which keeps its punch line until the very end, a sentence that is not trying to create a clever ending, but is, in this case asking the reader to rethink, take his/her own personal narrative leap.
The book ends. But the stories are far from over.
Each writer in this collection has taken his/her individual idea and method of writing novella-in-flash and fleshed it out, while adhering to the theme of family and relationships. Not like the blind men who discovered the elephant, a specific part and never the whole. But as diamond cutters, each perfecting the chosen preference—round, baguette, marquis, radiant, princess, and so on—until it shines with a brilliance al its own.
I have deliberately refrained from getting into too many details about the five novellas in this collection, or at least tried to. And, instead have focused on leaving behind a scent for the reader to follow. I felt it would defeat the purpose of the review, because flash, as its name suggests is supposed to pulsate with light and not carry a long and steady beam. That is the whole charm and mystery of this form, taken to another level as novellas.
By bringing out this collection, what Rose Metal Press has, in reality, done is bring out a tome of a book for aficionados and practitioners of the form. For at more than 300 pages, the length of a good sized novel, My End of the Universe is indeed a tome as far as flash fiction goes, and will be treasured by serious as well as casual readers.
RK Biswas’s novel Culling Mynahs and Crows was published by Lifi Publications, India in January 2014. A short story collection—Breasts and Other Afflictions of Women—is forthcoming in mid 2014 from Authorspress, India. Another story collection from Lifi Publications, New Delhi in mid 2015. Biswas’s short fiction and poetry have been published in journals and anthologies, both in print and online, all over the world. Her poem Cleavage was long listed in the Bridport Poetry Prize in 2006 and also was a finalist in the Aesthetica Contest in 2010. In 2007, her story Ahalya’s Valhalla was among Story South’s notable stories of the net. Her poem Bones was a Pushcart Nominee from Cha: An Asian Literary Journal in 2010. In 2012 she won first prize in the Anam Cara Writer’s Retreat Short Story Contest. She blogs at http://www.rumjhumkbiswas.wordpress.com.