Very Short Stories from Around the World
Edited by: James Thomas, Robert Shapard, Christopher Merril
I’m going to make a confession. I’m addicted.
I’m absolutely addicted to reading in general, but also to flash fiction in particular.
Whenever I open one of the numerous sites I follow or one of the anthologies I collect, it is like the literary equivalent of diving into a box of chocolate without the map thing that tells you which flavor you’re getting. There is something in this form that resists the vanilla-fying (is this even a word?) of the work-shopped short story, or the lofty perfection of the literary novel. Flash doesn’t crowd you out. It invites you in and says “Here, have a seat, give me a thousand words and I’ll give you something to think about.”
And it does. Every time. In every different way.
What makes this anthology such a pleasure to read is the pure diversity of the stories featured here. Not just is their enjoyment of the stories themselves, but the reader is exposed to the concerns of the various writers. A writer from India will have preoccupations that might not be present in a story by a Ukraine writer or that of a South African writer. That’s the way it should be. The literary traditions are different and they should be reflected in those stories.
What they have in common is their revelation of what it means to be human. In all its complicated, messy and variegated glory. And it is done in a form that invites diversity, difference and experimentation. Much like the human condition.
It is clear that all of these writers labor under the “anxiety of influence” (coined by Harold Bloom), which can come in many forms. Some predecessors cannot be escaped (can a reader who reads Juan Jose Barrientos’s “Labyrinth” not help but think of the anthology of the same title written by Jorge Luis Borges?). And yet, despite the myriad influences on the authors and the associations brought by the readers, these stories defy those very expectations (“Labyrinth” is not as much concerned with the infinite possibilities of books as much as the varieties of experiences in life, the ones that draw us in and those that we are forced to observe from the outside).
Each story is a master-class of craft and construction but there is a generosity in the multiple ways each piece achieves its mini perfections. The stories that fell flat for me – the ones that appeared to play with language almost as an end in itself – were simply less enjoyable because I am a child of the plot-driven story and cannot help but search for the narrative, however brief, in each reading. But that does not make this particular type of story less of an exemplar of its kind. This is purely a matter of personal preference. And it brings me no small amount of satisfaction to see that these experimental pieces are given space in this and other anthologies.
Flash is home to experimentation and hybridism. It provides space for representation and inclusion. And this anthology is an excellent example of that. Some of the stories here were also featured in Best Small Fictions of 2016 (in particular, “The Story, Victorious” might well be positioned as the opener for every show that features flash fiction from now until forever). This is no surprise, because when something is good, it will endure.
And as a bonus, at the end of the anthology, there is a section on flash theory. This is not necessarily a treatment of method as much as the musings of writers trying to define a form that resists definition. For the apprentice writer, this anthology should have a prominent place on a shelf dedicated to exemplar writings.
Favorite quotes (There are really far too many to list!):
“Sahira hoped that, even if Saleh didn’t recognize her, he’d at least recognize his old self.” (Prisoner of War)
“But not Disha: she had eaten flesh, now she would eat bone.” (Eating Bone)
“I told her what could possibly be better than standing on a football field holding a brand new human being the size of a coffee cup, you know what I mean?” (The Hawk)
“His father had walked out on his mother when she was pregnant, hadn’t even waited to see what she’d given him.” (The Gutter)
“Now kisses are avoided whenever possible; it is in the lips and tongue that love begins to spoil, where distance makes itself apparent.” (The Ache)
“Better to make a dead man useful than send a living man to his death.” (The Young Widow)