Reviewed by Cheryl Pappas
New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction
edited by James Thomas and Robert Scotellaro
August 2018, Paperback, ISBN 978-0-393-35470-6, 288 pages
Back in 1996, Jerome Stern published 50 micro stories—tales told in 250 words or under—in his Micro Fiction: An Anthology of Fifty Really Short Stories (W.W. Norton). The book featured rich micros by such luminous writers as Amy Hempel, Russell Edson, and Joy Williams, alongside lesser-known writers at the time.
In much the same way, its updated companion New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction, edited by James Thomas and Robert Scotellaro, offers readers a mix of known and up-and-coming masters of the form. The editors revised the word count limit to 300 words and culled 135 stories from print and online magazines, short story collections, and small anthologies, from 89 authors. What I like about their method is that they included older stories (the oldest is from 1971) as well as recent ones to tell the longer tale, so to speak, of the form. As Robert Shapard acknowledges in the foreword, “This phenomenon didn’t happen overnight,” but with the arrival of the Internet, the two “were made for each other, and became the first tech elopement in literary history.” Nearly 20 years after we’ve settled comfortably into our digital lives, this anthology gives us a chance to both look back and refresh our vision of the form.
Like all anthologies worth their salt, there is an impressive range in style, scope, and theme. Among the stand-out stories is Brian Hinshaw’s “The Custodian,” which, published in 1996, deserves a second, third, and tenth look. A custodian in a hospital tells us about the “old lady” in 14-A, who would finish any song someone would start. It’s Christmastime, and the custodian and the nurses have fun with her by setting her up to sing Christmas songs alongside tunes with swears in them. The light humor takes a curious left turn when the “daughter or maybe granddaughter” arrives to find the custodian listening to the woman singing “Auld Lang Syne.” What happens next I won’t say, because I leave that wondrous surprise to you. Hinshaw achieves in the last few lines what I call the “mind flowering,” which happens in the best flash—he takes you off guard and suddenly your mind fills with an imagined world not on the page. The last line takes a further turn, and you’re left with what Shapard promised in his foreword, that you’ll realize that these stories “matter, almost before you know it.”
One of the riveting possibilities within this quasi-poetic short form is experimentation with language and form. The fragments in Kim Addonizio’s “Starlight” and “What Jimmy Remembers” are a joyous departure from the confines of the formal sentence, offering images that puncture your expectations of what a story can be. Joyce Carol Oates’s story, “Slow,” about a wife wondering why her husband is not getting out of his car when he gets home, suspends punctuation until the pinpoint end, where she judiciously places a few commas to slow you down even further. The abstract language used to describe a man going through his day in Roy Kesey’s “Calisthenics” does more to evoke pathos than I would have imagined: “A guy offered him a thing and took him by the scruff of his neck. Then someone came for him. She said things and he nodded a lot. Most people were mostly right.” The unspecific word “thing” is the bullet, as it makes clear that the man is not wholly conscious of his world or is perhaps indifferent to what happens to him. Kesey’s other story, “Learning to Count in a Small Town,” makes use of the list form to tell mini-micros of ten characters. The risk of experimenting with form pays off in dividends in Damian Dressick’s list story “Four Hard Facts about Water.” Dressick takes the chance that readers will get past the first three, seemingly unrelated, facts. The way that the fourth ties them all together is nothing short of stunning.
With such a variety of voices and styles in one volume, it’s difficult to imagine a theme running through the stories, but upon second read one did emerge for me. It may have been unintended by the editors, but there it is. Several of the stories deal with, in one way or another, the act of disappearing. It begins with the first story.
The narrator in Pamela Painter’s “Letting Go” is asked by a couple at the Grand Canyon to take their picture with their phone, near the edge. The woman agrees, but the couple loses their footing and falls to their death below. The woman leaves the phone on a bench, the “only evidence the three of us were here.”
In Louis Jenkins’s “The Skiff,” a similar circumstance arises. Two men are on a boat—one at the tiller, the other lifting the net. When the narrator turns back, his friend Jim is gone; there was nothing “but water and sky.” He notices Jim’s half-eaten sandwich on the seat, “the only thing to prove Jim had been here at all.”
Curtis Smith’s “The Quarry” is about a young man taking a nighttime swim with his brother’s girlfriend. After jumping from the cliff into the water, he watches as her “shadowed form falls from the stars.” While she is underwater, he senses only “the splash’s echo, the rippling surface, the mute stars. He understands a submerged object has only two options—to sink and disappear or to rise to the surface.”
In Matt Sailor’s apocalyptic but frighteningly realistic story “Sea Air,” a boy is on a family vacation at the beach after the sea level rise has decimated the coasts. A school friend had told him, “You don’t want to go there . . . There’s still people underneath. At night they walk the beach.” (All of his friends’ family go to the mountains to ski on fake snow.) The boy spots a man pacing in the water, “his hands dead at his sides,” perhaps in the last stage of disappearing with the others.
The narrator in Bernard Cooper’s “The Hurricane Ride” questions the trustworthiness of our bodies’ presence. He is haunted by the sped-up, disappearing image of his aunt’s body on the amusement park ride (“My aunt was hurtling, blurred . . . I swore I saw through her the rest of the day.”) The experience provokes the metaphysical question “When does speed exceed the ability of our eyes to arrest and believe?” In the end, he answers as best he can:
It’s clear that people disappear, and things, and thoughts. Earth. Aunt Hurricane. Those words were written with the wish to keep them still. But they travel toward you at the speed of light. They are on the verge of vanishing.
All of the micros in this collection could be described as “on the verge of vanishing.” But thinking about this specific set of stories related to disappearing, especially Cooper’s, leads me to wonder why we’re drawn to this particular form, especially now. Forget the Internet and the short-attention span argument for a moment. What if the desire for the micro and flash fiction is born of a last-ditch effort to get in and get out, while we can? And what if that isn’t a little bit thrilling as it is fearful? As of this writing, a hurricane is battering the coast of North Carolina. Scientists have argued that the storm’s effects are made more brutal because of climate change. The reasons we have for writing have plenty to do with plain old fear of mortality (Ars longa, vita brevis, etc.), but what if we’re collectively feeling anxious to leave our literal mark before we disappear?
The stories in this collection are beautiful, heart-rending, memorable marks. Especially when read again and again.
About the reviewer: Cheryl Pappas is a writer from Boston. Her reviews have been published in SmokeLong Quarterly and she has written personal essays focused on novels in the Ploughshares blog and Tin House’s Lost & Found blog. Her fiction and essays have been published in The Bitter Oleander, Cleaver Magazine, SmokeLong Quarterly, and more. Her website is cherylpappas.net and you can find her on Twitter at @fabulistpappas.