Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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Chris Bower has a line in a story that is also a chapter of a novella-in-flash (“Inventions,” a piece of The Family Dogs) about, as its individual title indicates, a series of inventions, including “the fake bush you could fit over real fire hydrants that was partially responsible, along with me, a lighter, and a gas-soaked effigy of a girl I liked but who didn’t like me, for burning our first house triumphantly to the ground.” The tiny story is not much more than one hundred words long, and it’s about a self-swinging baseball bat. The quote above is how the story ends, which means a good chunk of the story is an allusion to another, largely untold, story. Nothing up my sleeves, Bower could be saying here, But inside my hat, presto!
This recent Rose Metal Press publication does the public a double service. First, it collects a series of chapbooks together in one handsome form: Tiff Holland’s Betty Superman and Meg Pokrass’s Here, Where We Live, Aaron Teel’s Shampoo Horns, Margaret Patton Chapman’s Bell and Bargain, and the Chris Bower book quoted above. Yet the editors here, advancing an argument with this collection for the novella-in-flash as a form worthy of consideration and emulation, not only frame these texts with an introduction (which offers some history and a handful of other examples) but ask each of the authors to reflect on the form (and their own texts, processes, goals, and theories of what “flash” and “novella-in-flash” are and mean, what they resemble and how they feel).
Here is a form characterized by economy (“Every sentence has to earn its keep,” says Teel), and by a tactility of language. Words function in these pages as objects, even as actors—“crisp” and “pimp,” “stuck” entering a scene and breaking things, making things happen. Models for (precursors to?) both the particular aesthetic of flash and the novella-in-flash are offered, from Kenneth Patchen’s “picture poems” (literally overlaying imagery with images) to the “linked vignettes” of Evan S. Connell (handing the reader “a narrative” but in a flow of fragments). This sense of movement is something Teel homes in on, how the novella-in-flash proceeds “from one anxious, fleeting moment to the next.” “If a single flash is a snapshot,” Teel writes, “then the novella-in-flash is a slideshow projected onto a bed-sheet scavenged from the hamper and pinned to the wall above the television set.” Pokrass notes that such an art form “demands an improvisational spirit regarding the creation of both content and structure,” requiring the write to “[navigate] incompletion and juxtaposition,” the first element of which Chapman also highlights. The presence of absence, she writes, of a sense of selective omission, “make[s] space for normalized magic because emptiness is inaccessible and cannot be questioned.”
Chapman, after all, is speaking of her own work, from her own creative experience as well as her journeys as a reader. While, from a critic’s standpoint, this book makes important strides in defining and theorizing a new form, it is the application of such theory (or, in some cases, the skewed silhouette between theory-as-ideal and practice-as-reality) where the real meat and tornadoes of this book lie. Consider the opening paragraph of “Self-Serve Unleaded,” a flash chapter in Tiff Holland’s Betty Superman:
On the way to sell our gold for cash, we stopped for gas. Mom had been telling me things again, secrets, not-so secrets: double cousins who married and molesting uncles, how my favorite uncle back home wouldn’t take blood thinners because he didn’t want to stop drinking beer. The last time I saw him he looked pregnant. It was his liver. He started getting dizzy screwing in light bulbs. He had all his teeth pulled and the false ones clacked.
Economy, imagery, some sort of snooker tricks with language (spin and ricochet), all as part of a narrative flow, punctuated with the jar of quick montage and directing the reader, as the words accumulate, to something behind and beyond them: this is flash-in-action and novella-in-flash at work. On the way to one thing, something else; an assortment of allusions to stories not-quite-told; an accumulation of unexpected progressions and images. As with Bower’s bit about the fire, here, in Holland’s tangent from hocking gold we get a miniature portrait pulled from thin air while the reader is distracted: the hand with cash-for-gold makes a fancy gesture, and the hand with his liver and the light bulbs performs the trick. Again: Presto!
There’s page after page of that kind of magic here, in a book of real critical importance in the development of a new form.
Official Chris Bower Web Site
Official Margaret Patton Chapman Web Site
Official Meg Pokrass Web Site
Official Aaron Teel Web Site
Official Rose Metal Press Web Site