Stuart Dybek, Ecstatic Cahoots: Fifty Short Stories,
Reviewed by Sean Lovelace
What is flash fiction?
Poetry and prose. Dybek as poet and prose writer.
Dybek: "...one can actually combine, to interesting effect, the narrative and the lyric modes."
Charles Baudelaire: "Always be a poet, even in prose."
Michael Martone: "What if we called them, words?"
Or snow globes?
Word count, arbitrary, yes, but effective in its rhetoric: no other legitimate way to define the genre. Not by style, certainly.
(I usually say 750 or fewer, but if you push up to 1000, I won't seize.)
Ancient and worldly. Aesop to Kim Chinquee, Lydia Davis to Kawabata. Latin America, Japan, France, the United States.
(I planned to spend a summer researching international flash fiction and quickly realized that was akin to researching "insects." I finally decided on a country, Argentina. That filled the summer just fine. [Read Shua now.])
So, flash fiction is an iridescent insect.*
The short-short story isn't a new form.*
Technical, a splatter free zone.*
You have excellent cheekbones. I'd like to bump you down a snowy hill.*
Bobs, tempers, college rejection letters, kinds of love, postcards, nicknames, baby carrots, myopia, life flashing before eyes, gummy bears, the loser's straw, Capri pants, charge on this phone battery, a moment on the lips (forever on the hips), caprice, velvet chokers, six months to live, penne, some dog-tails, how long I've known you though it feels like a lifetime, even a complicated dive, tree stumps, a shot of tequila, breaking a bone, a temp job, bobby socks, when you're having fun, a sucker punch, going straight- to-video, outgrown shoes, a travel toothbrush just missing the basket, quickies, some penises, lard-based desserts, catnaps, staccato tonguing, a sugar-rush, time-outs, Tom Cruise, a stint, brusque people, stubble, the "I'm sorry" in proportion to the offense, fig season, grammatical contractions, bunny hills, ice-cream headaches, dachshunds, -ribs, -stops, -hands, -changed...but sweet.*
Like a surgeon at work, the illusion of simplicity/routine.*
Exposition is a very windexed window.*
There is squirrel outside my window with three legs. It is staring at the birdfeeder. That's all I see, but what do I know?*
Noodling around or toying with us.*
Vivid and uneasy. I am reminded of a time I vomited while snorkeling (huge swells/current) and this barracuda drifting nearby.*
Every work, no matter how short or antilinear, needs momentum; the momentum of the short-short is lyrical in nature—What does this mean?—rather than narrative in nature: What happens next?*
"When I first started writing," Dybek says, "I thought it would be about saying something. I don't think that now. I think of writing as making something."
White space, timelessness, an intricate machine.*
Let the festivities begin!*
One day you, too, will, astonishingly enough, be dead.*
We are not here to define a genre. We're here to review a book: Ecstatic Cahoots: Fifty Short Stories by Stuart Dybek.
Open a beer ("Primes the engine," said Mailer). Commence review.
Epigraphs are like umbrellas: who needs 3? Pushing it, pushing it...
Epigraph two: "It's raining women's voices as if they had died even in memory/And it's raining you as well marvelous encounters of my life" (Guillaume Apollinaire)
Epigraph three: "I was waiting for you. Please come back under the umbrella as if we were lovers." (Yasunari Kawabata)
Homage to world flash, to continuum: France (We will not get into prose poem/flash fiction demarcation here), Japan (Nobel prize winner preferred flash fiction to any other literary form [and often said so]), to America (the first epigraph is from The Great Gatsby).
Homage (an interesting term in that you can say it with a hard or silent "H" and be correct).
Epigraph as flash, off the page. Same with allusion. Same with multiple lyrical techniques poet (Dybek) knows well, so lets the prose writer (Dybek) borrow a cup or two.
All that wonderful, eternal white space. Clicking. Clanking. The mechanical snow. Moving us from here to over there.
First story: "Misterioso," two lines (to me clearly another allusion: Augusto Monterroso [When he woke up, the dinosaur was still there.] Hemingway [Baby Shoes. For Sale. Never Worn.] or Thelonious Monk, or all three, who can say?).
The clocks and crosses we wear.
"In a mysterious manner," staking a claim, flash as its own being—prepare to meet with author, not on his ground, not on ours, on mutual ground.
What is flash?
From story two, "The Start of Something" (clever, this play): "Aren't there chance meetings in every life that don't play out, stories that seem meant to remain ghostly, as faint and fleeting as the reflection of a face on the window of a bus."
Staking ground: cloud-like this terrain. Mist. We shift. Prepare yourself, reader, to flow. Open yourself to what's swirling about.
Dybek: "ungovernable invention."
The very best flash fiction contains many flash fictions within: that's a truth. Write it down. Example, from "The Start of Something": She's been doing coke and tells him that in a dream she realized she's been left with two choices, one of which is to kill him. She laughs too gaily when she says it and he doesn't ask what the other choice is.
Dybek: "On the other hand, jazz was one of the hugest influences for me."
The story—like many in this genre, my larger point—focuses on one object as X of reference, a pair of vintage pants. Very modernist move, very French: See Baudelaire, Ponge, Jacobs, Apollinaire, etc. Object as center, to speak/spoke from. A thingamabob.
Fridge (pp. 17)
Setting, too, but others have uttered enough about Dybek and setting/place. Instead of me pattering on, go read collected Chekhov. Now you see my direction.
"Drive" (pp. 9), an exquisite example of setting as actual engine. Energy spooling out.
"Current" (40), another. And another homage (this text involves a faun, yes, a faun): flash as mythology.
Flash as Russell Edson? Or is it Simic ("Ransom")?
Flash as Cortázar ("A Confluence of Doors").
One thing repeatedly exciting to me is how this book simultaneously reveals the genre/explores the genre/questions the genre/as it uses the tools of the genre. (Not so unlike another strong flash collection, Margaret Atwood's Murder in the Dark). There's Yeats's dancer and the dance, all spinning upon the page.
I think the world—and therefore the world of story—is essentially metaphor, and form bleeds to function everywhere:
"...like a grain of rice from a wedding." ("Ant")
"And we're not like crickets?" ("Aria")
"Martin kept the potato even more secret than he did the doll." ("Midwife")
There's an argument for things.
For mist and more mist.
For seeing life as a series of things, moving to mist. Deep—in a book that is always aware of itself—Dybek makes the essential argument for the form, one already posited by accumulation—allusion to meta-moves to an absolute precision of imagery (sharp being not enough to say, some odd mix, a haystack of glistening needles). Lines that seriously move innumerable things, that are somehow three, eight, nine lines folded into one:
"Listen, in the dead of night, high above the mist, steeple-jacks are hoisting up the new day's Christ." ("The Story of Mist")
I ask what is a line/sentence, a book, what is an entire text, so carefully constructed as to hover, no string, no illusion—what is an entire text told through an almost spiritual (Fuck almost—it achieves itself!) beauty?
Horizon, a clothesline strung between crabapples. A forgotten dress, that far away, bleached invisible by a succession of summer days until a thunderstorm drenches it blue again, as it is now, and despite the distance, a foam of rain drops at its hem sparkles, just before the wind lifts it into a wave that breaks against the man framed in a farmhouse doorway.
What is flash fiction?
What is this machine?
Finally, on pp. 185: "I wanted to tell you a story without telling the story."
OK. That is ambition.
To recognize a distinct idea of a genre, while using that exact genre to effect. Well done. *
The 14 asterisked quotes are most likely by David Shields.