David Swann, Stronger Faster Shorter: Flash Fictions, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Press, 2015
Reviewed by Sean Lovelace
I staggered through 6.5 miles and grabbed a beer (Icehouse, I think it was) and sat on the front porch at a 35 degree angle (Cabela's Dura Mesh Zero-Gravity Lounger—tan), feet all propped on the wooden rail, sweat all deluge, lungs all feeling like leaves in a drained pool, clouds all swirling, like the nethermost sea of the hidden self, as Dylan Thomas might say (I shall return to him later); and here comes the mailman! (Actually mail-woman; she has a professional smile and a body like a manifesto.) Bills, bills, oil change coupon, postcard from Michael Martone, gambling magazine (the cover is masked in black plastic, though I don't get why that's necessary), bills, local library overdue reminder, bills, flyer advertising Indiana State Fair (they offer fried Pepsi at the fair, though maybe that's not possible), air mail from England, bills, bills, bills, a flyer about jilted puppies, bills, recall on the brake line of the Subaru (fuck!), bills, two small packages from Kansas (could be anything—my partner routinely drinks and EBays), bills, bills.
Air mail from England? ROYAL MAIL. POSTAGE PAID CHESTER 581 GREAT BRITAIN.
Ah, Chester. Home of food festivals, historical reenactment events, film and literature gatherings and family friendly activities (a Mad Hatter tea party, for example), not to mention the horse races and parades and clotted cream and medieval ruins and flash fiction. For example, the origin of my air mail, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Press, housed in the Department of English, University of Chester. These fine folks do the good and important work of advocating for flash fiction (the genre is still an underdog, though I find that idea ridiculous at this juncture in literary history), through magazines, interviews, audio collections, useful links, and, yes, books. Like the one I held in my hand (the hand not holding the beer, as you surmised): Stronger Faster Shorter: Flash Fictions by David Swann.
I read it thrice, as is my nature. The facts? Eggshell cover, paperback, 53 pages (an unusual number for a book, but possibly apt), 25 separate flash fictions, one incredibly lengthy acknowledgments page (David Swann is either deranged or just uncommonly gracious). The book felt good in the hand, like a running shoe or a Zippo lighter or a coffee mug from a World's Fair (I went in 1984, Knoxville, when Pacman was all the rage). The book had the right and pleasing heft of memory.
Might I now address remembrance? Mostly I know the English via poetry. And the English writers I know (well, most I know—I'm leaving The War Poets out of this particular perspective) are hunters (huntsmen and herdsmen, as Dylan Thomas once put it), or voracious collectors (wasn't Larkin a librarian and Hughes a crow?), of memory, of nostalgia (autumn days, Keats would whisper)—they build snow globes with their poems, they build photographs (with sophisticated structural frames) and collector curio boxes (Is that even the correct term?) and junk drawers and the bottom of tool chests (Hardy's workbox, for example) and the dark beneaths of car seats and the innards of canning jars and all and every varied type of intricate machine for storing the green and golden imagery of nostalgia...so it is with David Swann.
And what does Swann collect, in his glittering apparatus, these flash fictions, many of them worthy of the term poetry (the best flash authors know density and compression and lyricism are friends of the narrative, not rivals)? Swann collects Time. A particular and painful Time, the years snagged between the prelapsarian (childhood) and the postlapsarian (adult). The transition years, when the adult world (so foggy, so mysterious up to now) comes into crisp focus and reality is unmasked. Unfortunately, its face is often horror. "The real world" (as my father used to say). Once so "improbable" (so the poet Geraldine Connolly phrased it) to the child-view. And now, suddenly, in your actual face (possibly faintly lined with the gesture of potential wrinkles), the Real World. It's here—to stay.
Microcosm (of many—this theme holds), page 17, "Civil Defense." A teenager (the perfect age for these narratives, the Bildungsroman, and so on) struggling with grief, with death...
Note the lyricism here (unbothered beck, anyone?), note the shrugs of Thomas's Fern Hill, note the split, the agonizing divide, one foot in the adult world, the other in boyhood. As we progress, the narrator vents that grief by throwing rocks at a government Civil Defense shed (thus the title).
But already by page 17, we know childhood won't (or actually cannot) win the day.
And so it goes. As one Indiana bard sang across the corn, "I fight authority and authority always wins."
Or as Jacob Korg wrote last year about this very collection, "Taken as a group, the stories seem to trace the child's emergence from his domain of imagination and secret pleasures into an adult world where he observes suffering, pathos, and dignity."
Sorry, I lie. Korg wrote that in year 1965 about Dylan Thomas. (I think I've made my English/Dylan Thomas point by now. I hope it's a nod of the deerstalker to David Swann. Dylan Thomas is a badass, obviously, and I wish more of us knew it.)
What I admire is a flash collection that is many separate texts, but always simultaneously aware of the bigger concern. A book is not a random collection of pages. A book is an organism, a common sense, an even larger and more significant machine. Something exponential, multiplying the sum of its parts (one definition of literature is this ability, I'd argue). The central conceit of Time acts as a logic for Swann's collection. It binds these texts into truly an equation, a book.
This book argues—even by simply collecting these memories—for keeping (treasuring, actually) some aspects of your childhood, inside, way deep inside (alongside the heart and spleen), even though it's gone (green and dying, green and dying, Thomas tells us). There is a war on the imagination (look around; read a newspaper, etc.) and David Swann would like you to try (or maybe attempt, I'd say) to be on the good side, even in the face of actual warfare, illness and death, evil, or even worse (in my opinion, at least), humorless bureaucracy.
David Swann argues for play, in the good, serious sense.
(For yonks? Cool.)
Because sure, life is hard, but it has its good moments too. Amazing moments, mythical yet very real, as in "The Balloonist's Tale," when two men swoop down in a hot air balloon and throw an actual rose to a woman working in a field....That's poetry, too.
I'd like to open another beer (Pacifico—it is summer here) and leave theme now and talk briefly about language. Because David Swann deserves what the poet deserves (he is one, as I've intimated earlier), an attention to the word/sentence/stanza (or paragraph). Let me make an argument with the opening to page 13, "Waiting for Frank's Pigeons."
"On a Sunday in spring too cold for cricket, with half the world hiding in girl-places, Dave and me tranced in his dad's rickety shed, stopwatch ticking for the working-man's racehorses."
This is how a flash fiction writer actually does it—poetry. Read it aloud, go ahead. Meter, verb choice, attention to auditory, word-twist, pun, sensory.
This is play, serious play, right here on the page (fun, really, to read and I'm sure to write). This is Swann's larger argument again, embedded in the core, in the actual language. In words. Nice moments, nice moments, even though we're way past, "the last evening of our childhoods," (page 16) we still have thought, we still have imagination, we can still remember...and even better, as writers, we can share: