Books

Tiny fiction strikes with poetic energy

Short-short stories, micro fiction, flash fiction -- these and other terms are used these days to refer to short stories less than six pages long and often much shorter. Many people seem to think it's a new contemporary genre. But short fiction has been around since the time of Aesop.

Writers such as Isaac Babel, Anton Chekhov, Franz Kafka and Ernest Hemingway, among others, wrote stories only a page or two in length. They were merely called short stories -- they just happened to be more condensed.

This sense of compression is one of the hallmarks of short-short fiction. Stories of a limited length require a more poetic approach to their subject matter. Because there isn't as much space available to develop a narrative, each element has to be in balance and resonate against the other elements, much like lines in a poem.

Japanese haibun openly combines elements of both prose and poetry. Haibun are very brief prose narratives, usually personal, interspersed with one or more short poems. The form has been around for four centuries.

Russell Edson, in the 1970s, made a reputation for himself by publishing page-long stories that seemed like a cross between Salvador Dali and Wallace Stevens -- surrealistic in subject matter, yet with the precise, if sometimes obscure, imagistic language of poetry.

For a while, many of the short-short fiction pieces published in this country strove for that sort of compression and surrealism. Readers would often wonder if they were reading a short story or a prose poem. More recently, some practitioners of short-short stories have returned to traditional story structures. The poetic aspect has been replaced by summary narratives more absurd than surreal. Other writers seem to be settling for slick, superficial wittiness.

"Night Train," a collection of stories by Lise Erdrich, published by Coffee House Press (www.coffeehousepress.org), seems to incorporate familiar elements we've seen in the past -- the compression of poetry, surrealism of imagery, humor -- and moves the short-short story form in a new direction. Although not all the stories in Erdrich's collection could be published as flash fiction, in terms of length most of them would fit the definition. Where they differ from other contemporary short-short stories is in their energy and emotional impact. Erdrich has produced a collection of fiction that begs to be performed aloud. "Night Train" is the equivalent of Slam Poetry -- it is Slam Fiction.

"Attention" -- a page-long story -- moves along as the author tries to make it to a reading: Author loses the keys again, author shuffles through piles of paper on the desk where they might be hiding, shuffles through overstuffed drawers, sees a few ideas in there, digs in pockets and finds the keys and more ideas again, but the phone rings ... continues through driving, singing, talking her way out of a ticket, arriving at her reading, taking questions, offering an answer that baffles everyone, feeling herself lose her existential footing, until she dances offstage with Looney Tunes music, that's all folks! and in the long run it won't matter because they're just a crowd of strangers and the curtains yank shut on all this at the road sign Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream 31 Flavors Next Exit.

It is giving away nothing to tell the ending because, like a poem, the piece is about the entirety, every word, and knowing the last line in no way limits one's enjoyment on subsequent readings. The emotional slam is just as funny, just as telling, just as likely to induce head-nodding on the third reading as the first. Although it reads fine on the page, this story cries to be read aloud to an audience in a cafe or bar. Given the right delivery, it would be literary theater, connecting with an audience either directly, or in close, oblique recognition, much like performance art.

Drum roll to signal laughter -- In the state of North Dakota it is still not legal to shoot an Indian from a moving train.

Or head-shake in sympathetic recognition, Auntie Grace says she has already been in touch with Princess Diana and JFK Jr., when the morphine drip kicks in again.

Since 1984, Coffee House Press has earned a reputation for publishing literary work by new and midcareer writers. The authors they publish, increasingly diverse in gender and ethnicity, produce work that is carefully wrought, but clearly not in the mainstream. It is often risky, not always easily accessible, but worth the effort for fans of serious literature. They are a nonprofit press, dependent on grants and donations, and publish novels, story collections, memoirs and poetry. The press's name, according to its Web site, is meant to recall English coffeehouses in the 1600s or Parisian cafes in the 1900s where the exchange of ideas and freedom of expression were valued.

Coffee House Press claims to be "dedicated to innovation in the craft of writing and preservation of the tradition of book arts. Coffee House produces books that present the dreams and ambitions of people who have been underrepresented in published literature."

Erdrich's book certainly fits this category. It is literate, focused more on language and situation than narrative and character development; it asks you to put some thought into understanding, and not just receive and grasp the meaning immediately. "Night Train" is a book to sit with, laugh over, ponder, savor -- more so if you have a friend or lover with whom you can take turns reading the stories aloud.

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