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Book review

Tiny Novels in A Flash: 30 Short-Short Stories. William LaFond (2020)

*Tiny Novels In A Flash: 30 Short-Short Stories* delivers maximum story in minimum word-count. This book is a rainbow collection of characters and moods. Its themes range from comedy through life-lesson through love and loss. Its settings span the American landscape; most of the stories are contemporary; a few are set at various key moments in U.S. history. Each of these 30 standalone stories is a delectable read for a few spare minutes. Together, they demonstrate an impressive range from this debut author.

Little is in. Many literary magazines now specialise in flash fiction (<1,000 words); other specialise in, or publish, even shorter formats (“microfiction,” “drabble,” and 10-, 25-, 50-, or 100-word stories). Collections and anthologies of flash fiction are appearing from small presses, as well as in self-published format. Tiny Novels In A Flash: 30 Short-Short Stories belongs to this trend towards maximum story in minimum word-count. This book is a rainbow collection of characters and moods. Its themes range from comedy through life-lesson through love and loss. Its settings span the American landscape; most of the stories are contemporary; a few are set at various key moments in U.S. history. Each of these 30 standalone stories is a delectable read for a few spare minutes. Together, they demonstrate an impressive range. Only the title is inapt: these stories work as flash stories, at their current length: meaning they don’t work as novels-in-embryo.

In “For the Love of Plumbing,” a woman is convinced that they plumber who’s arrived to do a job is George Clooney; she immediately addresses him as such. Her husband, meanwhile, has his doubts, but shows no interest in the plumber’s real identity. Why is the wife convinced the plumber’s Clooney, and why is the husband not even a little curious? The reader is left to wonder about idiosyncrasies in human curiosity, and about the dynamics of this marriage.

In “First Mistake,” a man facing death tries to identify the point where it all went wrong: his ‘first mistake.’ He’s had an affair with a married woman; her husband his now stalking our protagonist, armed and ready. Again, a few hints scattered across the story’s short length offer tantalising glimpses into our protagonist’s experiences and interiority. Just enough to intrigue.

Some of the stories feel incomplete: more like vignettes. In “The Road Taken,” a woman compares notes with her great-grandmother about school experience. The child realises that his own education is much less demanding than hers; but this conversation is left stranded outside the context of a narrative. In “What’s In A Name,” a woman drunk in a restaurant mistakes a stranger for an old acquaintance, makes a scene, then orders another drink. The key point in the story – whether the protagonist did in fact misidentify the stranger – is left unresolved. In “Instant Communication,” our protagonist’s coffee-shop blind date shows up only to busy herself texting on her phone; the protagonist, who has been accommodating as to venue, suddenly reaches the end of his tether and calls off the date. Again, we don’t know why he’s suddenly irritated, or why he doesn’t try harder to claim his date’s attention before calling it off. One gets the sense that the writer, holding himself strictly to a severe word-limit, stopped writing some of these pieces before their story was complete.

A few of these stories are speculative. In “Pretty Colours,” a protagonist walks through a post-apocalyptic world where the sky is orange and the grass blue. He neither worries about the state of the earth, nor takes any action – succumbing instead to the easy distraction of the ‘pretty colours’ in his new landscape. Like all good speculative fiction, this story uses its novel setting to illuminate aspects of human nature to which, in our everyday reality, we grow blind – in this case, to our ability to avoid thinking about the problems that stare us in the face. On the other hand, “Bobby’s Whirled,” another speculative piece featuring a boy dating an alien, bizarrely devolves into his mother declaring instead that the ‘alien’ is a human manufacture, and rattling off ‘her’ technical specifications. The young couple walk away, and again we don’t know whether the date was in fact an alien or a robot – or why it matters.

LaFond displays an impressive range of humour. There’s global-scale irony-in-hindsight in “It’s A Gas Gas Gas,” where an automobile representative assures a journalist that the gasoline that will fuel his company’s product is perfectly safe. There’s the gentle irony of a self-pitying individual learning a lesson in fortitude in in “Not Fair” – a man who’s temporarily lost the use of his legs finds that his physician has prosthetics. There is the humorous mischief perpetrated by a witch on a love-potion-seeking customer in “Sabina’s Potion.” There’s the high spirits, comic-book action, and heartwarming heroism of “Mike’s Bus” – where a knot of citizens collaborate to foil a would-be robber. There’s continent-scale social satire in “It’s A Deal” – where one Native American chieftain and two white immigrants find a way to justify their duplicitousness in selling out/buying out Native Land cheaply. There’s the comedy-of-errors, with a sinister note of tragedy, in “Bear It” – where the narrator, a bear, mistakes the fear humans have of him for joy. There’s the I-lost-my-kingdom-for-a-horseshoe parable of “Squirrels & Nuts.” And there’s the dry humour of “Snowshoe” – a young volunteer with daddy issues faces a difficult military mission, learns to see things in perspective, and turns around to march back home: for when caught between a freezing brook and enemy fire, there’s no place like home.

Some of these stories are poignant. In “The Promise,” a widower contemplating suicide is visited by his dead wife; she makes him promise to move on. Though hackneyed, the story works at this length. In “See You Soon,” a widower keeps fancying that he is seeing his dead wife all around the city. The reader wonders whether the narrator is going to be alright; the reflects that, his lifelong companion dead, perhaps he doesn’t much care to live any more. In “Damned If You Do,” the protagonist confronts his father’s history of abusive alcoholism. But his family instantly shut him down for washing their dirty laundry in public. This is a startling portrait of the human tendency to tolerate abnormal and abusive behaviour – but to remain paranoid about what other people think of them.

These thirty flash stories contain humour, colour, and feeling. This is a promising debut from William C. LaFond.

***

Read Tiny Novels In A Flash: 30 Short-Short Stories here. Read in soft copy to save paper.

Switching to soft-copy books has made my note-taking easier and more extensive, my reading therefore more mindful and critical. Read better, save paper, save room on your overflowing and dusty bookshelves, and (in most cases) save money too. Win-win! Try switching to soft copy today. (Yes. This is propaganda. From someone experiencing every day multiple ill-effects of climate change, deforestation, air pollution, and water pollution. Please have a thought for the earth.)

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By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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