Flash Friday Review: “All the Wrong Questions” by DJ Hills, published in Wigleaf

A story about someone who is trying to keep hold of a fraying rope as she dangles off the side of a building/bridge/cliff. Or more directly, “I do not feel at peace.” This short, declarative—and very effective—line guides this flash piece from beginning to end. “I wanted so desperately to be popular.”

What is it like for someone’s life to spiral out of control or get launched—maybe literally, maybe figuratively—off a cliff. The fraying rope pales to the bus (with kids) which she acknowledges in the first paragraph: “Why did I drive the bus off the cliff?” Again, with kids in it (she did have an “abortion…in the early years of… marriage” which would support the metaphorical bus flying off the cliff, with kids). The bus was pulled out of the ocean. The narrator is now falling in love with the man who saved her.

Does it matter if any of it actually happened? No. Because we know what’s real: a failing relationship, loss at every turn, unmet needs/desires, and a general sense of unhappiness, despite a moderate effort: “I threw house party after house party trying to make friends. Where are they now?” Remember, she wanted to be popular?

When the narrator refers to being “dead” is it dead-dead? Or is it dead-to-the-world dead? I’m going to choose the latter here, because the one glimmer of any hope in this very powerful piece is when asked by the kids if it’s worth wishing on stars, even while dead, the narrator says, “Yes. Always. Let’s wish on one right now.”

Check out the story here.

DJ Hills is a queer writer and theater artist from the Appalachian Mountains, currently living in Baltimore. They have work in or coming from Appalachian Review, Cold Mountain Review, SmokeLong Quarterly and others.

Flash Friday Review: “Symbology” by Betsy M. Narvaez, published in The Brooklyn Rail

Many years ago in a short story workshop, one of the teachers, while discussing dreams in stories, said something to the effect of: “Share a dream, lose a reader.” Meaning, dreams, like in real life, are never as interesting to anyone else other than the dreamer herself. No one gives a shit about your extended slumber-time adventures with your third-grade pen pal on a balance beam overlooking some strange and muddy river.

But take a look at “Symbology” by Betsy M. Narvaez which opens with the line: “My mother began sharing her nightmares with me the same year I unfurled and grew taller than anyone had anticipated…”

So maybe nightmares are more compelling than dreams. Maybe when the nightmares and dreams are connected to the transition between childhood and adulthood, the meaning is more pronounced, more urgent. I’d say Betsy M. Narvaez proves that dreams/nightmares are indeed compelling, and I would argue further that her use of these dream/nightmares proves to hold deft insights into the characters of the story.

“Symbology” is a flash fiction piece where each stanza or section acts as a stepping stone toward the final realization which brings one of the mother’s nightmares (almost) to realization. The nightmare involves a hospital, her death. And I don’t think it’s a spoiler to announce that the mother doesn’t die. That would be too spot on and meaningless to the story. Instead, what we get are these tender moments that unfurl. The narrator, after what she’s heard about the nature and importance of dreams, by the end of this story, wants to share with her mother something “that might convince her that dreams hold messages richer than warnings.” That life is more about life and less about death. And since the certainty of that notion should render us free in some way (yes, we all die), we need not preoccupy ourselves with something so predictable, but instead bask in the gorgeous unpredictability of being alive.

Check out Betsy M. Narvaez’s story here.

Betsy M. Narváez is an Ecuadorian-American writer and translator. A native New Yorker, she was born and raised in the Bronx and now resides in Washington Heights. She earned an MFA from Rutgers Newark and a B.A. in English and American studies from Wesleyan University. 

Review of Mary Miller’s story “Another City” published in Southwest Review

Caroline, the protagonist in Mary Miller’s story “Another City,” is so affectingly forthright it’s difficult not to be entranced by her roaming thoughts paired with brutal directness. This is a character who attracts a crowd while telling stories at happy hour because of the speed with which her mind races and the comedic timing of her insights: “I wait for [my boyfriend] to say more but he doesn’t. He is a great pauser… [his pauses] can go on so long I nearly have a panic attack every time he pulls into a Wendy’s.” This conversation occurs while finding out the reason for her boyfriend’s tardiness. It’s because one of his “cute” students got bumped by a car. By “cute” he meant “She’s a good student.” Still, Caroline presses him on the relational dynamic.

              “Are you attracted to her?”

              “No, Caroline. I’m not attracted to nineteen-year-old girls.” And then he asks what I want for dinner. Do I need him to pick anything up? What do I want to watch on TV later? There are so many arbitrary questions that he would like me to answer, but I’m still thinking about the girl who cracked her pelvis and if he wants to fuck her.”

But Caroline is capable of more than humor. Her insights are just as moving as her one-liners. Referring to her boyfriend’s daughter, Hailey, with whom she has a complicated relationship, she says, “I want to call her over to the bed and smell the chlorine on her skin, brush the tangles out of her hair. I’d be so careful, so careful.”

And what would humor and insight be without existential proclamations: “To be alive is a goddamn miracle.” Caroline knows what’s up.

And this is essentially what the story is about. A celebration of being alive in the wake of a divorce and a general sense of unease and unhappiness, along with conflicted notions of how to handle her boyfriend’s daughter, which is really the heart of this story, all contained within, I’d guess, 2500 words. And in that timeframe, we understand the strained relationship the narrator has with her boyfriend, a relationship that has lost all the luster of those early days of any “in love” relationship, and the boyfriend’s daughter who Caroline wants a relationship with, but she’s just not sure what kind: quasi-parent or friend.

I’m probably not the best person to be discussing anything Mary Miller writes with any amount of objectivity. I’ve been enamored by her work since the great discovery of Big World, her debut story collection published by SF/LD Books (Hobart’s publishing arm), however many years ago. Her work then and now is marked by what Hemingway discussed as men and women working at love. And yet her stories are about so much more.

For instance, early in “Another City,” Caroline see-saws between wanting to scold her boyfriend’s daughter, Hailey, for her carelessness (leaving a cast iron skillet on open flames for so long it “glows bright red… about to burst into a fireball”), and the tenderness mentioned above—about wanting to spend time with her. Maybe hangout in her room to listen to records and “watch how fast she can text.” We know there’s an underlying envy and interest in the girl by all the wonderful observations. That she’s “breezily confident” and “beautiful.” That she can get away with “sloppiness” and for Caroline, that’s what “galls [her] the most.”

But what really “galls” her the most, or perhaps what is simply a sad resignation, is that Caroline is stuck with a boyfriend whose featured strengths are his pauses (remember, he’s “a great pauser”) and how he gets “so messed up” on whiskey that “he can hardly speak.” Oh, the charms of relationships! Meanwhile, Hailey is in love with a girl who lives in another state, and exhibits all the signs of experiencing that naïve love: long FaceTime conversations that enable temporary amnesia thus causing her to neglect basic responsibilities such as turning off a stove.

And maybe I was wrong before. Maybe this is actually what the story is about: how it’s unrealistic for us to stay in that “in love” giddy space forever—the butterflies, etc. But for a passionate, sensitive romantic like Caroline, there will always be a part of her that clings to those people who are still blind to what their relationship will inevitably become—that being “in love” can’t last forever. Yes, “to be alive is a goddamn miracle.” But maybe the real miracle is that some relationships last. Some relationships work. And work well. Maybe the real miracle is the existance of some alchemy that binds people together past the butterfly stage. Not only binds them together, but maybe even sustains them. That, truly, might be the real “goddamn miracle.”

Check out Mary Miller’s fantastic story here.

Mary Miller is the author of two novels, Biloxi and The Last Days of California, as well as two story collections, Always Happy Hour and Big World. Her work has appeared in The Paris ReviewPushcart Prize XLIV: Best of Small Presses 2020 EditionThe Best of McSweeney’s QuarterlyAmerican Short Fiction, and others. She is a former Grisham writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi (2014-15) and Michener Fellow at the University of Texas.

Flash Friday Review: “There, I Said It” by Tori Malcangio, published in The Lascaux Review

There, I Said It” is flash fiction piece that explores a person’s incomprehensible pain and sorrow at the literal hands of those who should protect and comfort.

The story, narrated by Kiva, moves by section (or stanza – it is poetically rendered) from Kiva’s mind/memories to the physical movements and actions of her college roommate, Romy. A shower curtain hangs between their beds. An “innocence shield,” according to Romy.

Still, Kiva sees and hears things: the bodies, the whispers, the “cakey” voices, the “happymist.” Romy, “serial lover,” her cup overfloweth. And what happens in the wake of excess? Inevitable disappointment, maybe boredom, maybe new realizations: “too much give, and not enough get.”

But what of Kiva, the so-called virgin?

What happens when she’s stuck in a box full of noises and body parts (Romy and a new person every night) that remind her of the horror of home?

She internalizes it and we readers are there alongside her, experiencing the pain and agony of betrayal, though betrayal is perhaps the nicest word one could use in describing her pain.

The story is masterfully crafted—turning in on itself, revealing perfectly timed insights made more poignant through reoccurring images and details: the haiku, the color pink, the music.

There, I Said It,” is a brilliant though painful story of terror— enduring another person’s transgressions—and its aftermath.

Tori Malcangio received a journalism degree from Arizona State University and an MFA from Bennington College. Stories have appeared in Glimmer TrainMississippi ReviewTampa ReviewZYZZYVAPassages North, and elsewhere. She won the William Van Dyke Short Story Prize, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, the Waasmode Short Fiction Prize, and the Cincinnati Review Robert and Adele Schiff Award.

On Reading John Edgar Wideman

One of my recent emails, Paris Review Redux, included a link to one of John Edgar Wideman’s stories, “Sightings,” published in 2004. Ever since I read Philadelphia Fire maybe twelve years ago now, I’ve read pretty much everything I’ve come across with the author’s name, this being one of them. And like all of Wideman’s work, it left me in awe of his propulsive prose.

Reading John Edgar Wideman’s work is an experience unlike any other: cerebral, experimental, challenging. As a new-ish reader/READER twelve years ago, I wasn’t attracted to Wideman’s sentences so much as his love of basketball. Philadelphia Fire (which isn’t about basketball, really) possesses elaborate scenes of young men playing hoops on outdoor courts, something of my childhood that I could cotton to as an immature reader more interested in subject matter than the alchemic cohesion and rhythmic sounds of nuanced sentences on the page, of which Wideman is a genius-master.

The summer following my experience reading Wideman’s Philadelphia Fire, I had plans to meet friends out in Colorado, but before dipping through Fort Collins and eventually onto Steamboat Springs, I had convinced my wife to drive north through Laramie where Wideman had once lived and taught. He no longer lived in Laramie, but I wanted to see what he saw; hear what he heard. I wanted to walk those same city streets and lay eyes on the same railroad tracks and eat in the same cafes that no doubt Wideman had experienced at one point in his life. Had Wideman taught anywhere else—say, a larger city of any kind—this experience of re-living his steps wouldn’t have held the same allure. But we were in Laramie, a town of mystery in its own right.

Walking those sparsely populated streets, with a pleasant lack of stimuli, one could see how a writer’s mind could be (over)stimulated—possessed not of the external, but of the inward; how, given the appropriate silence and space, a person’s thoughts are allowed to occupy and multiply in a space normally taken up by honking cars and should-to-shoulder foot traffic which, on the day I visited Laramie, was virtually nonexistant.

While there, I bought a book in a bookshop that I accessed through an alleyway. The bookshop was on the second floor, and I had to climb a set of iron stairs mounted to the side of the building in order to enter. There were a few people in the shop, and as I perused the books, I settled on the one closest to the cash register. A pocket-sized The Elements of Style by Strunk & White. I didn’t know at the time what attracted me to such a helpful (albeit boring) book. Perhaps it was that I wanted to be a writer myself, and I thought surely this book couldn’t hurt. Now, several years later, what I like about that purchase is knowing how Wideman’s work—with all its fancy lingual dexterity—wouldn’t fit neatly into anything Strunk & White advocated; that Wideman set out to break all the rules and in so doing created his own inimitable (element of) style.

If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, try reading the first paragraph of Wideman’s story “Sightings.” 1500 manic words, all one sentence.

What do you suppose Strunk & White would have to say about that?