The Queen of Flash Fiction

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In curt sentences detailing many unsettled lives, Kim Chinquee constructs a mosaic of despair in modern day America. Life is already hard, but attempts at intimacy (what many of the people in these pages seek) do not always further the characters’ life but leaves them confused and sorry—sometimes stoic.

Once asked why he kept making small films in terms of characters and length—chamber pieces for lack of a better word—Ingmar Bergman quoted Frederic Chopin’s answer to a woman who asked why he concentrated more on sonatas and concertos instead of that grand, opulent form—the symphony: “My kingdom is a small one, but I am its king.”

People have voiced similar concerns about flash fiction or very short fiction or any of the other diminutives for the form that currently saturates the internet. In the spirit of her Northern European brothers I offer Kim Chinquee as the answer—the queen of flash fiction–and her most recent collection, Pretty.

In curt sentences detailing many unsettled lives, Chinquee constructs a mosaic of despair in modern day America. Life is already hard, but attempts at intimacy (what many of the people in these pages seek) do not always further the characters’ life but leaves them confused and sorry—sometimes stoic, as in the title story where the narrator recalls going back and riding on a parade float in the small town she used to live in, seeing boys who had done unspeakable things to her, “…I stood, wearing a white dress, holding a gigantic cross statue to keep my balance. I felt sort of like a star then.” (50)

These pieces are not epiphany-seeking. In their taut spaces and narrow corridors of action there is no room for insight. They are like looking at half-completed puzzles of medieval times. In the corner, the turret of the castle has been constructed because it’s gray and stands out from the forest and shrubs of many greens, but the main body is empty or partially constructed. Chinquee’s shorts almost have the air of thrillers or mysteries because clues lay about disguised as the most ordinary things: a dog, a drink, a scar, football on TV, an article about panda bears, inciting both applause and disapproval, regret and recalcitrance as they enlighten and defuse Chinquee’s characters.

Take the beginning of ‘Labor’: “After making love, my new husband asked about my last one. He propped his head up on an elbow, ran his finger along the scar from my old surgery. It was a long jagged mark, just below my naval.” The first sentence throws the reader directly into the action. Post-coitus, post ex-husband and with a new husband. There are so many places the story can go, the levels have been built up in a few words and the stakes are very high. But the scar sticks out more than anything and leads the narrator to tell the story of her labor, ending in an absent husband. The new husband then says, “’You ever going to tell me anything?’” The narrator thinks of her son in college now and responds, “’You know?’…I laughed a little, nudged him.” (58-9) It’s a mysterious ending. A relationship unsure of itself tries to build itself stronger than the one that came before, but the scar remains. This could be a tagline for most of the stories in Pretty.

If there is a war in these pages it’s between women and men. Both are hungry, but on the whole the men want sex and the women want intimacy. It’s an age old story but Chinquee imbues the concerns with fleeting, imbedded traces in sentences such as: “He told me to call him Joe, then he sang songs to me, as if he were a blackbird,” (38-9) “She told him she was curious and he told her that was passion,” (35) “He pictured her bedraggled, her hair a mess, her naked, asking him again will you ever touch me, will you again ever, and will you, will you, will you? ever, do you love me?” (28) The banter, the zigzagging one-upmanship—it’s a world where people tip-toe around, where wrestling with this thing called love is avoided head-on, except in the last example—a moment of supposition where a ghostly woman beckons.

One masterpiece called ‘Lint’ is made up of very short paragraphs, most only one sentence long. It’s a simple telephone conversation, but Chinquee sprinkles the past in like seeds evenly planted every few paragraphs. The narrator talks to her girlfriend who used to be a closer friend but now they live on different coasts. The woman in California drinks a lot of vodka and thinks about the man who can’t love her, who tells her she whines. The narrator walks around her new apartment with the phone, picking lint from the sofa, remembering how the woman comforted her after her husband beat her. “She put a sponge to my forehead, said she was going to beat my husband.” (69) It’s a past that can’t make too much a difference in the present. Sometimes people save us and they fall away. We can’t always relate, we can’t return the favor. Soon the woman gets another call and abruptly hangs up. ‘Lint’ examines a moment of connection (people needing reassurance) just long enough for past aches to return. It ends, but what has been summoned won’t recede. The chilly human emotions make the scars that remain tingle.

Pretty is another cog in Chinquee’s oeuvre that began with Oh, Baby. What will come next? More minute examinations of life’s crackle and sag? Packing more characters into flash fictions and widening that world? We eagerly await the next arrival of the Queen.

Greg Gerke’s fiction and non-fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, The Kenyon Review Online, Denver Quarterly, Quarterly West, Mississippi Review, LIT, Film Comment, and others. He lives in Brooklyn. More from this author →