The winner of this year’s Drue Heinz prize writes flash fiction that bursts with poetic imagery and focuses on lust and the death of beauty.
It’s not hard to see why film critic Renata Adler chose Tina May Hall’s collection, The Physics of Imaginary Objects, for the prestigious Drue Heinz Literature Prize. Physics comprises fourteen flash fictions and a longer novella that recalls the best work of Lydia Davis, Kim Chinquee, and Nicolle Elizabeth. Hall writes in miniature, but her subject matter is anything but—focusing, among other things, on the strangeness of lust and the humiliation of fertility.
Hall is able to write not only in different modes but about many different subjects. Take, for example, “Skinny Girls’ Constitution and Bylaws,” a lyrically beautiful short that manages to seem nonsensical while being surprisingly haunting. The story begins, “We will know each other by the way our watches slip from our wrists, the bruises on our knees, our winged shoulder blades tenting silk dresses,” before moving into gleefully sinister, almost Virgin Suicides-esque territory:
We chant Plath at school assemblies. ‘One year in every ten, peel off the napkin, I eat men, I eat men’… Our classmates love it… send us… risqué text messages, dream of us all weekend long… We will not stick our heads in ovens. We will not throw ourselves from bridges, nor weight our pockets, nor disturb our veins.
Compare that to “Kick,” the next story in the collection. “Kick” is leisurely in its plot and lacks all the voice-driven intensity of “Skinny Girls;” it follows the members of a running club and their significant others enjoying a picnic on a sunny day. Hall focuses on Ben, the oldest member of the group, as he thinks about his dissatisfaction with his wife:
<blockquote>Jessamy was certainly sprite-like… The kite could have lifted her off of her feet. Ben thought of it, Jessamy, floating overhead, her blue sundress ballooning around her skinny legs, her sandals slipping off one by one to fall into the duck pond.”
The story culminates in a totally ordinary moment in which Ben lusts after one of the plainest wives at the picnic. In many ways, this story would fit comfortably among the work of dirty realists like Raymond Carver. But Hall is able to deliver not only small portrayals of human drama, but the wacky visual of Jessamy floating away, all the more striking for following the prose-poetry pyrotechnics of “Skinny Girls.”
The highlight of Physics is “All the Day’s Sad Stories,” the novella that ends the book. It’s a series of interconnected vignettes about a couple trying to get pregnant. Mercy designs boutique hats and Jake is a university professor who gives up his job to become a professional online poker player. After months of trying to get pregnant, things have reached a boiling point: “Mercy knows the feeling, the ache in the jaw at the sight of a plump baby, the urge to chew and chew until that sweet thing is a part of her.”
Hall’s details are visceral and often disturbing, but she never loses sympathy for her characters, even as their troubles escalate. Jake fails miserably at his poker career. Money runs out. They run over a stranger’s dog and return the dead pet’s body to the owner. When Jake’s jacket is ruined by the dog’s blood, Mercy “searches between the seats for a napkin, afraid to look at Jake, her fingertips silky with plane crashes and robberies, drug busts and congressional panels, all the day’s sad stories.” Here, Hall demonstrates her uncanny ability to pick out details that perfectly reveal character while also feeling otherworldly. The spareness of her fiction allows her to take her prose into poetic realms longer fiction rarely dares.
Not every story in Physics fares as well as the novella. One piece, based on fragments from John Tyndall poems, and another culled from something called The 1899 and 1900 Transactions of the American Microscopical Society, read like found poetry; occasionally Hall’s prose can be cryptic, the stories so short that it’s nigh impossible to glean their meaning. Take a section from “For Dear Pearl, Who Drowned”: “Everything is hidden from the sun. She is hiding enough hair for a meal. There is a storekeeper to hide from. But he is watching television. He does not see her. He can see paper-thin people.”
But to read Tina May Hall for straightforward narrative is to miss the point entirely. In the best stories in Physics, Hall marries plot to the beauty of her prose—but her priorities are lyricism first, narrative second. She’s concerned with relationships, the hidden lives of objects, and the death of beauty. She’s concerned with those tiny, everyday moments that reverberate throughout our lives, a beacon of otherworldliness in an ordinary world.