This week, Okey-Pankey treated us to not one, but two flash fiction stories from Padgett Powell, whose third collection of short stories, Cries for Help, Various, is forthcoming this September as the first title from the new Electric Literature/Black Balloon Publishing lovechild, Catapult. In true Powell form, the pieces are darkly comic and flirt with the absurd. In the first, “Gluing Wood,” the narrator gives instructions on, well, gluing wood. In the middle, though, we get a delightful tangent about the virtues and dangers of dipping candy bars into Dr. Pepper:
A Butterfinger is wont to explode. Never recap your Dr. Pepper if you are using Butterfinger. I must tell you that because the Surgeon General won’t.
You get the feeling in “Gluing Wood” that you don’t know exactly what the point is, or if there’s a point at all (aside from a cautionary tale about explosive candy/soda mixtures), or if there’s something metaphorical going on (there’s a lot of rubbing wood against wood and “squeezeout” that needs to be wiped away). Powell doesn’t explain. If he did explain, the story would be reduced to being only one thing. But by leaving it open to interpretation, the story becomes manifold.
This gap in explanation can turn some new readers off to flash fiction, but the gap is also one of the form’s best qualities. It’s a big part of what makes it all work. Building stories out of less than 2,000 words doesn’t just mean cutting out the filler or axing the adjectives, it doesn’t just mean crafting each sentence so every word is essential, it also means putting what’s not there to work. This is true for all short fiction, but especially for flash fiction. Sometimes, what’s not told is just as, or more important than what is.
Absence is employed expertly in Powell’s second story, “Not Much is Known.” At the end of the first paragraph, we are introduced to a nameless protagonist “who knows no one but himself, not well, and wants to kill himself.” This is the only mention of suicide. We never come back to it, never find out if he does it, and in fact never come back to the present, which in itself is a kind of absence. Powell plucks that chord once, only once, and then expertly lets it ring into the void.
The second paragraph shifts to the past with a scene that is as emotional in its impact as it is emotionless in its delivery:
He has one pair of shoes and once had a dog. The dog liked to eat ice cream from a bowl, and its impeccable house habits and grooming habits deteriorated after it was struck by a car. After that it was accidentally closed in a car in the sun and died of heat prostration and the man found the dog with its collar improbably caught in the seat springs under the car seat. He, the man, was about twelve. The dog was not, as the expression goes, still warm; the dog was very hot. The man, or boy, pulled the dog out by the collar once he got him free of the undercarriage of the seat and laid him on a patch of green grass to cool down. He went inside and reported to his mother and father that Mac was dead.
The prose’s calm restraint, the matter-of-fact tone, the quip about the dog being hot instead of still warm. Powell doesn’t have to tell us how horrible it would be to find your dog dead in a car, to struggle to untangle his body from the springs he got caught on in his panic, to lay his hot, lifeless form out on the grass, all at twelve years old. He doesn’t have to tell us because we can imagine. Powell gives us the pieces and lets us do the rest, and allowing us to imagine for ourselves makes it all the more devastating. The absence of emotion in the passage leaves room for our own to flow in.
The story holds another haunting absence near the end: who closed the dog in the car? (Also: why does the man want to kill himself? Also: does he kill himself?) But you’ll have to fill that one in for yourself. This story is all about absences. As the title says, not much is known.
This has been a good week for flash fiction. On Monday, American Short Fiction released “The Tobacconist” by Anna Noyes, a story very different from Powell’s stylistically but just as emotionally evocative. While Powell’s prose is spare, Noyes’s flows between spare and lush. While Powell only hints at characters’ interior lives, Noyes develops her character’s inner fantasy in detail.
“The Tobacconist” is about a husband and father named George who wants to leave his family for an imagined life with the tobacconist, a man he has barely spoken with and knows not at all. The entire story exists in the mind of George while he’s standing at the tobacco counter, in the liminal space that precedes a life-changing decision.
For now, he was not a bad man. He had not yet tasted the back of the tobacconist’s neck. He had not yet thrown his wife into contrariety with the tobacconist, or climbed the topgallant mast of a sailboat with the tobacconist, snapper leaping from the water that rushed below them. He had not yet begun to think of his son’s mind as mediocre, or been kicked in the street for being a fairy, a duplicitous fairy, for misreading the look of the man in the bar, not the tobacconist, another man, with nice hands. He had not yet learned the shame of trying to work one’s way back into fatherhood and husbandhood, after you have shown yourself to be a certain type of despicable character. In this moment, at the tobacconist’s counter, the solid sediment of his history was fragile as shale, as easily fragmented.
Noyes beautifully portrays the longing for the life not chosen, the pain of molding yourself to the life you chose. She draws out the moment of decision for half the story, spinning fantasies full of possibility but shadowed by fear. “The Tobacconist” draws its power from a different kind of absence: the void of an unsatisfied life, the aching cavity of desire, the unanswered lacuna of what-if.