School of Thought

Randall Brown
Mad to Live
(PS Books, 2011)

Randall Brown is the director of the MFA in Writing program at Rosemont College. Hidden on an obscure campus over a century old we find innovation. The program is one of the few in the country to offer instruction on the version of the short story known as flash fiction. Brown is also famous for working with private workshop writing groups at Martin Scorcese’s Zoetrope, groups founded by modern flash fiction torch bearer Kim Chinquee, who has a cult-like following; there is history here and in the making. As the futurists were to early 20th century Italian painting, Brown and Chinquee are to flash fiction. That is to say, widely argued about and polarizing. The genre is an acquired taste for many, and obsessed about by those positively mad about this school of thought within the short story. The debate continues. Champions of the craft cite its merit to be inherent in the work’s economy of language, its compression and experimentation with narrative flow. Flash fiction is minimalist painting: a world in which everything is expressed through clarity, through urgency, through precision, through discipline, though not lacking heart.

Unapologetically, Brown brings us his collection Mad to Live. Short stories told expertly in a real world where anything can, and does, happen: a pregnant woman eats crickets in a primordial urge, a brother kisses his sister’s mastectomy scars, a fool father smirks at his son’s inability to play soccer. Humanity here is written often with distance, with an omniscience earned by wisdom; it’s a step apart from the sentimentality that sometimes clouds the modern fiction from younger writers. Here, true craft flows up through the earth and reaches to the light.

From “What-If World:”

“I alight upon the branch in the willow tree with the secret knot-hole full of crystals, stream-smoothed rocks, dried daffodil petals.”

“There you are,” Annie Rydell says. How strange to see the elfin features—the milk-white face, the thin layer of freckles, the tiny nose and ears, the wild red hair—that appear in the women in my stories, story after story. Annie as the porn store clerk, the subway R.E.M. fan, the wife behind the surgical mask, the agoraphobe confronting the white birch woods.

We are ten years old. In the next moment my mother will reach up and grab Annie’s leg as she descends from our willow, will catch her—or more accurately, get in the way of Annie’s tumble through the branches. My mother will pick her up, shake Annie as if she isn’t real, and spit into her face, ‘I’m tired of your mother fucking my husband.’”

Brown, the patriarch of a growing family, writes throughout the book with a tone that rings of the feminine mystique: His attention to particular detail, his frequent indictment of male figures, our narrator included, sings repeatedly throughout the pages. This is an intuitive, finely crafted, heart-wrenching account of what it means to be human.

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