A Micro-study of Micro-fiction
Fissures: One Hundred 100-Word Stories
(Press 53, 2015)
Quite often, genius and gaiety produce sudden little enthusiasms.
The first thing to notice about Grant Faulkner’s Fissures is that these pieces don’t really resemble anything else you’ve ever read.
The historical backdrop for Fissures is important. As fashionable as short short fiction is at the moment, this is coming out of a tradition, tracing back to the origins of the prose poem. We as readers don’t actually have to go too far back in preparation for Fissures, and of course, one can have loads of readerly fun without knowing much about the prose poem, or theories regarding the vertical/metaphorical vs. horizontal/metonymical poles of narrative.
But it might be helpful nonetheless to know that Grant Faulkner is working within that long tradition while breaking away from it at the same time, which is what makes Fissures worth your reading time.
Despite this awareness, I’m still puzzling a bit over Fissures, whether its desire is to bridge the gap between dream and reality, or to celebrate the fact that it can’t be bridged. I like the warm ambivalence of Grant Faulkner’s language—it isn’t studied and self-conscious in its craftsmanship, and in many ways feels like a free-spirited unfolding of image after image, if it weren’t for the jagged bits of glass in his sentences that remind, at times brutally, that not all is blissfully seamless here. Much of this stuff coheres by narrative thrust, but is interrupted by the hysterics of an image that does and doesn’t belong, sometimes dark like classic noir—a high-contrast Samuel Fuller scene, treated like a Bruce Conner hypnotic cut. Dramatic drive and head-on fantasy exist on the same plane of desire. It interests me that they are set equal in value.
The most memorable pieces achieve this equivalency. The essential formal freedom of the genre—of, for the sake of simplicity, micro-fiction—gives the author opportunity to tilt factual/narrative rhetoric, and the rational/linear attention this tends to command, against poetic imagination.
What I care about is the aesthetic objective behind micro-fiction, what it seems to be suggesting, in all its miniature glory, to the informed reader. I’ve recently thought of this in terms of the snuffing out of a candle’s flame. We’re being asked, I think, as readers, to watch a flame being snuffed out. Imagine that a hand is reaching out languidly to snuff out a candle, let’s say with a proper candle douter—you know, one of those long, delicate things with a small cone at the end of a handle—and the cone closes in over the flame. The flame is only visible at the base of the cone, a sliver, a piece of the moon that hasn’t been eclipsed. The flickering is contained. Then the flame is out. The candle douter is successful at its task. The hand pulls it away, and from within the cone, wisps of smoke come curling away like tiny clouds. It’s by no means a grand event, but it’s mesmerizing to watch, if you’ve ever seen it done, or done it yourself. The trick is to not let the douter do its job in one quick take. It has to be gently lowered upon the flame; just enough time to yield a view of the flame’s final spasms.
That is the beauty of it, the entrapment of a certain degree of smoke—and yes, it’s the same—you knew I’d say it—with micro-fiction.
With a micro-fiction piece, we go in expecting the flame’s life to be cut short, from a remorsefully sophisticated distance, and to burn brighter because of it. The techniques are similar to that of the candle douter. What’s given to the reader: wisps. The reader doesn’t get to see the candle, just what’s left of the flame. And by that act, we are forced—seduced?—into imagining the candle, the original flame. To expand the reader’s imagination and heighten the reader’s intimacy with the author, we minimize the cognitive sense available to the reader. This is the principle at work in Fissures, and Grant Faulkner is successful in its application.
Fissures capitalizes on the tension between the tantalizing distance (obfuscation, omission, distortion) from narrative logic that comprises poetic intimacy, and the surface structures of fact, the skeletons of characters, the main sense-pumping arteries of fiction. So what we have is this very strange anti-realist creature that presents itself to us fully fleshed, clothed even, and then we suddenly realize we can see straight through its skull. I love the capacity for surprise, even shock, that occurs within this hybrid form.
You could argue, though, that this aesthetic objective isn’t necessitated by much—there’s not much need for this kind of ultra-compressed fiction. The reason I say this is because (so the argument goes) you can experiment just as vigorously within the long form itself, such that if it’s just about ducking narrative sense in a paragraph or two—I’m reading Christine Schutt’s novel, Prosperous Friends, and I’m reminded of what can be done in the long form—why bother?
So why write micro-fiction?
Perhaps for effect.
And it turns out that the effect matters in the choice of terms to contextualize it. I’d like to say that Fissures relates more directly to the history of fiction than to the history of the prose poem, based on its composite of technique and style, but emotionally it still maintains a strong pull towards the prose poem, due to its dream-shards, which induce the reader into frustration, the pressing desire to know more.
The length of these pieces—set at 100 words each—is a feature that conditions how we receive them, so we say “short short fiction.” However, many of the pieces are aspirational towards the lyric core of the prose poem, and poetry of the absurd. The degree to which the reader is active in the creation of meaning doesn’t solve the problem of whether to call a text “short short fiction” or a “prose poem.” Because the reader is active in response to both.
Short, non-narrative prose has been done well by quite a few. I think of the luminosity of Charles Baudelaire, Max Jacob, Eugene Jolas, Francis Ponge, Nathalie Sarraute, Samuel Beckett, Kenneth Patchen, Robert Walser, Robert Bly, Russell Edson, Stuart Dybek, Claudia Rankine, Lydia Davis, even T.S. Eliot casually threw a prose poem into the collective hat (“Hysteria”). And it is a confusing tradition —I admit that each of these authors’ short, non-narrative prose merits a uniquely careful literary genealogy.
I don’t think Grant Faulkner’s work fully emerges from the tradition of the “lyric” short story (Anton Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield, Sherwood Anderson, even John Updike)—though superficially, some of his pieces involve the locus of two or three characters, and provide the singular details of their emotionally twisted situations—because the story line is much too disrupted by deadpan philosophical quipping, elusive and often carnivalesque imagery, and other strands of dimensions that dispatch us from whatever is left. Plot is restricted to just one dart of an anecdote, the barest and briefest, such that aborted climaxes abound.
We have imagery that is slightly short of the habits of a fable, building towards a vague, if not bankrupt, promise:
A light bulb dangled from a frayed wire. We asked for the medicine man, a wastrel whose payment was a bottle of whiskey. He soaked bark in cold water, sprinkled powders, giggled, then handed us the infusion in a palm leaf cup. “You’ll see cities,” he said. “Spiders will become your friends.”
—“From There On”
Fragments of individuality are there only for us to pluck someone out of the crowd; we stay close to our senses, but at the final approach, nothing exists but strangled personalities. The language is not infrequently tender and forgiving. I like this juxtaposition in Faulkner’s work. It sheds pretension, and feels good to read, despite the scarcity of emotional resolution.
The handling of feminine feeling is sensitive. I was impressed by Grant Faulkner’s ability to understand feminine doubt and desire, and not sentimentally but cleverly, in such pieces as “The Sculptor” (“If Anna Karenina had owned a cell phone, Neva thought, she wouldn’t have checked it for a text message at the train station”). Lovingly, too:
Celeste held the blank sheet of paper in her hand as if it were a razor blade. It arrived at her office in an envelope with no return address. A single sheet of ivory paper with rough edges, no writing on it. Fancy paper. She held it under water to see if invisible ink would materialize. Nothing. She hung it with a clothespin in the sunshine to dry. It whispered to her. She licked it. She lay with it on her breasts. She put it in an envelope and sent it to Gerard. Finally, after all the years, they’d spoken.
There is sexual loneliness in all its pathetic, private truth, to which we can all relate, man or woman, and it isn’t particularly stylized, instead served up straight as a sad little grain of reality (this is perhaps the closest Grant Faulkner gets to the simple truncation of a realist narrative):
Gerard hugged Marie last night in the affectionate yet unerotic way he’d hug his mother. Years ago, just after college, he’d found a bra in a Laundromat dryer, a gaudy pink bra with black lace running along the edges, and he stole away with it, a sexual treasure, an accoutrement of masturbation. He’d touched few breasts at that point, and he’d only touch a few more before marriage. The black bra, a wilted plant. Its lace supported the gravity of flesh, but that was all.
Throughout Fissures, we have intelligent junkies singing wild songs of self-praise, isolated and marginalized women routinely, dangerously sucking cock, emasculated married men cheering on their dog’s rampant humping, disconnection, fetishization, humorously abject and banal forms of disappointment, a brief meditation on a dead toad, yes—a micro-world in which walls can be described as “slobbering” and snails can be praised as “masters of sensuality” and an orifice can just be an orifice—and by the end, we realize how lovely it all is. These are eccentric works of compassion.
- We do have to be careful in the publishing world with our labeling.
“Many pieces labeled as “short short stories” would not be out of place had they appeared in a poetry magazine publishing “prose poems,” and vice versa. In this respect, one should not underestimate the impact of generic labels and statuses on the strategies developed by the reader in order to understand or response to a particular work. While a reader presented with a work labeled a prose poem is more likely to read for vertical attributes of poeticity, the same reader faced with a similar text labeled a (short) short story may be led to pay more attention to is sequential or “horizontal” aspects. In other words, the same piece of writing can be assigned different hermeneutic priorities ad read as a short short story or a prose poem.”
—The Prose Poem and the (Short) Short Story, The American Prose Poem, Michel Delville
DARLEY STEWART is a Scottish-Korean fiction writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Joyland Magazine, Funhouse Magazine, The Ocean State Review, Flapperhouse, The Brooklyn Rail, The Battersea Review, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a 2016 Fiction International Fellowship from Seoul Art Space and 2015 Ocean State Fiction Scholarship from The University of Rhode Island. An alumnus of Brandeis University and The University of Edinburgh, she has recently completed a residency at Seoul Art Space. As the Founder of The Strong Women Project, she curates panels and gives presentations at the intersection of feminism, media, cultural narrative and the arts. Please see more at www.darleystewart.com.