NEW MICRO: EXCEPTIONALLY SHORT FICTION, edited by James Thomas and Robert Scotellaro, collects 135 stories of fewer than 300 words written by 89 different authors. The diversity makes the experience of reading it rather like approaching a series of tide pools and dipping one’s face into one long enough to see the features of the world inside then coming up for a quick taste of air before plunging into the next. In between each pool, seawater clings to the skin like the liquid essence of storytelling itself.
As such, the book is most suitable for brief dips, though the ambitious reader may feel the urge to swim shore to shore in one go. One can get lost in collections of any length, but reading an anthology like this cover-to-cover is likely to bring questions about how each story works closer to the surface than an anthology of longer stories would.
The rapid presentation of self-contained story after story interpolates the reader as silent narrator in a meta-narrative about what stories are for, why we tell them, why we clamor to hear them, how they can look so different, and what they share in common. Hearing so many different voices together is an orchestral experience, the cadre of writers assembled to pay their rent in a literary version of Leonard Cohen’s Tower of Song. Even with its strict formal requirement, New Micro covers more ground than many anthologies — and contains no small amount of gems.
Many of the stories create some kind of alchemy on the page. After the best of them, I would set the book down for a moment as I wondered where in the words the story lives such that in a page or two it can transmit the same sense of expansive mystery as a more sprawling story. These stories imply a past and a future, so that the reader can pause and take in the vastness of a fictional reality left unplotted and unsaid.
Those with the most striking effect often treat unfathomable tragedy. Joy Williams’s “Clean,” which tells of a boy’s death in a random shooting, clocks in at fewer than 200 words and ends like this: “The family held a car wash to pay for the funeral expenses. This is not uncommon. It was announced in the newspaper and lots of people came, most of whom had nice waxed cars that didn’t need washing, and the family appreciated this.”
Despite its briefness, the story captures the impossibility of making sense of grief. Instead of trying to define the contours of tragedy (which is impossible), Williams offers the car wash — a practical task in the wake of senseless, heartbreaking loss that both helps and does nothing — as a gesture of how we deal with grief, which provides no resolution, only the distance reflected in a rearview mirror.
“Slow,” by Joyce Carol Oates, comprises a single, long, shuddering sentence that unfolds with the searching rhythm of a mind reckoning with loss against its will: “[A]nd in that instant she knows that their life will be split in two though she doesn’t, as she makes her slow way to him, know how, or why.”
Jim Heynen’s “Why Would a Woman Pour Boiling Water on Her Head?” begins like this: “Why would a woman pour a pitcher of boiling water over her head while standing naked in a snow bank near a cabin in the north woods? I was going to rinse my hair, she says, though we know there must be more to it.”
The story ends, barely a page later, in this way:
Feel her burning misery, but hear her say, It is the mystery of the incongruous, as if this were enough to accept the skin on the bridge of her nose skimming loose like the film on stale cream at the touch of her finger. It is the mystery of the incongruous, she repeats, and offers a smile to all who will listen. I feel as if I have sinned, she says, and that I am being punished. But my sin, my sin, it was so ordinary.
About a scene like this what more could be said? Brevity, again, heightens the emotion by refusing to diagram it beyond simply setting it down.
(There’s a story actually called “Grief” — it’s by Ron Carlson and ends the collection — but, paradoxically, it’s a potent comic jewel.)
In Amy Hempel’s “The Man in Bogotá,” the narrator imagines talking a woman down from a ledge:
Maybe this is not a come-down-from-the-ledge story. But I tell it with the thought that the woman on the ledge will ask herself a question, the question that occurred to that man in Bogotá. He wondered how we know that what happens to us isn’t good?
Perhaps with the weight of a longer story behind it, this insight would sound sanctimonious. But economy here is on the side of wisdom — the story’s brief span animates the narrator’s musings with verisimilitude because they appear to be cast off lightly, as nothing more than an aside.
In that vein, quite a few stories — Arlene Ang’s “Unannounced Guest”; Michael Czyzniejewski’s “Intrigued by Reincarnation, Skip Dillard Embraces Buddhism”; Elizabeth Ellen’s “Panama City by Daylight”; Kyle Hemmings’s “Father Dunne’s School for Wayward Boys #1”; Melissa McCracken’s “It Would’ve Been Hot”; Kathleen McGookey’s “Another Drowning, Miner Lake”; Pedro Ponce’s “The Illustrated Woman”; and Nancy Stohlman’s “Death Row Hugger” among them — get a lot of narrative juice from the voices of their narrators. I was content to hear these voices whispering in my ear for the appointed moments and then turn my ear and the page.
Some stories in the collection display too clearly the machinations of the author’s hand — a danger, perhaps, of a form with such formal limitations. In others that underwhelm, stylistic elements are overbearing despite the stories’ slightness or words are too few to flesh out a plot and bring characters to life. To be left wanting more from a work of microfiction is a sign that its essence hasn’t carried off the page. Yet even these failures sparked questions about what makes a story work, which is useful — a success of a different kind.
When we describe our dreams to others, no matter how vivid or unusual the details, chances are they will be boring to everyone but us because of the personal nature of the experience. Many of these stories center around a vivid image, an extreme occurrence, a tiny but particular shift in a character’s life or mind, and could easily fall into the tedious-dream trap — that a scene with the potential to haunt isn’t given enough narrative tendrils to reach out and involve the reader’s imagination. That so many of these stories manage, in the span of 300 words, to conjure a world hospitable and seductive enough for other minds to inhabit feels like sorcery, their potent spells, at such abbreviated length, laid bare.