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The Best Small Fictions 2015, Edited by Robert Olen Butler and Tara Masih

The Best Small Fictions 2015, Edited by Robert Olen Butler and Tara Masih

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Queen’s Ferry Press, 2015
ISBN: 978-1938466625
Perfect bound, 160 pp., $14.95
Review by Nathan Leslie

Let’s see if this sounds familiar: You are reading a work of flash fiction. You love the story but you aren’t exactly sure why. But it sticks with you and you reread it and you still aren’t exactly sure why you connect with this piece in the way that you do, but now you find it stuck in your cranium like some kind of wayward childhood reverie. As a reader, my experience with flash fiction is likewise often instinctual, something I can’t quite put my finger upon—a little nugget of language here, an image there, perhaps the concept itself. Something…I’m not sure what. That ineffable and enigmatic quality at the core of flash fiction is in full blossom in the wonderful new anthology, The Best Small Fictions 2015—with a handsome cover and crisp production by Queen’s Ferry Press, to boot.

Prolific series editor and flash fiction maven Tara Masih informs us in her incisive foreword that The Best Small Fictions seeks to resuscitate the perhaps forgotten Anthology of Best Short-Short Stories, published until 1960 and edited by Robert Oberfirst. As Masih puts it, “The time is right to bring back the Oberfirst series with a new title, a new look, new forms, and a new commitment to find the ‘Best Small Fictions’ published worldwide.” As editor of the authoritative Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction (2009), Masih would know. Here, with the help of guest editor Robert Olen Butler, Masih has compiled the finest fifty-five works of flash fiction for 2015. But compiling is one thing; fashioning a book that feels organic and of a whole is another—and for this, Masih should be extolled. Clearly, she has given much thought to the ordering of these pieces—the segues from one work of small fiction to the next are worth the price of admission. There is a seamlessness here that is unparalleled, even in the Best American series and the O. Henry anthology.

Though, inevitably, a few works are confounding, and though I’m not entirely sure what an I-Story is or should be (as a persisting member of the smartphoneless contingent), not a single story in The Best Small Fictions 2015 is poorly written, dull, or otherwise unworthy. In fact, I found fifteen small fictions utterly haunting and matchless, as if they weren’t written so much as unearthed from a furtive trove discovered in some far-flung highland cavern. This is quite the dynamic anthology.

Of the fifty-five gems, the standouts were: “A Notice from the Office of Reclamation” by J. Duncan Wiley, “Not About Liz” by Catherine Moore, “Brisket” by Stuart Dybek, “The Third Time My Father Tried to Kill Me” by James Claffey, “Winter” by Kathryn Savage, “Before She Was a Memory” by Emma Bolden, “All That Smoke Howling Blue” by Lessa Cross-Smith, “You Will Excuse Me” by George Choundas, “Something Overhead” by Yennie Cheung, “Let’s Say” by Julia Strayer, “You Must Intercept the Blue Box Before It Gets to the City” by Ron Carlson, “The Canyon Where the Coyotes Live” by Bobbie Ann Mason, and “Correspondence” by Claire Joanne Huxham. These terrific pieces, in particular, deserve a wider audience. You will notice a few “big names” here—Dybek, Carlson, Mason—but also many writers with whom you may or may not be familiar. To the credit of the editors, most of the writers in this anthology are fairly obscure. The reader, too, enjoys the process of unearthing.

Themes of death and parents loom large in The Best Small Fictions 2015 and generally, the stories reverberate with menace and violence—mirroring our tattered society-at-large in 2015. In Carlson’s flash, written in the second person, the protagonist must stop his (your?) significant other from imminent danger, as the ostensible terrorist with the blue box makes his way into the city with the object of destruction. James Claffey’s “The Third Time My Father Tried to Kill Me” is straight-forward in its depiction of the three times the narrator’s father did attempt to kill him (though perhaps there’s a fourth). It’s a harrowing little tale of survival.

The fictions featuring love relationships tend to glide back into reminiscences. Catherine Moore’s “Not about Liz” features two young girls at the brink of romantic/sexual encounter, despite Liz’s fixation with horses, which annoys the narrator. An undefined and pointed darkness lurks in Liz’s family life, also (“Her mother the kohl eyes behind the upstairs curtains”). Upon finishing the story it was no surprise for me to learn that Moore is a poet. “All That Smoke Howling Blue” by Leesa Cross-Smith, on the other hand, details the relationship between the first person narrator and two brothers; she is seemingly romantically involved with both. The last sentence reads, “I thought it’d never stop,” leading the reader to believe this threesome doesn’t end well, despite its depiction of relative harmony. Kathryn Savage’s powerful “Winter,” inspired by James Salter’s “Dusk,” is only two paragraphs in length, but depicts an affair and the aftereffects: “She felt like the little island in the large lake, small inside green water.” This, Savage’s depiction of intimacies with the hefty paramour.

Many of the most evocative and lingering works in this anthology revolve around controlled abstruseness and surrealism. I’m not 100% sure what is happening in “The Intended” by Dawn Raffel, though I’m sure from her bio one of the characters is an incubator doctor. The elliptical quality of this piece makes it all the more compelling. “You Will Excuse Me” by George Choundas is likewise cagey and internal, and greatly effective. Both “Correspondence” by Claire Joanne Huxham and “Before She Was a Memory” revolve around some level of obsession—with a criminal and victim respectively. Other stories are more of-the-moment and capture perhaps only a minute or two of lived experience; such is the case with “Let’s Say” by Julia Strayer, in which a mother imagines her murder and the consequences thereof. It’s a stream-of-consciousness tour-de-force in one paragraph.

In The Best Small Fictions, the masters also have their day in the sun. “Brisket” by Stuart Dybek is reminiscent of some of his “vintage” works from several decades ago. In this particular story, the narrator learns that his local deli clerk is a Holocaust survivor, yet this discovery is understated; Dybek is more interested in scenic development, the back and forth between the younger patron and the older, crusty server. The final story in the anthology, Bobbie Ann Mason’s “The Canyon Where the Coyotes Live,” revolves around a couple with cats who are not permitted outside as a result of the lurking coyotes. “Don’t you see how nuts you’re becoming? Everything is fraught with terror and apocalypse with you!” The husband’s statement could be applied to most of us these days. But Mason saves the best for last: “She makes a salad with artichoke hearts and palm hearts. Her own heart could be the centerpiece, ripped out and posed on a platter like the head of John the Baptist. There is nothing to do but dance.” The Best Small Fictions has its finger on the pulse.

The Best Small Fictions is a delightful addition to the year-end best-ofs. I look forward to future anthologies; there is plenty of room at the table for such high-quality flash fiction. Personally, I look to these anthologies less for a ranking and pecking order, more for a sampler and introduction to authors who I should know about but don’t. But to each his or her own. In The Best Small Fictions anthology, each little gem contains a universe, teeth bared. Explore them at your own risk.

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Illustrations: Natalie Kassirer

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