Review: Hint Fiction

During my vacation last week, I read Hint Fiction, Robert Swartwood’s collection of ficlets.  All sorts of authors contributed to it, each writing a particular sort of story: a composition of 25 words, or fewer, which does not simply tell a story but hints at a larger picture.

For example, the very first: Joe Lansdale’s “The Return.”

They buried him deep.  Again.

5 words that imply a man or masculine creature, one who apparently died and certainly was buried, who was buried deep the first time but nonetheless was exhumed (or dug his own way out), and who They, once again, buried…for all the good it will do, which may not be much.  A brief respite?  A century of rest?  We don’t know!  But we’Hint Fictionre left to imagine it.

It’s a strong entry to lead the anthology.  That sort of compression, almost a prose poem, takes a lot of thought and the ability to sift the wheat from the chaff.

Unfortunately, for every hint that grabbed me, making me pause to ruminate on the larger picture implied by it, there were four that let me pass on by.  Fortunately, in a book of 125 hint-fics, that’s 25 stories that left some impression.  The finer specimens make the most of their title, or use allusions to other stories (Penelope, “Not Waving But Drowning,” Shark Week) as a shortcut.

In the interest of moderating my judgment, I tried writing a few; to try and focus my thoughts, these hint fics are summaries of longer books I’ve read somewhat recently, though that’s not necessarily the best method to achieve this sort of iceberg-writing.

Where dreams come true, so do nightmares.

Suffering the rough buffs away our raggedness until we shine. 

Curiosity, puzzle-solving, and loving the 1980s enough could make you a billionaire.  Bonus girlfriend, if the evil corporation doesn’t kill you first.

They shared what beauty they could find like war rations, to multiplicative effect.  Friendship does not destroy death, but it does discourage suicide.

I wouldn’t call Hint Fiction a must-read, and I certainly wouldn’t call it a must-buy.  But it’s a fun read, and beneficial to writers who don’t otherwise weigh out their words.  Certainly these droplets of story prove that a lot of horror fits in a small space; it’s harder to fit a great deal of glory into that same small space.

 

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The Ships – A Prose Poem by CP Cavafy

From Imagination to the Blank Page.  A difficult crossing, the waters dangerous.  At first sight the distance seems small, yet what a long voyage it is, and how injurious sometimes for the ships that undertake it.

The first injury derives from the highly fragile nature of the merchandise that the ships transport. In the marketplaces of Imagination most of the best things are made of fine glass and diaphanous tiles, and despite all the care in the world, many break on the way, and many break when unloaded on the shore. Moreover, any such injury is irreversible, because it is out of the question for the ship to turn back and take delivery of things equal in quality. There is no chance of finding the same shop that sold them. In the marketplaces of Imagination, the shops are large and luxurious but not long-lasting. Their transactions are short-lived, they dispose of their merchandise quickly and immediately liquidate. It is very rare for a returning ship to find the same exporters with the same goods.

Another injury derives from the capacity of the ships. They leave the harbors of the opulent continents fully loaded, and then, when they reach the open sea, they are forced to throw out a part of the load in order to save the whole. Thus, almost no ship manages to carry intact as many treasures as it took on. The discarded goods are of course those of the least value, but it happens sometimes that the sailors, in their great haste, make mistakes and throw precious things overboard.

And upon reaching the white paper port, additional sacrifices are necessary. The customs officials arrive and inspect a product and consider whether they should allow it to be unloaded; some other product is not permitted ashore; and some goods they admit only in small quantities. A country has its laws. Not all merchandise has free entry, and contraband is strictly forbidden. The importation of wine is restricted, because the continents from which the ships come produce wines and spirits from grapes that grow and mature in more generous temperatures. The customs officials do not want these alcoholic products in the least. They are highly intoxicating. They are not appropriate for all palates. Besides, there is a local company that has the monopoly in wine. It produces a beverage that has the color of wine and the taste of water, and this you can drink the day long without being affected at all. It is an old company. It is held in great esteem, and its stock is always overpriced.

Still, let us be pleased when the ships enter the harbor, even with all these sacrifices. Because, after all, with vigilance and great care, the number of broken or discarded goods can be reduced during the course of the voyage. Also, the laws of the country and the customs regulations, though oppressive in large measure, are not entirely prohibitive, and a good part of the cargo gets unloaded. Furthermore, the customs officials are not infallible: some of the merchandise gets through in mislabeled boxes that say one thing on the outside and contain something else; and, after all, some choice wines are imported for select symposia.

Something else is sad, very sad. That is when certain huge ships go by with coral decorations and ebony masts, with great white and red flags unfurled, full of treasures, ships that do not even approach the harbor either because all of their cargo is forbidden or because the harbor is not deep enough to receive them. So they continue on their way. A favorable wind fills their silk sails, the sun burnishes the glory of their golden prows, and they sail out of sight calmly, majestically, distancing themselves forever from us and our cramped harbor.

Fortunately, these ships are very scarce. During our lifetime we see two or three of them at most. And we forget them quickly. Equal to the radiance of the vision is the swiftness of its passing. And after a few years have gone by, if—as we sit passively gazing at the light or listening to the silence—if someday certain inspiring verses return by chance to our mind’s hearing, we do not recognize them at first and we torment our memory trying to recollect where we heard them before. With great effort the old remembrance is awakened, and we recall that those verses are from the song chanted by the sailors, handsome as the heroes of the Iliad, when the great, the exquisite ships would go by on their way—who knows where.

Fog

By the time she took her leave, darkness had fallen, and the fog with it.  Together these obscured the path so thoroughly as to make her memory doubtful – even memory built up over years of taking this road, thousands of times.

This route should never feel anything but friendly – and yet, cloaked in obscurity as it was, every mile turned foe.  Nothing promised that the curves would remain as she had always encountered them; nothing could assure her that the trees and ponds and buildings by the way did not lay under some enchantment of their own, shifting thither and yon.  Whole minutes had gone by since she passed the last traffic signal, had they not?  Surely she should have reached the next red-light-turned-green by now.  But in between the road stretched on and on, with only fresh darkness on the horizon.

Ghostly eyes of lamps passed intermittently in the dimness, floating in the mist, whatever car or carriage they might be attached to invisible.  She shuddered at the thought of a deer, or a man, wandering out into the road, standing frozen while her car barreled into it.  Him.  Worse was the thought of a driver approaching without any lights, colliding twice as fast, with pulverizing force.

Pondering this, she eased off the gas and played idly with the headlights.  The regular lamps were dimmer, and thus of limited use – but the high beams fell on the cloud of water droplets, illuminating no further.  However slow she went, it couldn’t be helped – she couldn’t see.

No wonder fog stood in for fear.  Not only would it veil the unknown twice over, but it sent even the familiar into oblivion: dementia come sixty years early.

Quick Style Question, Y’all

How quickly can an author’s style influence, shift, or otherwise change yours?

I have a couple of book reviews in the pipeline, including one for Neil Postman’s Technopoly.  Since I am tracking my 2015 reading with GoodReads, I gave it a quick rating there, which exposed me to everyone else’s thoughts on it.

Intriguingly, even the people who hated or disagreed with its premise and/or arguments noted that they were impressed with the writing itself.  Some declared that the reason for their 2-star (rather than 1-star) rating; others were disgusted that his prose style was so compelling, as they believed that obscured the weakness of his arguments.

All of which is to say, Neil Postman’s got style.  And I wonder how to get it.

Or, well, that’s not quite it.  I’ve heard and read enough to know that style is an elusive sort of beast, slippery like a ferret.  And despite concerted effort, changing or shifting one’s writing style can be like moving a glacier: undeniable, inexorable, powerful…but slow.

So I wonder: how slow?  The other day, I came across this post about copying out the work of excellent writers in order to sharpen one’s skills.  It’s a method that promises improvement, but most certainly requires an investment of effort, a healthy measure of intention and attention, a careful ear and eye, and above all, time.

I’m not hoping for an overnight change to my own writing, but I want to put myself in mind of the fact that I am – and my writing is – what I read.  What I set before my eyes determines what issues from my mind and out through my mouth or keyboard or pen.

Perhaps I will start with Elements of Eloquence, or with a reread of Strunk and White.

No matter what, it is time to begin.

Joyrides

I took a different road to choir the other night, since rehearsal was on north campus instead of our usual room in Palmer Commons. Huron River Drive took me through the woods, around the river, away from all the shoppers and students and sidewalks of my normal route down Washtenaw Avenue. The windows were down, the air gently breezy and free from summer’s mugginess. Not too hot, not too cold, no bugs, as my uncle always describes a perfect day.

Zipping about with Carbon Leaf blaring filled me with a quietly piercing sort of contentment, the music underscoring the freedom and possibility inherent in the spring. It all struck me as so appropriate: the alternately intense and mellow music, the car, the weather, the drive. I felt the right age, for once. Not too old to discover new things, not too young to do something of consequence.

The delight spreads out like a vapor to fill the heart it’s in, leaving me ready to face the formidable, ready to rejoice.

*

I took a different road to work yesterday morning, since Ruby was due for her three-month checkup and my father graciously allowed me the use of his vehicle once more. I-96, my typical freeway from Detroit to Plymouth, has been ripped up for replacement, and traffic has been shunted to the parallel roads. So I headed down Fenkell, which was livelier than I’ve seen it quite some time, trying to hit the green lights as ZZ Top sang about cheap sunglasses on 94.7.

I had already forgotten, for the most part, what it’s like to drive a big boat of a Buick: the wide circle of the thin steering wheel, the weight of the car and resulting momentum, the noise of the engine, the raspy speakers. This, too, felt appropriate. Like Fenkell and classic rock and a Buick Century were meant to be together.

The delight rumbles and burns, a Motor City jalopy that keeps on keeping on.

Yesterweather

It is a soft, slightly gloomy day out, and no one around here revels in that but me.  The morning drizzle has left a few puddles and a cloudy sky behind.  All is rather grey, but a gentle breeze blows on the melting snows, much warmer than the winds of weeks past.  Walking around outside, I caught a scent of something sweet like pipe smoke.  Some ice still lingers, but stepping on it splinters and crushes it into slush.

This is some of my favorite weather, I think; it is above all calm and quiet.  No beams of sunlight stab the eyes or glare off virgin snow.  It’s not quite warm enough or green enough to register as spring, and so it most resembles October: the month of gallivanting through the woods or by lakes and streams.

Thus there is a northernness about it: a lie, because I am no further north than I was yesterday, but a claim made by right; the rain has reminded the streets and trees and air of the world beyond these buildings and this town, and issued its muted invitation to go forth and explore it.

Fighting Moses

The appeal was strong and nagging, appearing at the slightest opportunity and only avoided by guarding both spectacle and deliberation.

Even when considered impersonally, the temptation was quite comprehensible; the curt ‘For Emergency Use Only’ stenciled directly over the red handle instructing, “Pull Here” seemed a paradox in need of resolution. Such a deliberate blend of reverse psychology and imperative language might actually dictate the pulling of the handle.

And taped firmly underneath was an oblong wafer of paper that stated, ‘Warning – Undue Use of Alarm Will Result in fine or imprisonment’. The handwriting was neat and almost even, with a decisive curl at the bottom of each ‘U’ that hinted dreadfully at personal experience with the cost of this ‘Undue Use’. Although normally staunch in the face of such a small warning – speeding or climbing into derelict buildings had much bigger Signs, after all – the attraction of trying to solve the conflict with a hearty tug on the handle was a tad overwhelming.

So the problem then, as he considered it, was to pull the Alarm either without using it “Unduely”, or without being caught. An actual fire would take the away the challenge, and would probably have even worse consequences. Burning baked goods in the microwave would sound the alarm by itself and not need the handle to be pulled.

And then, of course, the “without being caught” was easy, but the “without being guilted into admission,” that would be more difficult. The alternative course, naturally, was simply to not pull the demanding thing at all. He could convince himself that the ‘Pull Here’ was the reverse psychology and that the warnings were the commands.

Almost.

Picking up a thin stack of stapled papers, he held them upright and hit them the desk to make sure the edges were aligned, and slapped them into an open folder. And again with the next stack and folder. All neat, all in arranged, everything efficient and complete.

If only, if only . . . .

It would take courage, and that even more elusive quality, gumption. If only that alarm, with all the fascinating signs and commands, were not directly across from his desk.

Instead, he had the piles of organized, compartmentalized, and individualized paper folders. It was only a name tag paper-clipped to the folder, and a personalized greeting filled in at the top of the cover letter. But that counted for enough a difference, it was supposed. Rather like – if he wanted to be gloomy and clichéd – how each desk and cubiclized work arena looked the same but had a different name on the side. He could even imagine himself as a rat in a maze.

Did rat mazes have fire alarms?

“Now honey, mommy has to talk to this man in his office. Will you wait and here and be good?”

There was a woman with a little boy in the room, pausing in front of his desk to bend anxiously over the child. The child looked up at her quite intelligently, hands behind his back, eyes bright, and head cocked defiantly to one side.

“It will only be for 10 seconds. Ten. I know that you can count that much. Will you do that?” The mixture of firm and calm in her mother-voice was beginning to sound a tad bit strained.

His small, dark brows came together an expression of justified scorn at such an insignificant number. “I can count by twos,” he volunteered. “Two, four, six . . .”

“No, no.” She said hastily. “Count by ones, and wait till I am gone to start.” She herded him in the direction a chair, and looked up to give the receptionist a quick smile. He thought for moment that she was going to come talk to him, but she quickly tripped into the boss man’s office.

He watched the child for moment, as the boy stood in front of his designated seat, and looked at the wall paper. It couldn’t be that interesting, even to a child.

With great care, the receptionist chose a small silver paperclip, slipped it onto the folder, and slid the printed sticker of the individual underneath the loop. He looked up at the child.

The boy, being a child, was standing in front of the red alarm. Hands still clasped behind his back, he was leaning forward to look at the white letters. The receptionist could see his lips moving as a sounded out the words, “Pull Here”.

For a child, there is no dilemma, only instruction.

Unclasping his hands, he reached up and pulled there.

It took a moment, and a small sound screeching, but low siren began to whine through the building, and with a sputter, the sprinklers came on. The place sprang into bustling, loud, life, as people appeared, clattering and chatting, and streamed towards the fire escapes.

He sat still for a moment, feeling his hair being drenched through to his scalp, and the water trickle down his ears and neck. The words on the tags and in the folders were all streaming together on the wet paper, the bits of personalization – and hard work – dissolving under the blast from the ceiling.

The boy’s mother had him by the hand, and was talking very loudly and even more firmly and nicely.

He stepped into the collision of people, bodies and voices mingling.

And he heard, between the rustling movements and the keen wailing of the alarm, the high burbling of human laughter.

A Baptismal Fount