Sunday, August 6, 2017

A Review of Best Small Fictions 2017

Best Small Fictions 2017
Guest Editor Amy Hempel
Series Editor Tara L. Masih

Braddock Avenue Books (September, 2017)
$13 (Braddock Avenue Books)

My general thoughts about the Best Small Fictions series are probably no secret. I've called both BSF 2015 and BSF 2016 the most important books published in their respective years.

This year is no different.

The most important book published this year is now and will prove to be Best Small Fictions 2017.

Now that's we've established that once again, I will say this year has been a particularly good year for flash fiction. The New Yorker has decided to publish flash stories throughout the summer (though some of those stories beg the question as to whether The New Yorker and those of us writing flash fiction actually agree on what constitutes the form). This year, BSF series editor Tara L. Masih worked with a writer who is arguably one of the best ever at this beautiful and supremely difficult form, the astonishing Amy Hempel. Hempel herself has said this of the series:  “[T]his striking new series...has quickly become essential reading."

Yes, it has, Amy.

This year the selections are as strong as ever. The usual cast is present with veteran flash fiction authors such as Scott Garson, Jen Knox, Randall Brown, and Sherrie Flick, among others, while also peppering in some iconic short-short form writers like Joy Williams, Stuart Dybek, and Robert Scotellaro. But don't let these big names and longtime flash writers lead you too far afield from the others included in BSF this year. The talent is spread around.

Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello's story "The Sea Urchin" was the first story to stop me in my tracks this year. First published at Paper Darts, Cancio-Bello takes what could be a basic memory from childhood and creates a picture perfect example of flash fiction, employing nearly all the usual techniques in the most delightful ways, beginning with that always important first line: "Grandmother kept a diver’s knife strapped to her thigh."

She continues the story and gives the reader a marriage of the beautiful and practical, along with strange tradition and other-worldliness.

"On my birthday, she brought me a ball of spines in a bucket, lifted its bit of ocean into my cupped hands. The creature’s round mouth explored the cracks of my palm, tasting the salt on my skin, recoiling. An offering like the pincushions I often brought my mother, every needle threaded with a different color. Grandmother boiled garlic, soybeans, salt into broth, ladled the seaweed soup into a white bowl. She turned the urchin and broke it open, scooped out the ocher roe with a spoon, dropped it in among the kelp."

Another story as deserving for inclusion in this year's edition is the flash piece "Silent Hill" by Ras Mashramani, originally published in Pank. Mashramani takes a Playstation game from the late 1990s and creates a flashback world to when the character lost herself in the game while escaping a world in which her father was dying.

"There was a first generation Playstation video game about a young father who lost his child in a town where it snowed ash. Together you stumbled through foggy whiteness in the creature infested streets looking for her. Some early mornings you passed out in front of the living room TV screen watching hidden monsters behind your eyelids, ash in your hair, a fire burning forever underground. For so long it had been you and your father just like in the game running from stuccoed apartment to stuccoed apartment."

We are firmly placed in this world of father and daughter, both in the context of the video game and also the reality of the story. And when we find later on that the character finds herself allowing a boy much older than her named Marquise to live out a young lapgirl fantasy while she loses herself in the game, it's both a revealing and a supremely sad moment. But more than that it's a brilliant technique and wholly original, even for a form that is innately original in nearly any and all concepts of fiction. When a story stands out in such a way, it's no surprise to find it between the covers of BSF.

"You did this on the point of Marquise’s knee, engrossed in game play, addicted to the focused labored attention of a teenaged boy with sexual behavior issues and the fear of the screen, the fear of touch, wanting the fear, flattening all the affect and focusing it into this character, the Father, and his quest for his kid in this ghost town, and it was hard to disentangle Silent Hill from Paramount, California, and the neglected section 8 pool and automatic gates that made up the Sierra Gardens apartment complex."

This year's edition of BSF is a clear indication that the series is nowhere near a slowing down point, but is, instead, gaining momentum and prestige throughout the world of literature. When the history of flash fiction as a vital form is told, Best Small Fictions and Masih will be in the opening chapter. Of this there should be no doubt.

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