Review by Pat Black
Disclosure: You’ve heard of conspiracies? Had them all shouted down from the galleries, yeah? Well, this one is real. I know Marc Nash – sort of. We’re part of Booksquawk. A conglomerate of terrifying and powerful hive minds. WE WANT YOUR THOUGHTS.
16FF is part short story collection, part experiment. If that idea puts you off, LEAVE NOW.
There are sixteen stories here, all of them not more than 1,000 words each, and some far less than that – the kind of tales that might have been written out of desperation, you might think, a sort of last will and testament.
The FF in the title refers to Flash Fiction, and not bras; the art of creating a story in a very short space with the maximum economy. Flash fiction has a great advantage over long-form prose in it has to be razor sharp, on-point and no messing about. You don’t have room for anything else. An art form in its own right, flash fiction is a close prose relative of Imagism and its own ancient forebear, the haiku.
These stories are mainly about tone, image and semiotics rather than story, but the majority of them do have narrative lines. A good example is the opener, “Achy Breaky Purple Hearts”, where we follow a woman getting herself ready for a singles’ night rodeo, as she gathers all the weapons necessary for what seems like warfare on the dance floors. My favourite line here contained the words “icebreaker” and “Leon Trotsky”.
“Night School” looks at the act of writing, in the literal sense – carried out by a young man with scabbed knuckles who has plainly had difficulties doing such a simple thing in the past. I loved the idea of describing loops and dots and crosses on a page as a Herculean labour, juxtaposed with the usual hand-wringing and forehead-slapping that goes on when writers – or, I should say, authors - put their prose together.
“A Life In Outline” is a gallop through someone’s life – from infancy right up until their last moments – looking at the ways their key moments could have been sketched freehand by an artist. It’s not as difficult as it sounds, and is one of the more accessible and, literally, linear works in the collection.
The title of the next one causes some pain for an Andy Murray fan still hurting after Roger Federer’s demolition work at Wimbledon, but “New Balls Please” looks at a contest of sorts between a computer and its human interlocutors, a sort of Turing Test in reverse. When the logic of the humans is put to the test by the unassuming microprocessors of the machine, the humans react in a very characteristic way.
“Toys Will Be Toys” signposts childhood through play and the way youngsters interact with their sacred objects, left by Santa or gleefully unwrapped at birthday parties. But games and hobbies have a way of changing and mutating over time, so much so that mums and dads can be disconnected from their children thanks to new hobbies and pastimes – particularly those generated by a computer screen.
“While You Were Sleeping” is another look at life on fast-forward, this time beginning from the moment a mother creates a new life inside her. This one was concerned with rhythm, and in more subtle ways than it first appears – heartbeats to begin with, heart monitors to end with.
“The Fetish Garden” was a wonderful oddity, a spiky weed threaded through the roses as a “force” explains how there is no cruelty we can imagine which does not already exist under the auspices of Mother Nature – even down to the smallest cellular level. Every curve, excrescence and ejaculation, every moment of pain, suffering and bondage, has its antecedents in your common English garden.
“Strains” was another look at parents and children, this time connected with sounds, or how we seek to constrain sound waves, and how dangerous this can be both to relationships and to human life.
“Host” looks at the doomsday scenario of what might happen when the geeks truly do inherit the earth. You can sit at a computer all day and type insults on message boards and chat forums, but if your computer breaks down, who’s going to fix it? That’s right, the computer geeks, the nerds, the ones who first came up with the suborned phrases like “pwned” and “noob” and all the rest of it. This one sought to look at how computing is not only taking over lives, but also languages. And from there, maybe souls.
“Written on the Skin” was a disturbing look at a girl cursed from birth with skin complaints – crawling impetigo, ringworm, volcanic acne, cradle cap, psoriasis. Love can blossom even for those truly luckless people afflicted with such conditions, but some itches are more than skin deep.
“Hunting For Truffles” seemed to place a farmer and a soldier in a face-off situation, where the one has something to give, and the other has something to take. Many interpretations here, though I was more taken with the farmer’s view towards long-term sustainability and a desire to provide rather than the soldier’s desire to grasp and control.
“Give Me Your Hand” is a wedding themed horror story in one page and so many words, an anatomical exercise looking at the physicality of a bride, and the hands of a husband and father-in-law, and the ravages time and proximity can cause.
“Mirrorball” – is it a mirrorball being observed, or observing? Is it someone on Ecstasy, handed a bottle of water at a club by a partner? Is it something even more celestial and ethereal than that? We don’t know, we don’t know.
“Fee Reify Fo Rule of Thumb” is a collage of biblical-styled passages going from human belief in a deity from creation through to a technological appraisal of what our god really is now, away from superstition or, indeed, fairy tales.
“Rebarbative Me” looks at a man who loathes his own face, owing to how close its outlines match that of its creator, a wicked and cruel father. When the old bugger dies, the narrator decides to have a shave and look at the man underneath the beard he’s grown to obscure himself.
And finally, “Just Aphasia Going Through” looks at degeneration in terms of language, as referenced by the brain condition of the title pun, with a lot of fantastic puns and dada nonsense phrasing as the author seems to melt into a stew of words within a few short sentences.
That marks the end of 16FF, a great collection of experimental, thought-provoking work. Even if you don’t get off on the prose, you’ll certainly have expanded your vocabulary – keep your dictionary and your mind open.