Literary pundits are wont to predict the death of the novel, the death of the short story and the death of reading altogether. But it’s hard to find corpses amidst the avalanche of written, electronic and audiobooks accompanying us through the pandemic.
Instead, with the release of Kim Chinquee‘s latest collection, SNOWDOG, we are reminded that it’s too soon to compose eulogies for any kind of storytelling, including flash fiction. Rather, much like television, very short fiction is enjoying a golden age.
Whether called short-shorts, flash fiction or micro fiction, the advent of the Internet allowed online platforms to catapult compressed stories into the mainstream. Two decades on, the proliferation of website templates and online zines means that short-short fiction is no longer the province of luminaries such as Amy Hempel (“Housewife”) Jamaica Kincaid (“Girl“) and Lydia Davis (“Boring Friends,” “Murder in Bohemia.”) An entire generation of short-short writers have thrived and pushed the boundaries of flash.
Today, essays are written in The Paris Review. Field Guides are published (Rose Metal Press). Anthologies are printed (THE BEST SMALL FICTIONS) and every year Scott Garson’s gem of a journal, Wigleaf, scours the web for the best of the best. We need only look at Kathleen Rooney‘s shorts that channel Magritte’s dog (THE LISTENING ROOM), Matter Press’s marriage of form and text into triptychs, and Kathy Fish’s viral sensation condemning mass shootings, “Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wold,” to appreciate a style that has reached maturity.
Short-short writers like Chinquee have even joined the Pushcart Prize pantheon. Chinquee, a prolific writer who has penned seven books, regularly appears in the pages of Noon. As a professor and academic, she has mentored and edited thousands of very short fiction writers since the early aughts.
Not all of Chinquee’s stories are flash-length. In her collection VEER, many run to several pages. But in SNOWDOG, most are a few paragraphs or a page. And with this latest book, Chinquee again demonstrates that a compilation of tiny stories, each with its own discrete climax or resolution, can be as powerful as a much longer narrative that builds towards one.
An unexpected pleasure of reading Chinquee’s stories is the vein of Americana that she mines. She is no coastal elite. Growing up on a Wisconsin farm, enlisting in the military, laboring as a single mother and watching the fateful Boston Marathon as an athlete/spectator, all find their way into her stories. And she brings the drama of these iconic experiences to the small page without miniaturizing their power.
In SNOWDOG the organizing factor is, unsurprisingly, dogs. But they are not the real topic of Chinquee’s musings, nor blunt metaphors. Instead, they operate as a kind of magic door into a spectrum of incidents, from near-hypothermia (“Through the Ice”) to domestic disaster (“Dogfight,” “Luck”), sex (“The Dog Smells Like Peppermint”), loss (“Dog-Like”) death and nostalgia (“Mick and Dick”).
And there is fear. In “Companion” the narrator finds herself in an elevator with a group including a companion dog, and a disabled vet. Then the rather pedestrian encounter becomes gripping and sorrowful, almost frightening:
“A man with no legs in a wheelchair wears the same kind of jungle hat another woman (a veteran herself) recognizes, like the one on her son’s head in the picture he sent the day before, geared up in his flack vest, rifle on his chest, his face done up in black and green and brown. She says hello to the man. She looks at his eyes. She has so much to lose.”
The economy of Chinquee’s stories means that they can first appear terse and unsparing, as in “Shrink.”
“The last shrink was a man who just nodded. He used to work in a prison. He was fat. He wasn’t in practice for as long as me. I didn’t want to teach him.”
But in the end, they are always moving, as she pivots from cold observation to the narrator’s own aches and yearnings.
The only downside of SNOWDOG is that it ends too soon. Fortunately, Chinquee shows no sign of slowing down. There will certainly be another collection. For prophecy we can look to “Tracks,” a story from OH, BABY which says, “One day, the trains stopped, but her stories went on, went on...”
Gail Louise Siegel’s work has appeared more places than she can count, mostly because she is disorganized. FRiGG, Ascent, Salamander, New World Writing, Matter Press, Smokelong Quarterly and Post Road are among them. She has an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and lives outside of Chicago.