The best part about The New Yorker’s summer flash fiction series is that The New Yorker did a summer flash fiction series. The magazine had already published some of my favorites, including Raymond Carver’s “Chef’s House” and George Saunders’s “Adams.” And flash is an awesome genre with a lot of fans, but doesn’t get too much love in big publications.
The worst part about The New Yorker’s summer flash fiction series is that if you blinked you missed it. I happened to see the first installment of the series (“Elevator Pitches” by Jonathan Lethem) by accident on my daily perusal of the homepage, but none of the other stories were featured there during the rest of the summer. So what could have been heightened visibility for the genre became a hidden corner for the hardcore. And I mean hardcore, because “Elevator Pitches” is not even the best story in the series and would certainly not convert a skeptic.
As for the 10 stories themselves, they vary from the anaphoric nostalgia paean (“I Don’t Need Anything from Here” by László Krasznahorkai) to the traditional story in miniature (“The Hairless Are Careless” by Colin Barrett). There are also the surreal plots with escalating twists made famous by Donald Barthelme in The New Yorker of the 1970s (“The Hostage” by Amelia Gray and “The Boss” by Robert Coover are closest in kin.) Others use the popular flash technique of riffing on a subject. It’s somewhat worn out when used more-or-less alone, as in Ed Park’s “The Wife on Ambien,” but is used in to good effect in “Like a Bowl in a China Shop” by Hilary Leichter.
The title “Like a Bowl in a China Shop” is also a line in the story and seems to set up something silly, but the narrator leads the reader through a catalogue of an adult couple’s anniversary gifts. The tone is straightforward, but the gifts are absurd: “Tradition dictates paper for the first anniversary. Brian gathers all their receipts to show his husband, Jeff, how well he has prepared for taxes…The second anniversary is dust, not to be confused with the fortieth anniversary, ashes.” As the years pass, the relationship changes. Friends come and go. Bitterness rises and transforms into something else, much like the story that drew us in with its humor and took us to a larger, deeper place.
In other words, engaging riffing plus full plot arc equals good flash. Of course, there are lots of ways to pull off a good short short story. The series shows many of them, and there are more that have yet to be discovered. Let’s hope The New Yorker continues to feature it. Check out the full series here, and for a bigger sampling of new flash, I recommend the annual magazine NOON.