New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction
New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction (WW Norton & Company, Aug 2018)
Paperback / 288 pages / $15.95 / Available here
Edited by James Thomas and Robert Scotellaro
What type of story can you tell convincingly on one page? Making the unbelievable believable is a dare for all fiction writers, but in such a short form this dare is more acute. How can you bring a nuanced character to life, paint detailed images, and tell a tale that lingers in less than 300 words? Writing microfiction is a challenge. It takes audacity to restrict yourself so drastically. The form calls for both exaggeration and control.
The treasury of authors in New Micro, the excellent new anthology by editors James Thomas and Robert Scotellaro, all know how to meet this challenge and are bold enough to take risks. Reading this collection, I found myself in thrilling company, not in the hands of just one experienced novelist, guiding me smoothly from one chapter to the next, but in the hands of a team of experts who lifted me up, spun me around, and launched me into a world of their own making—while all along teaching me how to fly. I stopped wondering about the limits of the form and stood in awe of what microfiction could achieve.
With 140 stories by 90 authors, the variety of subjects and themes is enormous. These tales are realistic, speculative, dark, mundane, funny, or absurd. They are about people falling to their deaths (Pamela Painter’s “Letting Go”), drive-by shootings and their aftermaths (Joy Williams’ “Clean"), and how to talk to a possible jumper (Amy Hempel’s “The Man in Bogotá”). But they are also about a professional cuddler (Nancy Stohlman’s “Death Row Hugger”), making a speech-impaired senior sing like a mockingbird (Brian Hinshaw’s “The Custodian”), and the emotional difficulty of relying on your partner’s help (Roberta Allen’s “The Fly”).
The variety in structure and style is no less impressive. Some stories consist of only one scene or one paragraph or a mere 53 words. Others summarize a lifespan or are mostly dialogue. What they all have in common is their intensity and the peculiar mystery of what the narrative omits. These exceptionally short stories leave me dangling and wondering—what is really communicated between the lines? I find myself projecting and imagining, filling in the gaps. Microfiction, more than other forms, requires constant reflection, which makes it not only a challenge for the author, but also for the reader.
Each story in this anthology uses its own source of magic to engage me, so that the tale grows far beyond the limits of the page. In the marvelous “Crumple” by Stefanie Freele, for example, we are introduced to a first person narrative of a woman experiencing some type of debilitating pain that makes her lose consciousness. When she wakes up, she is “in a crumple” and people around her are fussing over her crying baby.
“… I could hear everything. It was a paramedic who suggested holding the baby to my breast. My husband told everyone to look away while he pulled apart my robe.”
What follows is a scene in which this action is justified by everyone present: The baby needs food so the crying will stop and everyone can finally think. After finishing the story, I don’t know what I’ve read. Have I arrived in a nightmarish world in which mothers are reduced to breastmilk machines whose needs and pains are irrelevant? I feel enticed to read the story again.
Or take Michelle Elvy’s wonderful “Antarctica,” in which the everyday is mixed with the absurd so well that it creates an entirely new world where it makes sense to look for Antarctica in a drainpipe, or find your wife naked in the kitchen while it snows. The story refers twice to an assumed logic of the absurd: “. . . the boy looks at him as if he should already know.” In the beginning, I don’t perceive this logic; as the reader, I’m like the protagonist, an outsider looking at an incomprehensible scene. In the end, however, I’ve switched roles and no longer consider the actions of my protagonist as absurd: they are somehow logical.
One of my favorite stories in this anthology is the excellent “The Old Days” by Lynn Mundell. The narrator describes how the world used to be, and just by the author’s smart choice of words, it becomes clear that the narrator is complaining about how he has been treated unfairly. But the story is so much more than a list of supposedly innocent things that went wrong. It reads like a confession and an awful apology in one, the narrator admitting to all his wrongdoing while immediately finding excuses for his behavior:
“People took the high road, except when they were provoked by someone who really deserved to have his block knocked off. It was just a shame that Ray called the police and your wife. […] In the old days, it was okay to spank kids a bit. Except for your daughter Susie, they’d grow up fine, not bitter over nothing.”
It isn’t until I reach the end of this perfect tale that I understand why the narrator launched into his litany of complaints, and from there I take off again, imagining all the untold parts of the story: a lifetime in less than 250 words!
Reading the great work in this microfiction anthology reminds me of looking at the paintings of Salvador Dali, who often drew my attention to what was non-existent on the canvas and as a result made these absences drastically present.
The stories in New Micro are from relatively new writers, from known authors such as Joyce Carol Oates, Stuart Dybek, Amelia Gray, James Tate, Dawn Raffel, and Richard Brautigan, and from masters of the genre such as Thaisa Frank, Meg Pokrass, Kim Chinquee, Robert Vaughan, and Kathy Fish. They were pulled from online and print journals, from story collections and previous anthologies. As a body of the best of the best, this anthology is ideal for teachers of creative writing who want to explore the art of narrative in a short time span. It’s perfect for authors who are looking to inform their own audacious writing and want to learn how to try something new. And above all, New Micro is an addictive anthology for all fiction lovers, to read and reread simply for pleasure.
Claire Polders is a Dutch author of five novels. Her latest, A Whale in Paris (Atheneum, Simon&Schuster, 2018) is a historical novel for younger readers co-authored with Daniel Presley. Her short fiction and nonfiction was published in TriQuarterly, Tin House, Electric Literature, Denver Quarterly, and Fiction International.