Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

"Nothing to worry about" by Vanessa Gebbie (Flash: The International Short-Short Story Press, 2018)

25 Flash stories from "Flash", "SmokeLong Quarterly", etc. Though she's well known in Flash circles and beyond, she's not allied to any particular type of story. While Gary Duncan's "You're Not Supposed to Cry" is realist, and other people write surrealism, Gebbie evades classification. That said, this book is mostly non-realist, only death (as in "Birds are like that") tending to bring a sense of realism. I read the title as "Nothingness is something to worry about". My favourites are "Birds are like that", "Wei-Ch'i", "Navigation", "Reeds", "Three stages in learning to fly" and "Shibuya Intersection". Not so much "Nothing to Worry About" or "Personal Bonsai". "The Sea Lion Who Learned to Fly" is beyond me - a strange piece.

The first 3 stories feature bought items - a delivery left at a door, a door, a window - that assume a greater significance. There are stories where the issue is summing up a life - "This is what they do now, at the end - send one of these personal archaeologists to plumb you" (p.8) and "This is what they do now, these note-takers" (p.29). Birds feature in several stories - caged, suit-cased, or once a woman. In "Three stages in learning to fly", Ed's wife first becomes an ant. They've had trouble with ants all year. He puts her outside, in a cactus pot. He sometimes sees her, always going somewhere. Then she becomes a cricket, sounding like phones ringing all the time. Then a flock of starlings, each one part of her body. He pays particular attention to the bird which is her heart, which breaks away then returns to where it belongs.

It's dangerous being a character in a Gebbie story - as well as turning into an ant, your face can become triangular, you can turn slowly into metal (don't worry - swarf can turn into people), become fruit, become motes in another's eyes, or have trees growing from your orifices. You can break into parts. Or (because real-life is never far away) your wife of 40 years can tell you that she's never loved you.

Parts and wholes

In aesthetics there's much about how the parts should combine indispensably to create a perfect whole. There are fables and theories about it too - how the blind men feel different parts of an elephant and make a false deduction about the whole. There's gestalt theory, where our expectations of the whole influence our perception of the parts. Agnosia is the condition when people can't understand the whole, only the parts. And there's Frankenstein's monster - a mess of parts until lightning struck.

The board game Go epitomizes the importance of form over substance - each piece has the same value, it's their formations that matter. That (and the number of possible moves) is what made it a difficult game for computers to succeed in.

In "Wei-Ch'i" (the name means "Go"), Shaozu was coming home from work. Just another day. Walking from an intersection he passed a gambler he knew who said "Sometime, we must come to the end of all possible permutations". His wife Mei wasn't home. Maybe she'd popped off for a game of Go. Then he found her hand. In the hallway he found her foot. He placed the two together - "the wrong partner was better than no partner at all. Loneliness is a dreadful thing". Walking around, "He found Mei everywhere". "He did not try to reassemble her". Instead he lined the parts up in order of discovery, rather like an archivist, a note-taker. In their bedroom he finds more things - "He found his eye pricking. He found himself recalling Mei's voice" from the night before, how, after 40 years she'd thought of their financially convenient marriage as "A lack". He doesn't find her face or heart - "some things, no matter how close they may have been, are never found at all".

The lightning never struck, a chance alignment never came to their aid, the parts no longer made sense.

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