Monday, May 5, 2008

Vestal Review/Robert Olen Butler/Jim Tomlinson/Flash Fiction Review

Nominating Editor: Mark Budman

Vestal Review is a semi-annual perfect-bound print magazine with the Web presence, devoted to what we consider an underrepresented type of fiction: flash (or short-short) stories. A good flash, replete with a cohesive plot, rich language and enticing imagery, is perhaps the hardest type of fiction to write. A good flash is so condensed that it borderlines poetry. A good flash engages your mind not only for the short duration of its read, but for a long time after.

Vestal Review is an eclectic magazine, open to all genres except children's stories and hard science fiction. It includes four live flash stories per quarterly Web issue, plus a teaser for three or four more that will be available only in the semi-annual print edition. Vestal Review has been published continuously since March 2000.

We are blessed with a deluge of submissions and therefore are very selective.

Our contributors include Steve Almond, Katharine Weber, Mike Resnick, Aimee Bender, Sam Lipsyte, Kirk Nesset, Judith Cofer, Bruce Boston, Robert Boswell, Bruce Holland Rogers, Michelle Richmond, Liz Rosenberg and Pamela Painter.

We are an official Pushcart-nominating press. Our stories have been reprinted in the Mammoth Book of Minuscule Fiction, Flash Writing, E2Ink anthologies and have been printed in the WW Norton Anthology Flash Fiction Forward.

Vestal Review was featured on NPR in 2004, and is a recipient of the Broome Council of the Arts grant. We pay professional rates of 3 - 10 cents a word plus a contributor's copy.

I chose this previously unpublished story because it combines an unusual format and rich language. "Intercourse" blends together two profound human acts: love and dying, killing two stones with one bird.

Nominated Flash Fiction: "Intercourse" - Robert Olen Butler

Review: by Jim Tomlinson

I’ve been a fan of Robert Olen Butler’s fiction since first reading his collection, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, several years ago. I was taken with his ability to fully inhabit his Vietnamese-American characters and make each one specific, unique and so very real. I enrolled in Butler’s 2003 workshop at Indiana University Writers Conference, studying for a week with him there, hearing him read from his work. Anyone who has attended a Butler reading will not be surprised to learn that his father was an actor and theater professor and that Butler in college was a theater major and playwright. His work is all about the characters, and his greatest skill is how thoroughly, how convincingly he suffuses himself into characters, how he inhabits them.

So I come to reviewing this fiction from an admittedly biased perspective. I’ve admired Butler’s fiction for years. I appreciate how helpful the man and his teachings have been in my writing career. I read each new Butler story expecting great things.

If the short-short from Vestal Review is representative, Intercourse will be one of Butler’s best books. While not yet released, online sources indicate that it will present brief, first-person narratives of the first sexual encounters of famous couples from history, including Adam & Eve, Bonnie & Clyde, Pocahontas & John Smith, Richard Milhous Nixon & Pat Nixon, Walt Whitman & Oscar Wilde, Elvis Presley & Holly Singleton, Princess Diana & Prince Charles, Bill Clinton & Hillary Rodham, and Santa Claus and Ingebirgitta (an elf). With so many fields on which Butler can loose his imagination and wit, it should be a most entertaining book.

The "Intercourse" episode in Vestal Review—Atilla the Hun and twelfth wife, Ildico, in the year 453—is written in the language of consciousness, two streams not fashioned into neat sentences, yet coherent enough and fully comprehensible to the reader. Atilla’s consciousness is intruded upon at the beginning of intercourse by a rupturing artery and, in his dying moments, he has a vision of Pope Leo accompanied by Christ, who, through an ultimate “turning of the cheek” gesture, triumphs. With great skill, Butler’s relates this scene entirely through the perceptions of a character who neither knows nor has a basis for belief for much of what he experiences. And yet the reader understands. How? By interpreting the reactions of Atilla’s horse, which “knows to mutter and rear,” through Atilla’s beginning to tremble at the approach of the unarmed Christ, and his sudden certainty that, in cutting the offered throat, he would be lost.

Meanwhile, his bride’s experience of their intercourse is much different. (I suspect that this will be true in many Intercourse stories.) Ildico accepts the brutality of the ceremonial wedding rituals and still hopes to fulfill her role as wife. When she feels Atilla’s sudden weakening, she interprets this according to her own desires, that this be a moment of new gentleness. She wants to find a tender side to her new husband, and lives in that illusion for the moment. Again, we, as readers, know more than the character. Atilla is not tender, just dying.

In all the wisdom and humor of Butler’s stories, an irony often comes shining through—how very little his characters (and, by extension, people) know or truly share with their “shared” experiences, even those as supposedly intimate as intercourse.

At his Indiana workshop, Bob Butler cautioned that fiction is, above all, a thing of art. “We are not meant to understand a work of art,” he said, “but to thrum to it.” He called analysis of literature “a secondary and artificial concern.” So I’ll simply urge you, if you haven’t already done so, to read his intercourse story in Vestal Review. Read and thrum to it.

Reviewer's Bio:

Jim Tomlinson’s debut short story collection, Things Kept, Things Left Behind, won the 2006 Iowa Short Fiction Award. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Five Points, Shenandoah, Bellevue Literary Review, New Stories from the South, 2008 and elsewhere. He received a 2008 NEA Fellowship, as well as fellowships from the Kentucky Arts Council, Sewanee Writers Conference and Wesleyan Writers Conference. This winter he will be visiting writer at Eastern Kentucky University’s new brief-residency MFA program. An engineer by training, Jim lives and writes in rural Kentucky.

Thank you for visiting Five Star Literary Stories and reading about this flash fiction.

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