Friday, April 17, 2009

Flash Fiction Online/David Tallerman/David Erlewine/Flash Fiction Review

Nominating Editor: Jake Freivald

Flash Fiction Online is a monthly online flash-only magazine that launched in December 2007. As writers, our staff wanted to create a professional flash fiction market, as defined by groups like the SFWA and our own standards; as readers, we wanted to publish accessible and well-written stories. We care more about plot and character than genre. Flash tends to blur boundaries anyway, and our tastes vary widely enough that we publish a broad selection of genres and styles. We've featured Bruce Holland Rogers, who is now writing a column for us, along with other well-known authors such as Bruce McAllister and Jim Van Pelt, but we've also published several authors' very first stories.

I loved David Tallerman's "Strive to be Happy" from the moment I started reading. There's an intensity and discomfort in it, even though there's not a lot of physical action, and I kept getting these little surprises as the words flowed by. For me, the ultimate surprise was how well it resolved—not with all the loose ends tied up, mind you, but with the beginning of something new. It's great stuff all delivered in fewer than 900 words.

Nominated Flash Fiction: "Strive to be Happy" - David Tallerman

Reviewed by: David Erlewine

A story really works when it makes me sad that I didn’t write it. In this case, I will have to accept sharing the author’s first name. In about 800 words, David Tallerman makes me feel sorry for, and genuinely root for, a supremely unlikable narrator. The story involves the aforementioned jerk, who has come to despise and verbally abuse the woman living with him. It is never made clear whether the woman is a long-time girlfriend, fiancĂ©e, or wife. But they have been together for some time and whatever love he felt for her is gone.

Every morning he wakes up to find her hypnotized in front of her “dramatically italicised print of Max Ehrmann’s ‘Desiderata.’” The narrator hates the poem’s “cod wisdom,” deriding its “trite, hollow sentences” as “religion for atheists.” The poem “seemed to symbolize everything he despised about her; and the knowledge that those were the same things he’d once loved about her only worsened his rage.” The only words said aloud in the story are his insults as she stands in front of the poster. He knows he is being awful, but her acceptance of such behavior seems to encourage him.

One morning he destroys the poster, surprised by his “childlike ferocity.” Though the woman’s reaction isn’t stated, it appears she just stands by, watching. Then he heads to work. When he returns home, Tallerman ratchets up the tension with pitch-perfect pacing and details, describing "the bedroom in disarray, her clothes gone, her blue leather suitcase missing from its perch beneath the stairs." Tallerman nails the narrator’s response: “Instead, he felt literally deflated, as if one moment he were large and the next very small. She had left him. With that realization came sadness, too imprecise and short-lived to be the grief of loss. After that came relief.” Reading that passage, even now, elicits images from my own break-ups, the relief and sadness I felt in alternating waves.

The narrator finds, on the kitchen table, the poster’s torn fragments “spread like a patchwork quilt” and roughly put back in one piece, now covered in his lover’s notes. Next to the poem’s “As far as possible without surrender,” she has written, “‘No no no! Not anymore.’” This is wonderful, how Tallerman allows the woman’s voice to finally be heard, to explode in our ears.

Next to the patchwork quilt is an envelope. I shared the narrator’s fear that this “last communication” would be hateful, something that would plague him. Inside are the poem’s final lines: “Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.” In the story’s most haunting line, the narrator finds these words contain “some last vestige of love that he had somehow never managed to destroy.” I suspect this guy will mourn, learn, and presumably treat his next lover, and himself, better. I remain impressed that Tallerman got me to care so much about a character that I would avoid in real life. That may be this often-brilliant story’s greatest feat.

Another line from “Desiderata” (not quoted in the story) is to “speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant...” The lover's long-needed words smack the narrator with quiet and clear truth.

This story will stay lodged in my brain way down the line.

Reviewer's Bio:

David Erlewine's stories appear or soon will in about 70 places, including Elimae, Ghoti, In Posse Review, Insolent Rudder, Keyhole (web), Literal Latte, Necessary Fiction (So New Media), Pank, Pedestal, and Word Riot. He lives near Annapolis and writes stories on the train and when his family sleeps. Visit him at his sad little blog.

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

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