Reviews of the Ephemeral

Archive for the ‘Flash’ Category

‘The Monster Opera’ by Nancy Stohlman

In Flash on September 4, 2013 at 1:20 pm

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

Following on their first flash novel, Matthew Ankeny’s The Rink, Bartleby Snopes Press is releasing a second title in the series, Nancy Stohlman’s The Monster Opera, ‘a flash novel in two acts’. Structurally, Stohlman’s work mixes operatic libretto and sheet music with production reviews, wrapped up within a self-reflexive narrative that centres on a forbidden story. Or as the writer character of Ursula Leonard announces in the ‘Overture’, regarding The Monster Opera, ‘I hate this story. I hate the Muse. […] Now it’s a bastard deformity. Not an opera, not a novel. I wish I’d never written the first word. I had no idea what kind of monster I was growing.’

The Monster Opera Nancy Stohlman

The first act of this flash novel thus consists mainly of the interactions between Ursula and the opera singers that she has come to stay with, tenor Libretto Santiago and soprano Magdalena Santiago (née Basco), as Ursula is seduced into writing their story. Libretto demands Ursula’s loyalty in exchange for giving her the story, offering her a final chance to ‘leave this place, leave [his] bed, leave this house and find [her]self another’. Right after she agrees to pay the price, the narrative interrupts to warn Libretto:

This is the final moment before the story changes hands, the moment your ego has done you in. You’re too infatuated to think straight, you find the prospect of becoming a character romantic and appealing, you want to be immortalized in words, you want to feel that your story is worth taking. Later, when it’s too late, you’ll forget that you gave it willingly. I warned you.

The story in question is akin to a living organism, casting its pall on the Santiago household, or as Ursula writes, ‘The whole family suffered from sad sickness.’ It is literally transmitted from Libretto to Ursula through a bite, continuing to gestate inside her: ‘The Forbidden Story grew inside of me. My breasts were stretched and sore. […] The story was growing stronger; it was swelling, transforming.’ It gradually becomes clear that what is being transmitted is really a poisoned chalice, in that it confers preternatural talent on those it infects, since Libretto received it from his father and went on to become the world’s greatest tenor, but ‘he [also] felt the monster stir’ inside him. In the case of Ursula, she writes, ‘The monster lives in me, wants to escape, wants to take over my body and mind.’

The final piece of the puzzle slides into place at the end of the flash novel’s first act, with the appearance of The Traitor, who also demands the deadly gift from Libretto. It is quickly revealed that The Traitor is in fact Ursula’s husband, Hugo, seemingly written into existence in the role by the Forbidden Story’s manipulation of Ursula (‘It’s growing on its own now’). In its second act, The Monster Opera shifts into a more surreal mode, as the walls between fiction and reality begin to break down, and the Forbidden Story writes itself towards a gruesome end for all involved: ‘The poet writhes and expels the story she is not allowed to write […] rotted, bloated chunks of paper that leave a strong odor.’

What is most fascinating about Stohlman’s work is how freely it shifts back and forth between different artistic forms, the whole package compressed into the length of a short story. Given its usage of sheet music, it would have been interesting to see an e-book produced that incorporated performances of those songs, in a similar fashion to what happens in Superbard’s The Flood. However, while Stohlman herself has acknowledged the potential of The Monster Opera as a performance piece, having done a staged reading with composer Nick Busheff and a small cast, she also sees it first and foremost as a written work. In that respect, The Monster Opera is a bold attempt to carve out a space for the flash novel as a distinct category within the fiction landscape. In doing so, the work also raises questions about how art forms like opera can sustain an existence today, as well as the sacrifices demanded of those involved in the act of creating art.


‘The Rink’ by Matthew Ankeny

In Flash on August 15, 2013 at 7:45 pm

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

Bartleby Snopes, already named by Flavorwire as one of the 10 online literary magazines everyone should be reading, is now branching into publishing flash novels. This also comes after the magazine launched Saboteur Award-nominated Post-Experimentalism, a special project billed as ‘the world’s first issue of Post-Experimental fiction’. With this new flash novel series, Bartleby Snopes Press looks set to continue breaking down genre boundaries. To get an idea of what to expect, here are the guidelines from the website: ‘Make us feel like we’ve read a whole novel (but in about a tenth the time). […] We view the flash novel as more than just a longer story. Don’t think of it as a collection of flash stories that make up a novel. We want the depth of a novel in under 10,000 words.’

True to that description, Matthew Ankeny’s The Rink clocks in at around 2500 words, but spans the lifetime of its protagonist, Kay, in six sections bookended by descriptions of the titular ice skating rink. It opens in late fall, and before the reader is even introduced to Kay, Ankeny begins with the image of the many skaters in the rink moving in concert, circling counterclockwise. Only then does he home in on Kay and her friends, just another group coming into view. Within the wider flash novel, the effect is to highlight that what the reader gets is a story that is uniquely Kay’s, but which could also just as easily have been that of any of the other skaters in the rink at that moment.

The Rink Matthew Ankeny

This section also introduces the metaphor of the rink as the arena in which lives play out and leave their literal and metaphorical marks. The girls attempt to skate as slowly as possible, so they ‘push off and begin with small pats of the skates, light scrapes against the ice, hooves tapping the surface of a frozen tundra, children testing the water’. The hint of romantic intrigue offered up by the characters of Sandi and Rob in this section is also paralleled and developed in the next, where Kay and Kent’s date ends in a re-enactment of younger Kay and the other girls skating hand in hand in one line. Except this is a calculated move by Kay (‘She could hold him; she could support his fall. But she doesn’t.’) to create an opportunity for the couple to fall down in a tangled ‘heap of legs, arms, torsos, hips, skates’.

From here, The Rink alights at subsequent points in Kay’s life, skipping marriage and heading straight to when her daughter Jolie is six and going ice skating for the first time at the same rink, then jumping forward to Kay and Kent’s separation. In this fourth section, Ankeny returns to the image of the crowd at the rink and the solace it offers to Kay: ‘There’s peace in moving through crowds. It’s a community of silence; it’s kinesthetic speech, spatial connection, the flow of bodies through space. She felt closeness as she whirled herself around, edging through and behind and beside.’

As Kay’s story starts to draw to a close, the reader is offered a glimpse at Jolie’s fourteenth birthday, which also takes place at the rink. In keeping with how Ankeny echoes images throughout The Rink, Jolie is also ice skating with her friends, while Sandi and Rob make their reappearance. When the birthday cake is passed around, Kay is described as ‘passing them out like memories to those with an appetite’, a salient reminder of how the rink serves to tie Kay’s past and present together. To bring things full circle, the final section dealing with Kay’s life story thus begins, ‘The women held hands like they once did.’ Yet it also underscores how time has changed and marked them: ‘Now, they were more dignified, if less graceful. It was the gray lining at their hair’s root, under the dyes.’ The reader is informed of Rob’s death in passing, but Sandi already has another hockey player in her sights. Then Kay and Sandi skate out of the story, but nevertheless, ‘[t]he rink holds them there like a white, lacy band’.

At this point, one might argue that The Rink does not give us the full course of Kay’s life, since Ankeny commences her narrative in medias res. However, the bookending sections that only describe the rink might be thought of as proxies for birth and death, since Ankeny has tracked the full autumn-to-spring life cycle of the rink itself. Essentially, the rink’s story is Kay’s story, but it is also the stories of everyone who has ever skated there, but these can only be captured for as long as the ice stays frozen. The Rink thus culminates in a poetic meditation that showcases the effectiveness of the rink as metaphor for the ultimate transience of our lives:

There is one final skate where the ice takes the last impressions, the scrapes and edges carving into the clear surface, giving last depth, a final calligraphy of curves. […] each skate carves deep, leaving its mark, a fossil of itself. Then the rink is left to thaw and the ice melts into puddles and the marks on the ice turn into nothing more than drops of water that dissolve into air, the skaters long gone, their effort turned to vapour.