Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
176 pp / $22
“Hello! I must be dying.”
In Lou Beach’s debut collection of minuscule flash fiction, 420 Characters, the title gives away the gimmick at a glance, and the Author’s Note follows up: “The stories you are about to encounter were written as status updates on a large social networking site.” A quick Google produces a 420 character limit for Facebook and in that instant the reader knows just exactly what they hold in their hands, a book full of Lou Beach’s Facebook updates; a dreary and somewhat frustrating realization, no matter how beautifully bound the pages are (and they are quite nicely packaged). But the most delightful conundrum of the entire project is the fact that they are not really updates at all, at least not in the “Hey world! Look at me, I’m lonely and depressed and sitting on the crapper bored!” sense and rather, surprising, perfectly crafted, delicious little fictional morsels of sadness, regret, life, self-doubt, drunkenness, murder, mystery, Wild West aesthetic, noir, rednecks, death and, though somewhat less apparent and sprinkled slightly in between all the rest, joy and happiness. It’s odd that the social networking site or the number of characters is even mentioned, because these flash fictions stand on their own and need no such scaffolding to gird their heights. Open to any page, and there is guaranteed a smile, or sigh, or at the very least, a thought.
The entries aren’t titled, and as nearly as one can see, there is no discernable progression or order, or even overarching theme for that matter, but these facts to not detract. Each carefully crafted tiny tale stands apart, an obelisk on the stark white page, and each one has a life of its own and an entire universe of possibility attending it. Each page feels like the opening line to an epic tale, but all we are given is the first salvo; each page is a door that holds worlds beyond its threshold. Observe these three tales as a core sampling of the bedrock of 420:
A man and a woman sit in a café and brood: “You know Vivian, you should get a website and sell those things you make. I bet there’s a market for them.” The woman puts out her smoke with anger and replies: “Maurice, you are such an idiot.”
A hospital patient sees the dull pity on a nurse’s face: “[The look] should have told me to stay put, but I was determined to march out of the ward and into the street and back to Flaherty’s.” And he does, his bare ass hanging off the back of a barstool.
A man watches a woman dying in the hospital and deciding there is nothing left for him to do, or left to do for her, he steals her laptop, her medications, and makes for the door. She grabs his arm before he can go: “Ronnie, give me a smoke.”
The effect of these tiny vignettes is invigorating. Beach, whose main gig is as an artist (there are also a handful of original paintings, reproduced in the book- Beach’s art is like a cross between Matisse and Warhol and doesn’t disappoint- a nice touch and worth a look), is able to capture the essence of a terrible situation in just a few words, and then leave the reader wishing for just a few more sentences. Who are these people? What has driven them to such desperate measures?
The conceptual variants of the experiment are startling in their juxtaposition. Let’s play along: each flash fiction in 420 was written first as a Facebook update, a social information site that caters to a specific set of instant gratification micro-content consumers who need the whole story at a glance- what is Aunt Mildred cleaning now? How many beers did Pauly D. drink last night? – but Beach’s platform specific flash fiction don’t give the whole story, and instead leave the reader chomping at the bit for the rest of the tale. (In the words of the words of the Irish saint Jim Joyce in his most unabridged work- 420 is a “hearasay in Paradox Lust.” )
Beach has performed a literary striptease, one which very well may infuriate the average consumer of instant news and instant updates on the lives of the ones they love, but others may realize that perhaps there is more to each story, that if we read it again, and again, and even a fourth time, we may discover something new behind the words.
420 is a quick read, and one seems to be at the end of it before it has even began, but it bares a few more glances and even opening to any page, at random will reward. Beach has given us a pesky little paradox in a binding- he pleases the instant consumer with length, but not content, and the result is fantastic. His unique take on the everyday and the more than everyday will outlast any social networking site that seeks to connect us while only putting an even greater distance between us. Beach describes the headache this distance induces, and in a fell swoop closes the gap, reminding us that our reality cannot always be captured in an update:
“Anchored at my eyebrows it spreads back like the tentacles of a jellyfish to sting an poison my brain. It hurts to see, everything the color of smoker’s teeth…My Fingers are lead soldiers, stripped of paint, heavy and dull. Hello! I must be dying. My chin is a stump.”
— Robert Tumas is a writer and grad student who lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his gorgeous wife and their two dogs. His writing has appeared in The L Magazine, Slant Magazine, The Faster Times and The Rumpus. His fiction has appeared in ‘stretch’ Magazine, Puerto Del Sol, Art Faccia, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and has been featured at the Franklin Park Reading Series. He is currently at work on a novel about growing up New Jersey.