Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Flash Fiction Funny

(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. While I had intended to ask the editor for a review copy, I had yet to find out how easy it is to do such a thing and finally just bought a copy rather than risk embarrassing myself.)

Flash Fiction Funny, edited by Tom Hazuka
Read: 15 to 16 February 2014    
3.5 / 5 stars 

In the past few months, I've been reading more contemporary and many more small-press books than I previously had, which has delivered the unintended bonus of sampling genres and writers I would have never approached before, attached as I am to the classics both canonical and present-day. While there is much to discover still, such a change in my literary diet has already proved to be an excellent experience, and testing the long-established boundaries of my bookish tastes is something I should have forced myself to do years ago.

When a friend brought Flash Fiction Funny to my attention, I pounced on the chance to acquaint myself with a genre I know very little about: I've read exactly one collection of flash fiction once before, and this was to be my first encounter with its deliberately humorous breed delivered by dozens of different voices. With each story ranging in length from a single paragraph to no more than three pages, Flash Fiction Funny runs the gamut of humor while proving that brevity is, indeed, the soul of wit if a writer knows how to achieve maximum hilarity with a minimalist's word count.

With 82 approaches to humor on display, there is most assuredly something for everyone in this collection; if a particular flash-fiction piece doesn't tickle your fancy, it's over in... well, a flash before something entirely different takes the stage. Ranging from the absurd to the darkly comical, to the mundane daily occurrences framed humorously to proof that tragedy is just comedy that tests your resolve to find the punch line, to the refreshingly uninhibited invitations to just laugh out loud over a story's elements, narration, situation or characters, this collection most definitely traverses the broad terrain of humor's territory.

Aside from the overtly forced cohesion inherent in a collection that's based on a specific mood and structure, it's not always easy to tease out a sense of unification in an anthology that encourages its panoply of writers to offer up their very different takes on both a style and a theme; however, Flash Fiction Funny's showcase of talent quickly proves itself to be a celebration of how there's always something to laugh at in any given scenario as long as you're looking at it from the right vantage point, as well as being a wonderful reminder that humor can be presented in a nigh inexhaustible number of ways.

While most offerings herein are straight-up slices of life, some are framed differently enough to keep the flow of funny varied: there are extended double entendres (like "On Collecting Porcelain Weiner Dogs," which is only ostensibly about collectible dachshunds), too-spot-on satirical renderings of the outlandish writing prompts familiar to anyone who's taken a creative-writing class ("Thirteen Writing Prompts"), a disappointed mother's will ("Mother's Last Wishes"), one-sided dialogues that need no second party because we've all been through the grimly absurd motions at one point or another ("Interview"), the failures of our prehistoric ancestors in their early attempts at domesticating wolves presented as an academic paper ("Primitive Man Tames the Wolf"), debased demigods ranging from a weary superhero ("This City") and fairy-tale princes who clearly are not living all that happily ever after after all ("Just Outside the Closet"), and fictionalized encounters with famous literary figures ("Sunflowers of Evil" and "Poets at the Boardinghouse," which were two of my favorite pieces). Despite what may sound like jabs at either the audience or the narrator, the humor here serves to highlight the fact that life's little annoyances are the common ground we all share, that even our teachers, parents, friends and idols are all powerless against the ravages of time, are subject to all the failings of the flesh, and fall victim to the ongoing frustrations that indefatigably dapple ordinary life; we can't control what happens but we can control how we react, so why not just suss out the salvageable chuckles and move on?

To me, the most successful stories here were the ones that stuck most closely to that unspoken but implied philosophy by either refashioning the staggeringly ordinary mundanities of everyday life into something practically biblical--like "Egypt," the book's first piece, which transforms the old-as-time battle of wills between a teenage son and his oh-so-unfairly immovable father into something ripped from the Old Testament, insect infestations, bodily ailments, frogs and all--or offered up ironic commentary on easy targets, like "How to Waste Two Hours of Life," which tells of a father/daughter bonding experience where Dad is subjected to his daughter's favorite brain-rotting reality-television show and is angrily compelled to keep watching this drivel that he alternately loathes and can't tear his eyes from. What makes these stories stand out is that they're social commentaries without lobbing criticisms or resting on tired cliches: Parents and children will never see eye-to-eye when their points of view are so wildly incompatible; people will always be simultaneously disgusted by and drawn to pop culture. These societal mainstays will always be happening and each new ridiculous performance will bond each new player to the legions before and after who have gone and will go through these same motions.

The hilarity comes from the earnest immediacy we impart to these spectacles, a futile farce we won't see until someone else grants us the privilege of the observer's role: It is not the outcomes of these moments that matter but what we take away from them. Learning from these moments--and, more importantly, being able to laugh at them--is one of life's most important lessons. Life is too serious to take seriously, so have some fun at its expense whenever you can. Just don't presume to be above the cosmic absurdity.

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