Reviews

They Could No Longer Contain Themselves

They Could No Longer Contain Themselves:
A Collection of Five Flash Chapbooks
by Elizabeth J. Colen, John Jodzio,
Tim Jones-Yelvington, Sean Lovelace, and Mary Miller
Rose Metal Press, 2011
248 pages / $15.95 Buy from Rose Metal Press
Rating: 7.0

 

 

 

 

The problem with collections of flash fiction is their unevenness, or that the reader recognizes the unevenness more than in, say, a novel. Maybe this also applies to story collections, especially non-linked stories, though there are a few that come away feeling complete–to me, usually collections with fewer stories. I can’t think of a single flash collection that does not seem hill-and-valley. They Could No Longer Contain Themselves is no exception. I find it interesting to note, however, that the chapbooks that were linked helped me see past the valleys, as I was always aware of the range. Okay, enough of this terrible analogy. On to the individual chapbooks.

Just one reader’s note: Going into TCNLCT, I had read Sean Lovelace’s How Some People Like Their Eggs, which won Rose Metal Press’s chapbook competition and which I figured would be the standout. As I was reading, I changed my mind away and then back again.

TCNLCT begins with John Jodzio’s Do Not Touch Me Not Now Not Ever. This first chapbook seemed the least strong to me. I have been and am a fan of Jodzio’s work, but when read together, the stories in DNTMNNNE seemed to rely too much on premise. If the premise succeeded, the story succeeded, but if not, not. I would fully expect a reader who came across the stories individually to walk away impressed, but the effect together was to make the writer seem in a rut.

The second chapbook is Mary Miller’s Paper and Tassels. Miller is a favorite, but these shorts didn’t have the ballast of some of her other stories, for me. A few still transcend and are some of the best in the book, but others fail to hit that emotional register that is at the core of a Mary Miller success. Miller’s stories, to me, seem to burn and burn until you realize you’re on fire, but here, some of these stories seem in embers.

Elizabeth Colen’s careful prose and intricate interweavings in Dear Mother Monster, Dear Daughter Mistake made the stories that nearly made me forget the rest of the book. A pleasant surprise–of the five authors, I was least familiar with Colen’s fiction. Yet that first story is a killer, and the interplay thereafter carries the reader through the weaker stories. There is poetry in this chapbook. A lot of it.

In contrast, Tim Jones-Yelvington’s Evan’s House and the Other Boys Who Live There contains the least poetry. At first, I thought this lack would lose me, but as the stories keep building, it’s hard not to see the charm in their architecture. I fell for the brick-like work they did in creating a whole. Some stories are far more like tiny chapters than like stand-alone stories, perhaps weaker alone, but stronger for the overall arc. My only complaint is with those stories that do not do that brick work as well, and with the bylines, which were an unneeded gimmick and seemed forced upon the structure authorially. But as a whole, quite strong.

Lastly, Lovelace’s How Some People Like Their Eggs, except for that Charlie Brown miss at the beginning, is so true and diamond-cut that it made me fall for it all over again. How could I forget that voice! These are five original voices–that’s the main thing TCNLCT has going for it–but Lovelace, maybe with the exception of Miller, has the most authority behind his style. These stories really sing, and in an associative way. They linger past their reading. You’re never done with them, and they’re never done with you.

Tags: , , , , , ,

59 Comments

  1. Tyler Gobble

      Somebody needs to chill out and read a good book.

  2. Roxane

      Bookslut does kick ass. I didn’t mention them because I write for them.

      Substantial engagement takes many different forms.

      I also believe that it’s hysterical and short sighted to suggest that our culture is just so very dumb. It’s lazy (and I’m not speaking just to your comments) to reflexively rend your garments about how diluted our intellectual culture has become. That is not the case or we would not be having this conversation. Our culture is changing and all of us are learning how to maintain critical rigor across new mediums. HTMLGIANT is doing all kinds of things great and small. As I said before, the site cannot be everything. No one site can. Instead, you need to consider how a range of sites, magazines, and other outlets are working in concert.

      I’d love to see you write one of these reviews you are looking for, when you have the time. I’m interested in what you would have to say about a book you enjoyed. 

  3. Tyler Gobble

      I too am interested in this “hill-and-valley” idea. I have to disagree with the idea that flash collections are more prone to this “unevenness” than a novel. For me, unevenness is easier to spot/to become distracted by in a novel because of the way I read them. A cohesive hole, in most cases, I’m concerned with how it builds, how it sustains, how it pushes the plot. In a collection of stories, or even poems, I’m concerned, first and foremost, with the individuality and expressiveness in its contained form of each piece. Not until the end do I concern myself with how the collection as a whole renders itself. Sure, I notice the ups and downs, but that in itself doesn’t become a problem for me. I hope this makes sense. Here’s a simpler thing:

      A novel, in most senses, for me is the journey from Point A to Point B, where I notice the twists and bumps, both in writing and in story.

      A collection, in most senses, for me is the Points (A, B, C…) which are the stories/poems, where not til the end do I add them up and call them a journey.

      Now i know this has little to do with this particular story collection(s), but I was very much intrigued by the opening of this review. 

  4. jesusangelgarcia

      I don’t believe we’re dumb — not all of us, anyway — but I think even the brightest are often so overstimulated and overextended that skimming culture is now more the norm than deep immersion. And everyone wants free everything. Wasn’t there a recent post on HTMLG about an “illegal downloading” binge? Maybe I’m nostalgic for a fairy tale that never existed. I did read, however, that 100 – 50 years ago(?) a novel would get hundreds — hundreds! — of reviews, serious reviews, in newspapers around the country. And in this way cultural conversations were launched across demographics and readers found books. Those days are long gone and the replacement — opinion blah blah even sometimes in badass lit circles like here — feeds an American Idol (judgment as entertainment) culture, to my mind, which I just can’t hang with. That’s just me.

      Here’s a review I wrote: http://vol1brooklyn.com/2010/10/25/amelia-gray-lindsay-hunter-on-the-big-ugly/

      I don’t have the time to write reviews like this anymore and produce the kind of creative work I’m interested in. I think that’s the case for many of the writers out there. I’m not rending my garments (nice phrase, by the way) about that. But I am questioning the value of reviews that aren’t really reviews. Bottom line for me: Opinions are not reviews; they’re opinions. (And yes, I realize this is an opinion and others have the right to alternate ones.) My journalism experience tells me reviews are critical analysis written in a way that speaks to the readership of the publication where they’re published. Ja.

      Pizza time now… I am in Chicago, after all. Thanks for the dialogue, Roxane. I think it was good.

  5. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      This review is not just about the reader’s experience, there’s a lot here about form and aesthetics. It is maybe true that the reviewer does not provide contextualizing information for people who have not read the book — ie, they could have explained that my contribution is framed by an interlocking set of six pieces about the same character, so folks would know better what they were talking about w/ regard to the architecture and stories-as-bricks — but that does not mean they are not doing real analytical work, it’s just analysis of aesthetics more than content, which I think is perfectly appropriate for htmlgiant. 

  6. Matthew Salesses

      i don’t know. aren’t all reviews opinions?

  7. jesusangelgarcia

      Aesthetics is fine as an angle, Tim. As you mention, though, there needs to be contextualizing info, or else there’s not enough there to have any idea what’s going on, unless the review is geared toward those who have already read the book, which, if true, is a totally different conversation.

  8. jesusangelgarcia

      They are, Matt. But an opinion that feeds an ARGUMENT — a premise, an angle, a statement about what the work’s about that’s supported w/ evidence from the text and contextualized w/in literary-cultural-historical conversation — is not the same as simply an opinion being tossed off as a review. In other words, saying “I like this about this book” or “This doesn’t work for me in this book b/c I was expecting something different” are not premises. A premise — the point of an argument/review — has to prove a… point(!!!) about the big picture of the work. The point can’t simply be “I like” or “I don’t like.” It’s gotta be about the work, I’m arguing, not about the reviewer’s personal preference, which of course comes into play w/in the context of analysis — just not as the primary focus.

  9. Mary Miller

      I appreciate this review, anonymous or not. I wrote most of these flashes while I was teaching myself to write, and it’s a bit weird to have them in the world as a collection now. This isn’t to say I don’t like it or don’t think they’re good (or I wouldn’t have sent it out), but I also think they’re different from Big World and perhaps not as strong as the flashes in Less Shiny. And maybe I shouldn’t be saying this, but, well, I don’t know. I felt the need to say something.

      I also have to say that John’s collection impressed the hell out of me. 

      Also, there’s this: honest, anonymous reviews are better than totally glowing reviews just because we’re small press people and will need a good review in return.