Book Review: Shut Up/Look Pretty

Shut Up/Look Pretty (Tiny Hardcore Press)
by Lauren Becker, Erin Fitzgerald, Kirsty Logan, Michelle Reale, Amber Sparks

Flash fiction is a difficult medium. It's about cutting down sentences, scrutinizing your word choices--yet at the same time tell a story: something with beginning, middle, and end.

It's a genre that begs writers to look at craft with a magnifying glass. The best practitioners leave us with a sense of awe, of being hit by a bullet. The problem with well-written flash fiction is when collected, it's like getting hit with bullet after bullet, one after the other; you become numb. With bad collections--made of bad flash pieces--it leaves readers with that eyes closed tight moment, waiting for something, yet disappointed that nothing ever came.

Shut Up/Look Pretty, a chapbook collection, is part of the latter with sprinkles of the former, despite the indie star-studded table of contents.

The authors here--Lauren Becker, Erin Fitzgerald, Kirsty Logan, Michelle Reale, and Amber Sparks--all have large publishing credentials within the indie publishing community. They've published in the major indies zines--PANK, Wigleaf, Smokelong, elimae. It is a subculture different from New York publishing houses that has given us  great talent. Roxane Gay, Meg Pokrass among others who gained success on internet zines before making small indie book deals. The authors are quirky, skillful, craft-oriented, yet deadly serious.

Collected, as here, however, the result is lackluster. Ideally, the works in collections are in conversation with each other. The chapbooks here seem more like collected works with no eye at a greater effect, though common themes might show up.

Lauren Becker's 'Things About Me and You' explores failed relationship of young women--along with their resilience and loneliness and their complexities: it's about lives gone quietly wrong. Becker has a conciseness to her writing, but the same themes are considered throughout. Everything might as well be the same story, the people. It's a collection of repetition with little variety. The other flash chapbooks have the same flaws. Both Erin Fitzgerald's 'This Morning Will Be Diferent' and Michelle Reale's 'What Passes for Normal' are half stories with weakly developed arcs--while having the same skillful yet tedious conciseness in language. The words are constructed as ideas of stories. More simply: they're story shaped prose.

There are exceptions however. Kirsty Logan's 'Local God' is a long short story exploring the sexual awakening of college-aged band members on a drunk night and the morning after. Logan, unlike most of her collection comrades, isn't afraid to explore sensuality. Whereas many of the other stories are stale, Logan goes to new heights to explore sex and senses:
"I feel something on my lips. Soft and warm and his tongue is sliding into my mouth and there are the fireflies, flickering inside my eyelids so it's all I can do to stay standing. Everything is slow, like walking in a snowdrift but it's warm, everything so soft and warm."
Logan's single story inhabits more physicality then the internal cerebral wordplay of Becker, Fiztgerald and Real combined.

The other stand out is Amber Sparks's 'A Great Deep Sleep' which presents several stories of the supernatural. Again, like Kirsty Logan, Sparks is not afraid of characters, of stories. Her work is full for rich descriptions of landscapes and a certain playfulness in language that is keen:
"There are no clocks in the land of the dead. There are no wristwatches, no calendars, no methods at all of keeping track of time. Time keeps them. They are prisoners trapped in it surely as flies in honey, and nothing really moves, nothing changes--though everything slowly, gradually shifts, oozes, evolves, dries up, blows away. The dead are as dead as door nails."
This is the type of language Sparks employs. Her stories are sinister, full of linguistic and plot fireworks--yet her explorations and meditations on obsessions ("The Ghost Eat More Air"), death ("For These Humans Who Cannot Fly"), and love are thought-provoking. They hit like bullets and together they bring readers into a world that is nearly our own yet is not.

What Logan and Sparks show is that the fiction chapbook is a medium that can be well used by fiction writers. What Becker, Fitzgerald and Reale show is that one can easily make it a boring, lackluster venture.

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