Somewhat odd bringing up two American contributors (one here, the other in the next blog entry) from the Spring 1990 issue of Manoa, given how this very issue of the “Pacific Journal Of International Writing” features a special focus on Papua New Guinean literature. Still, I rather enjoyed the “five fictions” by Stuart Dybek and the five poems by Cole Swensen that I read this morning. I’ve come across Dybek’s name before, but I really don’t know his work.
The first two pieces, “Confession” and “The Girl Downstairs,” are relatively straightforward in their depiction of situation rather than story, down to quirky little details: confessing to alcoholic Father Boguslaw “deadly sins” like “hitch-hiking, which I’d been convinced was an offense against the Fifth Commandment, which prohibited suicide” in the former and the latter with a narrator who wakes up in alarm one night only to be reassured that “it’s only the girl downstairs, the ordinary-looking one who wears rimless glasses and her hair in a bun, it’s only her moaning a floor below in that steady rising chant that she can’t know has disturbed me.”
The other three are progressively weirder and further away from conventional fiction.
“The Knife Thrower’s Daughter” is again situational about its title character like the second story, but while “The Girl Downstairs” has a conventionally descriptive first sentence in “The girl downstairs is moaning again,” the third story begins with a litany that displays more stylistic flourish: “Each evening at the dinner table, knives, forks, chopsticks, skewers, corkscrews, can openers, broken bottle necks, jagged-edged cracked plates of food embed themselves in the wall directly behind her.”
The first sentence of “Who” is even more breathless, taking eight lines of the nine-line piece to ask “Who has been stealing from me, picking my locks, bludgeoning in my windows and screens, rifling drawers, stalking the rooms leaving footprints of plaster dust up and down stairs…” It ends with the two other sentences that make up the piece, both questions that begin with another interrogative pronoun: “What am I missing? What did they find left to carry away?”
Finally, “Seven Sentences” is simply a paratactic enumeration that begins with “One. Tonight the moon has a street number,” and ends with “Seven. It will take more than a few days to erase tonight’s moon.” In between are the five other sentences, one barely so (Breath: a concertina of evening air pressed back and forth between us in a doorway.”), none of them enumerated with numbers like the first and the last. Instead, we get Lilacs. And Proverb. Also, A Novel. And Curtains.
Dybek’s Wikipedia entry has links to longer stories, none of which I’ve read yet, so I can’t say whether he’s better at longer stories. His views on the “flash fiction” trend a couple of decades ago can be found here and certainly illuminate the five pieces he published in Manoa twenty-two years ago.