The word “small” often tends to denote something insignificant, something easily overlooked. The Best Small Fictions 2016, guest-edited by Stuart Dybek, completely obliterates that notion: there is nothing insignificant about these small stories. They boom and jump off the page, impossible to ignore.
These stories come from a wide array of literary magazines and small presses, so readers are bound to stumble upon favorites from the past year (I was happy to be greeted with one of my own favorites: Rosie Forrest’s “Bless This Home” from her contest-winning chapbook Ghost Box Evolution in Cadillac, Michigan), and will find themselves uncovering new gems along the way. Each story has something unique to offer, creativity dripping from every page.
Readers are given the opportunity to experience unique points of view, like in Alberto Chimal’s “The Waterfall,” where we’re shown the thoughts of baptismal names and water, or in “Carnivores” by Janey Skinner, in which a Venus flytrap watches but doesn’t understand its human “family” as they cope with disease. Of course, there are more standard points of view, but they still stand out, like “Reunion” by Megan Giddings. In Giddings’s piece, a wife welcomes home her husband, a recently released inmate that is referred to only as Inmate 144416 for much of the story. Every piece of flash proves why it was chosen out of thousands as one of the best. Each demonstrates the authors’ mastering of this short form.
Among my (many) favorites is “Trifle” by Mary-Jane Holmes, which starts out innocently enough before jerking readers in a new direction by the heart. Two daughters greet their father who’s returning from the Middle East, and are too young and naive to understand the seriousness of the war their father served in, the war they reduce down to a game. The story then veers from the joy of homecoming to a somber end as the girls begin to realize that their father has been damaged like those they’ve imagined in their make believe war games. The change in tone leaves readers hollow as they observe the situation with comprehension the sisters lack.
Kathy Fish introduces another little girl who watches the adult world operate around her in “A Room with Many Small Beds,” the narrator focused on Pearl, her father’s girlfriend. Although Fish’s narrator is nine, she seems to see through Pearl, both resenting her: “Pearl tells me if my mother were here she’d spank me. No she wouldn’t, I say. She’d spank you,” and harboring a rapt, almost unhealthy fascination as she observes Pearl. She sees parts of the woman to which her father probably remains blind. Fish brings the narrator to life, and the narrator then brings Pearl to life in turn, a beautifully heart-breaking little piece.
It’s these pieces that left me unsettled which resonated the most. A. Nicole Kelly dares readers to look away again and again in “Milk Teeth.” She forces us to imagine both physical discomfort: “She was still, she was calm, while her teeth broke off in pieces and she caught each one,” and the emotional trauma of the main character walking in on her husband having sex with another woman at a wedding they attended. Kelly writes with such clarity, readers become the woman and take on her pain.
Readers, don’t let the word “small” throw you off. This year’s edition of The Best Small Fictions redefines the word with writing that towers above the rest.