They Could No Longer Contain Themselves brings together the winner of the third annual Rose Metal Press short short chapbook contest and four of the finalists from the fourth annual contest, resulting in an off-beat, varied, and vital flash fiction collection. The work presented here by Elizabeth J. Colen, John Jodzio, Tim Jones-Yelvington, Sean Lovelace, and Mary Miller shows a range of style and concerns; however, each author presents work that is lively and engaging, making this an essential collection to anyone interested in not just flash fiction but fiction in general. As Rose Metal Press editors Abigail Beckel and Kathleen Rooney write in the preface, “For all of the differences in writing style, technique, and theme, the characters throughout these five chapbooks are barely contained and bursting out.”
One of the highlights of the collection is John Jodzio’s Do Not Touch Me Not Now Not Ever, which opens the book and is composed of quirky characters in unusual situations. In “Inventory,” a baby swallows various objects around the house—a ninja star, toenail clippers, packs of Post-it notes—which leads to a stand-off:
Soon, my husband and the baby were eyeing each other in a manner I did not like. You see it all the time nowadays, this raising of eyebrows, a puffing out of chests, hands flexing from open to closed.
One night, my husband searched the baby’s bassinet.
“This is a random search,” he told the baby. “It could occur at any time. That’s what random means, okay?”
The baby took its revenge for the search by swallowing my husband’s wristwatch.
“It’s on,” my husband told our marriage counselor. “That was an heirloom. Handed down from generation to generation. Game fucking on.”
In the end, the couple wakes to their arms duct-taped together up to their elbows and the baby gone. While the premise is wild, the characters, their dialogue, and their reactions feel spot-on, making the world of the story immediate and real. Other stories in this chapbook include a woman following a warlock, a drunk man firing his clothes off a bridge with a t-shirt cannon, and three little girls living in the trunk of a car.
The second chapbook, Mary Miller’s Paper and Tassels, is much more grounded in the world we know. Focusing on loneliness and relationships, these stories are able to capture complex emotions and relationships in a few short lines. Some of the pieces are a single brief paragraph, like “Love,” which tells of a child mixing pain and love because of the abuse she has gone through, and “Patterns,” whose final line perfectly captures the nature of the narrator: “At the place we call home, I ask him to leave. He agrees easily, so I talk him into staying.”
Another highlight of the collection, Sean Lovelace’s How Some People Like Their Eggs—the now sold-out winner of the third annual contest—is the most formally experimental of the group. In addition to more straight-forward stories like “Meteorite” and “Molasses,” there are excerpts from Charlie Brown’s Diary, lists of how some people like their eggs, and lists of how various people meet their ends:
Sandy works at this bait shop in Upper Michigan. A senior citizen pulls out a filet knife and demands a Styrofoam minnow bucket, for free. He carves the air with his bony fingers. Sandy selects a revolver (one of many secreted throughout the store) from behind the register, and says: “Old man. We all could use a better understanding of our situations.” Then she shoots him in the forehead.
Lovelace’s prose has a lyric quality to it. In the section on Anne Sexton in “How Some People Like Their Eggs” he writes, “Then she pierces the yolks; they bloom and bleed: a peony, a water clock, a lioness clutching at a crow.” In “Meteorite,” he demonstrates a talent for simile and metaphor: “We are walking, long, aimless walking, like two paper cups blown across a grassy courtyard,” and later, “A doctor told Paige she had leukemia, a disease wherein the white cells run amuck and drink too much cheap beer and urinate in public and hang from motel balconies and generally harm themselves and others like teenagers on spring break in Florida.” Throughout the chapbook there is attention to detail and an ability to be simultaneously humorous and serious.
While most of the chapbooks are collections of individual flash pieces, Elizabeth J. Colen’s chapbook Dear Mother Monster, Dear Daughter Mistake, uses linked stories involving a character named Carrie in the second part of the chapbook, “Anything You Can Do,” and is perhaps the darkest of the five chapbooks. Tim Jones-Yelvington also uses linked stories in Evan’s House and the Other Boys Who Live There, which centers on Evan’s homosexuality and the various relationships he has with his family, classmates, and lovers as he goes from childhood to adulthood.
In each of the authors’ cases, the worlds they are able to create in such little space, with so few words, is impressive. The characters, though we may catch just a glimpse of them, are rendered completely, are identifiable as people we know. These are five authors to look for. Further, the quality of work in this collection sets high expectations for future Rose Metal Press chapbooks.