Disruptive Dualism in Flash Fiction, or Night Sky with Stars in Reverse
Flash fiction lends itself to the innovation of experiment and the compression of poetry. When it works, it moves us, often in ways so subtle and so sudden we don’t realize what has happened until it’s over. Brevity demands innovation. Brevity also demands that the writer immediately grab hold of the reader and never let go. Flash fiction must take us on a journey in the shortest of time. That journey, though sudden, must provide the urgency and transformative quality we expect from longer travels.
Unlike traditional narratives, flash fiction might not have all the basic elements deemed “necessary” for fiction. There might not be a fully defined narrative arc, character arc, conflict, rising action, falling action, climax, detailed setting, and resolution. However, flash fiction may possess some, most, or all of these elements. Or not. More often, flash fiction redefines fiction-writing basics through the innovation of compression by using a sort of implied narrative for world building. In this unconventional, compressed world building, the understory of innuendo, cultural context, artful subtext, and understated clues lure the reader into unspoken concerns at the heart of the story. What is unspoken drives the narrative, or rather the anti-narrative, of the short-short story.
In place of a traditional conflict, lurks a more subtle organic yet intangible tension. It creates a new sort of conflict where moods and images confront each other in dynamic opposition, creating moments of humor in the somber, moments of brightness in the shadow. Peppering brightness with sobering darkness, like a night sky with stars in reverse, it dazzles as it disorients.
For this reason, the artistic qualities most sought after in editing this issue were delicious tinges of insight, irony, and surprise brought on by flashes of awakening in the formal relief that comes from the clashing of binary oppositions.
The search was on for flash fiction that could show a spectrum of experience: brightness in darkness, humor in sadness, dignity in the downtrodden, ugliness in beauty, beauty in the face of ugliness, hope in despair, joy in depression, flashes of grief in happiness or sparks of happiness in the depths of grief, a sudden recognition of the familiar in the strange, horror lurking in the mundane, tenderness in violence, or violence in tenderness.
Disruptive dualism awaits at the heart of all art alive enough to awaken us to our sleeping selves. Sometimes dualism comes from humor, sometimes irony, but always a turn, a reversal, surprising yet necessary. When earned through the careful crafting of language and world building, transformative opposition in flash fiction brings realistic and often shocking insight. This insight comes from the sort of questioning that ensues when something bleak is transformed by a moment of brightness or when something seemingly mundane is suddenly revealed as earth-shattering.
The narrative power of flash fiction evolves from a sort of dichotomy disrupted when binary oppositions of mood, category, or image are broken by dualism. This dualism, once revealed, makes us question everything, exposing the irony of the human condition: creatures full of life, we live with the knowledge we must die. We are death and life combined. We are happiness and sadness, joy and terror, good and evil, male and female, old and young, violent and gentle, all in the same life. From the realistic to the most surreal of works, if fiction is functional, it gains power through the disruption of binary thinking, a questioning that invites awareness of the spectrum of complex emotions and experience at the heart of the human condition.
The best flash fiction accomplishes this awakening of the gray matter’s gray areas through its turns, turning on itself and sometimes against itself through irony—undercutting with verbal irony, surprising with situational irony, or unsettling with dramatic irony. Always, where there is darkness, there must be a hint of light, and where there is brightness, some shadow play. Without this tonal range of mood orchestration, tension and artistic effect are lost.
Like all good art, flash fiction seduces us. It lures us into dreaming, into remembering the forgotten, into accepting the unacceptable, into admitting the shortfalls of our own private longings. It reminds us who we are, who we used to be. It does this by questioning what was, what might have been, what may be. It asks us questions and then refuses to answer. Always, the artistic gravitas lies in asking the right questions, in finding the right questions, never in offering or finding the right answers. Questions are valuable. Answers are not to be trusted.
Aimee Parkison is the author of Refrigerated Music for a Gleaming Woman, winner of the Fiction Collective Two Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize, published in 2017 by FC2/University of Alabama Press. Girl Zoo, co-authored with Carol Guess, was published by FC2/University of Alabama Press in February of 2019 and has been cited by Big Other and Emerging Writers Network as one of the most highly anticipated small press fiction books of 2019.
Her other works include the story collections Woman with Dark Horses (Starcherone 2004) andThe Innocent Party, (BOA Editions, Ltd., American Reader Series 2012).The Petals of YourEyes (Starcherone/Dzanc 2014).
Parkison has taught creative writing at a number of universities, including Cornell University, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and Oklahoma State University. Parkison has served as a visiting faculty member at the British Council’s International Creative Writing Summer School in Athens, Greece, and as a fiction faculty member at Chautauqua Writers’ Festival. You can find out more about Aimee Parkison here.