There’s a very short story by Franz Kafka, called On the Tram, where the narrator, ‘unsure of his footing in this world’, watches a woman move towards the steps, ready to alight. He is taken in completely by this vision:
She is as distinct to me as if I had run my hands over her.
He describes her appearance and dress, ending with this:
Her small ear is close-set, but since I am near her I can see the whole ridge of the whorl of her right ear and the shadow at the root of it.
He wonders, at the close of the story, how she is not amazed at herself.
The narrator never tells you that the woman is attractive, or beautiful, but she comes alive to the reader, due to words that convey intimacy (and we must acknowledge that word choice in this case involves the work of the translators Willa and Edwin Muir).
In a short story, every word must count. What is left out is as important as what is left in. The writer must create and maintain a particular tone, or mood, and create a piece that feels whole (not a fragment) but that may evoke much outside its confines. With my own very short stories (also called flash fictions or microfictions), I want the characters, images, themes to live long in the reader’s mind. I want them to have some impact.
You might compare a very short story to a complex painting – a narrative-based painting – where the symbols nestled in the setting and upon the figures work together to not only suggest a particular story but hopefully move you to feel something, something you may not even fully, consciously comprehend.
My own stories are not abstract paintings, they are figures in a landscape, though some are expressively warped: the stories in Captives range from dark Edvard Munchs to (superficially) bright Andy Warhols.
I’ve always been a visual person, and I think that’s one reason short stories appeal. Often they centre around an image, or a series of images. Think of Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants, or the new cloak in Gogol’s The Overcoat. In flash fiction, the central image might burn on the reader’s retina, difficult for them to blink away.
One of my favourite very short stories by Janet Frame, The Linesman, is about a woman watching a man repair a telephone line from her window. She cannot seem to move away from this image, despite being hungry and thirsty. The final line is: ‘You see, I was hoping that he might fall.’ The images are sometimes related to epiphanies or indications of character. Often, they are absurd and tell you nothing overt at all (which may really be telling you more).
Mine include a man pointing a gun at his beloved, a woman swallowing objects, an empty cradle, a locked toilet, a newspaper headline, a man on a tightrope, and actor Anthony Perkins’ bum. I hope that the characters will come alive, like the woman on Kafka’s tram did for me, that the stories will produce a range of effects, and that an image or two will remain long in your mind.
Angela Meyer is a Melbourne-based writer and reviewer. Her short stories, articles and reviews have been published widely.
Her new book Captives contains touches of Annie Proulx, the way a lonely death can creep up on you and the way our sexuality will not be denied, though we may try to cover it up. There are many glimpses of ordinary people struggling with everyday madness in extraordinary ways.
by Angela Meyer
Short, intense and mesmerizing. Read these very short stories on a train, a tram, a bus, or waiting in the check out line. Captives by Angela Meyer will fit into your pocket, your handbag or tucked into the cover of your ipad.
Captives opens with a husband pointing his gun at his wife. There’s a woman who hears ‘the hiss of Beelzebub behind people’s voices’, a photographer who captures the desire to suicide, a man locked in a toilet who may never get out, a couple who grow young, and a prisoner who learns to swallow like a python.
Movie stars appear throughout reminding us that people live on through images: Paul Newman, Anthony Perkins, Divine, and a girl who died in a car crash are all caught eternally on film.