Historically, “chapbooks” served purposes ranging from personal to political. Whether penny-dreadfuls (mysteries or seduction stories) or Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man, the small, waistcoat-pocket-sized volumes offered egalitarian entry points to literary works — a way to get words into many hands and in front of many eyes. They had their heyday during the 17th,18th and 19th centuries, and now they’re experiencing a comeback, in the form of independently produced books and zines that provide unassuming platforms for unique pieces.
A Peculiar Feeling Of Restlessness: Four Chapbooks of Short Short Fiction by Four Women (Rose Metal Press, 2008) does not fit in my pocket (although it is rather small), nor is it a flimsy bit of folded paper, as chapbooks used to be. But it provides everything else that chapbooks did — bite-sized, accessible, entertaining stories — as well as what they do today — focused, challenging, experimental work.
The four writers, Amy L. Clark, Elizabeth Ellen, Kathy Fish, and Claudia Smith, were the finalists and winner of Rose Metal Press’s first (and they hope annual) short-short chapbook contest. Their writing styles are similar enough to offer cohesion, but sufficiently disparate so as to tell them apart. In each of their (less-than-1000-word) stories, there is a sense of tugging, and tension, that can be alternately funny and tragic. Indeed, many of them leave you with a peculiar feeling, if not of restlessness, than of something left unfinished — a dangling tale, an unresolved emotion. None of these writers is afraid to address the fragmentary, ongoing nature of life.
A particularly strong voice in the collection is Clark’s; lucky for us Mainers, she’ll represent the authors at a Longfellow Books appearance on Thursday, June 19. Of the four women, Clark, a writing teacher at Pine Manor College in Massachusetts, experiments the most with form.
“Options for Young Women, or: what you can do other than going back to your asshole husband” is what it sounds like — a list, which includes such alternatives as becoming a phlebotomist, taking pictures, and “Talk to someone who loves you. Don’t stop talking until you love yourself and the person who loves you has given you a job and a place to live and childcare and some really good food.” Another selection is an imagined lust-hate letter to George Bush: “I ask you for the last time: what is the opposite of death and destruction? Because I’m not sure, but I don’t think that it is sex with you. Or anything with you.” They may sound snarky and smug taken out of context, but taken together, Clark’s words feel like the realistic, if sometimes sad, musings of a modern woman.
Ellen’s stories toy with form a bit too, in that some are just a few sentences long. But more inventive are her flirtations with magical realism — as in “Conjoined,” the story of codependence that centers on conjoined twins, or “The Truth and What It Did to Me,” which anthropomorphizes concepts such as truth and deception. Appropriately, many of Ellen’s pieces treat the waning, or loss, of love — and the accompanying detachment and desperation that can feel unreal in its own way.
Smith, the original winner of the chapbook contest, puts forth two of the most moving (and peculiar) stories in the book — “Colts,” which suggests that all unhappy families are, in fact, similar, and “Mermaid,” about a sister’s suicide. And although Fish’s stories didn’t resonate as strongly with me, they are excellent examples of the punch short shorts can pack.
These stories are quirky and urgenty, and set apart somehow from standard short-story collections or anthologies. These aren’t just stories, A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness seems to tell the reader — it’s a so-old-it’s-new-again way of thinking about, and telling, tales.
Amy Clark reads from A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness | Rose Metal Press | 207 pages | $16 | 7 pm June 19 | Longfellow Books, One Monument Way, Portland | Free | 207.772.4045
Deirdre Fulton can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.