Tag Archives: short shorts

A Modern Family on Holiday

The Red House by Mark Haddon (Doubleday; 272 pages; $25.95).

 

            A death in the family.  A brother and sister estranged.  A holiday.  A house in the country.  What a perfect setting for comedy and tragedy as Mark Haddon, the author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, returns with a new novel about a modern family and all its triumphs and insecurities in The Red House.  Haddon pulls back the layers of a family to display them at their absolute worst.  Yet, only then, curiously, can they fully understand each other.

 

Richard and Angela, both middle-aged, are siblings.  Their mother recently passed away of a long illness closely resembling dementia.  Richard and Angela have not been close since their teens.  “Angela and Richard,” Haddon writes, “had spent no more than an afternoon in each other’s company over the last fifteen years.”  Many bottled-up emotions threaten to overpower them both.  The siblings never “felt like brother and sister, just two people who spoke briefly on the phone every few weeks or so to manage the stages of their mother’s decline.”

 

In a conciliatory gesture, Richard and his wife, Louisa, rent a country house in England for a week and invite Angela and her family.  Everyone arrives with lots of literal and figurative baggage.

 

Richard had “remarried six months ago, acquiring a stepdaughter in the bargain.”  He is a doctor who may be facing a malpractice suit when he returns from holiday.  His new wife, Louisa, has a past and tries too hard to fit into Richard’s life, even if that means losing the person she is.  Louisa’s daughter, Melissa, thinks she is a “princess,” better than everyone else.  Melissa and some friends bullied another girl to the point she attempted suicide.

 

Angela loses her grip on reality and suffers from the same debilitating illness her mother had.  Her husband, Dominic, is having an affair.  Their son, Alex, flirts shamelessly with both Louisa and Melissa.  Daisy, their daughter, finds herself caught between her religion and homosexuality.  Benjy, the baby, loves fantasies and who could blame him with this family?

 

The holiday is the perfect set-up for long-held grudges, pent-up emotions, dark family secrets, jealousies, resentments, bottled-up desires to rear their ugly heads.  The Red House is Shakespearean tragic-comedy at its best.

 

There are no chapters in The Red House; instead, Haddon divides the novel into days of the week.  Haddon begins the novel on a Friday and ends the following Friday.  Structuring the novel in such a way enables Haddon to use flash fiction to tell his story.

 

Employing short bursts of narrative, Haddon writes little vignettes, often consisting of only a few paragraphs.  Reading the book, I felt as if I had become the house in question in the novel.  It was as if I were eavesdropping on the characters, but only for three to five minutes before traveling on to see what the others were up to.

 

Think also of changing the channel on a television.  For a few moments, you manage to get a feel for what is being broadcast before you change the channel once again.  Millions of stimuli bombard you just in that short length of time.  That is what reading The Red House feels like, and this reader was entranced.

 

Flash fiction has not been around long.  In fact, only within the last year have I read this sub-genre of literary fiction.  Most flash fiction consists of only about 100 or so words or one or two paragraphs.  Haddon does not limit himself to a specific word or paragraph count.  Flash fiction can often become gimmicky, but not for Haddon and not with The Red House.  Haddon remains in control of his story and in control of his use of flash fiction.  This is not that simple to do.  Done right, flash fiction can be beautiful, as it is here.

 

Haddon writes with depth and nuance.  He uses body language in such a way that what is unspoken carries just as much significance as what is said.  The conflicts of Haddon’s characters drive this story, no matter if they are inner ones or those between characters or even against nature.  Haddon points out that only when conflicts are resolved can we go on with life.  While his conclusion is satisfying, some problems are solved while others are only beginning.  Such is life and family.

 

I recommend The Red House for fans of Peter Orner’s Love and Shame and Love and Lou Beach’s 420 Characters.

Mark Haddon

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Ah, The Power of Social Media

Writers increasingly turn to Twitter and Facebook to share their stories.  And sometimes they strike gold.  In 2009, Justin Halpern, semi-employed and living back home, used Twitter to post in 140 character increments the hilarious and potty-mouth things that came out of his father’s mouth.  Shit My Dad Says went on to be a bestseller and a TV show starring William Shatner.

Author Matt Stewart also used Twitter.  This Yale University graduate had written a book set in San Francisco with an unusual and memorable cast of characters.  He shopped around for a publisher but received rejection letter after rejection letter.  So he began tweeting his unpublished novel in 140 characters at a time.  Twitter users loved it!  Word of mouth spread, and Soft Skull Press released The French Revolution on July 14, 2010.

Now we have Lou Beach.  Instead of employing Twitter, though, Beach turned to Facebook, where he posted little vignettes in 420-character status updates.  That is the creation story for his new book 420 Characters.  Beach is not the first to use flash fiction, but he does it like he owns it.

Flash fiction has other names, such as microfiction or short shorts.  It is really short bursts of words, sometimes only 100 or so.  In a world where billions of stimuli constantly vie for our attention, its length is perfect.  However, flash fiction is not for everyone.  I like to connect with characters, and a reader just cannot do that in a short short.  I will say that Beach does use a few recurring characters, but I had to go back if I thought I recognized a place or a name I had seen before.  The recurring names and places did not jump out at me.

I will say some of the short shorts are unusual.  For example:

His chute failed to open and as he fell he struck a pigeon, pinning it against his chest as they rushed toward the ground in tandem.  He felt the pigeon’s heart beating against his own.  He closed his eyes and imagined he had two hearts, one outside his body and one inside, beating like a train.

Beach, as you can tell from reading the above vignette, is a very visual writer.  I love that about him.  Some of his pieces are beautiful.  Many of Beach’s shorts felt like free-verse poetry to me.  I want to share with you my favorite one:

I lay the book on the floor, open to the middle.  It’s a lovely volume, green leather covers, engraved endpapers.  I remove my shoes and step into it up to my ankles, knees, hips, chest, until only my head is showing and the pages spread around me and the words bob up and down and bump into my neck, and the punctuation sticks to my chin and cheeks so I look like I need a shave.

If you go to Beach’s website, you can listen to several recordings by Jeff Bridges, Ian McShane, and Dave Alvin. I loved hearing Bridges’ gruff voice give life to the words on the page.

I easily finished 420 Characters in one sitting.  It’s only 176 pages, and it keeps you reading.

 

Let’s not forget Beach’s talent as an illustrator.  The book is full of his original artwork.  My advice is to buy the hardcover edition because those images are amazing in color!

Is flash fiction the future?  I hope not.  It’s different, yes, but it should never replace the novel.

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