Novella-in-Flash. Obviously, a hybrid, a mash-up, a mongrel of a thing.
Flash fiction (or indeed flash non-fiction) is distilled to an essence, has the power of a compressed spring, punches above its weight – and so often borrows its power from somewhere or something else – it is a magpie form that helps itself to shiny things and eavesdrops on other peoples’ lives, appropriates and misappropriates and then kicks the wind out of you with its sudden force.
The Novella is so often subject to a facile definition in terms of size – shorter than this, longer than that – like a fisherman holding an imaginary catch in his hands. Theories are mooted about the subject, tone, degree of complexity, the lack of a subplot, or the sort of an ending that might define a novella. Here’s what I suspect: novellas are quite succinct. They spill their story, then they shut up. They don’t have the self-indulgence of the full-blown novel. There, I’ve said it.
So then you cross-breed the two, hoping to get something with emotional intelligence and a gorgeous honey-coloured curly coat.
Like many other writers of novella-in flash, my awakening came via My Very End of the Universe published by Rose Metal Press. Meeting Tiff Holland’s Betty Superman and Aaron Teel’s Shampoo Horns was a rollercoaster ride that changed everything I thought I knew about flash and its limits.
But before that? Before that there were a handful of books that were already leading me towards the praxis of the form, they are, I think, novellas-in-flash avant la lettre.
So I am hereby appointing them as godparents of the form
- Candide by Voltaire
A bawdy romp through a world of almost-unthinkable suffering. The characters are vivid, the satire is as sharp as a broken tooth. The chapter headings are a masterclass in compression and the pace of the narrative is helter-skelter. Definitely worth re-reading from time-to-time.
- Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
Each city is conjured up as a visual splendour. The span of Calvino’s imagination is colossal. The fabulous, rich, silent, blind, rat-infested or sky-high metaphorical cities don’t join to make a conventional narrative arc, but the interstitial conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Kahn just – only just – hold them together and organise them in a mathematically precise pattern.
- Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas
Thomas’s writing has had a place in my world almost as long as language itself. His ‘sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat bobbing sea’ was perhaps the first writing that I was acutely conscious of as ‘writing’, that is, as words chosen to express more than the sum of their parts. My father and (Welsh) grandfather loved Under Milk Wood and often quoted from it, so I absorbed it first as sound, the sonorous pace of the description of blackness, the quite visceral sensation of the ‘fishingboat bobbing’ exactly like floating in the sea when a wave swells and lifts you up. And I was intrigued by the repetition, of ‘sloeblack, slow, black’ before I understood it was a homophone, and long before I could name the literary device. But he is in this list because of his characters. Original, credible, memorable characters written with absolute economy. From a cacophony of voices, each one is distinct and come complete with dreams and flaws and dirty washing.
- Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes
More than the sum of its parts. A portrait of a complex individual by stealthy, aslant, self-effacing definitions of disparate concepts. This slim volume is a veritable Tardis and would be my desert island choice.
- The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
A story about stories and the nature of telling them. The title piece is more prose poem than anything else but also serves also as the key to the whole can of bully beef. As the chapters accrue in layers, the reader must recalibrate their response to what they have read because of what comes after. Stories are told and retold, elaborated, clarified or refuted. O’Brien’s work is a masterclass in the contingency of perspective. He says, ‘What sticks to memory, often, are those odd little fragments that have no beginning and no end’ sometimes that’s how flash is, just fragments, but each one is a story and together they might tell you about everything.
So, those are my five, or at least the first five. I’m reserving the right to appoint more godparents at a later date.