In this year of writing questions I’ve been looking back, the better to (hopefully) move forward. I’ve reread early loves with new eyes; I’ve cracked open shoeboxes of old scribblings that a past me thought worth keeping; I’ve hopscotched through a dozen texts from old workshops. There were more such books lurking on my shelves than I realized – not just instructional books and famous authors’ noodlings on craft, but several anthologies from some continuing ed workshops I took in the late ‘90s.
Which is how I came across this gem of a Mark Strand story.
But first, the anthology itself. Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories was either the text of a flash fiction workshop or recommended in that workshop, and as such it’s a testament to how long I’ve struggled with that form. The majority of the stories date from the mid ‘80s to ’92, when the anthology was published. I’ve reread the whole bloody thing now, and if I had to give a kneejerk blanket description, it would be this: little slices of interpersonal conflict with endings where the author suddenly pulls waaaaay back and gives a zingy last line that shows how absurd and inconsequential everything (life? the universe?) is. Someone could probably analyze this book and come up with a statement about this time – a zeitgeist of those several years from within a tiny writing subculture – but personally I found most of the stories too boring to bother.
There were a few that popped out. Spencer Holst’s opener, “Brilliant Silence,” was odd and lingered and set me to scribbling. Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” is very close to my heart for personal reasons. I suspect too this anthology is where I first read Carolyn Forche’s “The Colonel,” which I don’t even like but somehow cannot forget, and which I think is a poem not a story, and for some reason I care enough to make that distinction here, it feels like that distinction matters in regards to this poemstory.
And then there’s the Mark Strand story, which tastes like morning when you forgot to brush your teeth the night before.
Mark Strand, I see you. Twentysomething me liked you well enough, thought your poems OK; twentysomething me probably glossed right over “Space.” But fortysomething me read the story and stopped and said aloud, in the softly lit bedroom with the traffic running like a river outside, “what the fuck?”
“Space” starts with a woman standing on the edge of a roof in Manhattan. A man comes out to sunbathe. (I had a twinge of nostalgia here for Manhattan rooftops circa 1985.) Now something has driven this woman to stand on the edge, looking into an abyss of many bone-breaking stories; whatever that is, it does not stop her from first being surprised to see him, then providing us with a description of this lean, blonde, thirtysomething man in a bathing suit that looks like satin.
So we get this brief emotion of surprise, we get the description . . . and then we’re done with her. Now it’s all about the man, whose view of her is laced with desire: he longs to pull her to himself; she has “small, round buttocks;” she isn’t wearing a wedding ring.
She’s still at the edge of the roof. So what does our man do? He starts talking at her. “I’ll take you out to dinner.” “Let’s go someplace and talk.” “If it’s me you’re worried about, you have nothing to fear.” Through it all he watches her every move; he wonders if she “[feels] anything,” he ponders how the shape of her body indicates an appetite for sex.
Finally he tells her he’ll marry her, and when that doesn’t work he closes his eyes to try and think of something else . . . and like any sensible woman she seizes her chance and jumps. When he opens his eyes again she’s airborne, and all he can think is how lovely the space is between her feet and the ledge.
And the thing that gives me that unbrushed teeth taste? It’s that little glimpse of her POV right at the beginning. If the story had kept to the man’s POV then it could simply have been about his failure to see her as anything other than a poetic woman-thing, all sex and with a touch of the feral about her but oh! Wasn’t she beautiful in that graceful leap to her terrifying, excruciating death! But that little dip into her POV tells me that for Strand too she is nothing more than a poetic woman-thing, a symbol with cute buttocks, and ugh ugh ugh. Mark Strand, I see you now. I may be a slow learner, but I am learning.