I'm not sure if this is an anthology of prose, poetry, a collection of gags, or something else altogether.
Very Short StoriesPublisher: Off Cut Press
Price: $5 (Canada)
Author: Josh Thorpe
US publication date: 2003-12
|An Interview with Josh Thorpe of Off Cut Press|
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Is Less Really More?
One hundred characters in search of a context in which to band together to create or subvert meaning.
The above quote comes the first "story" in Very Short Stories, a collection released by Off Cut Press, a new Toronto publisher that publishes books so portable that they easily fit in your back jeans pocket. Changing the words "100 characters" to "63 very short stories" would be a pretty neat summation of this collection in a sentence.
Despite being no bigger than the palm of your hand, Very Short Stories is not as entirely an out-there proposition as it might seem. There are a surprising number of contributors here who have a fairly high literary reputation. (Well, at least in Canada, eh?) George Bowering was installed as Canada's first poet laureate for a two-year term in 2002, and already has 60 books behind him. Maggie Helwig has published a couple of poetry books, and has a novel about to be released in Canada and the UK. Toronto contributor Doug Tielli is not only known in his own right as a writer/musician, but as the younger brother of Martin Tielli, a semi-famous member of indie-rock's The Rheostatics. And if that weren't enough street credibility for ya, there's even a contribution culled from an anonymous corporate newsletter. Cool. Well, maybe.
There's a strange push-and-pull between the commercial and the experimental here. On one hand, Thorpe says he wanted ordinary people (your, quote, "parents" and "girl next door" types) to read this book, and it appears he selected contributions from your Average Joes/Janes on the street in response to that ambition. However, these submissions rest somewhat uneasily among the aforementioned literary heavyweights, many of whom often take the opportunity here to be ultra avant-garde.
Take, for instance, Kenneth Goldsmith's "Limited time" -- a story that only contains the words, well, "Limited time." It's the very last story in the anthology and it ends the book on a rather sudden stop, even though I know it's supposed to reference back to the book's confusing penultimate piece. (That one, written by Gary Barwin, goes "I'm born somewhere sometime and watch then learn to speak then find there's only a limited number of.")
In any event, the stories that work in this collection are the ones that don't try so hard to be alienating or try to have some greater purpose other than to be entertaining. Coincidentally, they tend to have been written by those next-door neighbors I was telling you about earlier. Fascinatingly (and, I guess, somewhat ironically), these stories usually deal with some sort of cultural alienation, a great theme for a book printed on industrial waste if there was one.
"Walking through miles of suburban parking lots in the freezing rain, feeling like a movie of grief," writes Maggie Helwig, creating something beautiful that's also almost akin to urban haiku. Beate Schwirtlich's contribution is equally compelling within a similar context: "You died on the most perfect day of July, your belly full of wheat tops, a blackfly biting your neck, in a field."
Still, to go back to Olson, the main problem is "context." There's next to no underlying theme (one that's clearly evident, at least) allowing these stories to link together, aside from the fact that most of them clock in at a pretty restrictive 100 characters. The second "story" in this collection, in fact, is called "A Hundred Characters" and features the capital letter K repeated no more or no less than 100 times. A little later in this pocket book, there are a couple of similarly experimental pieces featuring absolutely no spaces or punctuation between words. Legitimate avant-garde work or poorly conceived writing? You decide.
I can see a few parallels with this book, probably unintentional, to the hardcore American punk movement during the early '80s -- embodied in bands like the Minutemen and Husker Du. Hard and fast ruled; songs lasted no longer than a minute. However, hardcore generally started to wise up as a genre circa 1984, once its practitioners realized that their music was, more or less, a mere punch-line to the musical question, "How non-conformist can we be?" These musicians soon learned that it they could only take so much repetition before the joke stopped being funny anymore. (The joke really being, of course the ridiculous and needless constraints they were putting on their music.)
Some might call it caving into the bottom line, but, lo and behold, longer, more complex and less noisy songs started to appear on these bands' mid-'80s albums. Towards the end of the decade, you even had Husker Du churning out an absolute masterpiece in Warehouse: Songs and Stories, a sprawling double-album of two to five-minute masterpieces that's the Rosetta Stone of modern rock. Without going into a lot of great detail, I also see the album as a legitimate short novel -- a loose narrative about a guy constantly trying and failing to find love from his late teens until old age. The only difference between this record and a book is that it's just set to a really good beat you can (mostly) pogo to.
So what does all of this have to do with Very Short Stories? Well, the collection is like Husker Du's early Land Speed Record (1981), released towards the start of that hardcore movement. It's a very short album that had a whole lot of attitude, raw passion, sometimes-interesting sonic fragments and a whole lotta white noise. Basically, it had all the hallmarks of an artist trying to find their feet. The same could be said of Thorpe's book. Right now, I'm not sure if this is an anthology of prose, poetry, a collection of gags, or something else altogether. It doesn't, to roughly quote a Husker Du song, "make no sense at all," but the experimental and more straight-forward "stories" here don't hang all together all that well, either. Maybe the point of the book, being that it is from a 'marginal' press, is simply to exist solely as a byproduct of mainstream disembodiment? I don't know. There are some pretty commercial writers here, after all.
Very Short Stories is a great idea. I love that it's printed on the book industry's waste paper. I also love that it mightget people either suffering from some kind of attention deficit disorder or various time constraints into reading more often on the bus or subway ride home. But I think that once Thorpe really figures out the nature of these stories, how they fit into a larger, more easily digestible thematic context, and who exactly they speak to -- that's when he might truly have something that's not only succinct butwonderfully beautiful, unique and compulsively readable as well. Thorpe has got the warehouse. He just has to show us those songs and stories.