The seventy-five stories in mononymous author Rolli’s new flash-fiction collection, I Am Currently Working on a Novel, waver between whimsical and bleak. The best ones are both.
The stories are all bizarre in one way or another, and sitting down to this book feels much like one of those caffeine dreams that is a rapid succession of nonsensical scenarios that are changing so fast you have no choice but to just accept the weirdness. And like any series of dreams, a healthy sprinkling of these stories is nightmares:
Life is hard when you’re a wheeler (I mean a wheelchair person), but the hardest thing about life, I find, is wheeling away from angry bees.
That matter-of-fact treatment of such an unbelievable situation is what ties all the stories together. Below that level, the book is organized into six sections, which each have a loose theme. Taken as whole, the sections, too, each lie somewhere on the whimsical-bleak scale, and again the best ones have aspects of both, though not all of them do.
The first section, Dear Hollywood, is the strongest. The stories are laugh-out-loud funny and when you’re done laughing you realize your heart hurts a little, such as when reading this passage, from the perspective of the titular “Miss Social Pleasurehole 1969”:
Regarding social pleasureholes, all today’s young girls care about is how much. “I can fit 10 lbs!” “I can fit 20!” “Well, I can fit 38.5 kg.” (Europeans) etc.
But does anyone stop to ask, ‘What?’ ‘What are you putting in your social pleasureholes?’
Dear Hollywood is also the most literal section; these are all flashes of insight into the consequences of forming an entire industry—and city—around superficiality. The other sections give way, to varying degrees, to abstraction. The weaker sections and stories do so to the point that some of them could better be called poetry. (Indeed, one way of looking at flash fiction is as prose with the same care for word-choice as poetry. This is a great appeal of the format, but also means that the line between the two is precariously thin.) But this tendency toward abstraction is also taken to the point where whatever message the story may have feels buried under layers of artifice. The stronger stories feel completely free of such artifice—even the ones about a discount-immortality business and the Wheelchair Kid of the Year can feel effortless, while the weaker ones feel laboured.
What suffers in the more abstract stories is the sense of fun that permeates the others; the author occasionally seems to get bogged down in self-seriousness and craft. There’s also a fine line between unlikely juxtapositions played for shock or laughs, and ones that feel over-artsy or deliberately opaque; this book contains numerous examples on both sides of that line.
But of course, all this comparison reflects the great strength of short-story collections, and it’s one that is amplified by flash fiction: if you don’t like a story, just hang on for a page and you’ll get a new one. I Am Currently Working on a Novel plays this to its best advantage—the stories are all differ enough to feel varied and fresh, but still manage to hang together so that at the end you feel you’ve read a single work, rather than a grab bag.
There’s a lot in the final section of the book about writing and the act of creation, which is sort of a nice place to go with the author after reading sixty-one of his stories. That kind of consideration for arrangement—a concept generally associated with music, since the “arrangement” of a novel is dictated to a great degree by its plot—is another great affordance of flash fiction. A bunch of stuff about writing at the beginning of the book would have felt like authorial navel-gazing, but at the end it feels more like reflection on a journey shared by the author and the reader.
Indeed, it has long been the sport of literary critics to seek glimpses of the author in the writing, a task made easier by some writers than others (Bukowski leaps, unsteadily, to mind). Rolli makes this task rather difficult, as he writes all his characters—male and female, old and young, robotic and human—with equal facility, generosity and depth (a surprising amount of depth in the scant few paragraphs each story gets). The only clear glimpses of the man behind the stories come from his ruminations on writing, such as in the story “A Woman”:
The life of any man is burning, and standing over the ashes.
I Am Currently Working on a Novel, by Rolli. Tightrope Books. 169 pages. $21.95, paper.
Author, journalist and Miami Vice enthusiast Adam Thomlison runs 40-Watt Spotlight, an Ottawa-based publisher—an indie record label for books.