Review of Best Microfiction 2023

Meg Pokrass and Gary Fincke, editors; Deb Olin Unferth, guest editor, Pelekinesis Press.

Here are 83 love stories, loss of innocence stories, dysfunctional family stories, extended riffs, oddball setups, uncomfortable discussions, stories about motherhood, character sketches, luminous moments, and heart-rending recollections recalled with gorgeous lyricism.*

As Flannery O’Connor remarked, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days,” and a lot of these stories focus on that time, from art class, skipping rope, and playing with a child you’ve been warned about, to that font of seminal experience, high school. Many involve a parental break-up. Errant fathers seem particularly at fault, though a few rely on the paternal point of view, as in Eric Scot Tryon’s “I’m a Honda Odyssey, I’m a Chrysler Voyager,” a father’s ruminations that end, “I still love my wife. I’m a vasectomy. I’m a Roth IRA. I’m a golf towel.”

Tailor-made for microfiction is the kooky what-if premise, as in James R. Gapinski’s “Karol’s Cleaners Will Clean Anything,” where the narrative takes off from the title, or the spud big enough to be a child surrogate in Epiphany Ferrell’s “Everything Depends on the Potato,” or the action in Lynn Mundell’s “Centaurs in the Laundromat.” The epitome of this approach is embodied in Ross McMeekin’s: “Tusks”: “One day we all grew tusks, one pointing out from each cheek. Surprisingly few accommodations needed to be made.” The story ends with a kicker (no plot spoiler here; just be advised). And sometimes the what-if is simply a salient angle, as in Rebecca Turkewitz’s “A Queer Girl’s Guide to Reading Fairy Tales”: “You’re the red cloak in the shape of a girl, and you’re the blade of the axe. You are every part of the forest that is not on the path.”

For powerful connectivity, Jeff Friedman’s “My Mother’s Dress Shop” links events through anaphora: “Break down the boxes that held the clothing and stuff them into the dumpster in the alley behind the shop. Break down the racks that held the sexy dresses, the leather coats, the French lingerie until they are just rods and wheels lying in a corner….” The dismantling of objects enables the re-creation of memories, of a life. This rhetorical device can also work in the opposite direction, to build a life from present particulars, as in Kathy Fish’s “A Solid Contribution”: “We have failed at Lincoln/Douglas debate. We have failed at Speech. We have failed at Hygiene. We have failed at Square Dancing.”

Because a great deal of these microfictions center on individuals and their private lives, it’s salutary to come across stories like “Banana Boat,” by aureleo sans, which contain a political dimension, here a portrait of fruit laborers enduring substandard conditions: “The bananas are an unyielding march of stretched tears down a human conveyer belt…. The workers are ready to strike.”

And the endings? In this collection, all the epiphanies are earned. Apologies to all the worthy authors impossible to include in a 500-word review. The panoply of talent is humbling.

 * Full disclosure: Vestal Review is included with a story by Douglas A. Wright, as well as stories by our editors Chris Notarnicola and Lucy Zhang and many authors represented in VR by other stories or interviews or reviews (as is surely the case for other zines).

Gary Fincke‘s new collection of flash fiction The Corridors of Longing was published by Pelekinesis in 2022. His collections of long-form stories have won the Flannery O’Connor Prize and the Elixir Press Fiction Prize. Later this year, Madhat Press will publish a collection of essays, including “After the Three-Moon Era,” which was reprinted in Best American Essays 2020.

Meg Pokrass is the author of eight books, and two flash novellas. Her work has appeared in many literary publications including The Best Small Fictions 2022 and 2023, Wigleaf Top 50, Electric Literature, McSweeneys, Northwest Review, Joyland, SmokeLong Quarterly, CRAFT, Passages North, and Washington Square Review. Over the years her work has been included in 3 Norton anthologies of flash fiction including the recent Flash Fiction America (W.W. Norton & Co., 2023). Meg lives in Inverness, Scotland.

Deb Olin Unferth is the author of the story collection Minor Robberies and the novel Vacation, both published by McSweeney’s, and the memoir Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War, published by Henry Holt.

David Galef: see masthead.