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Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty

Even the shortest of short stories have to make the reader care

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Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty

Diane William

McSweeney’s, hardcover

Microfiction is, as the term would indicate, extremely brief. Stories can clock in at less than 100 words. It’s a form that I usually like, two of my favorite collections being AM/PM by Amelia Gray (Featherproof Books) and The Middle Stories by Sheila Heti (McSweeney’s Books), although some of Heti’s stories go for two or three brief pages so they might be categorized as “short shorts.” And one doesn’t have to look further than Baltimore for two master practitioners of microfiction: Joseph Young, author of Easter Rabbit, and Megan McShea, who has a book coming soon on Publishing Genius Press.

Young had this to say about a not-so-easily defined genre, in FRiGG, a poetry and fiction magazine:

Short stories are about texture. They fill the eye with scene and place and characterization. Microfiction is about emptiness. It’s about the spaces between words . . . the emptiness between emotion and response . . . that creates the tension in microfiction. It remains a mystery, echoing emptily, and hugely.

The 51 “stories” in Diane Williams’ Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty fall clearly into the category. But the lack of mystery and almost Zippy the Pinhead-like listing of gratuitous information make Vicky Swanky feel like a self-conscious attempt at alien life-form reportage. One entry reads: “I didn’t like my fly brooch at first either. It’s fake. You can’t get it wet. It’s very rare and the colors are not nice and I get lots of enjoyment from that.”

While reading the book, or, to be more precise, reading a few pages, getting near flummoxication, putting it back down, picking up something wherein words will meet you at least halfway—say, some challenging, avant-garde L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry—then diving back into Vicky with renewed curiosity, I kept thinking of an old college dormmate’s simple aphorism: “Ya gotta care.”

This dormmate was raised a Christian Scientist and always looked severely milk-infused and sweater-vest armored. He was also a brilliant architect, a lover of avant-garde music, and one of the biggest weedheads I knew in a dorm packed with voracious weedheads. The rest of our circle was at our young peak of cluelessness, but believed we were almost at the doorstep of the Divine, so we often chuckled at our friend’s homespun truisms. But when I found myself mired in an ill-advised relationship formed during last call or in way over my head in Latin class, my friend’s adages would come to mind.

In this case, as a reader, ya gotta care enough about some aspect of a book to remain interested and engaged, and to be compelled by some form of tension, whether it’s a plot dilemma, the freshness or honed craft of a narrative, or the dynamic of the language itself. Unfortunately, Williams’ book of terse microfiction is about uninspired and uninspiring people in stasis. The writing feels flattened out to reflect that, but the repetitive flat tone only makes one want to quietly set the book down and take a walk outside—even if outside is a wasteland.

In most of these vicious morsels, characters are removed from themselves, bumping up against emotional dead ends: “I am a disappointment, so I drank the milk. I finished the milk quickly, and then took a low dosage of the tea. I lit a lamp—nearly blushed in the company of myself” (“The Duck”); “I opened the cupboard, where the treats are stored, and helped myself and made a big mess, by the lakeshore, of the food, of the rest of my life, eventually” (“My Defects”); “He went on talking—it was a mixed type of thing—he was lonely and he was trying to get his sheer delight out of the way” (“On the Job”).

One of the most successful pieces is the ultra-brief “Ponytail,” which is all of 58 words and makes precise use of each one:

The woman fetched the ball, and then the woman fetched the child, and she bunched up a section of the child’s T-shirt, as she bunched up a section of the child’s neck, and she secured the child.

Here, the distanced language is brutally effective, with the word “secured”—to make free from danger or harm—employed for the actually violent act of grabbing a child by the skin of his or her neck.

Vicky Swanky focuses on frustration (there are easily a dozen references to malaise surrounding marriage or upcoming marriage and sexual problems) and boredom or depression without using language consistently rich enough to keep you caring about the characters, who no longer care about themselves.

There are some poetic gems, like, “If a poached egg, open and bleeding, could give us the color palette, let us color her home in with that,” from “Mrs. Keable’s Brothers,” and, “As she sleeps, the telephone rings, wakes her, and she thirsts for a glass of water. She finds that one thing neatly, reasonably, takes her away from yet another,” from “Chicken Winchell.” But these colorful bits run up against too many that seem to come from a Martian outpost, unlike the writing of author Sam Lipsyte, who wrote a dangerously alluring blurb for Vicky Swanky.

In Lipsyte’s book of stories, Venus Drive, one is introduced to characters on the margins of life who are sometimes downright despicable, but his writing is so energetic and full of nuance that you’re pulled almost against your will into the world of his characters and understand them as three-dimensional people. It’s a terrifying reading experience because you are not able to laugh them off, and you begin to see them next to you in the grocery store checkout line.

In contrast: “I picked up Glad Steaming Bags and Rocket Cheese” (from “The Emporium,” in Vicky Swanky).

Hey, that’s all well and good Vicky, but I just really no longer care.

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