by SHELDON LEE COMPTON
by Kathy Fish and Robert Vaughan
Collaborations in literature are difficult on many levels. With Rift, their new collection of flash stories, Kathy Fish and Robert Vaughan – both veterans and esteemed practitioners of the form – make it look easy.
The collection, now available now from Unknown Press, is made up of four sections of about nine to ten stories each from both Fish and Vaughan. The sections are titled in keeping with the collection’s main title and slowly building in scale – Fault, Tremor, Breach, and Cataclysm – with a definition of each word prefacing the section. The structure itself is fantastic, and sets the tone for what’s to come.
“A break in the continuity of a body of rock or of a vein, with dislocation along the plane of the fracture.”
In this section, it’s Fish’s story “Vocabulary” that perhaps speaks most closely to the definition of a fault. A short (one paragraph) glimpse into the heart of a woman’s early fracture as she sleeps with a stranger, saying “I was his paper.” Like much of Fish’s work, this is achieved in a short space that seems perfect in snapshot, just enough withheld and just enough shared.
In duet, Vaughan’s stand-out story in this section is “She Wears Me Like A Coat.” Here, Vaughan does what he does best – showing the reader the edges of a relationship to make us understand its core. It’s more than a clever, literary trick. In Vaughan’s hands, the technique becomes a perfect brushstroke. This, not to mention the story’s first sentence is a genius example for up-and-coming flash fiction writers everywhere: “The first time it was one of those cucumbers wrapped in plastic.”
“A relatively minor seismic shaking or vibrating movement. Tremors often precede larger earthquakes or volcanic eruptions.”
In “The Farms of Ohio Were Replaced by Shopping Malls” Vaughan takes an inside look at a bus hijacking and, in one and a half pages, says more about how a life can change when caught to close to a sort of strange seismic shaking. This was one I read three times in a row, finding something new after each reading.
Fish hits a fine stride early on in this section with the story “No Time for Prairie Dog Town.” The narrator is en route to visit her dying brother, pregnant, and accompanied not by her boyfriend, but a friend from work who, despite certain limitations, seems to fill a much needed void in her life. There’s a lot going on with this story, providing the perfect setting for Fish to show how well she condenses a narrative.
“The act or a result of breaking; break or rupture.”
If condensing a narrative is one of the keys to great flash fiction, certainly tension (as with most other fiction, of course) becomes just as important. In Vaughan’s “The Literary Savant” once again we’re given an expertly honed lesson in the form. In this story, the back and forth between the narrator and his friend is playful in the beginning, much like we find in Hempel’s best stories. By the end, with the final statement from the friend, we see how truly far apart the two are. It’s a clean break.
In “The Possibility of Bears” Fish, again in duet with Vaughan, shows us another couple, this one newly married and vacationing in a wooded area. If Hemingway set the tone for the “pregnancy” story, Fish re-envisions it here. Juxtaposed with the threat of bears (the couple notice claw marks on the cabin door when they arrive) Fish turns threat into protection at the story’s end while also showing a distinct distance between the newlyweds.
“A sudden and violent physical action producing changes in the earth’s surface.”
With this final section, both Fish and Vaughan have built their stories up to a collective frenzy. The final moments will provide that change.
In “Me and You and a Voice Named Boo” Vaughan begins the section with another couple and, this time, not simply a fissure, but a suicide. The desperation of voice in this one is the engine.
Near the end of the this final section with her story “A Proper Party,” Fish shows us what is left after a death, when the hearts of those who loved the lost are still beating, sometimes as part of a routine constructed to stay alive. It’s a heartbreaker.
Overall, this collection (along with the publication of The Best Small Fictions 2015) mark this past year as a year in which a great leap forward took place for the flash fiction form. And the leap couldn’t have come soon enough or with as much power. There is no doubt whatsoever that Rift will quickly be added to the top-tier canon of flash fiction, a book that will be referenced for decades to come.