Shale, edited by Susan Smith Nash, Nathan Leslie, Valerie Fox and Arlene Ang, promises to be an anthology of "extreme fiction for extreme conditions." What the book delivers is a smorgasbord of very short stories by thirty-one diverse authors. Like a well-stocked buffet table, there's something in this collection to suit virtually every reader's taste.
If you savor literary realism, historical fiction, magical realism, blatant fantasy, fiction that walks the line between poetry and story, story and memoir, or story and essay, there are stories in Shale for you to chew on. All are short in length and possess the characteristics of successful flash fiction: extreme compression, maniacal attention to every word, formal invention.
The authors in this anthology hail from Nigeria, Australia, Ireland, Canada, Slovenia, Mexico, China, and all over the U.S. Some have written multiple books, others are relatively new to the publishing world. Their range includes tragedy, comedy, travel, stories of youth, old age, birth and death, spiritual transformation, and vampires.
A few of these stories have been translated from other languages. One standout story, "Revolutions per Minute," takes translation as its subject—that is, the translation of pop song lyrics. "Revolutions Per Minute," by Charles Rammelkamp, brings to life a group of high school boys in the late nineteen sixties who argue about the words they swear are embedded in the songs of famous musicians like Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger.
"He's singing the word 'pussy,'" Ross Burgess asserted.
"No he isn't," the three of us declared. You couldn't get away with a word like that in a popular song, could you? True, we'd tittered listening to Muddy Waters' "Got My Mojo Workin'."
The boys' seriously silly dialogue and rituals reflect their anxiety about their impending manhood.
In his second story, "A Wise Man Said Nothing," Rammelkamp's protagonist is a middle-aged man in synagogue listening to a discussion about assisted suicide. As in Rammelkamp's previous story, the author collages together snippets of dialogue, the protagonist's reflections and his characters' small actions to ponder the mystery and poignancy of ordinary American lives.
Another story that stands out to this reader is "Gray Matter" by Liz Tynes Netto. In three and a half pages, she brings to life an endearing protagonist whose interactions with a brain surgeon and his patient during an operation create tension, humor and small surprises.
"I wonder if his brain will remember this," I said, standing over the open head.
"Let's see," said Dr. Sars. He pulled us down two inches from the man's pulsing ridged gray matter. "This is Bess and Dr. Anton Sars," he whispered. "Will you remember us?"
Other memorable stories include: Paul Lisicky's "Bulldog," which collects just the right details into a bittersweet, if inevitable, tale, and Shalom Mensu Ikhena's story, "18.104.22.168.5.," which uses a list to make a tight container around huge emotions, tragic violence. "Fire-on-the-Water," by Tara L Masih is a sweeping page-and-a-half long ode to a vanishing Italian coastal town. Susan Smith Nash's fiction, which read more like memoir than stories with a conventional narrative arc, juxtapose the natural world, different cultures and the lives of the stories' protagonists.
Inside her story, "Shale," Smith Nash defines shale, the rock, in a way that defines this eclectic flash–fiction anthology as well: "The shale represents the convergence of the real and the unreal, a place of pure impossibility. Like language, like self, like reality—all largely unknowable, but also the place of dreams." Shale: Extreme Fiction for Extreme Conditions is a collection of thirty-one realities and dreams and a satisfying meal for a plethora of literary appetites.