I had heard of neither Amelia Gray nor Featherproof Books when I received AM/PM as a gift this spring, but the cover alone told me I would be interested (yes–to a certain extent, I do judge books by their covers). My interest was further elevated as I flipped through the book’s pages to discover 120 pieces of flash fiction, laid out more like a poetry collection than any book of stories I’d seen. I had spent much of my last year of grad school writing flash fiction, pondering what exactly it was, and writing prose poems I hoped might really be stories. I knew I would never find a definition for flash fiction beyond its word limits, and not even necessarily there–some cut flash off at 500, others up to 1,000, and Gray limits herself to 200–but here, in this diminutive volume, I found the next best thing to definition: examples. A whole mess of short stories that approach their form confidently and briefly, that leave me agreeing with Stacey Swann, who wrote,
I will no longer be satisfied by the merely beautiful, the singularly clever, or the one big thought purely rendered. I want all those things in a two-hundred-word package. I want to be highly amused and deeply sad at the same time. Amelia Gray packs more power in a paragraph than I thought possible.
Amelia Gray approaches flash fiction from an angle I’ve never seen before. AM/PM is formatted so that when you open the book, you have a piece entitled “AM:#” on the left page and another marked “#:PM” on the right. No real titles here. The book works together as a whole. She names her characters, and as the book continues, you see each character pop up dozens of times, worked into each other’s small sketches, Terrence and Charles and Leonard and Frances and Carla entangled in each other’s lives. The stories interact with each other the way collected poems do, with some stories seeming to build on each other while others stand alone. There is a whole series of stories involving The Amazing Chet, who guesses people’s weights at the science museum. He first appears in AM:77 and is mentioned several times through the second half of the book. In AM:89, it is unnecessary to know his profession, or even the title “The Amazing.” In AM:111, that knowledge helps–but maybe it hinders, because if you didn’t know his profession, it would be very different when Missy says, “You make all that stuff up anyway. I can’t understand why those scientists call you amazing.”
There are other pieces in this book that don’t really deal with character at all. Several are addressed to a John Mayer Concert Tee. Some, like 24:PM, are instructional:
Unload your perishables and empty boxes. Give away old clothes and broken cookware. Crush the empty cans and load them with yellow newspapers. Shred the sensitive documents. Discard fingernail clippings. Get rid of those photographs and letters. Offload the old enemies. A lighter life, at any price.
That’s a whole piece. Maybe you’d call it a story, maybe you wouldn’t. There seems to be conflict. Stakes, even. It is easy to color the piece with your own experience–for me, this piece hit a strong emotional note, especially with the final line–not just “a lighter life,” but “at any price.” It made me reread (easy enough to do when the piece is forty-seven words long) and evaluate each item listed, the possible meaning behind each one, and what they might mean to me or the person next to me, waiting for the bus. But if you want to call that a poem, it’s fine by me. It might be fine by Amelia Gray, since the title page clearly states, “a book by Amelia Gray.” Not “a collection of short stories by Amelia Gray,” though the publisher includes the standard “work of fiction” disclaimer with the copyrights.
I have to admit, I haven’t figured out why some stories are AM and some are PM, why 120 pieces instead of 100 or 150, why some stories are three sentences long and some take up entire pages. I feel these stories more than I think through them, though I long to figure them out. My mind feels clouded by Gray’s brilliance as I read, and I almost wonder if I’m being bamboozled–does the experience of reading story after story after story lead the reader into a kind of haze, where the mind is so bombarded by little moments that every one seems poignant? I always want to ask myself, How does it work? But here, I find myself surrendering. There are a few that snap me into my critical reader’s mentality, sitting up straight and asking, How is that a story? But then the next one lulls me in again. My inquiring mind is helpless, and I have to give in to the sort of vague explanation I’ve always hated. These stories just work for me. To see if they work for you, pick up a copy.