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A word amiss, a sour phrase here and there: these offenses can be hard to pardon in a novel. All the same, knowing the enormity of their enterprise, one must allow the Homers their periodic nods. But shorter works get slimmer margins for error. The flash fiction story, dwarf cousin to the corpulent novel, affords no room for lapses in its brief performance. Every part must sing.
Jac Jemc’s recent collection of stories is the kind that qualifies for applause at intervals only. The title, “A Different Bed Every Time,” is perhaps too appropriate for its own good. Jemc goes to great pains to vary the length, style, point of view, and progression in the 42 stories, so each story is its own different bed of modern life, so to speak. The shortest, “The Effects of Rotation,” fills one-third of a page; the longest, “The Tackiness of Souls,” runs 10 pages, which is still considerably short. But most are flash fiction, two- or three-page siblings with a shared tightness of constitution. Sameness belies the differences; people in the stories share the perpetual fate of being lonely, foreign, and sad no matter how often they change where they sleep.
Granted, Jemc is a keen craftsman. Her plots meander artfully and her characters intrigue. She can be lovely, now and then, with a line like, “I could find beauty everywhere. When I woke each morning I could see that the day was capable of forking like the foot of a crow.” It is a graceful vision: the day “forking” ahead into its possibilities, turning avian and taking flight. The line is from “A Violence,” Jemc’s first story and one of her best, in which a young woman sleeps with round after round of motley urban men. Other great lines in that piece also show this touch of beautiful discretion: “Sometimes it was all I could do to be comforted by some vague ending glimmering in the distance.” Jemc never needs to say the woman is sad or alienated. It’s all there in the comforting, distant “ending” to the love cycles, an ending that her young protagonist considers but defers.
If only the language were consistently this good. Alas, Jemc nods off more than a few times, and it isn’t forgivable. “The Dark Spot” could have been an impressive two-pager about a woman taking refuge from a Thanksgiving family party in her basement closet. Instead, its rampant clumsiness threatens enjoyment of the story. The first paragraph is guilty of an embarrassing indulgence in alliteration: “By the fourth day I snuck into the smoky basement and pulled open the pressboard panel door of the furnace room. Cobwebs caught my forehead as I reached for the light chain. I pawed my face clean and cleared a path.” Of course, not all alliteration iterations are bad. To have as many as are here, however, and with no real justification, is inevitably amateurish and distracting.
Another story, “Unaccounted,” also could have been a gem, but Jemc writes goofy sentences like, “His face, he was sure, had crawled with surprise as her eyes imploded into their sockets each time she blinked.” Or, later, sentences like these: “He wanted to feel the cotton of her skin magnet to him with sweat. He wanted to taste the metal of her blood and feel the gold flecks of her eyes shine all fake on him.” The questionable metaphor and use of “magnet” as verb; the cliché “flecks of her eyes”; the underwhelming “shine all fake”—they destroy the piece’s fragile music. Such carelessness lies like a dull patina over too many of Jemc’s otherwise entertaining, psychologically incisive stories.
And then there are the stories like “The Chamber of the Enigma” and “Let Me Be Your Tugboat King,” which try to imitate slang. The former starts with “Buzzard and I made a baby, but that baby ain’t anything like we’d ever expected,” but then abruptly jumps to suspiciously lyrical speech: “Buzzard and I are small and soft, malleable and handpowered.” The latter story manifests the same awkwardness: “Dance it down for me. Let me see your sequins shimmer and shake,” says Jemc’s hokey old-fashioned narrator, who tries his moves on the unencouraging ladies. Jemc ventures beyond her comfort zone, which deserves praise, but the result of these ventures is less than satisfying.
Perhaps Jemc knows these shortcomings. In “Alcyone,” the character of an aging female writer says, “I have written boring poems like thick thighs. I have watched the ceiling ride around the room. My mentors have torn apart my work like chicken bones. I have been cracked open, jacked off, spiraled up.” Like the Greek mythological story of Alycone, who was changed to a kingfisher, this flash fiction is a metacommentary on the changing, ever-accommodating shape of Jemc the author. Her writing is a shape altered by former “mentors,” “cracked open,” criticised as “boring,” and thereafter reconfigured. More importantly, it is one that insists on calling its own content into being. “Am I lost or found?” the narrator asks. “No, the lost are an invention of the finders,” she says a moment later.
Jemc the writer finds her characters and shuffles them among a range of different beds and different lives as “lost” souls. Each time, her hopeful inventions, like the writer in “Alcyone,” tumble into a new situation but find the same disappointments. Similarly, every time the hopeful reader keeps falling into the same old bed of poignantly almost-there writing. But there is hope yet for Jemc, as for her people. In the words of one of her characters: “A vibrant person will rebuild herself. Only the dead break down.”
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