by Mary Miller,
reviewed by Joseph Young
In her flash, Broken, Mary Miller takes us into the uneasy, though often funny, world of a teenaged girl named Val. In the story, Val, who we see through the second person, is in bed with a boy she doesn't know. They are making out, "dry-humping," when the bed, which belongs to someone else she doesn't know, breaks. "Hey," comes a anonymous voice through the locked door, "what's going on in there?" "Nothing, man," says the boy. "Everything's cool."
And everything is cool in this story, the tone one of unruffled detachment. Val shrugs off whatever humiliation or anger she might feel about being involved in such a ludicrous, compromised situation. And the story's narration follows suit. "You are not a poor person," we are told. "You have a policy not to fuck strangers. The policy includes penetration and oral sex. The policy doesn't cover anything else."
Of course, we know that despite Val's sardonic world view, her don't-give-a-crap demeanor, that there are rumblings of discontent. The last paragraph tells us so, when Val's friend Julie laughs at her for the whole broken bed scenario: "It pisses you off but you pretend like it doesn't." And the title of the story gives even stronger indication that, yes, there is something seriously wrong in this young girl's life, that, even if she doesn't want to say so, wants to pretend otherwise, something is badly, maybe even tragically, broken.
We see that Val is a girl in trouble. But it's interesting to notice the story doesn't end on a somber note, doesn't leave us with some epiphany of the despair of Val's life, doesn't end with Val at all. The last sentence of the flash is almost a punch line, the boy with the funny eyes given one of the story's best laughs. The story might describe the comic and tragic life of Val, one slice out of it anyway, but it's not about Val herself. We get no deep psychological insight here, no profound revelation of motivation or personality, no unveiling of character. In fact, the story is designed to keep us on the outside, away from Val's inner life. The narrator's offhand remarks about the boy Val was fooling around with, for instance, who smells "vaguely of shit," keeps us as much at emotional arm's length as Val would herself were we to meet her.
As a story, "Broken" is not interested in revealing character through crisis. The flash is not an attempt to extract meaning out of trauma or to come to an understanding of who Val is through the exploration of some singular, pivotal narrative. This is not a crisis moment in the protagonist's life, no matter how much she might well be in crisis overall, and there is nothing to indicate that Val is coming to some make-or-break decision. In fact, nothing is any more at risk at this particular moment in her life than it might be in 2 weeks or 20—the offhand tone, the habitually deprecating humor, all the same. It's just like that time, we're told, "you stepped on a soft spot in the floor and your foot went through, how you blamed it on a fat kid named Terry."
What then is Miller interested in if it's not psychology, not her protagonist's wants and fears, her inner life? She is interested in what many of the best flash fiction writers are, not the singular, defining moment of a character's life, but the singular vision, the writer's skewed, off-kilter perception. What makes a Miller flash so engrossing is its outside, its shape, the tilted angles of its exterior walls, the peculiar fragments of light it sheds. When we are told "you have a habit of declaring your citizenship," it's to get a laugh, engage us, provoke our interest in an odd way of looking at life. Again, it's the shape of the world we're getting, not its existential depths.
"Broken," then, is a shallow pool, all surfaces and light. It hasn't the deep, probing psychology or humanistic revelation of emotion that have become de rigeur for the modern short story. Through her use of surface values--humor, quirkiness, even a bit of cruelty--Miller liberates her flash from these requirements. Meaning has been cut free from fiction.
And so we see that flash of this sort is much, much less than the traditional short story, less depth, less plot, less character. And we can be thankful for that, too. Because what we get in return is something entirely else, a freshness of vision, a look not at the dumb old beast of character, dragged too long through the moiled water of insight, but a new look at the shape of things, the details of the world unencumbered. It's her description, the facility of her language, that gives Miller's story such interest. Her ability to render those shallow surfaces with such clarity takes us past psychology, past emotion, past even the human, into a moment of contact. What we are put into contact with is not entirely clear, although it is certain. To read "Broken," we might say, is like reading a narrative haiku, a moment of unveiling. It's not "meaning" we apprehend, but something refreshingly less.
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