ARCADE SEVENTEEN: A PREVIEW
Video by Emily RawStory & voice by Megan Giddings
Automatic images (in response to stories by Megan Giddings read by Natalie Eilbert at Brokenland, Greenpoint)
drawn collectively by Dolan Morgan, Siena Oristaglio, & Emily Raw
The flash stories that make up Megan Giddings’s Arcade Seventeen are anything but quick. Megan guides us through a garden of conspiratorial asparagus, a dream diary of centaur sex positions (his name is Harold; one of her favorite positions is the Sugar Cube), a quick trip through real terrifying America, one high school’s liberation of a dead pop star icon, and maybe a few too many Michael Keaton references (KIDDING: never enough). Megan’s pied beauty is absolutely dappled, glory be, but it also makes clean perfect sense, the way you might never notice an egregiously long nipple hair while your body is busy doing so many other things—and then one day, there it is, almost speaking to you, a strong thick thread you can be proud of. Megan’s prose is very smart. There’s a controlled transcendence that occurs on the page, and you know two things immediately: Megan knows where she is taking us, and she is having a blast doing so. When you read Arcade Seventeen, if you are lucky, you will experience an out-of-body order of things: the wind will seem to sing and its voice will only be mediocre; a deli will chuckle with you about life’s waning possibilities; maybe you’ll get into your car and find yourself in another animal’s heaven. We don’t know what will happen to you, only that they will lift you into the epiphanic, a reality that finally makes sense but for its absurdity of human truth.
On a night back to New York City, I (Natalie Eilbert) sat down with the new co-editor Emily Raw, Siena Oristaglio of The Void Academy, and Dolan Morgan, and together they draw image after image using pastels as I read aloud Megan’s book (as seen in the trailer, above). We laughed and moved with her stories, making concentric circles around the gesture of a plant life. And perhaps that is the most wonderful aspect of Megan’s aesthetic: The gestures of life, the troubles of life within those gestures. It’s as Vilem Flusser defines gesture, “a movement of the body or of a tool attached to the body for which there is no satisfactory causal explanation.” That’s where the joy in Megan’s work is: There is no explanation, there is no big terrible truth. We pass down the memory of cheese from generation to generation. We love the woman across the table from us and that realization is not a conclusion at all. Whatever happens in this life is already happening. But there Megan is, giggling as she assures us that indefinite chaos is probably the best we can do. Make sure you buy Arcade Seventeen right away.
Here’s one story from the book, originally published in New South. Come for the story preview, stay for the conversation between Megan and Natalie.
THE NEW AUDACIOUS LINE
Dana is obsessed with finding the perfect pink lipstick. She has been watching enough TV for teens and women who like purses to have an idea of what she wants: a pink that looks like a fancy-named rose, that looks like the inside of a conch shell, that looks as if it could’ve fluffed out of a box of Lucky Charms. She takes a day off work and goes to the new restaurant/make-up store in the fashionable part of town.
First a gorgeous woman, one who is robot-bald and extra-sexy, hands Dana six different prosthetic lips. She places them over her own mouth. They taste like plastic. They make her feel like a living Mr. Potatohead. It doesn’t feel worth missing out on answering a phone and saying, “Hello. Janet Blair’s office. She’s not in right now.”
Janet Blair is always in. Janet Blair just prefers e-mails and texts.
Each of the replicas is a different shade of pink. Magenta. Gender-obsessed new parent pink. Pink Starburst wrapper pink. Audubon rose. The goth girl in high school algebra hair color. Knock-off designer purse lining pink. But none of them are quite right.
Dana says, “Think romantic. Think the look of someone who has just made out with a strawberry popsicle on a too-hot June day.”
The gorgeous woman takes off Dana’s real lips. She puts on new full plump lips. They’re a little smaller and fuller. Still the wrong pink. These are the pink of a strawberry milkshake with malt and whipped cream. She walks off to see what they have in the back.
A man comes over and tries to flirt with Dana. She pulls off the fake lips. They wriggle like goldfish in her fingers. The man drops his martini glass. Gin, olive, glass, and vermouth shatter. He goes back to his table. She knows her no-mouth head will be in his dreams for the next month. The man lifts a fork to his mouth. There is no food at his table. He cuts at air, his eyes on her face.
“You’re more of a red anyway,” the gorgeous woman says. Her teeth shine. She hands Dana a new set.
She slides them on, pushes them in. Dana’s mouth looks like embers in a dying campfire. Not perfect. But beautiful enough to fade into ash.
A CONVERSATION WITH MEGAN GIDDINGS
Natalie Eilbert: Arcade Seventeen manages to be extremely smart and extremely charming throughout. It is also very fun. You seem to experience a lot of joy in the flash fiction genre and I wonder if you could tell us more about the form in this book. What about these stories necessitated a flash?
Megan Giddings: I think flash (for prose) can be the easiest place to get right into your imagination. The brevity necessitates a playground mentality: you are going to be the tornado, okay? And I am going to be the town that you destroy. And you over there, you are going to be the monster that wants to eat the tornado to become the strongest monster in the world. Everyone knows their roles. The game-story starts.
The form forces me into having the confidence to not overexplain. And to find the absolute right details to explain everything.
And to get into particularities about the necessity of flash for these stories, I’d interviewed two people who had written flash collections or collections that mixed flash super well into stories of varying length, and both were saying the same thing about what people call traditional realism at this time: it’s often too rigid to capture the realistic emotions of every day. And I was like that’s true. God, even my cats feel a wide-range of things every day. I hate you, I love you, give me chicken, you dummy.
And I realized that one of the reasons why all these stories worked together–but might feel too overwhelming in a standard-size collection–is that they’re often so emotionally and reality flexible. I think sometimes when people read, one of the pleasures is that people, except on a plot level, stay kind of inert. Characters rarely swing from laughing at videos to being furious that people are still very let’s pop the champagne and motherfucking dance because we just furthered inequality in this country to wow, this lavender candle makes me feel so chill.
I thought despite being short in length, together, these might feel actually, pretty long. You’re jumping from places where people want to have sex with centaurs to dealing with the considerations of police brutality to having very suspicious thoughts about cheese.
I love cheese, but what I have learned is that a part of me distrusts it. I’m not entirely sure why.
NE: You are a great titler. Whether it is a pert title such as “Dream Lover” or something more energetic like “We Are a Remake of a Movie Starring Michael Keaton and Andie MacDowell” or a more complicit mystery of a title like “Family Secret,” your titles feel like the last line of defense before a massive converging of parties and ideas. There is a ton of power here, which speaks to your control as a writer. I wonder if you could talk briefly about this process.
MG: That’s super nice to read, Natalie, that you think that about me.
I do think, in general, that people could put way more thought into their titles. I’ve read and edited for a lot of magazines and contests now and I think what people forget is that it’s sometimes a long line of stories in a queue. And the way Submittable is set up is that we can see many stories at once. And often all the titles are so samey: something about a husband, after (blank), you are the heart, what remains, something beauty, some pithy variation on what we talk about when we talk about ____. And I mean, there are some bland titles that upon reading a story, I’m like whooooa… that’s incredible. Like “Story of Your Life” (by Ted Chiang) is a real oatmeal without milk or brown sugar title. But in context, it’s genius.
What a great title can do is not just introduce the story, but also introduce the the story’s style or tone. I try not to think just about story plot or character when titling, but also its mood. Sometimes, it’s also a way for me to joke.
I also use titling as a litmus test for whether or not I think the story is actually done. If I can’t title it in a way that pleases me, I have to do another revision.
One other thing, if that doesn’t work, is I write a list of titles, cross some very bad ones out, and then hand the list over to my husband. One of the smartest choices I ever made was marrying someone who was a reader, but not a writer. I have him circle the three titles that make him most want to read that story. Usually, we agree on 2 out of 3. And with the choices much smaller, I can figure things out from there.
NE: I think my favorite story in AS is “Lower Your Muzzle,” a story about a horse and a man and I’ll say nothing more. It’s also the final story. That you began with a centaur (“Dream Lover”) and end with a horse makes me very happy, the equine synchronicity of it all. Both the horse and the centaur merge with certain human understandings about love and death and whatever junk lives between love and death. A lot of animals and objects speak in this collection. What about the anthropomorphic compels your stories, here and beyond?
MG: A good alternate title for this collection could probably be The Equine Synchronicity Of It All.
I think while not all people are writers, all people tell stories about themselves through their objects. Even when people reject things, that’s still another way of telling.
Not that long ago (and still to some complete failures of people) because I am black, because I am a woman, I would have been considered an object. Farm tool, sex tool, be quiet tool. I think I am always thinking a little bit about ownership, about the distinctions people make, and how to subvert them. How to give a voice. I mean, the person I am today, probably would seem as realistic as a door being able to talk to many adults one hundred years ago.
NE: The longest story in this collection (“Twenty-Five Minute Wait”) is six pages, which, given what we’ve discussed, should come as no surprise. Similar to the first question, are there stories you write that refuse to be brief? Of course, my ulterior motive is that I’m wondering if you’re working on longer-form writing at the moment. Bonus question: Why or why not?
MG: I am actually working on a polished draft of a novel for my agent to take out to sell. And most of my full-length short story collection is actually not flash. I’m actually a little antsy about the novel: because it’s the first time in a long time where I’m not working on multiple projects at once. For the past few years, I’ll write a draft of a flash of a story while working on a longer story while dipping into the novel. I write at least five days a week (although if it’s not happening, I read and consider that also writing time. I am getting better at being patient with my brain and not feeling bad about those days)
Recently, somewhat out of fear that I wouldn’t finish and somewhat out of feeling like I needed some pressure to keep my idea of the novel focused, I set up a pretty rigid timeline with Taylor (my agent). I’m not sure if that’s the best-worst or the worst-best idea I’ve had in a while yet.
I’m working on a novel because I need to push myself to try new things. I could be very content writing flash and short stories forever, but I would rust out eventually. I need new challenges. I’ve been working on this novel for three years now and I’m having a hard time with the idea that it could be a complete failure (I could have been writing so many other stories!). But I think in small doses that anxiety is necessary.
Anyway, to be very frustrating about the initial question, I have no rational, craft-based response on length. I just feel like I know based on story. I could explain why some specific stories are in the tense and POV I chose, why I wrote in a nonlinear or modular style, etc. But most of the time, length is a gut-feeling. It rarely changes that much in the revision process. A story might go from 4,000 words to 2700, but never down to 500.
NE: You wear many fabulous hats—notably now as the coeditor of fiction for The Offing. What is something you read recently that absolutely gutted you? And are there flash fiction collections that readers should look out for? (Arcade Seventeen is one obvious answer, folks.)
MG: I am currently, very slowly, reading Max Ritvo’s Reincarnations and Solmaz Sharif’s Look. They were both christmas presents and I’ve found that I can’t read either for a sustained amount of time. I can read one or two of the poems in each (for very different reasons) and then I am just in my feelings for a while. I think that’s my definition of gutted. I feel so much that I have to pull away and then I keep coming back to feel more and pull away again.
I think a collection that includes flash in it that more people should read is Kathleen Founds’ When Mystical Creatures Attack! It’s a collection that’s in a weird space where Kathleen won the Iowa Short Fiction Award for it, it was a notable book on the New York Times list, but I know very few people who actually bought and read it. It’s a collection that is so well-written, one that made me laugh and tear up, and one of the rare collections where the writer was so good at playing at form and voice that I could admire her talent and not be taken out of the story while feeling that admiration.
I think it might be regularly classified as prose poetry, but Sawako Nakayasu’s The Ants (and a lot of her work) has really influenced me. She’s funny and strange and a great line to line writer. I also think Wastoid occupies that same area for me, prose-poetry, but can pretty easily be read as flash.
And I mean, I think more people should be reading Threadcount. Yeah, I really like (and know) the people running it, but it’s one of the few magazines I know that is consistently interesting in their choices. And for readers who are trying to get into flash, I think the Best Small Fictions series is the place to start. Tara Masih, the series editor, works really hard to get a range. And I think it’s a way to see how many different ways people can interpret the form.