Sing the Song, by Meredith Alling
Review by Linda Michel-Cassidy
Meredith Alling’s Sing the Song collects twenty-seven strange and muscular flash fictions. My second take on these stories was how well they are crafted, and how well they work, given their brevity. At the sentence level, there is not a single superfluous word. My first take on these stories, the read-for-pleasure, no note taking first impression, landed on the first sentence of each story. Most, if not all, are so very confident, brazen, even, that they are almost stories in and of themselves. A few to consider:
“Some babies drink soda the second they are born.” (“Other Babies”)
“I was the only blonde at a redhead party.” (“Redhead Party”)
“Once a year the Ancient Ham crawls out of the sewer to sit on a curb and answer questions.” (“Ancient Ham”)
“The exam room is a mess and I feel right at home.” (“Treatment”)
“Catherine on a wormless morning, praying to God.” (“Hellsure”)
How could one not read on?
The pieces are unified not by any of the usual methods: overlapping characters, or place or even topic, but by approach. The language used in the telling is one tick away from the expected. Instead of going weird, the author veers askew, and manages all this with brevity and understatement. Each piece exhibits control and a preference for lean sentences. When there’s dialog, it’s truncated. This sort of tamped-down language is the perfect base for the oddities that follow. The stories teeter gently in different directions: the absurd, the fantastical, the sad. Then, there comes the sucker-punch.
“Small Man” opens, “A small man walked out from behind my uncle’s television once. He just walked out my uncle says, and then walked down the hall. No big deal.” Alling writes of curious and unlikely things situated in a world we think we know. The narrators talk the way we talk, and find their lives as confounding as we do ours.
“Small Man,” continues, “Sometimes when I tell the story about my uncle, people think it’s funny, but it’s not. It’s serious. Hello. My uncle was sitting right there in his brown corderoy recliner with a plate of potatoes.” The man has a regular house, regular wife, regular dinner. No hysterics. It’s just a thing that happened. Many of the stories are like this one—not a huge identifiable arc, but rather an offering. Here’s a thing that could happen to some random dude who only wants to chomp on his dinner already. Then when the wife comes home, of course she’s not so sure, but she goes along. What we’re left with is the sense of their relationship that you do what you do for love, and that feeling is so simple and honest, that it backs up the whole story.
There are no tricky verbal gymnastics here; it’s all very low-key, often colloquial, but I’m convinced that this is all part of Alling’s strategy. Instead of using overwrought or poetic language, she writes in brisk unfettered sentences, clipped and to the point. It’s just a little to the side, which allows the action of the stories to bloom.
In “Ancient Ham,” the most absurdist tale of the lot, a wise ham answers the questions of the populace. This is only after they gift him with sewing needles and a little poke.
Most questions are about health, wealth, or love. They must be yes or no questions. The Ancient Ham answers by bobbing left or right. Left is no, right is yes. When the ham answers, people scream. … The air around the Ancient Ham swells with sweet breath. This makes the Ancient ham teeter with delight. Get it real delighted, it will vibrate. The women clutch their hips, men flex their thighs.
Like “Small Man,” its point isn’t the fantastical things that happen, so much as the endpoint, here a revealing moment between a mother and daughter. “The girl looks up, lips glistening. ‘Aren’t you beautiful,’ the mother says. The Ancient Ham bobs right, right, right.” Both stories start with the absurd, spin outward, then land squarely on a moment of connection. This trajectory, from whimsy to the final emotional note, managed in only a few pages, is is evidence of the control with which Alling writes.
In “Sample Sale,” the passive, crabby, sleepless narrator is first in line to buy a designer bag. Alling takes what feels like a real-world, albeit hideous, situation, a queue at a warehouse sale, then drops in an out-of–place character and allows things to escalate. Aggression and jealousy reign, and soon enough, there’s a brawl. The narrator ends up on the ground, confessing to these rabid strangers that she cannot sleep, that she is afraid of burglars. But then the warehouse opens, and they’re off. “’You’d better move,’ said the woman fanning herself. She was gently kicking my waist with her loafer. ‘You don’t look like you’re going to make it.’” The misguided energy, the distracted half-compassion of the other ladies feels very realistic. As with a number of the other stories, people are in the same physical space bumping along with their own agendas.
Alling writes convincingly of characters who have no idea of themselves. Many want to connect, but don’t have the tools, as in “Whistle Baby,” where the narrator cannot, will not agree with the parents of a baby that their child is a living, breathing miracle simply because the baby sort-of whistle-spits. The beauty of this story is that everyone is right and everyone is wrong. Alling nails the cool smugness of the parents, as seen in the letter the wife sends to the unimpressed narrator:
We’ve tried to be good neighbors. Clover is a good baby, and a special baby we see now (and as suspected). A lot of people are interested and some TV shows too, but not you? Maybe we misunderstand, If you want to visit, please do.
Sam tries, really tries, but is only left to wonder, “I feel hot and tired and confused and alone and wonder if this is better, right now.” This last line is such a heartbreak, because we try so hard at times, but really have no way to judge if we’re humaning properly.
Flash fiction, when done right, as it is here, carries a wallop like no other. None of these stories felt like another, and yet the group feels cohesive. I suspect this is because while they start out with a shot, they all twist about, and each find their own emotional note, leaving the reader spent.
Sing the Song is available now through Future Tense Books.
Linda Michel-Cassidy is a writer and installation artist living on a houseboat in northern California. Prior to that, she spent a decade in voluntary exile in the high desert of New Mexico. Her writing can be found in Jabberwock, Harpur Palate, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, and others. She works for the literary reading series Why There Are Words and teaches experimental prose.