The short short story has been around through the literary ages, brevity and verbosity taking turns in fashion. The term Flash Fiction arose with the new millennia and the dowdy “short short story” emerged reborn as the righteous Flash Fiction. And we like it.
Fancy modern monikers aside, it is often within mundanity that we live the small episodes that comprise our modern life. Further, within the person next to us, we find different versions of ourselves. And so it is, in the pithy yet detachedly casual poetics of Matthew Salesses flash fiction novel, I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying, that we see a life in flash fiction. Herein lies the story of a lost human brought the long distance back to himself via the vivid moments of his muted inner-malaise, brought back to flesh through flesh.
The title is your first acquaintance with the novel’s narrator. Who among us has not used the qualifier “just saying” to justify, to soften, to absolve ourselves of what we utter? We know who we are, those of us who tag “just saying” onto our thoughts as if wrapping ourselves in a protective nondisclosure clause. As in, I’m going to tell you this, but I didn’t really say it. No commitment, at a distance, off the hook. The man in I’m Just Saying is observant and mentally engaged, but he is behind the curtain, removed and distant.
Matthew Salesses the person, the writer, however was adopted from Korea at age two, returned to Korea, and married a Korean woman. He writes a column and is the fiction editor for The Good Men Project. Salesses is also the author of the novella, The Last Repatriot; an instructor at Grub Street, an independent writing center in Boston; and the author of many essays dealing with parenting, race, and adoption. He is a writer who shares personally and who interacts with societal issues at a very real level.
It is fitting then, that in an interview on The Rumpus Salesses says that the first pieces in I’m Just Saying were written “by request”. From this simple request emerged a work that poignantly wrestles with the complex interplay of facets that make us who we are collectively as humans, and individually as people. In the same interview, Salesses goes on to say, “When I teach classes, I often start the first week saying that stories are about connections—about making connections and the interesting ways that you make connections.” For many who know Salesses and where he’s coming from in his writing, the themes in I’m Just Saying will resonate clearly.
I’m Just Saying reads as an existential morass as well as a bildungsroman of a man who, for many reasons, did not fully come of age when he physically grew from boy to man. Sometimes our own lives feel like flash fiction, a series of dubious epiphanies, nightmares and dreams. I’m Just Saying is both darkly comic and tragic, yet also hopeful, a progressive commiseration of oxymorons. In the story, he is with three women, two as lovers and one as partner. His five-year-old son, has also newly entered, as well. The complexity of the race and gender issues interplay intensely in the narrator’s life, as if he is hurting his lovers to see his own pain externalized, like a sick auto-biopic, projected and played out on the screen of others’ lives. In this vignette, his partner, the “wifely woman” meets one of his two lovers, the “Asian girl”:
“The wifely woman fluttered her hand and said she knew I wasn’t faithful, but she wished I had better taste. This seemed to hurt the Asian girl more than anything I had imagined said, but maybe what hurt her was that the wifely woman was Asian, too, and prettier. I nearly felt as if I could walk away, as if the fight was between them; I nearly felt a joke coming.”
You would easily be thinking here that the guy is an asshole, and yet, like the women in his life, and his son, we know it is more complicated than that, and you cannot write him off solely for that moment.
Too, there is an episodic quality that keeps the pages turning, not unlike burning through an entire season of some show available on Netflix because you are compelled so by the characters and by your own want, to know them, to understand them, to see how it all works out. We are all composites, now more than ever as modern life parses existence into compartmentalized boxes. In many ways, this novel is a room holding a parade of dioramas
The literary fitness of the pieces will provide no small amount of pleasure either. You will have many opportunities to come across a sentence that catches you, makes you stop, and hold it up to the light for a moment, enjoying the artistic tightness of the sentence and thought. Such as: “She reached out from the dark to kill something bright, and I thought, good, we need a survivor.” And: “When she made up her mind to love you, she swallowed you whole. Hers was love as intestinal fortitude. I had always wanted to be digested.” Or: “She studied our predictable apartment like it was about to confess murder.” These are sentences for lingering on a moment.
Our guy, the narrator, is often resignedly clever in his quiet way, as if his thoughts are unwillingly refracted through these poetics. There is also, a wry, dark humor, pointing at the comic madness that lies within the human condition: “I stapled my hand to the desk, vaguely aware that things were getting fuzzy around the edges…When I pulled the staple out, I had the world’s least impressive vampire bite.”
As much as the people in the novel seem sad creatures, they are hungry for something, and they are seeking it in each other, something to stave off the quiet desolation that life can conjure within us. He describes here his white lover, the “white girl”:
“The white girl always prepared something to set us afloat. She baked goods out of drugs, surprising from how clean her hair smelled. I met her after work and she stuffed a cookie in my mouth and pumped my jaw like a well handle. Soon this was funny, as if we were wasting water from a draught.”
They are seeking pleasure, and also numbness. It is you and the narrator; he is distanced from his lovers, his “wifely woman” and his son, no one has a name. But you, you the reader whom he does not know, you he can tell things to, you he will let enter his mind. He cannot seem to have sympathy for the others, until a compassion in himself is awakened. The vignettes are little soldiers, marching out of his mind, diligently telling us his story, and theirs: the women, the child, and the strangers on the periphery who make up his friends and colleagues.
It ends like most real life endings; it is not really ending, but perpetually in a state between ending and beginning. Readers will be resigned to the finality of the last page, hopeful that the little family will make its way, though we are realistic enough by now to know that the odds these days for happiness are slim. But still, we care about them. We care about them because they are us. Even though you will agree at the last page, that it is the place to leave off, to part ways, you still will wish for just a bit more, to make it last just a little longer, to stay with them. That’s what I think, anyway, I mean, I’m just saying.