It is sometimes the case that language, when restricted, blossoms. The French writers and mathematicians in the 1960s Oulipo group made ‘constrained writing’ work for them, and so do some of the writers in Small Wonder. Eight hundred words or less was the challenge given to writers, and it doesn’t seem like much to work with, but inside this collection are complete and whole stories, as well as small but beautiful fragments.
Created as the product of a competition run by short fiction publisher Spineless Wonders, the works in this collection are a compilation of entries and invited contributions, covering many different themes and styles of writing. Interestingly though, reading the winning and commended entries doesn’t necessarily give a clear indication of how to write a good prose poem or microfiction piece. Instead they show the spectrum of what is possible within each genre. The winner, Charles D’Anastasi, gives us a rich and vivid prose poem, sketching a room resonating with horses’ hooves and a sky of ‘stars, and long-period comets, stripped down by the repeated surgery of the night’. In contrast to this, the story from Erin Gough, ‘William Shatner vows to save the Great Basin Pocket Mouse’, is much closer to a typical realist short story, with conflict, endearing character interaction (and instant mashed potatoes).
For the most part though, one gets the sense that the writers in this collection are trying to explore what’s unfamiliar. And while this is a positive, on occasion it seems obvious that their subject matter is strange to them. This is especially apparent in many of the pieces set in foreign locations. In these it seems that when travelling the writers, almost as a defence mechanism, can only deal with their environment by reducing it to something beautiful.
Dael Allison writes in ‘dreaming poets dreaming’ of a bay with ‘the air a flux of water, ondaatje and neruda adrift on a tropic river’. The places explored include New Delhi, Shanghai and Skierniewicza, and perhaps it is these new environments, or the unfamiliar forms, but some of the writers don’t seem entirely comfortable.
With the same sense of the unfamiliar, many of the contributors try to talk about the modern. Keri Glastonbury mentions ‘emo kids’ and ‘indymedia kid’(s) in an awkward way. Moya Costello’s list-style pieces, including ‘Slippery as a fish’, also seem out of their depth with modern words and themes. But ‘Sequel’ by Adam Ford, which looks at the 2011 movie Cowboys and Aliens, deals with our modern world to great effect.
That said, the forms in which the writers are working encourage experimentation and the pieces are the most enjoyable when they are taken outside of the usual terrain. Without feeling the need to explain where we are or how we got here, these particular small wonders, such as Cara Munro’s ‘An arrangement’, give us a moment and lets us go.
Artworks by Paden Hunter also appear throughout the collection. These slightly creepy, slightly ugly portraits only have a tenuous relationship to the stories inside and are a distraction rather than something that enhances our enjoyment of the text.
Although some of the writing is strong, there isn’t much tying the pieces in Small Wonder together apart from the length restriction. They are too dissimilar in style to complement each other. Because of this the collection works best if dipped into, and is enjoyable when taken that way – like a place you’d like to go on holiday, but where you wouldn’t want to live.
Rafael S.W enjoys playing human-sized chess and writes about love, robots and the sea.