Opening lines can make or break entire novels. Meredith Alling has taken this kind of thinking to heart, as evidenced in the first sentence of her story, “Ancient Ham”: “Once a year the Ancient Ham crawls out of the sewer to sit on a curb and answer questions.” Already the reader intuits that Alling has a deep understanding of flash fiction and knows how to hook readers like Steelheads in spawning season. This lies at the heart of Sing the Song, her new collection of flash fiction available now from Future Tense Books. Whatever particular direction she chooses to take a story, whether fantastical or utterly real, Alling imbues each story with her own biting intelligence and sense of humor. With her knack for attention grabbing, Sing the Song is a collection of golden triangles – perfect little shapes of stories, each with an explicit function. While the function is always different, the result is something that sticks with you like a strange earworm, something you don’t realize you remember until you’re yelling it full volume in the shower. Alling has managed to write a collection that succeeds to, as Alan Partridge might say, “Straight away, you’ve got them by the jaffers.” Whether you’ve got jaffers or not, these stories will undoubtedly grab you.
Most of her stories border on weird premises, but the kind of weird you might actually end up witnessing, like the men posing for a picture with a gun to a dog’s head in “Scooters”. The kind of comedy interjected into these situations keep it on the side of the uncanny rather than getting too dark. For example, the narrator’s response to the above situation in “Scooters” reminds me of the kind of monologue a modern Vonnegut might create:
The other possibility that my brain came up with I have to say is that this is a photo shoot for an instructional book on dog training. The title of the book is Do You Ever Just Want To Kill Your Dog or maybe it’s Are You Holding Your Dog Hostage which could mean that you are not walking your dog or taking it out enough and that’s the reason for the bad behavior.
Her tendency toward weird and sometimes dark subjects is unique, in that it relies on a thin lining of humor and irony to make the whole package work, in the way that Harlan Ellison writes science fiction or Emily Dickinson writes poetry. It might even be said, that with the tendencies of her subjects to live lives fitting in to absurd norms, Sing the Song could be considered a spiritual sister to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. Though many generations removed, the reader can’t help but sense the same kind of panic and despair that both the standards of Gilman’s times and our modern political nightmare landscape have wrought.
It has also resulted in a lot of comparisons to the work of Amelia Gray. Those familiar with Gray’s work will recognize this as quite a high mark of praise – her particular blend of humor, horror, and beauty all balances on the edge of a knife, perfectly weighed with just the right amount of danger. Alling’s work shares these qualities, but chooses to accentuate a greater trend toward brevity and levity. Imagine, perhaps, if Flannery O’Connor had been Anne Lamott’s writing instructor, where the result would be stories that acknowledged the dark irrationality of life but couldn’t help jazzing things up a bit.
She’s a satirist at heart, in the tradition of Voltaire but with the contemporary wit of George Saunders. Stories like “Other Babies” and “Whistle Baby” use hilarious pretenses to zing the ‘special snowflake’ behavior of new parents and their long-suffering friends. “Insubordination”, in which a home intruder turns the tables against his victims, plays on the kind of absurdist critique of bureaucracy you might find in a Gogol story. But all throughout each unique story, Alling embellishes each one with gorgeous, heart-stopping prose. Just look at this passage from the otherwise bare-bones detail of “Apologies”:
The same man who took my legs away was holding a puppy in his arms, a fat yellow blob. He kissed it on the face and the puppy’s ear flipped over. When the man winked at me I just watched that creamy ear, that miracle.
Other stories like “The Quarry” take contemporary premises – in this case, a suburban voyeur – and stretch them in form rather than length, like the towering, spindly legs of Dali’s elephants:
I watched them move like one big octopus and couldn’t imagine cutting off a tentacle. Then again, one you cut one off, another grows back to replace it.
Such a passage is an excellent example of Alling’s ability to take a familiar scene (in this case, women bathing) and twist its description to seem utterly alien, and yet still an accurate representation. The silent electricity of anxiety also flows through many of these stories, occasionally subtle but always there. Sometimes it’s the personal kind, but in others it manifests as a kind of modern cultural alienation by way of a bizarre fable, such as the protagonists of the stories, “America’s Strongest Boy” or “Lady Legs”. Each of these extrapolates on the idea that embracing natural quirks or behaviors is taboo, vividly highlighting the strangely complex and static cultural mores that keep so many of us locked inside ourselves. Thankfully, Alling has unlocked these stories of hers for us, and whether the reader ends up laughing or knitting their eyebrows in puzzlement, they can finally be free.
Sing the Song
by Meredith Alling
Future Tense Books; 100 p.