25 Words or fewer: 'Hint Fiction'
How short can a short story get? It seems a reasonable question in an age when writers such as Rick Moody experiment with Twitter as a template for writing fiction, while SMITH Magazine has made a mini-industry of the six-word memoir. ("Chaos. And then I found you," declares a recent one.)
Compared with that, the 125 efforts in Robert Swartwood's "Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer" seem like epics; they come in sentences, even (sometimes) paragraphs. Stuart Dybek's "Ransom" reads, in its entirety:
Broke and desperate, I kidnapped myself.
Ransom notes were sent to interested parties. Later, I sent hair and fingernails, too.
They insisted on an ear.
Dybek's story is an interesting example of what "Hint Fiction" has to offer, both because it manages to frame a narrative, and also because Dybek is a writer with some cred. This is the key to the book, Swartwood's ability to corral contributors who know their business, and whose business we know. Contributors include Ron Carlson, Peter Straub, Ha Jin and Joyce Carol Oates, whose heartrending "The Widow's First Year" consists of a single sentence: "I Kept Myself Alive."
What's great about the Oates piece -- or the Dybek, for that matter -- is that for all its (necessary) use of inference, it also remains fundamentally concrete. There is a heart to it, in other words, an emotional center; it's not just a linguistic gimmick, which is the risk with any work like this.
That's not to say there's no gimmicky material in "Hint Fiction," but even that stuff often takes us by surprise. Just check out my favorite story, Nick Mamatas' "Found Wedged in the Side of a Desk Drawer in Paris, France, 23 December 1989," which suggests a bit of revisionist literary history:
BECKETT / WAITING p. 49
GODOT enters, stage left.
-- David L. Ulin
Photo: Joyce Carol Oates in September. Credit: Francois Durand / Getty Images