Shea offers a collection of inventive flash fiction in this literary debut.
Using Webster’s Dictionary as a trove of writing prompts, Shea has constructed 79 microfictions built around the alphabetical order of words in the dictionary. He explains the form in his author’s note: “The bolded key words on the left of the page are consecutive entries in Webster’s New World Dictionary…The text on the right is my connective tissue linking those words into a narrative, scene, or evocation of personality.” For example, the piece “Chablis—chador” links the words Chablis, cha-cha, chacma, Chaco, chaconne, chacun à son goût, Chad, and chador into a conversation between a couple of high-society types swapping anecdotes. “Wine can make me do the strangest things, my dear,” it begins, “like the time all that Chablis went straight to my head, and I did a stunning little cha-cha.” The tone of the pieces tends to be light since the nature of the form leads to absurd places. They often occur as dialogues or monologues, heavy on voice and personality, though occasionally fuller fables emerge. For example, “infinitude—inflation” tells the story of a man who wakes up on the wrong side of the bed and must see a doctor to correct the resulting havoc wreaked on his perception of the world. Most shorts are between one and four pages, though the author occasionally gets on a roll (“Nebraska—negotiation” is 12 pages long).
While the premise is admittedly gimmicky, Shea does a masterful job fattening these strings of unconnected words into clever shorts. Even when they begin in relatively normal places—the investigation of a murder, say, or an antiquarian’s attempt to summon a demon via a séance—they quickly spiral into transforming litanies of trivia, word association, and literary allusions. The pieces succeed in drawing out unexpected pockets of poetry in the English language, like “aghast—agleam” with its repetitive “ag”s and “agit”s. He also manages to highlight the incredible diversity of loan words, compound words, hybrid words, and embedded idioms found in English, like in “Brazzaville—breathy,” with its catalog of bread words. Shea does not shy away from challenging sections of the dictionary either, proven by “quoit—q.y.,” “xanthus—xebex,” and “zoot suit—zowie.” The only slight bobble is the way the stories are formatted on the page with the dictionary words segregated to the left column and everything else to the right. This presentation is functional but not pleasing to the eye, and one wishes Shea had found a way to display the words that was more aesthetically agreeable. Fans of linguistics, puzzles, poetry, and humor will each find something to excite them in this work, and writers of all stripes will find themselves reaching for their dictionaries to locate some good stretches of words that Shea hasn’t yet used.
An inspired and inspiring collection of dictionary-prompted flash fiction.