During the last decade of his life, author Jack Matthews wrote a series of 1-2 page prose pieces (which he dubbed “Abruptions” or “very short stories that end abruptly”).
Matthews had already published over 20 books of fiction with an astonishing variety of characters and plots. This last volume hints at a lot of characters and plots without trying to resolve them.
Each abruption — which rarely takes more than 5 minutes to read — sheds light on something unexpected, whether it be a character’s view on life or the reader’s notions of how the world ought to work.
Many episodes read like contemporary fables or sketches of quirky people from small midwest towns. Two older women have a long-running feud about what flowers should go on the fence between their houses. An actor makes a living out of playing the bad Nazi in movies. An owner of a movie studio in the 1930s throws out any audience member who misbehaves during a movie. An office worker is distracted by a pretty woman washing the outside windows.
Other stories sound like wild fairy tales. What if one superintelligent Siamese twin were conjoined with an idiot brother? What if a witch’s curse caused every third word uttered by a person to go unsaid? What if a woman has terrifying dreams about a missing watch?
Some stories simply ponder the imponderable. Why do certain memories persist or reappear? Why do elderly people become set in their ways? Why do people become blind to certain things?
Matthews explains in the book’s preface that abruptions “can reach down to dimensions of wonder and speculation that are commonly thought to be the proper domain of poetry.” These stories are a fitting coda for Matthew’s career as a storyteller. As deep and dark as these abruptions can become, they are told with simple language, flashes of humor and a sage’s sense of wonder and irony.
Jack Matthews (1925-2013) published 20+ books and taught literature at Ohio University over four decades. His story collections were praised by authors such as Eudora Welty and W.P. Kinsella and received positive reviews in places like New York Times Book Review and the Los Angeles Times Book Review. He is the author of Hanger Stout, Awake, a modern coming-of-age novel about a teenage boy’s obsession with cars (which was praised by Time Magazine and called by National Book Award winner William Stafford “one of the most neglected works of the 20th century.”) He has published multiple essays and several works of fiction about life in 19th century America.
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Publication Date: October 11, 2017
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“Few contemporary writers can – or want to – compose stories in the narrow tunnel of the interior, the rutted trail of memory between mind and heart, sometimes shutting out other people as well as time and place and usual props. Matthews takes us there, carrying a bright light.”
Preface by the Author
I take a certain whimsical pleasure in noting that this book consists of 88 stories, and there are 88 keys on the piano. This numerical bond reflects another truth: that narratives are as much a temporal art as music, being both tonal and rhythmic. When a pianist improvises chords in playing an unfamiliar piece, his instincts are rooted in knowledge – much as the writer instinctively brings knowledge and experience to the act of making a sentence.
As for what I call “abruptions” – they are simply very short stories that end abruptly. While they are known by more familiar labels (e.g., “Flash Fiction” and “Sudden Fiction”), I like the in-your-face brusqueness of the word “abruptions.” Like parables, they seem to be almost all point, lacking the more comprehensive “pointedness” that enriches and complicates longer narratives. As abruptions, they can be conveniently and thoughtlessly dismissed as mere anecdotes – which, in a way they are, although there is nothing “mere” about them, for they can penetrate in ways not accessible through the longer, leisurely accounts of more conventional narratives.
Essential to their depth is their conciseness. By what is both presented and judiciously excluded, abruptions can reach down to dimensions of wonder and speculation that are commonly thought to be the proper domain of poetry. The depth to which they can reach is always and to some extent a function of what is both their genius as a form and their most obvious limitation, their brevity. Nevertheless, it is the narrow and pointed instrument that penetrates deepest.
Because of our instinct for a telling taxonomy, we are nagged by the question of whether abruptions are nothing more than what we are tempted to view contemptuously as, say, key situations or story ideas rather than finished stories – which is to say, the real thing. To the extent that no quality can exist without quantity, it follows that if the latter is diminished, the former is necessarily affected, and in many contexts it is affected negatively.
So the question of what definition would best fit “abruptions” is as natural as it will eventually prove irrelevant. While they may seem to be nothing more than mutilated or apprentice narratives, they are nevertheless real stories in certain important ways, their brevity notwithstanding. Often, in a well-designed abruption, what might appear to be an amputation – a gratuitous chopping off of a story’s end -is actually the final, sudden emergence of a latent theme in the story, fulfilling a pattern that has been at work beneath the surface machinery that drives the plot.
Abruptions can be seen as constituting a literary sub-genre, for they are as distinct from the classic short story as haikus from sonnets. And as already argued, their brevity is suggestive in ways incompatible with more conventional closures, and some form of suggestiveness is essential to all narrative – especially short stories, and within that division, the still more intensified class of abruptions.
Agonizing over whether abruptions are “really” stories or not isn’t worth the effort: call them “lawn mowers” or “dental floss” if you want – but think of them as lenses focusing larger, more complex ideas or conceits. And the truism that great literature is dependent upon great readers could not be better exemplified than in a readerly interaction with a well-designed abruption, for its very abruptness presents a unique challenge.
So I hereby challenge you and welcome you to the game.