Jennifer Fliss jolts the reader awake in her debut collection, The Predatory Animal Ball. She usually does so within the first sentence, which is no small feat given that this collection contains forty pieces of flash fiction. In the opening story, “Pigeons,” the narrator begins:
I once saw a pigeon on Third Avenue hobbling around with a needle sticking out of its eye. Not a small needle either, a long one, about four inches. It swayed like a lightning rod in the wind as the pigeon bobbed its head, talking in its pigeon language.
Fliss is a master of the opening. She gets her reader on the hook and leaves them no choice but to keep reading. I often found myself saying “Okay, but seriously, this one is the last one,” and then I would make the mistake of reading the first sentence of the next story only to find myself again on the hook and needing to know what came next. This collection moves at a fast clip, and it’s easy to consume several stories in one sitting. While some are just a single paragraph in length, they feel whole and are often haunting, lingering well past the final sentence.
The title of this collection might make a reader think this is a collection exclusively about animals, and certainly within these 176 pages the reader will find not just pigeons, but field mice, and even mythical creatures like gargoyles. However, there is no animal with a greater focus than the human animal. In “Emily, Beside Herself” we begin with the inexplicable:
Emily was beside herself. Literally, beside herself. She wasn’t sure what happened, or how it was even possible. One minute she was on the 2 Train sitting between a woman reading The Alchemist (cliché) and a business suit with a cellphone clipped to his belt. (Also, cliché. Also, tacky and gauche). The next minute she was sitting between the suit and herself.
In each story, there’s a feeling of possibility. This collection is punctuated with moments of humor and, perhaps more to the point, a playful sensibility. There is a feeling that Fliss is enjoying herself. In “Edward Scissorhands Takes Up Scrapbooking,” Edward documents his whirlwind trip through Europe with his scrapbook circle. In “Just the Air That They Breathe,” a tiny woman lives in a terrarium that hangs in a kitchen window. In “Sex Drive,” Fliss layers meaning—the story is not just about libido, Sex Drive is a literal street you can visit. “The fine folks of Sex Drive have created a neighborhood watch. They watch, they listen, they salivate at the thought of being watched and listened to. So do you, don’t you?” Fliss wisely employs levity to temper the darker themes and gutting moments of loss.
The Predatory Animal Ball shines when it traverses the terrain of grief and moments of missed connection and disconnection (particularly within stale marriages). In “Watercolor Felon,” we learn that “Eventually we sleep in different rooms and love the walls the way we once loved each other.” One of the longer pieces within the collection, “Candy Necklace,” asks us to consider how we continue to live alongside the objects left in our orbit after someone leaves us. Our child narrator says:
When my mother left us, she gave me a candy necklace to remember her by. Surely, she knew it was meant to be eaten. Surely, she knew it would eventually just be a string hanging limply around my neck, damp and discolored white. Surely, she knew it was a poor replacement for a mother.
This is a standout story, but I was also quite taken with “The Intimacy of Brushing Teeth.” Fliss asks us to consider the shared moments in our days that become rote, how in the absence of that routine an inexplicable chasm opens, and how easily a daily rhythm can evoke comfort and fondness.
The texture of Fliss’s prose is always grounding, pulling us closer to the scene, even if it’s just a quiet moment of observing your sons sleeping: “You open their door, just a crack, listen to the teenage snoring; warbling love, slobber, and exhaust” (from “Dandelions”). Her acerbic sentences make a home for themselves out on a knife’s edge. Often the conceit of these stories leans toward the absurd and surreal, and yet the conflicts Fliss reckons with certainly aren’t silly or absurd; they are resonant and affecting. She asks the reader to reimagine their conception of the predator. At the core, Fliss is always operating from a space of compassion for her characters and their many complications. Through the lens of close domestic relationships, we see Fliss weave together moody, innovative, and imaginative stories. They are expansive and range from a small boy who serves as an executioner (“The Child Executioner”), to a forest with foliage that swallows hikers (“The Thick Green Ribbon”), to a bereavement lantern that only remains lit for as long as one needs to mourn (“The Mourning Light”). There’s an internal logic to the stories and connective tissue that weaves them together to create a sturdy narrative spine even when subjects couldn’t feel more disparate.
The Predatory Animal Ball is a masterclass in the genre of flash fiction and what is possible within the form. Fliss is continuously stretching and testing her stories’ elasticity. This collection asks just how far a flash can be pushed before it falls apart. Fliss serves her stories up like savory appetizers on toothpicks, and in taking in each tantalizing morsel, it’s clear that she finds great pleasure in flash fiction and the many possibilities it affords.
About the Reviewer
Jennifer Popa is a short story writer, essayist, and occasional poet. She earned her PhD in English at Texas Tech University and did her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She now works as an Assistant Professor and is revising a collection of short stories and puttering her way through a novel. Some of Jennifer's most recent writing can be found in The Florida Review, West Branch, Ninth Letter, and Sundog Lit. She can be found at www.jenniferpopa.com.