Since its genesis, mankind has been filled with an insatiable desire, a God-given need to create. And that creative pulse is rarely hampered by challenge—and certainly not the limitations of space. When pushed to its limits, creativity always prevails. Men and women elaborately decorate cubicles, make window gardens in city apartments and paint portraits on the head of a pin.
Another small and unlikely space for a masterpiece is the Facebook status update box—and Lou Beach has conquered it. In 420 Characters, Beach has compiled 169 very short stories, interspersed with original art as equally cryptic and intriguing as his stories. His novelettes are small enough to fit in a status box, but large enough to make an impression.
Beach’s stories are mini anecdotes, every piece equally amusing and startling. Some are about everyday events amplified until they’ve become significant, like the one about a dilapidated house only awoken by activity in winter, and only then by hungry birds. Some are hilarious, like the one about the man who couldn’t grow facial hair so he dated a woman who could in order to live vicariously. Several are downright creepy. But every story is surprising, never going the way readers expect.
Short fiction requires a writer to be minimalistic in the creative process, forcing him to polish and purge as much as he writes. In very short fiction, as in Beach’s case, this economic process is intensified. It’s easy to imagine Beach wearing out the backspace bar, agonizingover finding the exact wording that will convey every gram of hisintent. To write this way is a totally different challenge than creating a novel. But Beach pulls it off, and by doing so achieves the great advantage of short fiction: making it possible to experience a complete narrative in one sitting. Brevity is one of the reasons 420 Characters is so enjoyable. It can be read and re-read with no fear of losing one’s page when a new story begins and ends on every page.
Just as impressive as the size of his novelettes is the quality of his writing. One of the characteristics of great writing is subtlety, refraining from the urge to spell out every detail. Often the most powerful elements of a story are those left unwritten. In 420 Characters, the reader is allowed the privilege of discovering things for himself. Take, for example, Beach’s story about a man reading old letters and smelling the pressed flowers inside, disclosing that they smell more like campfire now. Readers are left wondering: Is he describing the scent, or something else? Did he burn them? Or has he spent so many nights reading old letters by campfires that all other smells have been defeated by fire smoke? ... Every idea is much bigger than the space 420 characters allows. It would seem easy to turn every story of Beach’s into a full-length novel, but Beach leaves it to the reader to carry on the story and become part of the process.
Has Beach started a new medium of bite-sized poetry/prose tailored forsocial networking? Time will tell, but whether it catches on or not, 420 Characters is an exciting read, and it’s refreshing to see something new done so well. Beach has proven he understands the power of a few well-chosen words in a culture that has little patience for them.
Liz Holbert is a librarian and a church secretary and writes at www.zildamarie.blogspot.com.
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