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Arts, Sports & Culture

Pittsburgh Author Looks To 'Cut Through The Clutter' With Experimental (And Very Short) Stories

Courtesy of the author
Damian Dressick's debut story collection is "Fables of the Deconstruction."

In a world where international news is sometimes made 280 characters at a time, must fiction be shorter, too?

“Fables of the Deconstruction” (CLASH Books), Damian Dressick’s debut story collection, clocks in at 64 stories in 169 pages. The Slippery Rock resident is an exponent of flash fiction, or the very short story. Some entries are as brief as a paragraph, or even a couple of sentences.

“I guess I'd say our lives are overscheduled and our attention spans tend to be diminished, and we're constantly being bombarded by messages,” said Dressick. “So I think that that's sort of our psychological ecosystem. And what I think flash [fiction] does, particularly as being delivered through those mediums, is its bite size enough that you're not making these kind of large scale temporal commitments to a story.”

Flash fiction isn’t new, of course. Dressick, who studied at the University of Pittsburgh in the ’90s and has taught creative writing at Pitt and Clarion University, traces its roots back to vignettes Ernest Hemingway included in his own debut collection, “In Our Time.” Still, Dressick said, literary short stories before the rise of MTV were typically 5,000 words long; in the wake of the internet, and social media, the average dropped closer to 2,000 words, he said. Even by the 1990s, flash fiction was getting its own anthologies, and the genre has only grown more popular, especially in online journals.

Brevity alone, however, is not the soul of Dressick’s art. In the tradition of experimentalists like Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover, he explores new forms and sometimes surreal premises.

In “Fables,” stories take the form of parables, lists (“A User’s Guide to Bringing My Ex-Girlfriend to Orgasm”), annotations of Word documents (“Seven Against Tony”), a crowdfunding appeal to help someone named “Damian” live a greener lifestyle, and even a series of pie charts in which a man describes an ill-fated first date with “Laurel Wisenstein, Marketing Coordinator.”

In “Jesus in 42,” Jesus is a coal-miner; in “Will Take Paypal,” a man attempts to trade his friendship with a playwright for a “used boat in good condition.” “Another Night With Jim” is told (in the second person) from the point of view of a janitor whose co-worker is a grizzly bear addicted to methamphetamine.

Some of the shortest pieces feel more like prose poems than narratives, though there’s usually space to discern a narrative arc between the lines.

In our overstimulated culture, Dressick said, he’s just looking for ways to engage readers.

“I think it's incumbent upon anybody who works in the arts, whether it's a writer or a painter, to find a way in, to cut through the clutter, to give someone something that maybe sneaks up on them as a story or something that enchants or intrigues initially,” he said.