Reading OffCourse #38 has been a special pleasure for me. A handful of Flash Fictions. What are these, I wondered. Small fictions obviously. But nothing reveals its nature by size alone. A dust mite seen through a microscope produces nightmares of gnashing and impalement. So I went looking for a definition of Flash Fiction and landed—where else?—in Wikipedia. I was referred to several online articles, all appropriately short and all noting that Flash Fictions require concision, an unhelpful tautology. Obviously there must be many kinds of Flash Fictions. The kind that I am particularly interested in is exemplified by Daniel Gallik’s, “Metamorphic Love.”
A propos, a Flash Non-fiction of my own. Some years ago my wife and I lived in an old row house in downtown Albany, New York. The kitchen and breakfast room were on the ground floor. An old cupboard just off the kitchen began to smell bad. Mice. Not ordinary mice. Mice whose bodies were scarcely a inch long, urban mice bred to crawl through the tiniest faults in walls and floors. I got the smallest traps available and baited them with peanut butter. The mice ate the peanut butter without setting off the traps. I switched to cheese pressed very hard to the tripping mechanism. The mice ate the cheese without setting of the traps. I decided to read up on mouse-trapping.
On the web I discovered that mouse traps constitute a frequently used metaphor for advocates of intelligent design, because a mouse trap is a useful example of irreducibility, i.e., if any part is missing, the trap will not work. Much in the universe, the argument goes, cannot have come to us through evolution alone because realities much more complex than mousetraps must have all of their parts given them at once or they would have in their fractional inoperative state no reason for being. The intelligent designer of these instantly appearing complex entities is called God. So I prayed to the God of mousetraps. The mice continued to eat my baits with impunity.
I turned to Science. I learned from ethologists that mice use ultrasonic vocalizations in courtship. Eureka! If mice can “hear” above the level of humanly audible sound, then they must have been picking up vibratile emanations from the spring-loaded trap and thus were aware of just how hard they could lick peanut butter, cheese, suet, etc., without setting off the trap. An extra minim of trickery had to be employed. After I set the traps I put a tiny droplet of oil on the spring mechanism. Good, but the instant I touched the trap to position it, it snapped shut. I tried many times to steady my hands to achieve the required supra-delicate touch, all to no avail. The traps snapped shut. My hands began to quiver like those of an addict deprived of his supply. My wife issued an ultimatum.
I gave up on the traps and bought some of those horrid strips of gluey paper. The mouse steps on it and can’t get off. I decline to reveal my method for disposing of the stuck creatures.
You have already gotten the point. Gallik in “Metamorphic Love” has succeeded in doing with his version of a Flash Fiction what I failed to do with my mouse traps, despite their intelligent design and irreducibility. He has set a snare that even the most delicate literary sensibility cannot read/feed upon without being entrapped. Start with the first word of the title: metamorphic. I am accustomed to thinking of metamorphoses as irreversibly one directional: tadpole>frog, nymph> butterfly. Even in works of the imagination (Ovid, Kafka, etc.) the metamorphoses tend to be linear. Or if they are reversible (Mr. Hyde, the Wolfman), Spencer Tracy and Lon Chaney return to their better selves in the end. But Gallik has constructed a metamorphosis that is not only reversible but also unresolved.
In “Metamorphic Love” we immediately encounter a huge rock that has already begun its metamorphosis into a woman. The more-woman-than-rock we see at the end remains, though loved, paradoxically obdurate and changeable. This woman/rock metamorphosis is the overarching paradox of the piece, but not far under its surface is the equally arresting metamorphosis of the speaker/lover. What was in the beginning a forlorn inamarato becomes by the end himself stone-like, layered with feldspar, heated, igneous. These two metamorphoses—woman/stone, man/stone—are enriched by a third metamorphic exchange—a movement between exteriority to interiority. Does the speaker bury himself in the strata of the geologic woman or does he take her into himself (“why was she in me?”), or have they always been situated in this strange borderless interchange?
I had during my early readings of this piece been hoping that I might win my way to some essentialist revelation, some resting place, metamorphosis resolved , Meister Eckhart’s Iskeit, Gerard Manly Hopkin’s inscape, some ultimate guarantor of stable identity. But Gallik is a true postmodern. He promises us no end to change and exchange. But this condition is not tragic It is rather an accession to a perpetual dynamic, an endless shuttle among identities, an unstable love but for all that paradoxically rich.
So Gallik has set his trap, and we are enthralled. I’m still struggling to give an adequate account of the nature of “Metamorphic Love.” Recall my troublesome mousetraps, which were irreducible and irreversible. Gallik’s trap is very different: non-narrative, reducible (though I would mourn the loss of anything now in it), reversible, expanding by accretion and elaboration, contracting by self-contradictory erasures, but partial erasures like pentimentos deliberately left just under the surface image by a clever painter. There is, however, one characteristic that “Metamorphic Love” and my mousetraps share: the necessity of a tension so tautly strung that its emanations, ambient and powerful, cannot be easily defined. Which is to say that my analytical crude discursive language has neither snap nor adhesive to catch the wonderfully polysemous, protean language of “Metamorphic Love.”
Well, can I give a name, however provisional, to this subgenre of Flash Fiction? The name will have to signify a class larger than this one instance but sufficiently defined to catch only Flash Fictions that have a recognizable family resemblance. What about “Storyless Mobile?” None of the other Flash Fictions in OffCourse #38, as arresting as they all are, would fit into this subgenre. Narrative, though often fractured, plays too important a role. In any case, I leave it to others to do a taxonomy of Flash Fictions. I can’t do it. But this I know. “Metamorphic Love” will stand as a prime example of its kind.