“Book Review: Tired People Seeing America”
Reviewed by Nathaniel Drenner
A flash fiction collection evoking original and haunting depictions of contemporary alienation
I have a love-hate relationship with flash fiction. Individually, at their best, flash stories can be sublime: razor-sharp glimpses into worlds not my own, poetry in prose. But a whole book of flash fiction? All those tiny windows piling up that I can only squint through? When I sit down to read a book, to immerse myself in a world, I would surely tire of it quickly.
So I thought. Claire Hopple’s Tired People Seeing America is not tiny or limited. The collection as a whole is flash writ(ten) large: a breeze to read, it lingers purposefully incomplete yet fully satisfying.
This compilation of 17 stories is filled with characters who ache—ache with loneliness. Like the subject of an Edward Hopper painting, Hopple’s tired people live with mute resignation in a world of stark beauty. They want something more out of life, but they don’t always know what that something is or what to do about its absence. For them, life is exhausting to figure out, so they often take refuge in that ache.
“She screamed often, not with her voice but with the slamming of cabinet doors.”
Thankfully, the stories are anything but exhausting for us, their observers. Hopple’s prose is plain but layered. Her talent comes in elevating the mundane, often by combining situations in unexpected ways. For just a few: A historical interpreter works with a wannabe magician and copes with a reclusive father. A divorcee has a problem with squirrels invading his home. A zookeeper quits her job to squat in a house that may or may not be abandoned.
Within these lives, ordinary moments magically coalesce into a coherent whole. In one story, the protagonist contemplates adopting a pet turtle—and suddenly we have learned volumes about his internal life. In another, something as simple as a glance resonates with meaning.
“Even these days, he would take his glasses off and Louise found that looking at his actual eyeballs would be this very personal thing. He would seem naked in a way that was more naked than nakedness, and she couldn’t look at him but also couldn’t not look at him.”
Some images, like the buzz of electric power lines or a thumbprint on a forehead, echo from one story to another. These are not interrelated texts, but each lonely protagonist might reach out to others in the surrounding stories, if only they could bridge the blank pages between. If only they would really want to.
If all that sounds overly depressing, it’s not. Hopple’s tone, deceptively straightforward, does not wallow. There is absurdity. There is irony and wry humor, not so much a wink to the audience but rather a knowing nod. At times the author toys with perspective, a rewarding change in pace. For characters who are detached and, well, tired, the voice is appropriate. The short form is as well. None of these characters would let an outsider into their lives for the length of a novel. And we can sympathize with their need for distance.
“People say ‘your truth’ or ‘my truth’ but it seems less like there are multiple truths and more like there are multiple realities. They can’t contradict each other because they don’t occur at the same time but replace one another, shifting into focus only when the previous reality abruptly dissolves.”
Like any collection, some stories are better than others. There were some where I couldn’t fully resolve the details into a whole—and maybe I wasn’t supposed to. There were others where I wanted more closure. But there were many stories so powerful I had to put the book down to let the moment breathe.
Hopple reminds us of the life we still have, even when we are worn out, even when we are lost and confused. The title of the opening story—“This is Gonna Be Good”—couldn’t be any more prescient. You’re gonna be glad you read this book.
Publisher: Dostoyevsky Wannabe
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