Those of us who follow the literary adventures of M.L. Kennedy are accustomed to the brisk tempo, the brashly supernatural, the self-deprecating wit. 100 by 100 mixes it up some. Not in the sense that these characteristic signatures of Kennedy’s writing aren’t there – they are – but they aren’t what most captures a reader’s attention.
Flash fiction has enjoyed something of a vogue in the last few years; it is uniquely suited to mobile devices and social media, it is something that can be enjoyed from the subway or the bus (or the toilet), and (importantly) it is something quickly and easily produced by freelance writers and starving artists squeezed by their ever-accelerating hustle. So there is nothing particularly unique or surprising about a collection of flash fiction in 2016.
100 by 100 is something beyond a mere collection, however. By conforming rigidly to the numerical demands of his gimmick – exactly 100 stories each told in exactly 100 words – within his usual oeuvre (aliens, vampires, and monsters) Kennedy has come up with something that reads more like a chapbook of irreverent sestinas and villanelles, or perhaps a collection of riddles. These pieces are always calling attention to their structure and that leads a careful reader to some inescapable observations.
For example, in a collection of short pieces dominated by an unyielding conceit, the structure and the subject cannot avoid confronting one another. One of the most common flourishes — twist endings that sometimes have the effect of a cinematic jump scare — in repetition take on a twofold purpose. In terms of structure, you get the sense that the characters are being manipulated by an omnipotent force who is trying to wrap things up quickly, and cannot be troubled by pages of dialogue or slow-building tension. This amoral God is just as likely to leave his creations (maybe literally) dangling off a cliff than to grant them any sort of closure. Thus, flash fiction in this sense isn’t just “brief” fiction; we might additionally call it self-aware, unstable, and chaotic.
And surreal. In some of my favorite pieces, the effect of these “last sentence inversions” isn’t so much a jump-scare as it takes the form of a riddle (“what the hell was that supposed to mean?”) or a reflection on the absurdity of our existence (“does that even mean anything at all?”).
I don’t think it would be accurate to say that this can be distilled to anything so tidy as a moral… like timeless koans, many of these pieces, steeped in jokes, parodied cliches, and pop culture allusion, lack a single, simple conclusion but rather call attention to a specific paradox. If a print edition becomes available, I could see myself carrying it past the fiction and poetry altogether and shelving it with the Sudoku and game theory.
None of this is meant to be a slight on the collection, by the way. Flash fiction is designed so that you can consume it during a two-minute bathroom break. The best flash fiction will keep you scratching your head for much longer than it takes you to actually read.