by Monique Briones
The fun with flash fiction is that so many traditional storytelling elements can be absent and the work still makes for a complete piece. The forgone details are often unnecessary in leaving a threadbare-yet-unambiguous image or scene. In Ron Carlson’s The Blue Box: Flash Fiction & Poetry, however, the missing elements beg the question of what type of scene to even envision.
Rather than feeling robbed of a full story, the lack of explanation in many of the works allowed me to entertain a few fruitful possibilities in how to read Carlson’s flash fiction. I was never quite sure whether any given piece was supposed to place me inside a plot inspired by a Hollywood blockbuster, an adrenaline-pumping video game, or a vivid daydream.
The first story in the collection, “You Must Intercept the Blue Box before It Gets to the City,” is a second-person narrative in which the narrator tells the reader to “go after the box and make sure it does not reach the city….don’t be fooled by other blue boxes.” This list of specific commands goes on, and the sudden urgency in the narrator’s tone is immediately immersive and downright disorienting. How is this blue box moving towards the city? What will happen if the blue box reaches the city? How was I bequeathed with this arduous and possibly life-threatening task? Yet Carlson imposes this story right in the center of the action and expects the audience to roll with it. He isn’t asking for much, however, considering how hilarious and unpredictable his stories become.
Other flash pieces within the collection, such as “Dangerous Relics” and “When the Monster is Actively Moving toward You–How to Start the Car,” work under the same structure. Will these relics actually turn me into a dragon or am I playing a video game? Am I supposed to believe that a monster is actually chasing me or is this a nightmare? Once I got over the premise of some of these fantastical works, however, Carlson’s settings would take shape in much less adventure-driven ways, taking time away from blue box-chasing to remember that there are children in the city and that “some nights in the fall, the children run and call and kick the ball until the final whistle blows.”
It was unclear at first whether the point of view was meant to be the same throughout all the pieces–someone who spends his leisure time escaping from his normal life through other outlets, such as film or online gaming. There are also a number of stories with an academic leaning, creating parallels between the narrator of all the works and, well, Ron Carlson. Even if I didn’t know that Carlson is the UC Irvine Writing Program Director, there are a number of pieces that break up the fast-paced fantasy with more pedagogical forms, gesturing towards the point of view of a professor with an active imagination. “Recommendation for Gordon Lee Bunson,” “My True Style Guide,” and “My MOOC” all embody the same voice as the narrator of the more thrilling pieces, retaining the same sense of whimsy and humor throughout. “My MOOC,” in particular, bridges a professorial reality and a surreal one in which the narrator “asked if those in the back could hear me, [and] I took the one small fire I could see there on the horizon to signify that they could.”
Carlson’s free verse poetry fits into the same vein of his fiction in that his poems are thematized around sci-fi, fantasy, or academic settings. “Teaching Evaluation” and “My Favorite Martian” do not focus on lyricism so much as a twist in expectation. While only lacking in that these poems were not made to be read by poets and should be viewed as brief continuations of the collection’s overall motifs, The Blue Box’s poetry slows time down, punctuating small moments with quiet, endearing images.
Along with Carlson’s skill at the flash fiction form is the in-your-face air of self-awareness that many of these pieces have. This self-awareness is obvious in the plots of these pieces; Carlson’s usage of film cliches and gaming tropes allows the realization to sink in that there are not so many differences between the escapism of a movie than that of a book. In fact, the way that Carlson envisions action-thriller-type settings into textual pieces of fewer than a thousand words speaks towards how we’ve internalized such methods of leaving behind everyday life. I was so familiar with Carlson’s adventure sequences that I had no choice but to step back and analyze how the prose was working towards pre-established genre norms–all to force me to think about how I was reading to escape the duties and limitations of my own reality. Talk about the power of metafiction. “Walk-Bridge,” probably the most metafictional in the collection, emphasizes how the narrator’s writing takes shape in a present moment that mixes the potential of the real world with the temptation of a fantastical one. Carlson carries this message of living in a state of constant escapism across all of his pieces in The Blue Box, inviting us to do the same.