The texts in David Gaffney's "The Half-Life of Songs" (Salt, 2010) though short, are clearly stories rather than belonging to a microgenre like anecdote or vignette - they have plots, locations, characters and usually a resolution. My favourite (and according to an interview in Flash Magazine, one of Gaffney's too) is "Remaking the Moon". Straight away with the initial words "Mason's house" we meet the story's only named character, and learn that it's his house rather than a home. Why is the protagonist's name Mason? Masons are makers of walls, but they're also a secretive society, and as we'll see, he's a loner. The house had "no borders of any kind ... so the local historians ... stared through his window at him". He decided to give the local historians something to stare at, playing to the audience. After years of this, someone knocked. Actually, it's a neighbour. Young. Female. Shy - 'No one has paused at my window for a long, long, time' she said. At his suggestion they assembled a jigsaw puzzle of the moon, making one of the onlooking historians happy - 'something had been added to him'. And there the story ends.
When there are fewer than 500 words to play with, inexperienced writers sometimes confuse writing Flash with playing the radio gameshow "Just a Minute", avoiding deviation, repetition or hesitation. In this piece though, the language isn't compressed - "eye" appears 4 times, and there are 6 uses of verbs to do with looking. Nevertheless every detail counts, often counting double, not only being interesting in itself, but also having structural and symbolic duties. Some provide humour - the scenes that Mason presents include lute playing, wrestling with a dummy and finally badger-stuffing. Other details are teasingly symbolic - the oglers "saunter off, trailing their fingers along his brickwork". Standard symbolism is exploited too - House (body), Window (eye, access), Moon (love, sadness), Jigsaw (solving) - but each is repurposed - the house isn't a home, the window is more for people to look in, the moon's a jigsaw, and all the jigsaw's pieces are the same.
Even the title's ready to mean more. It could be treated as a crossword clue - if you remake "the moon" you get "not home". But this isn't a simple puzzle story where readers tick off answers one by one. Why do all the jigsaw pieces look the same? Because then the jigsaw's easy to do? To emphasise that it's just a device they both exploit so that they can stay in each other's company? The historians "streamed" past on the way to sluice gates and flooded mines. Why all the water imagery? To illustrate two ways to deal with emotion - engineered control of the torrential versus subconscious stillness? I don't know. Part of the fun of the story is that there are aspects that don't quite fit, offering readers wiggle room. There's often a partial rationale - the taxidermist's plastic eyes littering the floor at the end contrast with all the earlier staring - but why do the couple make the jigsaw on the floor, kneeling amongst the sawdust and false eyes, rather than on a table?
I've not dealt with what to many readers is its the emotional armature. Gaffney says in the interview that this story's "about lonely people coming together and not really knowing what to do together, so they do a jigsaw". In a Guardian article he suggested that Flash writers should "place the denouement in the middle of the story", which is rather what happens here when the jigsaw comes out of the cupboard, but like the terrorist's 2nd bomb that goes off where crowds are fleeing from the 1st, there's another ending. In the same article he suggested that a Flash story's last line "should leave the reader with something which will continue to sound after the story has finished. It should not complete the story". Why did the final scene make that historian happy? Maybe most of the local historians thought that the jigsaw's just another piece of performance art put on for their entertainment. What did that one special historian lack? Something opposite to his role perhaps - something universal, forward-looking. The moon provides the universality, and the happiness of the couple bodes well for the future. Furthermore we're told the historian's "round-faced", a detail that can't be accidental. Perhaps he sees in the reconstructed moon his face reflected, entire.
Short though it is, the story doesn't seem lacking in any respect. It's defined by what's left out almost as much as by its contents. Nor have I by any means exhausted the piece. There's something for readers of various persuasions. And there are 54 other stories in the book.