Thursday, October 8, 2009

Great Flash Fiction: "The Wig" by Brady Udall

Brady Udall's story, "The Wig," originally appeared in the Summer 1994 issue of Story magazine; it’s now available as part of his Letting Loose the Hounds short story collection and is available for viewing at Google Books here.

I read "The Wig" back in the 1990s when it first appeared in the superb but now sadly defunct Story magazine. The story won the magazine’s annual Short Short Story competition. In announcing the contest results in that issue, editor Lois Rosenthal said, "'The Wig' by Brady Udall, the first-place winner, is what we were looking for, an exemplar of a short short story. In three hundred words, Udall’s deft tale of an enormous loss swiftly reduced most of our contest judges to tears."

This story, barely a printed page long, was probably the first flash/very short fiction story I read that blew me away and planted an early seed in my mind that one could write such works. Not only could you tell you a story in about one page, you could also tell a powerful one. Indeed, this story is one of the most powerful I’ve ever read of any length.

For me, “The Wig” still represents the gold standard of this form. The details in this are genuine. The opening shot of the child sitting at the table wearing a wig from the garbage is an odd and compelling image that pulls you into the story. Soon after, you learn the narrator is the father, as you learn about his ordeals tying a tie, and you can quickly deduce that the mother is absent. The father is in some sort of distress, then you get to the gist of it—the mother died in an accident, and the wig is reminiscent of her and the family of three that used to be. The child is aware of the absent mother, even if he doesn't say so, which is why you would figure he’s attached to the wig, wears it at the table, and doesn’t take it off. The father holding his son, smelling the wig, and the end moment of him imagining the three of them together again is what floored me and I’m sure many other readers.

Dissecting the work like I just did does it an injustice for appreciating its beauty. On a technical level, the combination of the opening sentence;the pacing of excellent, original details that establish characters and flesh out their situation;word economy that doesn't leave you feeling as if something's missing;and the unforced, heartbreaking conclusion are instructional in how to build a superb flash fiction piece (or any fiction story, really).

Flash fiction and its various iterations are wonderful in that they present various ways to go about telling a story, and some stories are told by untraditional narratives. Udall’s work, though, is fairly traditional in its telling. I’d say it’s deceivingly simplistic. 

While it's not necessary to reduce people to tears in flash fiction, as Rosenthal said about this work, it can't hurt to have this ability in reserve and use it occasionally to some degree.  If you can use it to the effect Udall does in this story, you will have accomplished something special.

2 comments:

  1. wow. thanks for turning me onto that read - a whale of a tale and all you said and more. textbook flash, that one.

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  2. Michael, glad you enjoyed it. Story magazine was a treasure of great contemporary fiction. Too bad it folded.

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