Review: Time. Wow
by Neil Clark
Back Patio Press, 2020 ($12.00)
When I learned the universe was going to give us a Neil Clark flash collection, I pressed the preorder button faster than a packet of photons screaming from the Sun. I first discovered Clark’s writing through his #vss365 tweets, which are tweet-sized pieces arising from a daily, single-word prompt. The results of his participation in the game are always smart and beautiful, often involving clever wordplay or a satisfying ending. What I connected with most—aside from the precise language and his industry to generate unique material—was the subject matter, the microscopic capsules almost always smacking of galaxies, nebulae, and stardust. As a lover of the short form and of all things cosmic, he quickly became one of my favorite new writers.
The stories in Clark’s debut collection, Time. Wow., have an impressive luster, as if they had been examined from every angle to properly execute the perfect diction, concision, and rhythm. Each story may leave you deep in thought or on the verge of an existential crisis—the good kind—where you are urged to contemplate what is important. The characters are relatable that way, making it impossible not to connect with them and engage immediately with their feelings (not an easy thing to do in such few words). The characters in his stories are introspective and compassionate, dealing with the mundane tasks we are all familiar with. But Clark gives the stories a fresh flavor that blends the banality with the celestial. For instance, in his micro “Sleeping with the Fishes,” a tenant is responsible for the loss of their bed after a black hole appears in the flat. As revenge on the landlord, the tenant hides a dead fish in the black hole to stink up the place for an eternity. Clark often introduces these mind-bending wrinkles into his work, giving it a fresh voice.
Since I started editing flash for Lily, I have learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t. I find that many other editors agree with my pet peeves, and it informs my own writing on what not to do. The thing is, I don’t like to say “never.” A very talented writer friend of mine wrote several stories that involved scenes that you’re not supposed to write, because she was interested in the challenge of making a wedding scene, for instance, work when it usually does not. I like writers who know how to bend the rules for success, because they understand the rules, and the product is often dazzling. It seems to me that one of flash’s no-no’s is to end with a twist or a punchline. Flash that wraps up too neatly in the end leaves nothing to resonate with the reader. However, there are always exceptions to the rule. Clark’s work consistently makes exceptions to the wrapped-up “rule” so often and so cleverly that I am always left in awe. The collection is balanced with both these types of spherical stories and with tesseracts: stories so open-ended—yet complete—that they leave you lost in wonder, haunted by them weeks later.
Another astonishing aspect of the collection is Clark’s bravery with experimental form. In the story “+0,” the narrator is alone at a wedding reception. The decisions the character makes, and their increasingly frantic voice, illustrate a raw rendering of what social anxiety is like. An expert on social anxiety could describe the complex sensation to a person who has never experienced it, yet never get the meaning across. But with brevity, Clark connects the reader with that feeling successfully in this piece.
When you order your copy of Time. Wow., prepare to experience time dilation and spaghettification as you dive into Neil Clark’s cosmic observations. Physicists warn that the tidal forces will destroy you during your journey into a black hole, but I’ve been through the wormhole, and I suggest you take the ride too. I promise you’ll never forget it.