These stories started life as Lou Beach’s Facebook updates (Facebook limits updates to 420 characters, thus the name). I was initially skeptical of this project since social media rarely lends itself to art creation. But 420 Characters has festooned itself in blurbs from many great writers, including George Saunders, and secured the talents of Jeff Bridges and Ian McShane to read some of the stories—so the scales tipped back the other way and I bought the book.
The second thing you see, when starting this book (the first being the odd, wolf-bird half-dust jacket pictured) is an author’s note. It reads:
The stories you are about to encounter were written as status updates on a large social networking site. These updates were limited to 420 characters, including letters, spaces, and punctuation. The author hopes you enjoy them.
This note teems with bad omens. There’s the disinclination to name Facebook as the “large social networking site” in question. There’s the irrelevant definition of a character. There’s the author’s bald, plaintive hope that you enjoy his work, a plea I’ve never read in any book I’ve actually enjoyed.
But most troublingly, there’s the implication that these stories were not edited or polished or changed in any way. They did not simply “start out” on Facebook, as I had initially assumed, they “were written” there, and there’s no indication that they’ve been touched since. Frankly, it shows. Beach has talent (more as an illustrator than a writer), but these stories are too often (at least half the time) exactly what you fear they will be—i.e., tossed off college-level writing exercises, without drama or meaning.
To be fair, Beach’s good stories are quite good, especially when they revolve around events, actual things occurring, but do not descend into shouting their messages at you. This is one of my favorites:
I am exploring in the Bones, formations of caves interspersed with rock basins open to the sky. I hear a sound like a turbine as I exit a cave and approach the light ahead. I’m sure it’s a waterfall. What I encounter is a massive beehive, honeycomb several stories high, millions of bees. I crouch down to avoid detection and notice a shift in the tone of the hive’s collective drone. I turn around and see the bear.
I’m certainly no expert on the short-short form, but I like the ones that only attempt to suspend a dramatic instant in a few words of amber.
I don’t like the ones that read like Beach ran out of ideas and crapped something out, like this meaningless image:
Thousands of starlings pulled the locomotive through the sky swollen, the color of new bruises. Above Lake Erie they faltered and fell, cracked against the frozen gray water. The great black engine listed and plunged headfirst, berserk icebreaker, past startled pike, cowcatcher impaled in silt, underwater obelisk, smoke-filled bubbles.
There are a few writers in the world who can make simple, meaningless, surreal images into compelling little pieces of art. Lou Beach is not one of those writers. He is one of the ones who comes off sounding like a drunk MFA student scrawling his homework on the back of a bar napkin at 1 AM.
That poorly executed page highlights the ill conception of the entire project. For contrast, take Machine Man, a similar social network writing experiment, but a rampant success (and one of my favorite books of the year). Max Barry wrote Machine Man in page-a-day blog entries, and responded to (and sometimes incorporated) feedback from readers as he went along.
The difference is, after Barry was done with the social media part, he heavily revised and edited the entries, until they fit together and made sense and were good.
If a drunk MFA student had written that train/starling short short, he’d sooner or later stumble back across it and be embarrassed and wonder how it ever was he thought it was a good idea. Beach decided to skip the editing process, and so these wildly variant and often quite bad short-shorts have actually been officially published somehow. Sure, they’re pretty poetic for Facebook entries, but “poetic for Facebook” is a low bar to clear. I believe sooner or later Beach is going to stumble back across some of these and get really, really embarrassed. Here’s a preview.
However, Beach’s website is worth checking out, because a lot of the peripherals, like his excellent artwork and the outstanding readings of a handful of these puppies, are better than the stories themselves.
Similar books: The Age of Wire and String, by Ben Marcus (it’s quite a bit better)