Jordan A. Rothacker is author of the story collection Gristle: Weird Tales forthcoming March 2019 from Stalking Horse Press. In this essay he talks about his influences, especially Beckett’s Fizzles, and what is a fizzle and just how to read it.
When I was young, short stories were for me the best way to check out a new writer simply because they were short. I could get a taste of what that writer was about. I could read a handful of stories and get several tastes of that writer before I was ready to commit to reading a whole long novel. Almost every novelist whom I have grown to love, to be inspired by, to be someone I’ve considered a literary companion, began in the short form for me. Along the way I grew to cherish many of the stories unto themselves, not as some means to an end. Some writers I have continued to love especially for their short stories (like Nathaniel Hawthorne) and some gave over to being better represented by their novels (like John Steinbeck).
My abridged list of favorite short stories is:
- “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams” by Sylvia Plath
- “Last Respects” by Danilo Kiš
- “For Esme, with Love and Squalor” by J.D. Salinger
- “Murder in the Dark” by Margaret Atwood
- “Ethan Brand” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
- “The Nincompoop” by Anton Chekhov
- “Parker’s Back” by Flannery O’Connor
- “Spare Parts” by William T. Vollmann
Beyond these, there is a collection that stands out as a favorite and influential to me for its oddity and import: Fizzles by Samuel Beckett. I gave my own short story collection a similar name: Gristles. A carnivorous friend chastised me saying I’d “been a vegetarian too long, there is no such thing as gristles, it’s just gristle, like deer;” so I complied with her logic and dropped the s.
My Gristle is not like his Fizzles in form; why would I copy him? But to me they are similar in being snap shots of raw humanity. We are both concerned with “flesh in action” through short fiction, no matter how limited, minimal, or effective that action is.
Beckett wrote all his Fizzles in French (except #7, “Still”) and translated them himself into English. I have yet to read them in the French but the joy I would expect from such an experience would be in discovering more Fizzles, for these works in another language—like any translated work—would be wholly individual works unto themselves. There are seven Fizzles in the book (minus “Still”) and to imagine experiencing seven more in French is very exciting. My belief is that the true text exists in between Foirades and Fizzles, the untranslatable, unspeakable Absolute (as Roberto Calasso would say), not French nor English, but the idea at the heart of Beckett’s mind.
It was so freeing the first time I read Fizzles. Nothing happens! Barely any characterizations, no development, no plot, just banal actions described on the page with methodical detail… and they were beautiful. Prose poems, vignettes, flash fiction, micro fiction, so many terms to try to pigeonhole or quantify writing that is just what it is. Now this is writing, I wanted to scream while running through the halls of my college dormitory, a precocious literary Archimedes in a Eureka-moment of aesthetic epiphany.
As a nineteen year old, reading Fizzles made me feel weird. As a nineteen year old, loving Fizzles made me feel like a weirdo. Both feelings, like the text itself, were something I cherished and still do. All of the other favorite short stories mentioned above (except the Kiš and Vollmann) were first read around this same time of my life, late high school/early college. This was when I knew I was a writer, or wanted to be a writer, or was becoming a writer (a three-fold sense of self that I still experience with some anxiety). I have always loved reading but in my teen years reading for a pleasure unto itself started to carry a guilt that I was also reading to “get something out of it,” particularly an understanding of how to write. This ulterior motive made me feel like I was betraying the author or the text, that I was an opportunist. Soon enough I assuaged that guilt with maxims by both Picasso and Lautreamont about how essential theft or plagiarism is for an artist.
I got into Beckett through Joyce. Joyce was the GOAT, the literary hero of my teens and I thought, “if Joyce trusted this man with taking dictation on Finnegans Wake then he must be pretty great.” Luckily there was a lot of short fiction, very short fiction at that, to sample and get a taste for Beckett before moving on to a novel or play. So I stumbled upon Fizzles in a used store, the Grove edition paperback from the year of my birth, and shining with a bright but simple yellow cover.
What did I find within? I found fizzles: narrative moments subtly rising up in an agitated expression of life. I found Murphy (Fizzle #1), the eponymous hero of Beckett’s 1938 novel, groping his way slowly down a lane. I found comma splices working a contrast of images or ideas between clauses with rhythmic complexity. I found thoughtful, weighty sentence fragments. I found a man named Horn (Fizzle #2) having some of the same issues as Murphy. I found one long sentence, almost two pages in length (#4) with a pacing and action dictated by only commas. I found a nameless character moving change from one pocket to another as the whole action of a story. I found contracting and relaxing, rising and converging, ebbing and flowing, and language used so precisely that even through all the Beckettian negating it all felt true and real and whole. To read these texts I felt (and still feel) inside of them and outside of them at the same time, which is how the narrators—be they first or third person—felt/feel to me also as I read/reread them then/now.
I have never fully agreed with William S. Burroughs (one of my other great adolescent loves who will not let me go) that Beckett contributed more to literary innovation than Joyce, but at his best—like in Fizzle number 5—he comes so close. Where Fizzle number 4 flows like a river around rhythmic comma rocks, number 5 is a potential river clipped and controlled by constant final punctuation stops. It begins: “Closed place. All needed to be known for say is known. There is nothing but what is said. Beyond what is said there is nothing. What goes on in the arena is not said. Did it need to be known it would be. No interest. Not for imagining.” I abandon the river metaphor. This reads like storytelling in a flickering light. A David Lynchian fever dream. Realizations and revelations between blinks. Beyond the arena we get a ditch. Then towers of light. Then dry leaves. It reads like a travelogue of a damned and abandoned world told through snapshots of clarity. And it is truly beautiful. How is this not literature at its purest? How is Beckett wrong? With Fizzles I constantly learn how to write. Again. And again. With Fizzles I only read for pleasure. The pleasure is singular.
Cagibi Issue 6