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“Run, run, run, run. You better run all day. And run all night.”: On Kim Chinquee’s Oh Baby.

There’s a lot of running in Oh Baby, Kim Chinquee’s debut collection of flash fictions and prose poems. The opening story, “Batter,” is an evocative cluster of images and moments, suggesting a pivotal time in the character’s childhood, where, in the midst of domestic ruptures, she imagines herself at bat: “The coach said I was bunting. I knew how. I was fast.” And in “Look What Sue Can Do,” a woman’s ex-husband is described as “the man she ran from.” In “Grace,” the narrator is tricked into climbing into a pen where she “saw a bull come charging, pumping his legs.” And then she “ran and jumped the fence.” “Shoe,” a poignant story of a woman ping-ponging between boyfriends, is filled with references to running. Not to mention “Olives and Fruits,” “Log,” “Purple,” and “Bunny,” all of which feature running. The titular story shows off some hallmarks of Chinquee’s style, namely, precise imagery, digressions, and close narration:

I took a jog, pushing on the stroller. My baby screamed, so I hushed him with a bottle. It was up and down, around, and fields were gold. Old buildings of stone reminded me of movies. Sheep baahed and I baahed back, pushing on the jogger. I was new to divorce. I could run far. I’d gone miles, finding Bourton-on-the-Water. I saw paved sidewalks, pubs. My baby woke, throwing out his bottle. Something banged. Things fell from the sky and he laughed.

The first sentence immediately conjures up a character, and his or her detachment. The next introduces some tension between the child and, presumably, his parent. The run, described simply as “up and down, around,” suggests a kind of fatigue, a phlegmatic surrender to routine. I like the rhyming of the third sentence’s last word “gold” with “Old,” the fourth sentence’s first, and, combined with the word “stone,” this chiming, this “oh, oh, oh,” suggests a kind of welling up. The narrator’s echoing the sheep is almost funny, but it’s really a perfunctory response, and therefore in keeping with the story’s mood. And then Chinquee drops the bomb: “I was new to divorce.” It’s a powerful and perfectly placed pivot that opens the story up, or, rather, rips it wide open.

The stories in Oh Baby are orchestrated to flow seamlessly into each other. There are direct but still unobtrusive connections, like how one story, “January Usual,” ends with the couple waiting for a repairman,” and the following story, “Needlestick,” begins with a woman waiting in an emergency room. “Slot Machine” ends with a woman getting “behind the wheel of a very nice car” and the next story, “We Were Ready for a Ballroom,” begins with a family driving away from their church. But there are other, more subtle connections, threads that are woven throughout: certain characters, though nameless, often return, and certain circumstances like the aforementioned running, and also working at a blood bank, life on a military base, life as a mother, recur, suggesting that these are linked stories.

Chinquee is much like the narrator of “History” who “penetrated people’s histories.” And she neither wastes nor minces words. In “Catch,” a character recalls going fishing and “catching nothing worth keeping.” The last sentence in “Wagon” is devastating: “We added to the whole pile, ridding ourselves.” There are the unfortunate rabbits that “thumped and did a bump-bump-bump” in “Bunny.” (Such assonantal and alliterative glee brings to mind the famed line in Wallace Steven’s “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman”: “Such tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk”.) And there’s the zinger in “Zelda”: “She was blonde and infomercial.” Chinquee’s sentences sometimes seem lit from within, evanescent like watercolor swatches fading in the sunlight; there is a grace and a precision to these lines. It’s a testament to Chinquee’s facility that though her stories pare away all the stuff and fluff what’s left isn’t a cold bony thing, but something raw and fleshy, something observably human.

Chinquee’s short shorts and prose poems are mercurial miniatures: they quickly shift from place to thought, image to dialogue. Her stories are like those of the character in “Tracks” whose “stories went on, went on, becoming more haunting and disastrous, faster in their tracks.” And though most of these stories are about parenting or working in a blood bank, about running, about people on the mend, skeletons in the closet, and elephants in the room, there is at least one story that completely flips the script: Check out “Wig” and you’ll see what I mean.

15 thoughts on ““Run, run, run, run. You better run all day. And run all night.”: On Kim Chinquee’s Oh Baby.

  1. Purely coincidentally I had just finished reading Chinquee’s book moments before seeing your review John. Your comments are spot on. I can only marvel at the work of refining and polishing of every word and phrase that must go into creating such pithy gems. Terrific stuff!

  2. Kim’s stories put me in mind of dream, and nightmare, and scarily enough, brilliant-color now it’s happening, now it’s gone reality. *Oh Baby* indeed.

    1. You know, I went to see Lydia Davis tonight with Greg, and while she is certainly a master of the tightly wound, evocative miniature, I kept thinking about how other writers, like Kim, need some more shine.

  3. It’s true. Time does tell. Meanwhile we do what we can to help it tell. Lucky you! Lydia David introduced me to a world I didn’t know existed. She should wear a big ol’ *W* on her chest.

    1. Much obliged, Joseph. I was talking with Greg about how there’s a kind of irksome stylistic anonymity found in the work of writers of micros, short shorts, and whatnot. I’d imagine that the percentage is not greater than what you’d find in longer works, but I think the ever proliferating amount of these shorts, the here-today-gone-tomorrow, flash in the pan flash fiction websites, perhaps, makes it all the more apparent. So within this climate it’s always inspiring to find a distinctive voice like Kim’s, like Davis’s, like yours.

      1. i’m always amazed by whatever magic that is that allows one person’s work to stand up against the others’. it can use 95% the same materials, 95% the same style even, but that 5%, whatever it is, some kind of communication between the parts, some interspatial energy, is all the difference. i wouldn’t claim i have it, but it smacks me in the head when i see it.

    1. Most micros are banal, have nothing to distinguish them from countless others. It’s the new haiku. Like haiku, which, on the surface, has learnable “parameters,” the flash/micro/short short invites so much mediocrity. As I said before, in terms of percentages, there’s probably not a greater amount of bad work to good, but the sheer amount of it I’ve encountered makes it ever more harder to find the good ones. Finding a great book/story is like finding a needle in a haystack, but finding a great micro is like finding a button on a beach.

      So we are lucky to have people like Kim Chinquee, Diane Williams, Lydia Davis, Gary Lutz, and Joseph Young (and others); all have an identity, a signature, and offer work that demonstrates how vital the form is, and how difficult it is to master.

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