by Tiff Holland
44 pp. Rose Metal Press. $12 (August, 2011).
Since 2007, Rose Metal Press has been running its annual Short Short Chapbook Contest, and by this point I take them on faith. The books themselves, as objects, are always great—small wonders of production and design. And the writers have been worth it. Through its contest, RMP has introduced readers to people like Claudia Smith, Sean Lovelace, and Mary Hamilton—all of them arguably masters of their art. Taken together, the Rose Metal contest winners are about as good of an introduction to contemporary short-short fiction as you could ask for.
So again, I buy this fifth annual chapbook no matter what, no matter who the writer is. But in this case it happens to be Tiff Holland. And I’m glad to report that her collection, Betty Superman, is a work of handsome complexity, which more than meets the Rose Metal standard.
The collection opens with “Dragon Lady,” one of my favorites of Holland’s. Here’s the opening of its second paragraph:
What she says: you look like a boy. Chest out! You read too much. Just a minute, can’t you see I’m on the phone? All girls who play sports are lesbians. Football players are a bunch of fanny patters. Oh, sit on my lap, you know you want to: you’re mommy’s little girl. Don’t frown, you’ll get wrinkles. You could be beautiful if you wanted to.
Though verb tense might indicate otherwise, this is first-person retrospective, and within it, Holland manages to pull off two very different effects: there’s a sense of the freedom and play of a memory at work; but also—as a function of the elision of the narrator’s responses and the fine, tight rhythms of the prose—we can appreciate the constructedness of the piece, its solidity as story and song.
Another early standout, “First Husband,” rests on an implication of trouble between mother and daughter (who take center stage in each of the Betty Superman shorts) but projects forward, at various distances, from the moment when the man who will be the narrator’s first husband arrives at the door with a handful of “grocery-store flowers.”
Though the shorts in the collection’s latter half are somewhat looser in their individual form, what Holland actually gives us contributes much to Betty Superman as a whole. Reading the collection, I found myself considering what some critics and scholars have dubbed the ”short-story cycle”: the book of linked stories, which is often seen in unfavorable comparison to the novel, as a sort of poor relation. Betty Superman is probably too short for readers to think to compare it to a novel. Such a comparison, though, might be interesting. Unlike many books of linked stories—which mimic, in their progression, the typical transformational arc of the novel—Betty Superman contains everything from the start. Between mother and daughter, there’s yearning, revulsion, intimacy, resentment, confession, secrecy, need. It’s all there, the whole rainbow, right from the first story. As we read on, different parts of it flicker.
Scott Garson is author of American Gymnopédies, a collection of microfictions. He edits Wigleaf.