Tuesday
Nov272018

Today Is the Day That Will Matter

By Debra Di Blasi 


 

Black Scat Books
July 2018
9781732350649


Reviewed by Charles Holdefer


 

The importance of flash fiction and other "micro-forms" is incontrovertible, but trying to review a collection of such work is tricky, rather like staring at a strobe light. How do you do justice to both the parts (there are 120 pieces in Debra Di Blasi's new collection) and the whole? Is synthesis necessary, or is it beside the point? These questions are probably unanswerable, but Today Is the Day That Will Matter rewards the effort of trying to ask them.

Di Blasi, the author of seven previous books, subtitles this latest volume as "An Oral History of the New America: #Alternative Fictions." A short statement at the beginning announces that she spent "the last two socio-politically traumatic years" researching her fiction on social media, YouTube, and news sites, watching comedians like Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, and Stephen Colbert, and eavesdropping on conversations. 

All this would seem to promise something actual and ripped from the headlines – and indeed, pieces like "Filibuster," "Twitter Has Yet to Make a Profit," "What It's Come To, and Yet," and "Gun Rights" hold up a mirror to our moment. Di Blasi also frames texts as found objects in "I Lifted These Fine Words Straight from YouTube Comments" (parts one and two) or "Middle Shelf of Unpopular Romance Novels." Some texts appear, on the surface at least, to be mini-memoir, as in "Sam Shepard Died." Di Blasi's tone ranges from rueful to exasperated to angry. A piece called "Ripening" reads in its entirety: "I'd like to be nicer but it simply isn't possible at this time in my life."

This said, a substantial portion of the book explores territories that are less explicitly "news" and instead looks inward, to states of mind and imagination. These states just as "actual" as anything in the headlines, of course, but they are easily neglected in today's hurly-burly. Di Blasi quotes filmmaker Werner Herzog: "I am fascinated by the idea that our civilization is like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness." Today Is the Day dips into that deep ocean and spends time with some of its monsters.

"The Microcosm in Old Age" is a harrowing account about the indignities of extreme senescence. "Nothing to Report from Africa" captures the tragic sense of being morally connected but problematically ineffectual, and it does so in a manner that is all the more powerful for being un-preachy. "The Village of Manners" is a brilliant cocktail of speculative surrealistic anthropology. 

As these descriptions suggest, Di Blasi's interests are broad and idiosyncratic. While a few pieces in Today Is the Day seem to me cryptic or squib-like, many of them manage to evoke story arcs as broad as a novel's. Here is the complete text of "We Have Been Leading Parallel Lives":

My son went to college, took a PhD, and moved to Boston to teach biostatistics. Your son joined the army, served four years, then moved back home. Last week he got shot in a hunting accident. Today you took him off life support. I am writing you a wreath. 

The final allusion to the "wreath" is representative of the author's aesthetic impulse to create and preserve simultaneously. It's a heightened mode of paying attention to the world. This aesthetic is made even more explicit in the text called "Art," here quoted in its entirety: "Cherry pickers from this distance appear static under the fringed branches. Birds rise and school and return. We are a painting, we are."

Note the inclusive and participatory "We." Note also, in addition to the premise of this piece, its length, its pith. Writers like Sarah Manguso, in her collection 300 Arguments, have helped revive aphoristic forms. Di Blasi participates in this trend. 

Elsewhere, in longer pieces, such as "The Bone Chapel," she visits the power of myth:

The boy ducks under the rope and runs to the far wall and spreads his arms wide and turns his head to the left and presses his whole body against the bones. His mother stares at her smartphone, pretends she doesn't notice. Two visitors glower: One clears his throat and mumbles, "World's gone to hell in a handbasket," while the other takes a pic of the boy splayed against the wall, then walks to the docent and shows her the photo. The docent long-strides into the bone chapel and ducks under the rope and walks up to the boy and grabs him by his shirt collar and spins him around. "Do you know where these bones come from?" she asks, shaking him by the arms. "Do you? They're the bones of bad children like you, and some of them are broken."

This is the complete story, and it captures a history-haunted existence at many levels. The child is insouciant; the parent is distracted; the other visitors are conformist; the docent is coercive and mendacious. (Or wait: what if she isn't lying? What kind of place is this, really?) This much is certain: they all live with "The Bone Chapel." 

As do we, Di Blasi suggests, while asking: what next?

This far-ranging collection is smart, tart, provocative, and refreshingly uninterested in making nice. A capacious imagination at work in Today Is the Day That Will Matter asserts, with tenacity, the power of language to make and remake the world.