Long Stories Cut Short by Frederick Luis Aldama. University of Arizona Press. xvi-192. $19.95 (Paper)
Review by Christopher González
There is a famous character in the Marvel Comics universe named Galactus–a god-like being who must feed on entire planets to satiate his hunger, irrespective of the beings who may happen to be living there. Junot Díaz features a quote by Galactus as an epigraph to his novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: “Of what import are brief, nameless lives…to Galactus??” The words of Galactus strike to the heart of the tragedy and chaos that arises when terrible things happen to good people. When lives are cast into oblivion with seeming impunity, it is the job of storytelling to give those lives the full weight of their meaning.
Frederick Luis Aldama, setting aside his scholar’s tam, gives voice to both his imagination and brief lives in Long Stories Cut Short–a thrill ride of micronarrative firecrackers in the tradition of the Honduran-Guatamalan master of the form, Augusto Monterroso. The idea of the short, short story form derives its power from its ability (in the right hands) to provide just a kernel of a larger narrative that has the potential to flourish within the mind of the reader. The micronarrative form is a tiny container for something explosive; it is a repository for potential narrative energy that may be unleashed within the imagination of willing readers.
But don’t be fooled. It takes a tremendous level of imaginative ability to meet Aldama at the precipice of the nameless fictional lives who, both in form and in fiction, find themselves cut short at many levels. These characters reside in what are often the darker places of the world that people don’t discuss in polite company but exist nonetheless. Analogues to Aldama’s characters can be found in the exploitation of migrant labor, the xenophobia that labels humans as “illegal” and “alien,” the demagoguery that casts Mexicans as murderers and rapists, and more. These long-held traditions of conjuring Latinos as caricatures and stereotypes is another form of cutting short nameless brown lives, one Aldama works hard to thwart and recast in his book of micronarratives.
Long Stories Cut Short reads like an invitation from a trickster figure, as if a playful conductor were giving you deliberate doses of a larger tapestry, one that can only be fully understood within the ever-expanding canvas that is the readers’ capacity to imagine, create, and believe that what they are reading has a greater significance to their understanding of the world. The book works like a paradox, challenging the reader with a great many constraints while simultaneously reaching out to a wide audience. And the book works as a metonym for a life lived, beginning with germinal, one-line narratives, then working through cut stories of childhood, middle years, and old age. Or, as Aldama structures the book, “Prelude,” “Beginnings,” “Middles,” and “Ends.”
Unlike the vast majority of Latina/o writers who write primarily in English, Aldama insists on counterposing his flash fictions in English and in Spanish alike. Like Tomás Rivera in his pathbreaking …y no se lo tragó la tierra, which also used the bilingual format in the presentation of his short stories, Aldama desires no mere translations of his micronarratives. Rather, he seems to invite the kind of reader who can move fluidly between the English and Spanish versions he has written. Each version is presented as primary and not secondary; the stories are to be thought of as fraternal twins rather than original and simulacrum. It is a daring decision to write and publish stories about Latinos in this fashion, for it risks alienating certain readers who may have more rigid expectations of what a story written by a Latino, about Latinos, ought to look like.
Not to be limited by bilingual opportunities, Aldama has also enlisted Chilean comics writer Fernando de Peña and artist Rodrigo Vargas of Mapeche Studios to help provide further pieces to the narrative puzzle that is Long Stories Cut Short. Their stark, single-panel cartoon art echo the sentiment of longer stories whose comprehensive nature must be intuited and divined from singular, koan-like bits of storytelling. These panels are not illustrations of the stories, just as the bilingual versions of the stories are not simply translations. The comic panels provide a multimedia texture to the characters that populate Long Stories Cut Short, while suggesting the greater canvas that is necessary in the imagination of the reader.
The idea of something that is “cut short” suggests to me not only drama, but tragedy. When we hear of someone whose life was “cut short,” we prepare to give words of comfort and brace ourselves for the agony that comes from someone who was robbed of the opportunity to enjoy that most precious resource, life. However, don’t mistake the concept of something that is “cut short” with a “short cut,” which implies an easier, faster, and in some instances, lazier way. Just as in lyric poetry, Aldama’s micronarratives and Mapeche’s comic art should compel the reader to slow down, to take stock, to soak in the coalescence of author narrative and reader imagination. Long Stories Cut Short is not a book to be rushed or hurried. Its very title is a request to give of your own time to contemplate both what it presents and what it leaves out.
Many of the stories center on the ideas of the body and the mind, of corporeality and evanescence. The child being born. The woman giving birth. The abuse from chemical dependency. The trauma from encounters with police. The despondency that results from illness or incarceration that are each forms of a final destination. Aldama presents the reader with just enough incendiary narrative material for the bonfire of our imaginations. Take care: the resulting fire will burn long and hot in the minds of the readers if they are up to the challenge.
Galactus’ quote indicates he cannot be bothered to contemplate the real consequences of his actions, that the ethical dimensions of certain individuals are considered worthless. But the sentiments of the fictional Galactus manifest in the rhetoric of dictators both near and far, which is the greatest danger of all. Aldama seems to posit that we cannot comprehend nor appreciate grandeur or the sublime without a serious consideration of those whose voices are so frequently muted in our society. By giving his readers just the right amount of narrative building blocks, Aldama presents readers of Long Stories Cut Short the opportunity to intimately imagine a community whose stories, ironically, are so often cut short in our society, or are ignored altogether.
Christopher González is assistant professor of English at Texas A&M University-Commerce. His research and teaching focus on twentieth- and twenty-first century Latino literature, film, and comics. González is the author of Reading Junot Díaz (2015), and co-editor of Graphic Borders: Latino Comics Past, Present, and Future (2016). His book, Narrative Permissibility: The Promise of Latino/a Literature will be published by the Ohio State University Press in 2017.