CALIFORNIA CONTINUUM, VOLUME 1: MIGRATIONS AND AMALGAMATIONS is “a nonlinear look at little discussed aspects of the history of California. Hier and Brantingham look as far back as California’s geologic past, fast forwarding to the age of the mastodons, then to the time when only Native Americans inhabited this land and finally to the present age.”
Review by Damhnait Monaghan
Last year at the Flash Fiction Festival, I attended a brilliant workshop on ‘Extraordinary Points of View’ led by American poets and flash fiction writers, John Brantingham and Grant Hier. My notes from their session contain many gems, including this tip for writing flash fiction: ‘cut straight to the character’s humanity.’
Brantingham and Hier have done just that in their recently published collection California Continuum (Pelekinesis, 2019). The characters in this collection are varied: a Japanese boy being sent to an internment camp; the daughter of a concentration camp survivor; gun crazy (and gun shy) boys; indigenous people of the distant past; and Mexican, Vietnamese, and other immigrants to California. Yet with all of them, we are taken right to the core of their thoughts and feelings.
For example, in ‘Nathanial’ a surgeon suffers a heart attack while driving alone on the freeway. Rather than panic, his thoughts (and ours) turn to Yessenia, his Mexican wife:
He thinks about the end of that first date, how he’d crossed into America and glanced back and saw her waving at him shyly, and he’d stood there a moment, his fingers laced in the chain link fence in front of that no-man’s land at the border. He had laughed for joy there for a moment, and then he had turned and gone home. He feels like he’s going to another border now to look across at her for a while, but maybe that’s too romantic a notion for a moment like this, but he’s always been a romantic and why not now too. He will ride his romance to the other side. He will wait there for her with his fingers laced through the fence, but he will not turn this time. He will not go home without her.
One of the writing prompts Brantingham and Hier shared in their workshop was to consider the history of an everyday object: all the people who have ever touched it. This prompt is employed with great effect in ‘For Those of You Who Don’t Understand, That’s What You Call Real Love.’ The story opens with a detailed explanation of the formation, manufacture, and transport of a red brick: “The iron oxide came from red veins in a cliff rimming a desert box canyon.” That same brick is then smashed into Reginald Denny’s head during the 1992 LA Riots. The attack, Denny’s rescue and rehabilitation, and his assailants’ subsequent trial is movingly recounted. The story ends on a hopeful note with Denny noting that no one checked the colour of the blood used in his transfusions, “but it was probably red.” For me, this reference to blood linked right back to the ‘red veins’ of that first sentence.
That circularity features throughout the collection. Characters appear and then reappear in subsequent stories, often at different times in their lives, strengthening our understanding of them. For example, in ‘Remember When We Get There, Honey…,’ an old man remembers a boyhood night spent alone in the woods after a doomed hunting trip with his father. Then ‘Lily Liver’ takes us back to the night when George’s botched shooting of a deer disgusts and enrages his father. In a third story, ‘Internal Injuries’, a deer crashes through the window of a house George shares with his wife, who suffers from dementia. The injured deer then escapes and George and his wife follow it to a nearby beach. When the deer enters the sea, a pair of lifeguards follow, prompting a young girl to shout that they are going to try and save it.
And with that the old man, whose eyes were lost along the line of the horizon, hears his own thin voice at fourteen years, crying out, “Let me go! I gotta save him!
This final line poignantly demonstrates how the memory of that fraught night has stayed with George his entire life.
There are almost seventy stories in this collection; it is impossible to comment on them all, but themes like migration, racism, war, and inter-cultural relationships are sympathetically examined.
he collection is also fascinating from a craft perspective. While each author has written their own introduction (enjoyable reads in and of themselves), the actual stories are uncredited. Intrigued, I contacted John Brantingham who described his and Hier’s collaborative process:
“We started out meeting at a local bar and just talking about what we wanted and the nature of flash fiction and what it could do. Then we started to write and bring pieces to each other. We’d change whole pages of each other’s text if we needed to cut out parts.”
Having witnessed the way these two riffed off each other in the workshop at the Flash Fiction Festival in 2018, I can see how this approach would work for them.
In his introduction, D A Waldie describes this collection as ‘enactments of connections and displacements through 13,000 years of California history.’ That historical canvas is as vast as the Mojave Desert, but Brantingham and Hier wield their paintbrushes with great skill and empathy to reveal the humanity at the heart of the diverse characters that inhabit the history of California.
Damhnait Monaghan was born and grew up in Canada but now lives in the U.K. Her flash fiction has won or been placed in several competitions and is widely published and anthologised in places like Mslexia, Ellipsis Zine, Fictive Dream, Jellyfish Review, and elsewhere. Her writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best Small Fictions, and Best Microfictions and her novel was short-listed for the Caledonia Novel Award in 2019. She’s a member of the editorial board for FlashBack Fiction, and tweets @Downith (which is how to pronounce her name. Her chapbook, The Neverlands was published in April, 2019 by V.Press.