If there is a table at which the best writers of flash fiction should be seated, Marcus Speh deserves a chair – with his name on it.
In four short years Speh has gone from obscure internet ego Finnegan Flaunt to nearly a household name, at least among the three thousand or so writers competing for that tight little club listed on Duotrope, championed by small presses, and swirling in constant motion among the blogs and posts and coffee house readings we find out there these days.
It’s an exciting time, a world without agents, where anyone with the will and imagination can start a literary magazine. That said, the truth will out, it always does, and someday flash fiction will not be so cutting edge, some other literary blade will be forged, then student’s will study and teachers will teach and the old ones will remember when. With the publication of his first collection, “Thank You For Your Sperm”, Speh is helping to launch this genre into the main stream. Someday, names will have to be named, founders have to be found. I think this collection may be one of those.
That Speh is a native German writing in English and teaching Engineering at a Berlin University isn’t cause enough, throw in the absence of any formal literary training and a style that (dare I say it) reminds me of Joyce and you have a hell of a surprise: great writing and storytelling. The humor is irresistible; you’re an insider even before the end of the first paragraph. The use of language, the well-disguised alliteration (so hard to do right), even the penis jokes: all of it flows and feels essential. Take this description of a character’s face from “A Welsh Wedding”:
“…tall as a larch, large head spiked with black hair, deeply set yellow eyes the size of small oysters and secret as mussels behind long lashes, some gone white already from heavy dreaming, some rainbow-colored, making the upper part of his face sparkle in the right light, his cheekbone indicating an inclination to dominate and brood.”
I plotzed, as one of my Jewish friends likes to say – “secret as mussels” – what does that mean? Well, it means precisely what is meant. Much of the collection is like that; as if we are almost there, almost come to an understanding, but not quite, not until the last sentence, and sometimes not even then, yet the payoff has somehow occurred. We move on to the next story, anxious to be surprised yet again. At the risk of being old fashioned, this book is entertaining, good, solid stories with an edge.
And then there’s the fact that he’s lived. This isn’t some clever man in a tower reinventing read-about lives. He’s loved, been loved, knows the streets, jumped out of airplanes with weapons strapped to his back, even vacationed in rural Texas, for Christ’s sake. He imagines Christmas in twenty-two time zones (my favorite device in the collection) and the very fact of the title story being my least favorite only makes perfect sense (to me) that ‘I’m sure those who actually do like the title story will no doubt think less of the stories to which I was drawn. The book has a broad appeal.
Speh takes risks and they pay off. Witness the final scene in “Berlin Pastoral”, where the main character, a woman who used to live year round outdoors on an apartment balcony with two other men is now a young mother living across that same street on yet another balcony, having been evicted from the first by a Russian arms dealer:
“When they are hungry, Susi shoots a pigeon, and Baby practices signaling with his new gang of heavily armed infants: next week, they’ll rob a second-hand clothing store, just for practice.”
Of course they will, in today’s world it isn’t that far a stretch, perhaps it’s already been done. Just last week (in our current reality) a five year old shot a two year old because the box top said he could. Speh understands – the absurd, not-so-absurd world in which we are living these days. Kafka wanders in and out of these stories. Other influences, like Dostoyevsky, keep them real.
Contrast another story, “In the Nude” where the ending couldn’t be simpler, exactly what is required. It chronicles an early love affair lived in southern Italy, a place with hot, moist, airless evenings. This is one of those subtler pieces that smack of an author’s life having been well lived. Want to test a relationship – change the scenery. Some things go on; others don’t. The words are inevitable:
“Later we lived in the North. We kept the windows open and the curtains drawn and we slept in pajamas. This is where we lived before we split up. Which is where one thing ended and another began.”
Hem would have been proud.
I could go on but feel the word “Spoiler” being whispered. In conclusion, I offer all the usual praise: no words wasted; unique and wonderful characterization, no gratuitous action or shock for shock’s sake; nothing but excellent craft and imagination. But here (and well I know) comes my finest recommendation – whether writer, student, teacher or simply that gentle reader – you will find yourself picking this book up again and again, flipping the pages, searching for a sentence or phrase where Speh said it so well, or that story you didn’t quite get, that character you want to revisit – how did he put it? – different for everyone. Somehow, it seems, he said it with you there in the room.
The beauty, for me, of Marcus Speh’s “Three Berg Passages: a Triptych” is that it doesn’t altogether make sense. It’s a trio of disjointed, isolated pieces. I spent quite some time reading and re-reading them, trying to find some links between them, and I don’t see one. Maybe there is and I just don’t see it. Maybe I’m just not that smart. I don’t really care. The joy, for me, in this kind of writing is in the odd, subtle absurdity of it all. Am I meant to find these stories funny? Because I do. But I find Kafka hilarious. Maybe there’s something wrong with me.
There is, of course, another kind of beauty – the beauty of the language. Speh’s writing is, for the most part, terse, precise and minimal. But when the desire takes him, he unleashes wonderful flourishes, such as “This hallucination, too, was part of his father’s heritage, as were the stark fishtail blue eyes and the fine, sensitive hair on the back of his hands. They had to make up for this distorted vision of half of humanity.” I imagine him like some kind of wordsmith boxer, hopping from foot to foot with deliberate ease, only to suddenly let loose a flurry of blows that leave you gasping.
My favourite piece is probably the last in the three,“Passages”, in which a boy pulls a horrible face and then reaches down into his own stomach to pull out a magic ring, only for the assembled crowds of people to be thoroughly disappointed when the boy cannot tell them if the ring is special or even what it does. This to me feels like a pointed critique at aspects of the society we live in now, where it is the end result that is interesting, magical; it is instant celebrity. Hard work, the effort, the path to that goal is unimpressive — “Anybody can find a ring”.
“Since I’m pretty new to the scene, I have the pleasure of constantly discovering new writers—new to me, if known to many others. After reading Finnegan Flawnt’s piece, ‘Rites of Spring,’ in the current issue of > kill author, I’ve already added his name to the growing mental list I keep of writers to watch for.
The story is as wild and cyclical and organic as the title would suggest. Boundaries between animal and human, self and other, body and dream, writer and world shift and merge and occasionally dissolve altogether. This willingness to follow an idea to the outer limits is established almost immediately:
‘He noticed a short, strong white hair from his beard on his tongue and decided to not take it out but see what would happen. A moment later, a tiny bear emerged from the cave of his mouth, grabbed the hair and pulled it on his lap to play with it.’
We know already after reading this that the story, the narrator, will follow their own logic, will lead us into a fabulous new place. And they do. It’s a wild place, where one’s own body cannot be trusted, where a storm can be raised in a palm, a penis is also the devil’s canvas, wings can be written, and eggs resemble Chinese policemen. It’s a place I recommend you visit right now, if you haven’t already. And make sure you listen as well as read—this writer just happens to have a voice as wild and enchanting as his stories.”
By the time Marcus Speh’s story “The Serious Writer® and His Penis” appeared here at Metazen, it had already stirred reactions across the board with the good folks at Fictionaut, Jurgen Fauth’s online community of “adventurous readers and writers.”
To date, the story, written and published originally under Speh’s pseudonym, Finnegan Flawnt, is among the highest recommended at Fictionaut with 524 views, 44 comments and 19 starred reviews or faves, as they are referred to at the Naut.
These are the numbers. Now, the legend.
Part of a series of “Serious Writer” stories Speh makes available to readers, it also inspired a number of other “Serious Writer” stories from fellow writers, most notably Meg Pokrass’s “The Serious Writer and Her Pussy.” As Speh himself mentions, Pokrass’s story surpassed his own after a certain point in respect to exposure.
The draw? A number of things, I believe, not the least of which was Speh’s success in fusing a serious viewpoint on a subject universally of interest, then the added humor that turned the story back on itself and avoided what could have been certain pitfalls in Speh’s overall purpose, and then, of course, the now well-known fact that Speh embarked on the story from a challenge, essentially a prompt, issued from Gary Percesepe at the Naut. Percesepe tossed out this question: “Ok, will somebody please write a story about this poor guy with the fourteen inch penis who cannot find work?”
Speh answered the call, sitting down, I imagine with a smile, and jotting down that opening sentence: “The serious writer has never measured the length of his penis.” What followed was a story that addressed at once the age old question of how much does size matter and in what context with Speh’s signature ability to enlist humor as a tool in crafting that philosophical exploration. As he said it talking about the story himself, Speh said it best: “I think few things are funnier than genitals – no matter from which viewpoint – there’s nothing sexier than shared humor and I’m a sucker for humor in the bedroom and beyond.”
Literary voyeurism, says Metazen. Well, this is the pinnacle.
We watch the Serious Writer. We watch him closely. We have seen him mourn his hamster; we have seen him [almost] tap out a first novel; we have seen him choose a rental flick to watch at home. We see him move about his life, shuffling from room to room, doing human things.
And so when we see the Serious Writer’s penis, it’s not an unsound thing, because he is already known to us intimately, his unabashed human-ness well established. It is the natural next step in our relationship, talking about what women talk about when they talk about SW’s penis. He doesn’t whip it out to shock: it is a philosophical jaunt, a wink, rather than an ostentatious PG-17 rumble.
Speaking of rumble, here come the Serious Writer’s women: A., his honest reader; B., the horticulturist; C., the writer; and D., the good-humored existentialist. This is where it gets meta. They get to read the story within the story—the knob set before them. They analyze it, feel it, review it. This is body-as-text at its cheekiest.
Like any sample of readers, they have different perspectives of the “text.” “You’re huge,” says A. “Don’t show it to me,” says B. “It seems a little small,” says C. Meanwhile, the Serious Writer’s sense of self shifts a little with each evaluation—just enough to reinforce his human vulnerability, but not enough to dent our trust in his narration. The Serious Writer, in his mid-life wisdom, understands that his penis’s “size and form depend entirely on the woman.” And so, as in hearing any critique, enjoying the uplift is nearly as perilous as mulling over the comedown.
But along comes D., who tickles the Serious Writer’s funny bone with a paraphrase of Nietzsche: “Only strong personalities can endure such size, the weak ones are extinguished by it.” And—bam!—the playful story turns more Serious than we expected. We become philosophers. What was the real Nietzsche quote again? Is the strong personality supposed to be the owner of the cock or its beneficiary? It is all as simple as endurance versus extinguishment?
For hard-ons and stories, the answer for a lot of us is yes. In the end, the Serious Writer does endure, thanks to D.’s quick wit, thanks to D. “getting” him, thanks to D. receiving him with humor and generosity of spirit. Good humor is the strongest aphrodisiac, and because of it, he can keep going. He can give us more where that came from. On writes the Serious Writer; on goes his exposure, his private undressing. On goes our gaze and our lust for more.
We root for the story. We root for the root.
See also: “Happy Bloomsday Finnegan Flawnt… A Goodbye. A Primer. Bow.” (Metazen Blog, 06/2010) … with tributes by Frank Hinton, Drew Parker, Sheldon Lee Compton, Heather Vaulkhard, Michelle Elvy, Cyn Kuhn, Katrina Gray, Susan Gibb, Sam Rasnake, Martha Williams, and Hzar Worth.