Ghost Box Evolution in Cadillac, Michigan
by Rosie Forrest
published by Rose Metal Press in August 2015
Ghost Box Evolution in Cadillac, Michigan — a flash fiction chapbook whose name I had trouble remembering despite having visited Cadillac many times — is a chapbook at only 44 pages. There doesn’t appear to be a theme beyond “things are going badly most of the time.” The definition of “things” is pretty loose; it might be a moment or an entire lifetime that’s broken.
The chapbook begins with an introduction by Pamela Painter, the judge who chose Forrest’s work to win the 9th annual Rose Metal Press chapbook contest. Though she praises Rosie Forrest’s flash fiction, I didn’t see much point in this introduction. Painter mostly delivers a line or two about certain stories and then quotes from them, which actually tainted my reading experience. When I read a story, I felt like I’d read it before because Painter already quoted the best parts. Painter writes that readers will need to be “ready — brave enough, really — to venture into Rosie Forrest’s next luminous world.” Honestly, I rolled my eyes. Painter would have done better to explain how the chapbook appealed to her over other entries to the contest instead of quoting so extensively and writing hyperbolic claims about bravery.
As for the stories themselves: Forrest really works best when she implies what she means on a sentence level. For instance, an adolescent receives ceramic trinkets from her mother’s boyfriend, and she notes, “the smaller the statue, the more impossible to break.” This implication says a lot; the narrator doesn’t want her mother’s boyfriend to try and win her over, to crowd into her life, and so she’s destroying his gifts.
Almost none of the flash fictions have dialogue, which may be a good thing. When Forrest attempts to write like a group of adolescent boys talking, she comes off like an adult with only a shallow understanding of how teens communicate. Perhaps Forrest is writing how she remembers her male friends speaking, but that says more about her friends than an honest portrayal of boys. When the boys break into an abandoned box store, they verbally spar:
How long this place been closed?
Since before you could get yourself hard.
Your mom got me hard late last night.
Right, and then she left you like that.
Ready for your sister.
The word that immediately popped to mind was “dorky.” The progression of the thoughts comes from the laziest possible connections between an erection and who to stick it in.
While flash fiction authors don’t have much page space, the meaning of the entire story cannot be implied. After those boys break into various big box stores, they immediately turn their “new worlds” into schools with homeroom and dodge ball. Forrest writes, “The rise and fall of ghost box schools have depleted countrywide education funds…” So, the schools are not a metaphor, they’ve reached into the realistic territory of funding. What am I supposed to take from this?
In another story, kids sneak into a basement to pretend they’re dead while the kid who arrived first (a privilege?) does things to them: lick them, shave them, pee on them, pour chemicals into their mouths. One kid refers to it as “subversive counterculture,” but what are they countering? The reader knows nothing of these kids’ lives and what they would need to subvert. The entire piece is implying something, but what, I don’t know.
In this way, the reader is often asked to do the work of writer. For instance, in “Taps,” three individuals head to a lake, though it is “forbidden.” A girl leads, and a boy named Eli walks with his hand on her shoulder, rambling, “Josie, I won’t fail ya, I won’t fail you, have no fear. Josie, I won’t fail ya, give me one more chance, the day is near.” How did he fail? What day is near? Why is the lake forbidden? We know the girl is from Arizona, but it’s snowing where she is (Michigan, I assume, based on the chapbook’s title). The third character, Josh, is following behind, but heads “back to campus.” Okay, so these are college students? Why would Josh follow a fighting couple? Flash fiction need not be a guessing game, nor is it effective when it is.
Rosie Forrest does write some beautiful moments. In “Gun Moll,” the characters are dressed as Bonnie and Clyde for Halloween, and the narrator describes how she “would have made out with [him] in the bathroom longer, but it was the sink, it creaked away from the wall like a bad tooth, and [she] felt beanbag heavy from the rice [they] ate.” The metaphors here really penetrate into the imagination and make the story unique, even when the premise — making out at a party — is familiar.
In a vivid flash called “Where We Off to, Lulu Bee?” a mother buys and installs one of those playground horses that sit on a big spring for her daughter. The mother is this bold splash of color on the page:
Mama hiked her nightgown up around her waist, well above the worn elastic that barely harnessed her underpants, and before she straddled the helpless creature, she looped the extra cloth into a floppy side knot.
Look, Lulu. You just ride the fucker.
And she did. Knees bent to her breasts, and her large heels seared against the blocks designed for softer feet unmarred by ragged earth.
But, Forrest often destroys these beautiful moments by being too “clever” in the end. Lulu Bee’s last thought in the story is about a split in the metal seam of the horse: “I fanned the horse’s hindquarters, blew at the dint with puffer cheeks to free the tender frenzy trapped inside.” THE END. Now, why end with the horse having some sort of inner turmoil? That just killed it for me; the mother was the dynamic character, but the story’s payoff was given to a broken toy.
In another story, two girls examine an abandoned church that scares them a bit. There’s a great moment describing terrifying rules the girls have invented:
We’ve convinced ourselves of many truths: 1) From the outside, the church is open, but from the inside, it’s locked; 2) Time moves differently in there; 3) The organ still works; 4) There’s no such thing as God.
Essentially, the girls have set up a scary story in their own lives, which is really interesting, but the end of the list is shot dead by the boring “emo” claim that God isn’t real. But a paragraph later, one of the girls explains that she prays for her parents to stop fighting. The narrator notes, “When I ask who she prays to anyway, she speeds up [her bicycle] to coast down the hill.” Isn’t that a much more beautiful and subtle way to say the girls don’t believe in God? I certainly think so. The fourth item wasn’t needed on the list of scary principles of the abandoned church.
Overall, Rosie Forrest’s Ghost Box Evolution in Cadillac, Michigan suggests she could go far with a ruthless editor and a better sense of audience. I would pass on this book but keep an eye out for Forrest in the future.
Thank you to Rose Metal Press for sending me a reviewer’s copy of Ghost Box Evolution in Cadillac, Michigan.