K-Ming Chang is one of the best writers of flash fiction in the game right now. Despite being published in many prestigious legacy literary journals, flash fiction is sometimes disparaged among self-proclaimed serious fiction writers as somehow inferior in form to the great and almighty short story and certainly lesser than the novel. At least, this has been the case in my own anecdotal experiences when forced to socialize with self-proclaimed serious fiction writers. Never mind that some of the greats in the conventional American literary canon have also written what we’d certainly designate as flash today.
It’s rare to see a whole book of flash fiction, though they do exist. And while conventional publishing is behind in the arena, micro and small presses often champion work that doesn’t fit more traditional shapes and lengths. Flash fiction in particular as a form is defined by its difficulty to define. There isn’t a precise word count that designates a story a work of flash. Sometimes, but not all the time, it blurs lines with poetry. The super short form often allows for experimentation and play. Flash can revel in metaphor and concept without getting too hung up on traditional plot beats. And while I certainly recognize that writing a whole ass novel is a longer process with a lot more moving parts, to dismiss short work as a stepping stone toward larger work misunderstands just how intricate works of flash fiction can be and how a novel can be informed by these practices of writing super short, punchy work. K-Ming Chang’s latest book Organ Meats, a novel and not a work of flash, serves as compelling evidence that these two forms can collide and feed into each other.
The book simultaneously reads like a string of interconnected flash and like a more conventional novel. It takes a surreal premise one could easily see told in a short form (put in very simple terms: two young girls who are best friends decide to become dogs together) and impressively expands it outward into a sprawling tale of inherited and constructed mythology, queer desire, and girlhood. It speaks to Chang’s prowess at the micro form level that she can write a whole novel this strange and speculative that never once feels like it has been stretched to fit a larger shape. Reading Organ Meats feels like reading flash. Reading Organ Meats feels like reading a novel. These forms don’t have to be thought of as so different. Long chapter titles — “Disparate Girls Discover that Doghood Is Not the Opposite of Girlhood, and Anita Hsia Recounts the Ox-Boned Origin of Her Family Residence”, reads the first — are simultaneously directly descriptive and strangely abstract, calling to mind flash or poetry (which Chang also writes) titles.
To call it a story about obsessive young queer friendship would be an understatement. There’s a feral, sometimes violent edge to the bond between Anita Hsia and Rainie Tsai, our two central girls who decide to become dogs. Take this early passage, for example, just after Anita has convinced Rainie that in order to become dogs they must “try what those two dogs were doing yesterday on the street” (the dogs were fucking, btw):
Okay, she says, and asks which dog I want to be. I say I want to be the dog on top and she can be the one on the bottom. Rainie looks down at her lap, the crotch of her pants mended so many times that the seams bulge with teeth. I remember when she used to itch her crotch in public during that summer of bedbugs, her fingernails grated down to nubs. Out of sympathy, I scratched myself too, even though I didn’t have any bites, clawing myself until I couldn’t sleep and lay awake every night, stinging and thinking of our paired misery. I miss that summer of synchronized scarring. I miss the brazen way she used to flay herself for me.
Indeed, Anita and Rainie’s dynamic transcends that of best friendship and even that of an early queer crush. It is, like much of the novel, difficult to define. It’s so bodied and yet also liquified, impossible to hold in place. The girls tie red strings around their necks to bind them to each other, but it would be an oversimplification to say that string merely represents their connection to one another. Most metaphors and mythmaking in these pages work on multiple complex levels.
Chang captures the magic of youth so beautifully, metaphors and the literal collapsing in on one another. Between the two, Rainie is sometimes the skeptic. Anita is the believer, seeing trash and discarded objects as bones and organs. “In the garage, Rainie and I discover that the ceiling is leaking celestial secrets,” Anita narrates. The myth of a two-sided island containing an overworld and an underworld becomes one of the novel’s mythological throughlines and a crucial way of understanding the characters and the gender roles and expectations they impose upon themselves and have imposed upon them.
Queer desire and queer care become magical and monstrous on the page. When Rainie falls into a weeks-long sleep in the aftermath of a dog biting her and lodging its tooth in her wrist permanently, Anita tries to care for her: “The first night Rainie sleeps, I water her dreaming body.” When she learns of Rainie’s impending move, Anita devises a plan to select a very special stone with which to hurt her friend to keep them bound to each other.
Chang threads together a stunning tapestry of horror in the novel. Ecological horror looms over the setting: Anita and Rainie live in a place that hasn’t seen rain for pretty much their entire lives. Gothic girlhood and haunted family narratives add texture to this fable made up of so many micro fables. Body horror abounds. Anyone familiar with Chang’s work won’t be surprised to find bodily fluids and functions captured plainly on the page. Piss, shit, blood and spit are all part of this book’s simultaneously grotesque and wondrous alchemy. There are few boundaries separating dogs, trees, and humans here. Same with dreams/memories and beauty/ugliness. It’s a novel that loves to collapse categories and build metaphors you’ll want to tongue like a loose tooth, searching for meaning(s).
I won’t get into all of the details, but much like Rainie’s nightmarishly long sleep, Anita too falls somewhere between life and death, her body slowly decaying. In describing this decay, Chang harnesses her impressive ability to mingle the grotesque with the lovely:
A slug mounted the bridge of Anita’s nose, seeking the torn sleeve of her nostril, its slime like soured moonlight. Rainie reached out to remove it, her hands trembling, but she could not bring herself to touch that alien face. The distance between their bodies felt planetary. She’d once been Anita’s accomplice, corroborating her truths and lies, wearing that same collar of red, but now their histories had splintered. Nothing could braid them together again.
There are whole worlds living in that excerpt. It’s both a distillation of Rainie and Anita’s arc as well as a complication of it. Everything Chang does deftly in her short fiction and flash comes to play in the novel, her imagery surprising and delightful even as it revels in the gross and unsavory.
The truth is, there are about a million passages from the book I wish to share here, my copy already worn after just a few weeks. But at that point, shouldn’t you just see its spellwork for yourself? The small snippets in this review are just a taste of Organ Meats, a horror novel that might expand your ideas of what queer literature can look like and do. It feels meaningful that this book exists in the world of mainstream publishing, and I hope it opens the door for more novels like it — novels that smash together shortform and longform storytelling and invent their own shape.