thechapbookreview

Phantasmagoria, Reviewed by Josh Maday

Phantasmagoria

Chapbook by Thomas Cooper
Keyhole Press, 2009
Perfect bound, 44 pp.
ISBN 978-0-9821512-3-5
$6.99

Reviewed by Josh Maday

Piecing together a definition of phantasmagoria:

Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, 11th Edition:
1. an exhibition of optical effects and illusions
2. a: a constantly shifting complex succession of things seen or imagined
b: a scene that constantly changes
3. a bizarre or fantastic combination, collection, or assemblage

One Look quick definition:
A constantly changing medley or real or imagined images (as in a dream)

Yahoo Education Dictionary:

A fantastic sequence of haphazardly associative imagery, as seen in dreams or fever.
A constantly changing scene composed of numerous elements.

The assemblage above along with Michael Martone’s blurb—one of those rare book blurbs that are accurate and insightful—will give readers at least a sense of what they will encounter in Thomas Cooper’s brilliant collection of flash fiction, Phantasmagoria, winner of the Keyhole’s 2008 Fiction Chapbook Contest (judged by Martone). Cooper magnetizes characters and objects with mystery. He brilliantly balances detail and implication, a necessary tool in crafting successful flash fiction (any fiction, really).

Each piece works on its own, but Cooper weaves a web, stimulating the reader’s recognition of themes, characters, and objects, and then twists these involuntary connections into something different yet slightly similar. The first few stories involve relationships or death (usually both in some way), and are linked by a few shifting events: woman/wife/mother dies, infidelity, death, man/husband/son dealing with grief/death. Cooper does a fantastic job of warping whatever coherence or linearity this linkage may tempt the reader to impose on the material, in keeping with the above definition of phantasmagoria (though Cooper’s fictions are anything but haphazard).

In the opening story, “The Lady in the Closet,” the narrator, a middle-aged man who, while he grapples with the surreal horror of his wife’s sickness and slow death, develops an appropriately bizarre relationship with the strange and mysterious woman he discovers has been living in his closet. Next, “The Old Fashioned Way” is narrated by an old man sitting at his wife’s grave. The old man gets angry at another man who keeps bringing flowers and weeping at the grave too, and swears that he knew the woman buried there. Cooper neither confirms nor dispels the nagging suspicion that this other man was perhaps one of his wife’s lovers. Later on, in “House Tornado,” the narrator (an older but not elderly man) and his wife are in the kitchen when a tornado picks up their house a la The Wizard of Oz, and in the last moments of his life the narrator wants to have sex with his wife one last time; however, she refuses him and uses her last minutes to phone a man named John: “Never mind that the cursing is so unlike Rita. Never mind that now she’s starting to gasp and moan as she works her hand beneath her bathrobe, calling out this man’s name. It’s her voice that gets to me, breathy, orgasmic, profoundly intimate, as if this man has just finished telling her the final thing she ever needs to hear.” Cooper continues this many-faceted metamorphosis from beginning to end, working on many levels.

Changing modes, Cooper explores the power that objects and characters can have over people, beginning with “Lost and Found,” where a man who could only be described as “definitely American” leaves an inexplicable and ominous “foreign object” with a receptionist who eventually becomes responsible for it against her will and is forced to “get rid of it.” Other unexplainable objects show up in Cooper’s fictions as well: a monogrammed baby spoon that no one seems to own, postcards written to total strangers as though to the closest of friends, and seemingly irremovable “black and kinky” hairs. Each object or character, by their persistence, becomes a psychological affliction for their respective victims.

In “Dunking Booth Man,” fueled by the strange atmosphere of the carnival, Cooper taps into the wild desperation of denial when said dunking booth man says the perfect words to unhinge the man walking past with his family.

As for my victims, I always look for the ones with the most to lose, men I was once like. Take this guy right here, with his pretty Japanese wife and two little girls, strolling along the thoroughfare in the giddy carnival lights. Hammered in my clown suit and slumped in my dunking booth chair, I wonder what I can say to this man that will pierce him to the core [. . .] what I shout now is the perfect, unforgivable thing and it comes out with shocking force [. . .] I say the unforgivable thing again, clearly enunciating each word. Love. Death. Decay. Then say, “Trust me, I know what I’m talking about. I’ve lived through it.”

By holding back and not quoting the “unforgivable thing,” Cooper avoids having to come up with something that will live up to this description, and also allows the reader to imagine, if only vaguely (and yet more powerfully), what the dunking booth man could have said. One of the liberating aspects of flash fiction is what Martone calls “bounded boundless space,” the paradoxical way in which the form’s extreme boundaries open the potential for invention that often cannot be sustained for the duration of a short story. Reaching into that “bounded boundless space” requires the balance of detail and implication that is essential to flash fiction as when the other man comes to grieve at the grave of the old man’s wife. If Cooper isn’t planting scenes with elements ripe for inference, he is returning an openly fabulist story to the grounding of real life conflicts, like when a man’s wife decides to use her last moments to call her lover after the house is picked up by a tornado  Without question, Phantasmagoria confirms that Thomas Cooper is a master of flash fiction.

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