A GOOD ACHE | Amanda Miska.
⇒This marvelous flash fiction by Amanda Miska takes on a really big, challenging topic: happiness. What is happiness? It’s one of those words people throw around without any stable definition (other examples of ubiquitous-yet-utterly-vague cliches include spirituality, love, and God. Yeah, yeah, I know I just called God a cliche). Miska uses a very effective strategy to take on happiness: she delineates happiness through its presumptive opposite, unhappiness. So this story about happiness is really, for the most part, anything but.
The third-person story is about two unnamed people, a husband and wife. Over the course of the story, they live in three different locations–rural, urban, and suburban areas–and this place-based segmentation gives the story a cool triptych effect. We’re seeing the marriage in three different contexts, three different times, and while each portrait is strong on its own, it is their juxtaposition that brings depth to this story.
A note on the title: “A Good Ache”:
That’s a really beautiful way of describing happiness, not to mention the emotional effect of this story. Happiness, as one of the characters defines it in this piece, is defined by a tinge of unhappiness. As if any moment of (for lack of a better term) happiness is inevitably mixed with a drop or two or sadness, of impending loss, as if the experience of happiness is valuable by virtue of its fragility, its impurity.
What I really appreciate is how skillfully and beautifully the author enacts this concept, allows the reader to feel this “good ache.” Even though the language is fairly minimalist, fairly understated (it gets a little more elevated toward the end), the piece accomplishes a great deal in terms of portraying the wife’s inexplicable(?) sadness and her husband’s frustration and helplessness.
Particularly effective, in my view, is the emotionally fragmented ending, which the author holds to her story like a prism to magnify and crisscross the competing emotional charges of the previous paragraphs. Like an envoi in poetry, the ending of this story comments on while also resolving (resolving in a decidedly open-ended way, I must add) the preceding narrative. Sure, all stories rely heavily on endings, and endings are arguably as difficult to write if not tougher to write than opening lines. But the emotional stakes become so much higher when we’re talking flash fiction, since this form is so short that the final sentence, as a load-bearing structure, becomes exponentially more crucial than in longer works. I have read numerous longer stories and novels that I thoroughly enjoyed but which ended on a weak note. It did not ruin my reading experience. But flash fiction relies so heavily on its final thought/image that it falls flat if the conclusion lacks the emotional complexity, the closed-and-openness, the crispness that a good piece of flash deserves. The final sentence is what makes flash fiction flash.
This story provides an excellent example of a closing sentence, and the prism-like complexity of this ending will create different experiences for different readers. Is this ultimately a hopeful story? Is this a bleak view of life? It will depend on who’s reading, I suppose.