Silkworms Ink Chapbook #8 : ‘Short Stories’ by Jen Spyra

Silkworms Ink are the new(ish) kids on the block that specialize in the publication of online chapbooks as well as literary t-shirts. An unusual but clever combination since I suspect the latter provides the financial backing to allow accessibility to the former. The chapbooks have found themselves gradually included in their blog providing a theme that influences each of its posts:

‘Each week we take a theme and construct a magazine of sorts that forms as the week progresses. Intro Monday, Poetry Tuesday, Fiction Wednesday, Music Thursday, Chapbook Friday, Mixtape Saturday and Mini Essay Sunday.’

It’s not a traditional technique and for the most part it works. The relentless output means of course that there are a few dud posts, but also some stand-outs, in particular Phil Brown’s Wikipedia manifesto, Sam Kinchin-Smith’s Luke Kennard musical tribute, and Jon Ware’s indescribable ‘They Call Him Doctor Turnips’.

I’m a bit late at reviewing Jen Spyra’s online chapbook. Since its issue, 24 more chapbooks have been posted online by the Silkworms Ink team and yet, this is the one that has endured the most in my mind.

Spyra’s five short stories range from the exhilaratingly mad to the disappointing. Amongst the better stories there is the ‘Glorious Emergency Status Report On The Order Of The Blood Of Thoth’ that imagines the bankruptcy of a secret order. Bloodsmen are warned amid other cost-effective suggestions that the ritual burning of airline tickets be restricted to tri-state area tickets, adding:

‘And Bloodsmen, if you haven’t registered for a Rapid Rewards account yet, don’t wait for Miranda to send out another email. It’s a quick and easy savings that we can’t turn down right now. ‘

Spyra excels in this story at contrasting the grandiose with the mundanity of economic failure. The tone is perfectly judged and like the best short stories it looks like the glimpse of a much larger world.

On the other hand ‘Recession, Schmessession’ and ‘MOMMY BANGERS, EPISODE 105: SHE ORDERED SAUSAGE’ are more disappointing offerings. In the first, the flippancy of her tone and gratuitous self-referencing are more grating than amusing. ‘MOMMY BANGERS…’ on the other hand is a facile but entertaining satire on political correctness within the context of a pornographic shoot. Spyra changes tact here by giving us the script of this imagined porn, complete with directions and for the most part it works:

‘DELIVERY BOY: I’m getting hard. Say that again.
HORNY HOUSEWIFE: We’re two consenting adults who are alone and want to have sex outside of the workplace.’

Spyra is a gifted comic writer but this story is a case example of her lack of ambition. The problem with ‘MOMMY BANGERS…’ is that the story is so very satisfied and excited at its risqué choice of subject that it stops itself short of doing something interesting with the material, or even the chosen format.

However, the chapbook redeems itself with the closing stories of ‘Mr. Tambellini’s School of Driving’ and ‘The Olympian’. ‘Mr Tambellini…’ was published by McSweeney’s and is also the oldest story in the collection (at least in terms of publication if not inception) and its maturity shows. Spyra restrains her style by staying on the safe side of deadpan:

‘Based on what I’ve heard from my friends, typical driver’s-ed instruction consists of lectures and videos. Mr. Tambellini’s instruction involved an old episode of Cops and him holding his hands up to an improvised steering wheel, encouraging me to “go like this.”’

‘The Olympian’ is perhaps the strangest story yet in the chapbook: the first-person narration of the anti-athlete personified who is convinced that she will be taking part in the Olympics. The good humour of the narrator bellies the unnerving feeling that her perception of herself is untrustworthy. It seems fairly certain that she is delusional but Spyra persists, like a devellish Jiminy Cricket, in trying to convince us that there is truth in the madness.

As the unapologetically nondescript title of the chapbook suggests, ‘Short Stories’ is an odd assortment of stories. They veer from the epistolary, to script, to more traditional formats with subjects as wide as the Olympics, the recession and a driving school. The only constant is Spyra’s not always successful irreverence towards her subject matter. However, whilst the quality may be patchy in this chapbook, the worlds created by Spyra’s over-active imagination are never dull. It is a collection of short stories easy to dip into and harder to leave.