The Dog Looks Happy Upside Down (Etruscan Press, 2016) is the most recent collection of flash fiction from Meg Pokrass. All readers and writers of flash fiction should have encountered her writing at some point because she is so widely published in online and print journals, as well as appearing in many anthologies, such as A Box of Stars Beneath the Bed: The 2016 National Flash Fiction Day Anthology and Flash Fiction International. Pokrass has judged many competitions too, as well as judging the new novella-in-flash award, which closes at the end of January 2017. After reading The Dog Looks Happy Upside Down it is no wonder that Pokrass is held in such high regard within the flash fiction community: her prose is masterful.
Pokrass has a way of making her stories run from the page into your imagination. Once there, they stir everything up, then they stand and watch from the sideline and as you realise the enormity of what you have just read. One such story is ‘Sparkly Plans’, a story about how life doesn’t follow the road we hope, and how we attempt to cope in the aftermath of its storm. The story is filled with contrasts, in particular, the difference between the past and the present, and the level of importance things have to different people. The latter is present from the start when the narrator’s mother, who had finished chemotherapy a few months before, is fired from her telesales job for not selling enough tickets and for encouraging old people not to buy things they don’t need over the phone. But she is proud to have been fired because she has stood by her principles.
These principles, I assume, have gone unchanged over time, but time doesn’t stand still, and there have been changes that neither of the characters in this story could’ve prevented from happening. The most vivid image Pokrass gives the reader of this is how the mother used to be an actress with ‘her hair all modelish and her eyes full of sparkly plans’, but now she always wears hats and wigs and ‘nothing makes her look normal’. The way Pokrass describes the mother touching her scalp, the way the mother’s child thinks her mother looks like ‘a bald woman fingering her head’, is haunting. The ending lingers after reading too; the child lists the examples of her family’s recent bad luck, then lists the things she does to protect herself from future bad luck. These rituals, though seemingly unimportant, strike a chord because life will happen no matter if she touches the doorknob three times before she leaves the house or closes her eyes tight while chopping onions. Life happens: sometimes we’re lucky, and sometimes we’re not.
Other stories in this collection are more comical in tone. ‘The Cursing Wife’ is a great little story about a husband who makes his new wife curse over the phone as soon as he gets to his hotel when on business trips. He gains immense satisfaction from ‘her unquestionably creative words’, which to him are ‘better than a Manhattan or a White Russian.’ Though the tone may be more light-hearted, Pokrass demonstrates the same control of narrative and vivid imagery as she does in some of the heavier tales; the husband imagines his wife’s spittle flinging itself against the phone, can picture the ‘juicy words just bursting out’.
The same applies to stories like ‘Giant Killer’, a playful flash filled with innuendoes, euphemisms, and twists of reality: ‘Before I can stop myself, I am on top; he is under me and I am holding him close; Mr. Knish is instantly happier in my velvet donation box, which elevates my belief tenfold. When I sing Hallelujah he says to bring it down a bit, there are dogs in the neighbouring houseboats.’
As a collection, The Dog Looks Happy Upside Down embodies everything that flash is and should continue to be. From whatever angle you choose to read these stories, you will find them to be powerful, entertaining, and moving.
To hear Meg read from the Dog Looks Happy Upside Down come to our Evening of Flash Fiction Readings at St James’ Wine Vaults, Bath on Friday December 9th from 7.30 pm-9.30 pm. Read more about the event and book here.