New forms of communication present new opportunities for innovation in storytelling. In Japan, the “keitai shousetsu,’’ or cellphone novel, has become a popular genre among teens. Chapters are sent to readers via text message, providing an immersive experience in which readers can feel as if they are interacting with the characters. Twitter is rife with fictional accounts that keep followers apprised of the daily doings of Voldemort and Homer Simpson. Give people a place to enter text, and their imaginations will fill it.
Social media sites are often blithely derided as vehicles for narcissism, allowing people to broadcast insignificant, quotidian events - what people had for breakfast seems to be the go-to example - as if they were big news. Lou Beach, an illustrator whose collage-style work has appeared in The New Yorker and on the cover of a Blink-182 album, wanted to use his Facebook status updates for something more. What he decided to do was to write tiny tales, compact little worlds that his friends and followers could enjoy. As for the length of his stories, Beach had no choice. Facebook limited these posts to 420 characters, a constraint that he embraced and took as the title of his collection of 169 very short stories.
Despite the social-media novelty of “420 Characters,’’ this style of micro, or flash, fiction is nothing new. Franz Kafka’s “The Trees’’ is only 230 characters, while the six-word “Baby Shoes,’’ apocryphally attributed to Ernest Hemingway, achieves sublime devastation in only 33. The only difference between traditional flash fiction and “420 Characters’’ is that the length was decided by Mark Zuckerberg and not the author.
Many of Beach’s untitled stories are lyrical and poetic, managing to create a feeling of resolution despite their brevity, with dashes of warm sentiment and humor. In one, a skydiver shares a tender moment with a pigeon entangled in his gear as they plummet to the ground together, hearts racing in unison. “Shot by a monkey,’’ begins another, irresistibly. Dogs appear frequently, perhaps because when your stories are restricted to 420 characters, a three-letter protagonist is a major asset. Drawing on his background as a visual artist, Beach dreams up brilliant textures and surreal imagery. “I live in the pocket of a bright paisley shirt,’’ he writes, “and when the light is just so, I’m in my own private cathedral.’’
Most, however, feel like writing prompts or ambitious introductory paragraphs for stories yet to be written. Effective flash fiction should not leave readers wanting more, because there’s never going to be any more. Encountering a promising, potentially exciting fictive world and then seeing it abandoned without any sense of closure is deeply frustrating. Beach gives the impression that these stories were taken directly from his Facebook account, without revisions, and there is definitely a hurried, off-the-cuff tone to them.
Curiously, “420 Characters’’ doesn’t take advantage of Facebook’s most prominent feature - its social element. In the acknowledgements, Beach thanks the fans and supporters who followed his updates as he posted them, and it seems safe to assume that many of them left comments that may have influenced subsequent entries or otherwise added to the experience. It would have been nice to have seen the effect that instant feedback and a direct relationship between author and audience can have on the creative process. There’s no noticeable trace of the social network’s influence on any of these stories beyond their length.
This past September, Facebook increased the character limit for status updates to 5,000, affording users a larger canvas on which to experiment. It seems like only a matter of time before the first Facebook novel appears. One can only hope that it leverages the unique strengths of the medium, rather than relying on its limitations.Michael Patrick Brady is a freelance writer living in South Boston. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.