Wit in Brevity
By Gregory J. Wolos
Insomnia 11 by Michael C. Keith (Cambridge, MA, Mad Hat Press, 2020; ~200 pages; $21.95).
Each of Michael C. Keith’s pieces in his latest collection of micro–fictions, Insomnia 11, lingers like an amuse-bouche on the palate of the intellect. While some among his readers might find solace in the late-night contemplation of these brief stories, for the insomniac Keith’s ironic wit and wry humor seem as likely to inspire sleeplessness as to cure it. With only a few words Keith’s sketches set our anxieties, neuroses, and fears dancing like hobgoblins into the wee hours. And while we may marvel, even laugh, at the ingenuity of his observations, we are haunted by their familiarity. Keith’s micro “Insomnia 7” illustrates the point: “The thought that life is catastrophic kept Kris awake. The realization he was powerless to do anything about it had the same effect.”
For Insomnia 11 Keith chooses a unique structure: the volume is divided into eleven sections of eleven stories, each section terminating with an “insomnia” event. The author’s apparent obsession with the number 11 is illustrated in the piece “11:11” in which the narrator notices the unusual frequency with which the “twin digits” appeared to him, leading him to conclude that the occurrence was “more than sheer coincidence.” Ultimately irritated by the “mysterious phenomenon,” he chooses to “ignore the iterations and did so without consequence… for a time.”
In his long poem “An Essay on Criticism,” Alexander Pope concludes, “True wit is nature to advantage dress’d, What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” The compression demanded by the micro–fictional form requires just such artful efficiency. Keith, author of twenty works of fiction, an acclaimed memoir, and two dozen volumes of non-fiction, is a proven master of this very short form, as such recent publications as Stories in the Key of Me and Let Us Not Speak of Extinction attest. As with poetry, word choice and phrasing are of prime significance in micro-fiction. The ironic power of Keith’s “Scorpion in His Coffee,” for example, hinges on his use of an economical double entendre: “As the sun crept above the date grove outside of Marrakesh, Bertrand lifted the cup to his lips and was taken by the beauty of the desert.” The title provides the detail—the scorpion—as well as the dramatic irony investing the phrase “was taken” with its fatal suggestiveness. In fact, titles are so important to the form that Keith’s are sometimes equal in length to the micro-fiction itself, as in “Auntie M. Fails to Grasp the Question Posed by the Sky Creatures.” This title is followed by a complete story in a single sentence, “You want to know where the planet’s supply of what is kept?” Occasionally, Keith’s title serves as a pun serving as the ironic commentary on the narrative, as with the story “Faux Paws,” which describes the plight of the “kid who’d lost both hands in a lawn mower accident” and receives a box of colored pencils for Christmas. The rich irony of the title “Loaded. . . and Unloaded” can only be understood after reading the micro: “The old west saloon would give customers a drink for a .45 cartridge, because the value of each was comparable (12 cents). After emptying the chamber of his six-shooter, Gilly Tibbs was feeling no pain and behaved in a very foolhardy manner, calling out a known gunslinger. When they met in the street, the intoxicated cowpoke drew his empty Colt and was shot dead. What a waste of a drink, thought the killer.”
It is the recursive logic of irony—the doubling back, the reconsideration of supposed facts, the coincidences and paradoxes of sound and sense—that explains the appropriateness of Keith’s choice of “insomnia” as a unifying scaffold for what otherwise might appear to be over one hundred disparate pieces. Whether or not the reader experiences the mini-epiphany of a particular micro, the active contemplation inspired by the piece is likely to expand beyond the short time it takes to read it: a parallel to the roiling thoughts that haunt the fevered minds of the sleepless. Keith seems to take a hint from the poet Robert Burns, who writes in “To a Mouse” of the scope of the anxieties that humans suffer: “Still, thou [the mouse] art blest,/ compar’d wi’ me!/ The present only toucheth thee:/ But Och! I backward cast my e’e,/ On prospects drear!/ An’ forward tho’ I canna see,/ I guess an’ fear!” Insomniacs worry about the miseries of their past, about their present health and the health of their loved ones, and about the uncertainty of the future (and even the immediate distress another sleepless night might cause.) Insomnia 11’s “April 47th”, for example, forces readers to contemplate their own mortality: “Everything changes when you’re dead.” “Hungry for Love,” relates the kind of slight a reader might spend the night chewing over, searching for a snappy rejoinder to a subtle insult: “Sarah knew it was the only time she’d have dinner with the man sitting across from her when he said, ‘You enjoy your food, don’t you?’” The micro “Contact” leads readers to contemplate the possible liabilities of their very substance: “The visitors were both confounded and intrigued upon discovering Earthlings consisted primarily of liquids. It was the first time they’d encountered a species that would spurt when it was squeezed.” How we understand the world around us, Keith asserts in “POV,” depends upon our point of view—where we locate ourselves on the continuum of past, present, and future: “‘If you were able to view The Grapes of Wrath back in 1910, you would think it depicts a future society trapped in a post-apocalyptic juggernaut,’ said Ben.”
“Brevity is the soul of wit,” the long-winded Polonius asserts in Hamlet, and Keith’s micro-fictions embody this sentiment by presenting succinct ironies and paradoxes without attempting to embellish, elaborate, or explain them. Like spelunkers who forgot their flashlights, sleepless readers are left to explore the depths of each piece as far as their imaginations, intellects, and anxieties will take them. And lurking in the darkness lie further questions. What is the reader to make of the title and structure of Insomnia 11? Is there a mystery hidden behind Keith’s obsession with the digits and the scaffolding they lend the volume, or are these actually components of a false-front that mocks (or undercuts) the very idea of structure, leading the reader on a wild-goose chase for meaning?
This reader continues to ponder: Is the wry humor of Michael Keith’s micro-fictions incidental, or is it the point? Don’t expect a direct answer from Keith, though the final piece of the collection, the eponymous “Insomnia 11” might provide a hint: “In his dreams, he couldn’t get to sleep, and it was driving him crazy. When he woke up, he was pleased at how well-rested he felt.” The borderline between sleep and wakefulness is terrain shared by the insomniac and the poet. John Keats, in his “Ode to a Nightingale,” seeks to recreate through imagination and memory the song of the fugitive bird, asking: “Was it a vision, or a waking dream? Fled is that music: Do I wake or do I sleep?” It’s possible that we readers who chase the wild geese of Michael C. Keith’s Insomnia 11 through our sleepless nights will experience poetic epiphanies of our own; if we don’t, at least the breadcrumb paths his micros lead us down offer fodder for us to smile, frown, or fret over during what would otherwise be our dullest hours.
Gregory Wolos lives, writes, and runs in a small New England town. More than eighty of Gregory’s short stories have been published or are forthcoming in print and online journals such as Glimmer Train, The Georgia Review, The Florida Review, The Baltimore Review, The Pinch, Post Road, The Los Angeles Review, PANK, and Tahoma Literary Review. His work has earned six Pushcart Prize nominations and his stories have won awards sponsored by Solstice, Gulf Stream, New South, Emrys Review, the Rubery Book Awards, and Gambling the Aisle. His fiction collection Women of Consequence was released by Regal House Publishing in 2019. His second collection, Dear Everyone, will be released by Duck Lake Books in early 2020, and a third collection, The Thing About Men, will be published by Cervena Barva Books in 2021.