Wednesday, February 29, 2012

420 Characters by Lou Beach

   Lou Beach's 420 Characters is a collision of art and fiction.  Before these tiny little stories were compiled into a book, they were published on Facebook as status updates - "limited to 420 characters, including letters, spaces, and punctuation."  It might sound easy, but imagine trying to tell an entire story (plot, characters, setting, etc.) in 420 characters or less.  It takes a great deal of discernment and tremendous editing skills.

   The book is similar in concept to "flash fiction,"where authors are limited to a specific word count (usually 1000 or less) but characters and punctuation are not counted.  Flash fiction is challenging for both the author and the reader.  Because the author must write within very specific technical limitations, there is often a great deal of ambiguity in the stories, leaving more room for interpretation for the reader.  It becomes an extremely heightened state of both reading and writing.

   But Beach's stories are not quite as self-contained as flash fiction stories.  Some of the vignettes in 420 Charatcter are revisited throughout the book.  Sometimes a character reappears, or a new character enters an old setting, and sometimes you just get that "I've been here before" feeling.  Several of the stories compelled me to count the characters, because a variation of a word or an addition of a punctuation mark would have completely changed the tone and meaning of the story.  But I resisted and did no such counting, because that is the point of this genre - to compel readers to consider how quickly our words can shift and undulate in meaning just by the addition of (or omission of) a single word, comma, or letter.

   420 Characters also includes original illustrations by Lou Beach, which sometimes resemble the surrealist style of Dali.  Because the stories are so quick to read, you might be compelled to turn the page before you even have time to process them.  But the illustrations provide nice little opportunities to take a break and reflect.  A few of them are subtly bizarre and may require more contemplation than the stories.

   This book really makes you appreciate the craft involved in writing.  From the selection of a character's name to the choosing of vocabulary, writing is under-appreciated as a physical art form. I would not be surprised to walk into a museum and find all 169 pages of Beach's book framed and on display.  But until then, they are proudly displayed on a Facebook wall, which is updated regularly with new stories that you won't find in the book.  However, I would recommend reading the print feels much more meaningful and permanent on individual pages.

Overall Rating: