In the interview for last week's article on Piccolo Fiction 2017, author and participant Ben Brandenburg told the City Paper that "as a kid, I thought of Spoleto as a framed poster on a rich person's wall." Piccolo Fiction presents a solid antithesis to that succinct little image. The event, held at the Charleston Music Hall, displayed four authors' works that passively questioned norms in written media and led to some intriguing results. This was not a show for the well-dressed Spoleto crowd, but it was never meant to be — and it's better for it. A deference for tradition rarely has conclusions this entertaining.
Headliner Julia Elliott is a model for that. Her reading came from a passage found in her short story collection The Wilds, where an "evangelical granny" talks to her granddaughter and her friends at a slumber party. You should be able to tell by the setup for the story that it (obviously) ends with the Grandma dictating a psycho-sexual recount of the Book of Revelations. Duh. The story's an unpredictable, manic piece, made better by Elliott's very normal reading of absurd imagery, like the Grandma's repressed church-girl description of Heaven. Sadly, the audience didn't seem to register a lot of the comedy, despite the speaker's pauses and glances at the crowd. Maybe it's just my Baptist upbringing, but I'm always down for stories where old ladies speak in tongues at inopportune times.
Aaron Wood took the stage to read his story "Stumbling Over Solace." Wood spoke in rhythmic metaphor for the entirety of his piece. The story saw a man running from a past that slowly encroached on the moment he "ducked into an alley." Keeping with its broadest theme, the whole narrative played with time, beginning in media res, before moving backwards and forwards. The most noteworthy aspect about Wood's prose was that it almost read like a beat poem. "Solace" utilized imagery to tell its story, definitely to its benefit.
Cinelle Barnes' story was in a similar boat. Coming from her new memoir Monsoon Mansion, she used color driven written descriptions to show a bleak scene of the "Philippines favorite bloodsport," cockfighting. Barnes gave an impassioned reading of a childhood event that clearly affected her, adding to the intensity of the scene. The characters in the story had that odd vibrancy that only real people have. She brought them to life, even just for a page or two. If there are more moments like that to come (and we all know there will be), that book is going to have some weight to it.
Noting the needle being in the emotional red, Brandenburg cracked a joke when he walked into the spotlight. "I don't know what it is about this alley," he said before admitting that his untitled story was not going to be much lighter. His tale was a post-modern take on the traditional prompt. It visualized a man being stuck in a "wall-less alley," being trapped without specific borders around him. The short yarn delved into a dissection about the expansive, but limiting, nature of memory. You could feel the existential dread radiating from the microphone and it was good compliment to all the stories involved. Similar to the other tales, Brandenburg's story didn't meander and waste time, but it never felt too brisk. It told the story it needed to and came to a satisfying conclusion. Sometimes that speaks volumes about a writer.
The only real complaint I can muster about the event is a lack of enthusiasm from a couple speakers, but it's hard to fault a writer for not being a perfect public speaker. The latter is not a necessary part of their profession. At the same time, seeing an author read their work to a live audience is a great opportunity to build a better connection to a face that's typically hidden behind screen or page.
There are too many ways to hypothesize why Piccolo Fiction is the longest running event of the festival dedicated to fiction, but one of the easiest to love parts of this year's reading was its fearlessness. There were plenty of moments in everyone's stories that would cause kung-fu grip pearl clutching from a rigid audience that just wanted to take in some culture. That's also kind of the fun of it.