Reading a collection of flash fiction is like hitting Play on the mixtapes of old. It's held together by a thread of a theme, but each vignette is short, spare, and self-contained. Durhamite Michelle Dove's first book, Radio Cacophony, is more structured and narrative than some flash fiction collections, which makes it a good introduction to the genre for readers accustomed to longer-form work.
These 120 micro-stories follow the relationships and experiences of a millennial undergraduate radio-station staff, as told by a nameless "redhead who always wears blue." Dove's vignettes—most contain fewer than 300 words—necessarily leave out or consolidate a lot: names, physical descriptions, plot details. But they draw the reader into the physical world of the radio station, as well as into the equally dim, intimate, and noisy space of the narrator's psyche, where most of the action takes place.
What emerges from that space are the narrator's humorous and bittersweet ruminations on friendship, art, the self, futility, authority, sex, and growing up. She navigates both the mechanics of young adulthood ("We pour ourselves vodka oranges because even in our second semester of college it's the classiest mixed drink we dare to make") and the more nuanced art of becoming. These glimpses into the narrator's coming of age often end with wry insights: "More than that, I know now that it is doubt, not lust, that is the more resounding emotion," concludes one story. "Thus begins my lifelong uneasiness regarding the etiquette of graceless sexual exchanges," concludes another.
Dove's syntax is straightforward and unadorned, giving these otherwise confessional stories a sense of detachment, especially at first. But that style is in keeping with who the narrator is at the beginning: a college freshman who is "... part of something I know nothing about." She's not just talking about her new job at the radio station; the most satisfying aspect of this book—besides the endearing narrator—is her halting but earnest journey toward a meaningful life. As her reflections become richer, the style becomes more complex. Dove conjures the self-conscious idealism, at once darling and infuriating, that characterizes the privileged millennial, and then tracks its transformation under the forces of time and experience. Will it collapse in on itself to become an entitled bitterness? Or will it muscle through disillusionment to build a "life of care and creation"?
Dove's narrator has an "extreme desire for understanding." She questions. She doubts her answer. She asks the question in another way, at another bar, of another friend, of herself at another age. At times this spiraling into the narrator's self-absorption is exasperating, but ultimately the self she seeks is one that transcends the self she is: "There is still a chance that I am more myself every day." So we respect her quest. And we glimpse what it could mean for her to become absorbed, instead, in "all it is that we can see and hear and be and do" in the shared cacophony in which we all exist.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Blink and You'll Miss It"