[Wilderness House; 2012]

At the end of every chapter of Susan Tepper’s new novella From the Umberplatzen, the main character gets something small in the mail: a ceramic frog on a key chain, a jar of peanut butter, a “little star made of kite silk,: etc. Each small thing tokens a moment from her brief romance with a German man while traveling abroad. The chapters themselves tell the stories of those moments, placing the tokens in context, as the narrator hints at what caused her to run away to Europe in the first place.

The story is told in the past tense, in both senses of “tense:” the narrator remembers her German fling with that complex and worn resignation unique to failed love. Thus, every token has an odor of garbage; that is, something used up, something to throw away, something to dispose of. The memories these objects recall are pleasant but somehow disgusting as the narrator, at the time of the telling, is alone, kept company only by her freedom and dissatisfaction.

So she tosses the tokens away, holding them out to us as she holds them away from herself, sighing at them and pushing them aside like useless gifts or cheap souvenirs whose significance have expired.

This sense of disposal isn’t just an aura glowing around objects in the story. A throw-away glow haunts the form of the book, too. It’s a novel told in Tepper’s preferred style: flash fiction. Every page of this slim novel composes an entire chapter, each with a beginning, middle, end, and room at the bottom to announce what’s come in the mail.

There are nearly 800 journals that publish this kind of content in English (new ones appear online every week), and Tepper’s incisive little book raises a tension inhering in the flash fiction form: Are these stories — under 1,000 words at most — anything more than throw-away tokens of being? Are they just disposable remnants of expired thought, feeling, and image, or is there something more to them?

The cover of Tepper’s novella is telling: it has a polaroid photograph of a couple holding hands against a blank white background. The name “flash fiction” evokes something photographic. The flash going off and illuminating a scene — a vignette, as Faulkner would say — for just long enough to see it, capture it, and expose it; at least, the flash makes a scene exposable, ready-to-develop; makes something frameable to look at again and revisit. “Flash” also connotes the amount of time this all takes: here and gone, fast, as in flash crash or Flash Gordon or The Flash. A burst; evanescent. Ephemeral. A bulb’s pop.

This photographic language conjures the cliche “a picture is worth a thousand words.” And herein is our argument, our little thesis. Not only is a picture worth a thousand words, but a thousand words is worth exactly that: a picture. A scene. Something developed just enough to look at, but no more. An appearance. A superfice, face, or front. A phaneron.

So if these thousand-word stories feel shallow (in the way that Clay Shirky uses that word), you might be onto something. They’re just pictures. Pretty images standing alone, finite in time and space. But if you get the sense that, though quick, there’s something there to see, something exposed, a “point that wounds” to quote Barthes’ Camera Obscura, then you’re right too. Case in point, I read From the Umberplatzen in a day. But it left me with something more than just a series of disposable images. It gave me frame-worthy moments.

Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly listed some of the objects the main character receives in the mail. The review listed a rabbit’s foot and kite tail instead of a ceramic frog key chain and a “little star made of kite silk.” We regret the error. 


 

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  • I always appreciate anyone taking the time to read a book I’ve written.  And I certainly appreciate them taking the time to write a review.  However, I do wish that the facts were kept straight when a review is undertaken. 

    David Backer, in his note to me, said he enjoyed the book.  After reading this review, I had to question that statement.   Because what David “observed” here bears little to no resemblance to my book “From the Umberplatzen.” 

    1– the cover photo is not of a ‘couple holding hands’.  It is a boy and girl under the age of 12 walking side by side in their school uniforms.  Here it serves as a metaphor for deep unabiding friendship.

    2–  The main character (Kitty) never receives a rabbit’s foot or the tail of a kite.

    3– Kitty’s relationship with M is a 2 year love affair (not a brief fling while she travels around Germany).  She moved there and worked there for a period of 2 years– which I spell out clearly in the book.

    3– there is nothing “throwaway” about what Kitty receives from M in the mail.  Each item brings forth a deep memory of their past relationship, and causes her to re-live it, which is told in that particular story.

    4– Re “tense”– the stories are told in flash-back, swinging into present tense.

    5– to label these stories as “shallow” does a great disservice to my book.  Robert Olen Butler who won the Pulitzer called the book “a brilliant mosaic of a novel.”

    6– FINALLY:  For David Backer to write that “every token has an odor of garbage” is one of the most DISTURBING PARTS OF THIS REVIEW. GARBAGE is an ugly and offensive term.  The reality is that every “token” or gift Kitty receives “reawakens” her deep love for M.

    I can understand someone “not getting” a book or a story.  Then why bother to review it???  This review is rife with incorrect factual information, and a summation that is completey off the mark.  My website http://www.susantepper.com contains dozens of reviews that ARE ON THE MARK.  I have met David Backer on several occassions and enjoyed his company.  I was pretty much stunned at how offensive this review turned out. 
    Susan Tepper 

    • Susan,

      Thank you for alerting us to the errors. We’ve corrected them, and we apologize for them. Regarding the rest of your concerns, we stand by this review and David Backer. If you have any further concerns, you’re welcome to write to me at alexshephard (at) full-stop (dot) net.
      All best,

      Alex Shephard

      • Dear Alex Shephard,

        You haven’t ‘corrected’ all the errors in David Backer’s review.

        1– My narrator did not have a ‘brief fling’ while travelling in Germany.  My narrator had “an intense 2 year love affair with a German man” while she lived in Germany for two years.  *** that is factually significant to the story that I wrote.  (not the story that David Backer re-wrote in his review).

        2-  The gifts and items my narrator receives from her lover in the mail are IN NO WAY DISGUSTING to her.  Quite the contrary, as was obvious to EVERY OTHER REVIEW DONE of my book.  Perhaps these things are DISGUSTING to your reviewer?  His statement is so patently absurd I could almost laugh (almost).

        3– “so she tosses the tokens away…. pushes them aside like useless gifts… cheap souvenirs whose significance has expired.”  (again per your reviewer).

        ***Not in the book I wrote.  Every item she got in the mail reawakened her love and passion for him and what she left behind in Germany.

        You might wish to take a look at some of the other reviews on my site that are accurate accountings of the characters and plot of my book.  

        Sincerely,
        Susan Tepper                  

    • just a reader

      Ms. Tepper, I sincerely hope my comment here is taken with the respectful spirit intended: simply put, the above review made me want to read your book; your response to it, however, has changed my mind. Publishing a book (as you have) is akin to taking part in a large literary conversation. Your response, here, and the obviously inappropriate posting, below, of preferred reviews and blurbs unfortunately suggests that you are not a very generous or trusting conversant. That’s a shame and I do hope I’m wrong on that. I’m guessing you will respond to this comment as well, but there is really no need.

  • RE: MY BOOK “FROM THE UMBERPLATZEN” ~ here are some other Reviews and Blurbs: 

    The stories in Susan Tepper’s From the Umberplatzen will haunt you. They are short, sharp, and ruthless in their tender investigations of memory and loss. — Steve Almond, author of God Bless America

    Susan Tepper knows extraordinary things about love, about its delicate negotiations and its quiet ravishments. She also is a master of the short short story form who has assembled forty eight stunning, small-scale stories into a brilliant mosaic of a novel. From the Umberplatzen is a dazzling artistic accomplishment. — Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain

    CONNOTATION PRESS Review

    METAZEN Review by Christopher Allen

    From the Umberplatzen is a long hot summer, a lovemaking of coffee and croissant, it is the profane and sacred, it is Kitty Kat and the mysterious M. In Susan Tepper’s work I find the radiant poetic decadence of Djuna Barnes, the undertow of light and dark in equal measure, and an added spice of quirky humor. Not only a chiseled, lyrical work, it is pleasurable to read.— Stephanie Dickinson, Skidrow Penthouse

    Your radiant little book arrived on xmas eve. How cool is that? But on xmas day, I had plenty of time and so was able to read From the Umberplatzen twice. ‘Twas my ‘xmas miracle’…. — Sally Reno, author and Writer/Producer Pacifica Radio AM/FM

    An outstanding read, Susan. Moves so well – piece to piece. Great story. — Sam Rasnake, Blue Fifth Review

    I’m so thoroughly taken with this book – I read it cover to cover as soon as it arrived. An outstanding, fantastic read by Susan Tepper. — Kari Nguyen, winner of the Glass Woman Prize

    Many more @ http://www.susantepper.com/[email protected]:disqus 

  • Meg Tuite

    “From the Umberplatzen,” was an exceptional read from beginning to end! I found the flash chapters illuminating and do agree that they are exquisite snapshots of moments in time of a potent love affair! I included all of the Amazon reviews of this extraordinary novel, “From the Umberplatzen.” I hope everyone gets a chance to read them and then buys a copy of this exciting novel by Susan Tepper! It’s one you do read in one sitting and then read and read again for inspiration! LOVE!

    • Microfiction

      This review is riddled with inaccuracies and should be discarded. Susan Tepper’s work is a literary achievement and deserves a more serious review.