If you’ve ever found yourself musing on the possible when it comes to the rest of the population —what’s the story behind that window across the street, or behind the eyes of the stranger you pass on another street—you’re likely to get a kick out of Peek, a decidedly urban collection of very short fictions by Paul Beckman. This book takes us there: through the windows, into the minds behind those eyes, onto commuter trains, into the apartments and hotel rooms, of these others who live in our world. There’s a temptation to call these stories “voyeuristic”, but that would be too easy, and could be somewhat misleading. Instead, let’s call them insightful.
Like looking into a diorama, these small openings provide a wider and more detailed view of interior lives than one might expect. Flash fiction is all about economy and suggestion, and Beckman is a master of both. Through sparsely arranged details and briefly glimpsed thoughts, whole lives are suggested—usually in stories that last a page or two, and sometimes less. And while these stories often deal with sex, the prurient implication behind the term “voyeurism” is inaccurate here: far from being some kind of erotica, Beckman’s stories deal with the frustrations, missed connections, the sometimes sad and ugly truths behind people’s desires and fantasies, rather than indulging in the fantasies themselves. Then, sometimes, when the fantasy becomes a reality—as in “The Most Gorgeous Daughter”—we’re faced with the most bitter of the sweet: the realization that to become lost in fantasy usually means to completely lose touch with reality.
Beckman’s greatest achievement in these stories might be that in the midst of the often tawdry and fantastic details of these people’s lives and situations, he provides us the opportunity for empathy: to feel, however briefly, the emotional tug of caring for people we’ve never met and are never likely to. That doesn’t mean they don’t often remind us, at least in some aspects, of people we know or have known—and that’s where the empathic reaction comes into play. We’re all familiar with feelings of regret, situations of moral ambiguity, and so on. Without necessarily ever having known a father and daughter like the ones in “By The Way, Did You Know That Mom Died?” we can still, with a little imagination, picture ourselves in either or both of their shoes. That’s the beauty of a perfectly crafted piece of flash fiction: Boom, you’re there; and then there are the aftershocks of that quick explosion of recognition, because great stories never really end after you’ve finished reading them.
There are quite a few laughs in this book, wry and dry though they may be: “It’s All Because of the News”, “Help Is On the Way” and several other stories bring out the hilarious in squirmy-to-awful scenarios. In fact, even the most touchingly sad stories in the collection have a detached amusement to them: Beckman refuses to pander to sentimentalism, even as he evokes finely-wrought emotions, and it often feels as if he were watching these characters from a plane or through a telescope.
Another thing to savor about this collection is the care with which the whole thing was obviously crafted, or shaped: there is a serial running through the book, a group of stories about four characters named Mirsky, Shelley, Bernice and Elaine—and these episodes feel perfectly spaced, acting as both a kind of tiny novel (which they could easily be, if read back to back) and a palate cleanser between the other stories clustered through the book. Finally, they also feel like a microcosm of the whole collection, with their fly-on-the-wall, matter-of-factly intimate observations of a romantic quadrangle, a fractured family of sorts, and a queasy/cozy round-robin set of lies and games none of us could have possibly seen from such an omniscient perspective, without the help of the wonderful Paul Beckman. Yes, I just called him wonderful: does that seem excessive? Hyperbolic? Have you read this book yet? There are wonders inside; but don’t take my word for it. Take a peek and see for yourself.