Short stories have long been the laboratory for fiction where the best writers experiment with narrative and character, allowed by the lower-risk short word length.
Australian stories typically tap out at 3,000 words as they are no longer published in magazines, while American short stories are still allowed to ramble longer often hitting 5,000 words, thanks to their slightly more healthy periodical publishing industry.
But Chris Flynn isn’t one for the typical, and if there are short story rules he gleefully flouts them in this collection that switches between short pieces and near-novellas in a way that is as playful as it is powerful.
The other beauty of short stories is that they fly under the radar, so a writer feels like they can dance without a marketing department watching them. Bestselling short story collections are an oxymoron but Here Be Leviathans isn’t searching for readers as much as stretching the form.
While some of the stories are offcuts from his meaty previous novel Mammoth, Flynn clearly relishes the chance to slip his skin and play other characters. From sabretooth tigers to a vengeful bushfire, Flynn stretches the first person to be almost everything but humans.
It’s hard to pick a favourite narrator (a retired airplane seat, the supportive hotel room, a Shakespearean simian sent to the stars) but the intellectual bogan platypi (though they would point out that they prefer the Greek plural platypodes) in the story Monotreme are the clever observation.
Because they have overheard their lab technicians talking they’ve developed language skills as confused as the Australian intellectual – at once showing off big ideas but finding it necessary to undercut them with swearing and casual larrikinism.
It makes for solid laughs as the older platypus tell their young puggles (Jayden and Kai, of course) to get to their rooms or debate the merits of artworks. It’s the kind of ear for dialogue that deserves a bigger audience and could have equally been published in Playboy (which in the US has published Margaret Atwood and Roald Dahl) or a pulp publication like Amazing Stories.
While Flynn knows interesting characters are at the core of good short stories, he uses those colourful first person voices to distract us from a creeping up of plot and as a way to create empathy with the natural world.
The story Inheritance somehow convinces us that a blood-lusting bear actually did the right thing by eating a teenager. By the story’s close that bear narrator has us thinking that humans need to understand their interdependence with ecosystems or they will bite us back.
That retired airplane seat in 22F is better off returning to nature than encouraging more fossil-fuel travel, and even the ravaging pandemic in The Straits of Magellan gets a voice to tell humans they are reuniting with their world whether they like it or not. The latter story could have been a thriller or a horror film, but the paring back to a 50-ish page story removes the flab and makes it a taut short story.
As a collection Here Be Leviathans rips though genre and tears up the short story rule book as Flynn capers into any subject he likes. The titular Here be Leviathans set in a de-extinction theme park for macho company men had the humour and potency of early George Saunders stories.
And like Saunders, Flynn makes it look light when there is some heavy work. At the collection’s close, there is an ‘Afterword/Acknowledgements/Blame Apportioned’ detailing some of the origins and ideas for each of the stories. It is the kind of behind-the-scenes peek that shows the craft and care in every very word of these experiments. Flynn says some were almost novels, honed back to sharper short fiction. His last word in the book are: ‘Short stories are misleadingly named. They take ages.’
All that labour pays off with fantastic stories that only hint at the iceberg of work beneath.
Here Be Leviathans, Chris Flynn
Publication: 1 September 2022