Cluster forms have become popular on account of this function (above) which allows a reader to fill in the gaps taking the knowledge of one short section into another which seems to operate independently to it, but can be read as interrelated.
In Leonard Michaels’ Girl With a Monkey there is sequence of micro fictions ‘Eating Out’ (2008, 85-99). In amongst these there are sections where the narrator appears to be speaking with his mother. These crop up randomly throughout the section, however there is a logical progression to the manner in which they appear. Four phone calls, broken up by other micro fictions, only some of which are relevant to (what can be assumed to be) the phone calls. The relevance is in their provision of background information such as one which recounts the time the narrator’s mother invited him to a bar mitzvah, while in another equally unrelated early memory she is shown taking the narrator when he is only ten years old, to see a movie as a reward: ‘I didn’t know what movie it would be. Neither did my mother. She couldn’t read’ Michaels comments. Later he tells us she uses a Polish word (‘Na’).The history is in those brief details. Elsewhere he notes ‘My family came from Poland, they never went any place until they had heart attacks’ (2008, 17) They are the past. These phone calls are an urgent present state, even when he uses the storytelling past of ‘My mother said,’ rather than the more urgent ‘says’. These four micros about Ma are disrupted by what has been read between (and most bear little relationship to the Ma pieces). While these appear to function like phone calls, the phrase ‘I dialled’ only relates to stories which surround them. Yet, they seem to ring sporadically disturbing us from the longer sequence of fragments causing us to listen in. So, rather than read these tiny sections, it is as if we have found ourselves with a crossed line down which and we hear someone’s mother speaking to their son. In fact, only the last Ma fragment has the clear instruction ‘I phoned’. However, ‘My mother said, “So? What’s new?”’ (89) is a phone-speak short-hand which eschews the usual face-to-face protocols of meeting and greeting. This is fast, down to business, calls-cost-money-speak. And so, in the middle of the section we have to stop as readers, and take the call, just like Michaels, or we’ll have to ring her back. We read inside the situation Michaels places us in, while we remain outside as between the narrator and the Ma figure, is the
Silence and the short story form 119 weight of their personal history, which we cannot know, even as we feel we learn so much.
The repeat format of the calls lets us share the narrator’s frustration with their familiarity. Everything is bad, and there are troubles which Ma will no doubt tell us about if we would only give her time. But time we haven’t got, this call is running out and there is another, urgent fragment to be read.
When removed from the surrounding text and set out following the order in which they appear on the pages, it becomes apparent how they hang together as a cluster sequence with clear progression from the first one, leading up to a final exasperated claim from Ma’s adult child (the narrator). The sense of fatalism and of dread builds up every time she answers.
‘I knew it. I had a feeling. I could tell,’ she says. Always expecting the worst she urges, ‘What? You can tell me,’ but is always ahead of the news. When he asks if she knows what happened she replies with dread fatalism, ‘Oh, my God.’
That there can only be bad news is borne out by their own social history. Michaels trusts the reader. Much of the humour (and there is plenty) is in the imagined reaction shots of the worn-out son who knows that his mother’s universe is a place where even when things are good, they are bad. In the final section when he phones to tell her that everything is good, overemphasising this in his frustration, she delivers her coup de grâce, which has been building up throughout.
‘I feel good, even wonderful. Everything is great ...’ he says, telling her things have been like this for months,1... and it’s getting better. Better, better, better ...’ and we could leave it there, but he makes the mistake of asking how she is. The reader winces, knowing he has cornered himself.
She said, ‘Me?’
I said, ‘Yes, how are you?’
‘Me?’ she said. ‘Don’t make me laugh.’
Their world, their relationship, their shared history is complete and it is beyond the page.