Review of I'm Not Saying, I'm Just Saying by Matthew Salesses
Washington, D.C.: Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2013. 134 pp. $13.95, paper.
Following the story of a narrator who unexpectedly finds himself a father after an ex-lover dies and leaves behind their biological son, I'm Not Saying, I'm Just Saying by Matthew Salesses is a beautiful novel that explores origin and identity. Comprised of a series of flash fiction chapters, the novel's form reflects this journey toward selfhood as the narrator experiences it—through fleeting moments that are, at times, abrupt and shocking, but altogether are poignant steps toward his acceptance and love for his son.
From the beginning of the novel, Salesses establishes that the nameless narrator has only a vague perception of himself and those around him. The majority of the characters are nameless, or rather, they have half-names. The narrator calls his son "Dumbo ears," and his lovers "wifely woman," "white girl," and "Asian girl," a choice that further exemplifies the narrator's lacking awareness of both his identity and the identity of others. This lack of recognition and the resulting sense of detachment have dramatic effects on the narrator as they prevent him from any kind of satisfaction and only pull him into a self-defeating persona where he identifies himself only as a "mystery" and as someone who is "nowhere." As the novel progresses, the narrator attempts to push himself further into anonymity by self-medicating with drugs, sex, and alcohol, until all that happens around him becomes "fuzzy around the edges." However, his son has an uncanny ability to reach his father through this haze and force the narrator to see himself and his life in such a way that he had been too afraid to do before.
The narrator calls the boy a "reminderer," and the name is fitting because the boy acts as almost a mirror image of the narrator, imitating what the narrator says and does, and in doing so, the boy reveals truths both touching and horrifying about the narrator and his life. In a brilliant design move, Salesses illustrates this mimicry in the way the pages of the novel are numbered—each page number placed within the body of a shaded fish and each fish a mirror image of the one on the previous page just as the narrator and his child act as mirror images of each other.
The fish on these pages resemble the fish on the cover image, a vibrant red fish-shaped kite that is led by a young child walking across a field just as the boy in this novel leads his father closer to fulfillment and self-identification. By the end, the narrator has reached a calmer and more settled place in his life as he watches his son play in the ocean. When the boy comes back to where the narrator is waiting for him on the shore, the boy "doesn't seem to know why he was dripping, or how to make himself stop," and in ending the book on this line, Salesses conveys to his readers that their story is one still very much complicated and full of questions. The story ends, but in the same sense, keeps going as father and son have made progress in knowing themselves and each other, but still have a long way to go.
As such, the novel acts as a beautiful portrait of self-discovery, and does so through an innovative narrative frame, the novel's chapters stories in themselves, ones with a definite beginning, middle, and end. Additionally, these chapters mark realizations for the narrator in that he is always at a more developed emotional place by a chapter's end, a progression that becomes more touching as the novel advances and the narrator's complicated relationship with his son begins to simplify. These short, episodic chapters also help convey the urgency of the narrator's need to find love, not only for his son, but also for himself.
While the flash fiction genre is not exactly new, I'm Not Saying, I'm Just Saying is a novel that pushes the boundaries of this genre and ultimately, succeeds. In doing do, I'm Not Saying, I'm Just Saying is a brilliant achievement that provides a lovely example of not only the capability of flash fiction in telling a story like this one, but also the necessity of doing so.
Tawnysha Greene received her PhD in English from the University of Tennessee where she served as the fiction editor of Grist: The Journal for Writers. Her work has appeared in PANK, Bellingham Review, and is forthcoming in Weave Magazine.