Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews Tender Cuts by Jayne Martin. (Vine Leaves Press)
Quentin Tarantino has a gift: an ability to stretch tension. Building tension is one talent—increasing to something bigger than your starting point—but to sustain it is where the real skill comes in. It’s the same as a trumpet player hitting a high note, and then holding it. We’re emotionally moved by everything leading up to that moment, but what brings us to the edge of our seats is the anticipation of the note breaking and the song continuing. This is what Tarantino does: he brings us to the edge of our seat in anticipation of what’s about to happen next.
I thought about this sustained tension while I read through Jayne Martin’s new collection of flash fiction, Tender Cuts. I realize it seems counterintuitive to connect long, drawn-out tension with a book of stories that are no longer than a page, but that’s what initially drew me into Martin’s fiction. She’s able to quickly establish and build this note of tension that had me on the edge of my seat waiting for that break.
When I first began reading these stories, I saw them as a litmus test: Are you a glass half-full or half-empty kind of a person? We get snippets of a kid bringing a gun to school, a woman having a potential late-term miscarriage, and an immigrant being detained while having her children taken for a “bath,” to name a few. I was thinking: The kid just showed others the gun. The woman was on the way to the hospital. The baby will be fine, maybe the child is actually getting a bath. And I realized how foolish I was being. I recognized my thinking as being in the vein of half-full. No choice.
These stories were simply the buzz of activity before the character’s lives are forever ruined. And only someone with naïve sensibilities would think they could result in happy endings. Martin brings us to the edge of these tense moments, stops at the last possible moment, allows us to have the smallest bit of hope, but deep in our hearts we know what happens next. We know the despair and depression that follows, and it’s heartbreaking.
Martin brings us to the edge of these tense moments, stops at the last possible moment, allows us to have the smallest bit of hope, but deep in our hearts we know what happens next.
Towards the end, I thought the charm of these depressing little tales wore thin. It might have been because I’m a glutton for depressing art and decided to inhale Tender Cuts all in one sitting, but the stories started to resemble one another. I would have liked to see more variety within depression and sadness. Emotional wounds come in all lengths and depths, and I felt like Martin was making her cuts in the same spot at the same depth and it numbed me to the pain.
There is a recurring character spaced throughout the book. This element reinforces the fact that life is made up of small moments and converge into one roller-coaster of an experience. We all strive to hold on to the good memories—even if they happen to be right before a tragedy. Moments like these could happen once in your life, or over and over and over; but Jayne Martin is tasking us to think and focus on the snippets that aren’t bad.
I can appreciate that Martin’s basically playing chicken with our emotions, where we can find small amounts of joy in tragedy. In the end, thinking of the good memories is what helps us make that next step forward, and I can see this simmering below the surface of Tender Cuts.