Today, we will read Sticks by George Saunders. It’s a flash fiction of 392 words.
You can read the short story online here.
About the Author
George Saunders is the award-winning author of eleven books. His book, Lincoln in the Bardo, won the 2017 Man Booker Prize for best work of fiction in English. He was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2013. You can read his stories that have appeared regularly in The New Yorker since 1992. The story Sticks that we will read and discuss today is from his award-winning short story collection ‘Tenth of December.’
I had recently attended an Instagram Live session of Andaleeb Wajid, who spoke at length about writing flash fiction along with recitals of her own brilliant stories in various genres.
Short stories are trickier to write than they seem. The lesser the word count, the more challenging it gets.
Andaleeb Wajid came up with exciting analogies comparing flash fiction to a wall painting for its compactness and boundaries.
Flash fiction usually ranges from 5-1500 words and is typically action-oriented and light. It is for this reason why Andaleeb compared flash fiction to popcorn. The reader mindlessly consumes the content without overthinking and pondering over it.
It’s why Sticks by George Saunders literally sticks out from the crowd of fluffy-light flash fiction. There is no way one can read and not be blown away by the impact of this tiny tale as you ponder over its layers.
George Saunders does wonders with his short story Sticks, laden with subtext, imagery, and metaphors.
We are introduced to an imperfect father by his adult son in this story—a father with several quirks, including an obsession with a metal pole.
We see his happiness manifest during the Holidays in the first paragraph and get the hint when the son says it was his father’s only concession to glee.
As the story unfolds quickly, we get a glimpse into the dysfunctional family. Questions run in one’s mind now.
A control-freak father with anger issues. Was he abusive as well?
“We left home, married, had children of our own, found the seeds of meanness blooming also within us.”
The son is conscious that his father may have negatively influenced him on a subconscious level. As a reader, you feel sick to the stomach that this vicious cycle might never end in the family. You are now aware of two unlikeable characters in the story.
But then, you see the father slowly slip into oblivion when he lives in an empty nest. The pole, which was earlier decked up in all gaiety during the Holidays, starts taking complex, sinister, and even morose forms.
We see the father’s human side when he expresses his feelings through the metal pole towards the end of the story. We see displays of love, guilt, and regret via the pole.
There are now more questions running in one’s head.
Did the father suffer from any mental illnesses?
Was his deteriorating mental health an excuse for his bad behaviour, and perhaps, abuse?
The story ends on a sombre note, with the father’s death and disposal of the metal pole on garbage day.
To me, the pole is a metaphor for life.
“For dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.” – Genesis 3:19
It’s a mere two-paragraph story. But what makes the Sticks unforgettable for me is how it packs a punch in a few words.
What are your thoughts on Sticks by George Saunders?