100 Papers, a Book Review by Miriam N. Kotzin
Liesl Jobson. 100 Papers: a collection of prose
poems and flash fiction, Braamfontain, South Africa: Botsoso Publishing,
2008, pp. 179.
Flash fiction as a form is eminently suited to celebrate the heroism of small victories in the context of both quotidian and extraordinary circumstances. So perhaps we should not be surprised that so many of the protagonists of Liesl Jobson’s stunning collection 100 papers conquer through endurance that becomes in situ, a species of valor. Do not plan to race through these short pieces: allow time to experience the emotional response they elicit and to appreciate the style and symbolism in Jobson’s prose.
As one might expect, 100 papers is made up of one hundred prose poems and flashes—but it 100 Papers is also the title of the last story in the book, and an item on a shopping list written by someone with handwriting that’s difficult to decipher. These are short, not facile.
Among these pieces we find many about family life, especially the struggles of a mother to do right by her children, when they are often living with their father (her ex). In one powerful flash, “Cell” a mother and son text message each other, in the morning. The story ends with the mother/narrator saying about her son who stays 12 out of 14 nights with his dad, “It can’t get better than this.” Then adding, “If he slept each night in my house would we whisper so tenderly while he knotted his school tie?”
Others are about a teacher and her empathy for her students. The protagonist in other stories are musicians, music teachers and students. The instruments include oboe and contrabassoon--and attendant recurring struggles to create the perfect reed--piano, piccolo, violin, recorder and organ.
Jobson has an uncanny eye for the telling detail, an unflinching vision, a good ear, an economy of language, and the daring to wield similes and metaphors to create a strong reader response. Her work is significant because even while she writes about the most personal aspects of a life, she sees and places them in a social, political and historical context of South Africa, including poverty and AIDS. These stories and prose poems are powerful explorations of the personal.
In “Slam,” writing about a daughter:
“The girl has new scars like purple slugs in serried
ranks, crawling up her arm, but hard to the touch.
After she’d slashed herself, the dermatologist offered
scar plasters, but the deepest cuts approached the
artery.” The simile of the slug brings together both sight and touch and suggests the repugnant quality of the scars (though not, of course, the girl).
And in “Greetings”:
“Sometimes the session is an orderly chain of
questions and answers leading to a useful conclusion,
like algebra. More often it’s a moebius strip with
confusion curling along each side of a terrible loop,
and I can’t tell which side is true, which real. It’s
too hard to unravel the twisting loop that won’t lie
Today therapy is not like algebra. It is like trying
to calculate how to cross the scrolling moebius strip.
I want to find the edge of my despair, the place where
The mathematics simile and metaphor are intriguing:
the abstraction of algebra gives way to the
physicality of the moebius strip and the impossibility of the narrator achieving her goal.
Jobson has published regularly in Per Contra, and it is not surprising that we write in praise of her book: “The Jailer,” along with the longer pieces, which are not included in this collection: “Postcards from November,” “The Edge of the Pot.”
These 100 papers are short, not slight.
© 2005-2008 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas