Floating Tales by Jeff Friedman.
MadHat Press, 84 pp., 2017, $21.95
Reading the collection Floating Tales, Jeff Friedman’s seventh book, is indeed an experience of floating, a curious feeling of being in suspension, moving weightless from one tale to the next. “Tale,” or “mini-tale” is a good descriptor for these short narratives that might be prose poems or flash fiction, fables, parables or fairy tales. And the voice that speaks them to us might belong to a jovial surrealist, a fabulist, a comedian, an elfin rabbi, the holy fool, or even the satiric Sufi — Sheikh Nasruddin.
It might be helpful to the reader opening this book to know about the concept of ukiyo “the floating world,” from Japan’s Edo period (1615-1868). There are many definitions and treatises available on line, but a brief summative description on the Khan Academy website will provide a good introduction to ukiyo: “an imagined universe of wit, stylishness, and extravagance – with overtones of naughtiness, hedonism and transgression. Implicit was a contrast to the humdrum of everyday obligation” (https://tinyurl.com/yc7699em). Friedman’s floating tales reflect that floating world, and go beyond it with inventiveness and grace. Some of the tales are laugh-out-loud funny, some bawdy, some deeply moving, and some just downright weird; they are the work of a skillful poet-linguist who is not afraid to follow the thread of an idea wherever it wants to go. Here is a poet with a keen ear for the music of language, and a clear eye for life’s absurdities, great and small.
Each of Friedman’s floating tales is no longer than one page, and many are much shorter. The very first tale in the book, “White Feather” (1) is a kind of introduction. The first line of the tale, “After Alexsandra kissed me, a white feather flew out of my mouth,” leads to another kiss, another feather, and finally a dove flying out of the speaker’s mouth. Alexsandra carries the bird outside, where she throws it in the air, it lands on a branch and Alexsandra speaks “‘We’ll figure this out,’ she said, squeezing my hand, but I could already feel a tickling in my throat as the dove began singing.”
The final tale in the book, closing the section “Fate Written on the Forehead” is titled “Whole World in His Hands,” (81) and seems like a slant satire on the old song “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” It begins “He’s got the oceans in his hands and all the animals, insects and birds, even though the birds soar into the sky,” then brings the speaker back to the dove. The tale’s last sentence ends the book: with “Soon it’ll come tumbling down, leaving only empty space and a few white feathers cupped in his hands.” We can imagine a god, or the speaker, his tickling finally relieved by telling us the 70+ tales floating from his throat.
The five sections in between the first and last tale have titles that more or less relate to the tales told in each section. “Beginnings” has a biblical feel as there are a number of references to characters and stories from the Hebrew bible. It could ground us in familiarity and progression, but the section starts with “Nothing,” (5) a mind-bending tale that personifies “nothing” and includes the lines:
…Hold on to your self as if you are holding on to nothing. Pretend that nothing exists and you won’t be disappointed. Pretend that nothing doesn’t exist, and nothing will surprise you…Nothing touches you with tenderness and tears. Nothing tells you what you want to hear. Nothing takes it all and gives it to you again.
After “Beginnings,” we move to “In Love and Family” with tales of relationships, parenting, love and loss, and situations the reader will recognize, often carried to extremes. The next section “A Hole in My Middle” contains two of the most humorous tales: “Difficult Times” (40) is a piece of comic corporate theatre about layoffs, and anyone who has ever used visual media in a speech will enjoy “PowerPoint Presentation” (41) with real mice, an owl, Paul Krugman, Obama eating pizza, among other wonderfully absurd moments. The Section “Puppet Show” features a few very fractured fairy tales – Sleeping Beauty as reality TV for instance — but like the other sections, this one has plenty of more serious messages to offer, sometimes in darkly comic tales, sometimes not so comic.
Though there is much about Floating Tales that the reader can enjoy simply for wit, word-play, inventive writing, and an off-kilter view of human life; she will likely find herself also contemplating, among other things, family dynamics, the role of religion in human life, our stratified economic system, present politics, the bad consequences of changing oneself to suit another person, and whether we ever really know the people we love.