Penelope, the twenty–year old narrator, is a sometime guitarist and songwriter with a good colour sense and a social conscience. She has kicked a drug habit and is now mainly drinking and jamming in after-hours clubs. Caught between jobs and birth control methods, she finds herself pregnant after a drugged threesome, involving sexy but potentially violent Stan, who becomes a frightening stalker. At the same time, she is increasingly attracted to Theo, a slightly older bass player who shares Penelope's poetic take on the world, but who, unlike her, sticks with people and jobs. Theo fins Penelope work with him silk screening T-shirts and their relationship begins to develop into something more than friendship, a fact not lost on Theo's wife.
Motion Sickness, a flash novel consisting of 55 chapters of exactly 500 words, each accompanied by a scratchboard illustration, follows one young woman’s humorous and poignant misadventures in the worlds of employment, friendship, dating, birth control and abortion. Smart, engaging and well-written, the novel deals with the life of a young single person finding her way in the world of work and love.
Ursula Pflug is author of the critically acclaimed slipstream novel Green Music (2002). She has published over 70 short stories in professional publications in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. She has published dozens of art and book reviews in Canada and the U.S., and has had several plays professionally produced, one solo-authored (Nobody Likes The Ugly Fish, 1994), and the remainder collaboratively created. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and has also been shortlisted for the Aurora, the Sunburst, Pulp Press’s 3-Day Novel, Descant’s Novella Contest, and many more. Currently, she edits short fiction for The Link and teaches creative writing with a focus on the short story at Loyalist College. Her story collection After the Fires appeared in 2008 and Harvesting The Moon, a new collection, is forthcoming. Her novel, The Alphabet Stones, was published in 2013.
"A picaresque miniature, Motion Sickness describes a young urban woman’s bewildering adventures on the verge of the real as she learns to trust friendship, and finally, love. This little book is a winner. Each of the facing pages forms a delightful and inextricable unit: a starkly-incised illustration and a 500-word chapter, with titles that read like a poem. Ursula Pflug’s voice is unique, funny and tough, and the dialogue is so exact it can be heard. SK Dyment’s dark and whimsical illustrations play with and enhance the tersely visual prose."
—Heather Spears , Author, artist, winner of Governor-General's Award for Poetry
Motion Sickness flash fiction by Ursula Pflug, illustrations by S.K. Dyment
Reviewed by Meghan Bell, Room Magazine , Vol. 38.3
Speculative fiction author Ursula Pflug ventures into a new realm with Motion Sickness, a “flash novel” told in fifty-five chapters of exactly five hundred words, accompanied by scratchboard illustrations by SK Dyment.
Twenty-year-old Penelope spends most of her time getting “blotto” and playing music. After she meets and jams with an older bass player named Theo and they mistakenly swap journals, she decides he’s “Mr. Right” based on a line of his poetry: “Hearts on ropes and flowers on telephone poles.” Unfortunately, when she returns to the club to look for him, she ends up in a drugged threesome with the “potentially” dangerous Stan and his girlfriend. The encounter leaves Penelope pregnant, and Stan obsessed with her. To make matters worse, it’s later revealed that Theo is married.
Motion Sickness is disorienting—dizzying, even. Penelope is an unreliable narrator: she’s easily distracted, preoccupied, and, frequently, drunk. In one scene, she thinks to herself: “If you drank less you might remember more.” She’s “so good at living in the present [she] didn’t even remember last week’s conversations.” Facts introduced in one chapter are forgotten in later ones, and speculations grow into belief.
Because I spent time looking at Dyment’s illustrations before reading each section, the “flash novel” format broke the flow of reading for me—even when the new chapter began seconds after the previous one ended. Initially, I flipped back to reread scenes, but when I stopped and accepted the reality of each chapter as a self-contained flash fiction, I became more fully immersed in Penelope’s in-the-moment realities. The format of the novel perfectly reflects and enhances the perspective of the narrator—the disjointed, disconnected vignettes recreate the feeling of being twenty, self-focused, overly imaginative, and drunk.
At times, the supporting characters feel underdeveloped—which can largely be attributed to Penelope’s narrow point of view—and, in particular, I was frustrated by the storyline with Theo’s wife, Annabelle. The only thing we ever learn about Annabelle is that she works at the hospital and broke her husband’s leg with a baseball bat because of his emotional affair with Penelope. It’s an easy cop-out, allowing the reader to side with Penelope in her desire to break up their relationship without any real emotional barriers or a nuanced understanding of what it means to fall in love.
Pflug’s history as a speculative fiction writer is apparent—Penelope’s story exists out of time and without the boundaries of logic. Toronto is reduced to a self-contained microcosm, where people are known only on a first-name basis and stumble into each other in unexpected places. In other ways, the story is firmly rooted in reality. There is no magic here, only gritty surrealism, an inverted reality that is complemented by Dyment’s illustrations. As a side note, colour (especially red) plays a huge role in the story, and I thought it was an interesting choice to use black and white art, and leave colour and its significance to the reader’s imagination.
“Coffee?” he asked.
Penelope finally sat up. “You play a mean bass.”
“Thanks. But how do you take your coffee?”
“Regular’s fine.” She still looked terrible, in a wonderful sort
of way. Theo was beginning to wonder how he had spent the
morning in the same bed with these two women and not done
anything other than sleep. Something to do with the volume of
alcohol consumed, possibly.
He stared at the dirty window, a crack running diagonally from
corner to corner. He let his eyes
zoom and focus past the sooty smudged pane, to the new green
leaves on the sumac tree outside. Trees Of Heaven, their roots,
like black walnuts, poisoned everything in their vicinity.
They really wanted to survive.
He looked at the sumac, remembering how he had studied
Penelope and Valerie’s faces while all three rode the morning’s
first streetcar through what still appeared to be night. He had
been reminded of something he’d wanted since childhood but had
never been able to define, and had certainly never experienced.
I’ll know it when I see it. And last night, he had.
At last Penelope took the coffee from Theo but kissed his fingers
before she returned them.
It wouldn’t matter if they never spoke of it. Even if he never
saw her again, the gift would remain intact.