“Review: Nancy Stohlman’s Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities” by Jonathan Montgomery

Nancy Stohlman’s latest collection of flash fiction, Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities, (Big Table Publishing, 2018) is a book about freaks… 

Actually, it may not really even be pure flash fiction.  Altho Nancy really invests in the label (spearheading Denver’s 5+ year running monthly FBomb reading, giving numerous workshops and interviews on the genre, as well as facilitating this November’s ‘Flash Nano’ 30 flash stories in 30 days challenge) I see her work as going beyond that. Flash has a pretty clear definition of fiction that is under 1000 words but still tells a complete story. And while Madam Velvet’s contains 81 mostly one page (some even one line) pieces, they build upon each other both narratively and thematically over the book’s 99 pages. Any of the stories could hold up independently, but may be best experienced as the sum that’s greater than its parts.  

The cast of the Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities – Mercury Cafe Show 10/26/18… (photo credit: Roseanna Frechette)

If you want an easily labeled genre that best defines this work, you may have to make one up. In Madam Velvet’s Nancy continues to explore the multi-dimensional frontiers of earlier works, particularly 2013’s The Monster Opera (Bartleby Snopes), a story-within-a-story opera/fiction hybrid which challenges the idea that a work of prose must be confined to the page.  While it can be a satisfying experience reading Madam Velvet’s quietly to yourself, it is also flexible enough to open itself up to full-fledge theatrical production. Recently Nancy and an ensemble of her creative allies (including me) performed it at the Mercury Café in Denver, bringing the stories to life with costumes, props, and music (composed by Nancy’s talented long-time collaborator, pianist Nick Busheff). It might be more appropriate to call this book something like ‘Performance Fiction.’ A term I’ve always felt could describe my own work as well. And, hey, if there are two of us, I guess now it can be an official genre.

So yeah, Madam Velvet’s is a book about freaks. It recalls an earlier internet/tv/motionpicture-less era, when the traveling circus provided an unrivaled level of entertainment. Sideshow performers, usually with physical anomalies, would captivate audiences, at the same time becoming magnets for exploitation and tragedy.  Real historical accounts of these acts, such as The Human Skeleton and The Bearded Lady, are dispersed throughout the book. You can draw some parallels to modern times, and how, despite the world’s wildly different means of entertainment, the idea of the artist/performer as freak still endures. We may have worn makeup and costumes to transform into eccentric characters for Nancy’s show, but perhaps not so far under the surface we also feel like we have little else to offer the world but to expose ourselves and be gawked at, for better or worse.

In fact, this book satirically targets the whole notion of celebrity, especially with the fictional super-product Instant Fame*. “1-3 sprays for local fame.. 8+ sprays for international fame.” And the ‘My Father’ series, in which the character is so desperate to break a world record he’s willing to pet a shark for nine hours. It’s relatable to me and probably any other writer who has dreamed of making it big, even as all the evidence seems to suggest there’s not really much of an ‘it’ to make big in this field anymore.

Scene list – Mercury Cafe Show 10/26/18 (photo credit: Roseanna Frechette)

It goes hand in hand with another significant theme of the book – promotion. Several of the pieces seem designed to be read on a soapbox with a booming voice and robust curly-q mustache, including “Instant Fame,” “Fantasy HandJob Brothel,” and “Traveling Medicine Show.” They’re symbolic of our marketing-saturated culture, in which we’re regularly convinced we can’t live without the things we’re currently living without, at the same time we’re trying to convince the world they can’t live without us. But perhaps we wouldn’t even be so ambitious for this kind of attention if the sales pitch for that idea wasn’t so catchy itself.

Finally, the book is about the persuasion of ourselves by ourselves. The narrator and her mirror reflection adventure together thru several episodes, representing our divided psyches, consistently giving itself poor advice on things like Nigerian Princes, Ringmaster threesomes, and $12,000 cab rides. It causes you to wonder if there’s anywhere to feel safe anymore in this world of cons and deceptions when you can’t even trust yourself.

You could also enjoy this collection as a tour thru a whimsical fantasyworld of clowns and fortune tellers, dog-faced boys and four-legged ladies and not think too much into it. But it’s very satisfying to me as someone 20 years into their writing career contemplating the absurdity of all these aspirations I’ve had. Perhaps we could let go of all striving and yearning, and see the point of art as just making an impact on a couple of people who really get you. If so Nancy has done it. 

Otherwise, step right up and get your copy of Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities today! You can bet your bottom dollar this miracle new literary product will cure all that ails ya, at an unbeatable price! Operators are standing by! Don’t delay! 


Jonathan Montgomery is editor-in-chief of Boulder Poetry Tribe.  He’s a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University.  The author of Pizzas and Mermaid, Taxis & Shit, and brand new novel The Reality Travelerhe lives in Boulder and teaches English at Front Range Community College.  You can read more of his creative work at jonathanbluebirdmontgomery.com