Colin Fleming - People living inside a noise machine discuss romance, a small group of musicians plays the background track to a couple’s life, an amateur videographer searches for his vanished wife in his movies, wondering when she started slipping out of the frame
Colin Fleming, The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe, Dzanc, 2015.
In eighteen thematically linked stories, Colin Fleming explores the ways in which relationships end, with a focus on the void a loved one leaves behind. In “Fire with Legs,” the inhabitants of a noise machine discuss the end of a previous relationship, and the life that went with it. In “Playing in Room B,” an amateur videographer searches for his vanished wife in his movies, wondering when she started slipping out of the frame. In “Green Wood,” a man examines the death of his wife and the certainty of reality in a world where the TV program never changes. In “The Char Paper Blues Band,” a tiny group of professional musicians provides the background track to a couple’s life, from blissful harmony to the gradual souring of the song. Through magical realism and extended metaphor, Fleming explores the epiphenomena of failed relationships, the flotsam left behind in the wreckage of life as it was
Colin Fleming, Between Cloud and Horizon: A Relationship Casebook in Stories, Texas Review Press, 2013.
Between Cloud and Horizon: A Relationship Casebook in Stories is an examination of what defines the relationships that define each of us, and the myriad forms they take, in a story collection that doubles as a casebook of how we interact with each other.
It is an exposé—in narrative—of what binds—or breaks—the bonds between fathers and sons, partners in crime, brothers, roommates, bandmates, co-workers, the past and the present, man and machine, the living and the dead, book and reader.
“Colin Fleming’s stories exhibit many of the qualities that have distinguished his criticism: namely, a fierce but disciplined intelligence, a singular view of society—and, sometimes, those who live in isolation from mainstream society—and a well-earned and convincing compassion. All of this, in a debut collection of stories written in eloquent prose, at once vivid, hypnotically precise, and always bursting with energy.” —Richard Burgin
“The range, the range: there are knotty stories here and straightforward ones, lighter moments and moments that will drag you, like an anchor, into a sea where you will willingly drown. There are fragments of high culture like Turgenev and fragments of low culture like Sega. And beneath it all, there’s a single purpose in Colin Fleming’s Between Cloud and Horizon, a unifying drive—to lay bare the infernal, angelic messiness of human relationships, whether between fathers and sons, friends, lovers, or strangers.”—Ben Greenman
“From the father and son bonding over videos of Mark ‘The Bird’ Fidrych to the con man obsessed with Big Star’s manic-depressive third album, Colin Fleming has a knack for detail that gives his stories genuine inertia and makes them feel wonderfully true to life. Between Cloud and Horizon is the work of a writer who’s no tourist in the interior world but keeps finding things to love about the real one.” —Christian Hoard
You get the sense, reading this off-kilter collection of stories, that somewhere in the background, jazz is playing. Bop, probably. The plotlines and patter of the characters tootle off every which way, high and low, with now and then a nod to the theme. Sometimes (as in the sax work of Coleman Hawkins, cited in one story) the theme peters out. Such bold flightiness is both the weakness of Colin Fleming’s writing and its strength.
What you don’t get is much grounding in the material world: No red wheelbarrow, not even a blue nude. Again, the effect is musical. For all that we see—a mud hut and a hole in the ground—a story set in Botswana might as well be in the Bronx. The starkness gives these fables a universality or, just as arguably, a lostness in space.
The first story, “Terry from the Cape,” begins on an estuary and recalls Joseph Conrad’s Marlow commencing his tale while afloat on the Thames at sunset, with sails hanging slack and a three-legged lighthouse on a shoal. Fleming allows only that his river “ceases to be a salt water river and gives itself over to the ocean proper.” Nothing to see here. Yet the river does evoke a feel of merging and becoming, a letting go.
Things shape up with the coming of Terry, the first in a long conga line of grotesques. Rotund and wearing clothing from four different Boston sports teams all at once, he’s the consummate radio talk-show caller, the seer who somehow knows what all the jocks are plotting. He floats a rumor that he nearly made the Patriots roster back in 1978. One night, he carries this gig too far, avowing that his “advanced knowledge of baseball metrics” has won him a front-office job with the Red Sox. Moreover, he might “take on Mr. Joshua Slocum” and sail around the world in his homemade boat—a completely unseaworthy craft fitted out with old seats from Fenway Park. The tale hangs on what Conrad termed the romance of illusions: Cornered by his own extravagant claims, Terry does set out on that voyage, in the dark of night and in a fearsome gale. You feel for the guy.
It’s less clear what Fleming is up to in “Hail, the Eye.” This seems the centerpiece story, if the preface is any guide. Again, a grotesque lurks at the heart of darkness—this time a monstrous eyeball, three feet high—along with two brothers and the wife of both of them, a threesome who come to Botswana to scam the locals. This they do by stealing cattle from one village and bestowing them on another, then attributing the good fortune to the costly gems, eye agates, they have sold to the lucky new herders. They get away with it until the Eye, the three-footer, steps in. Is this breakaway organ, in fact, God, in some judgmental guise? Or the brothers’ guilty conscience? The Eye fries their hut, one of the brothers is imprisoned in the hole, and things go on from there.
At times the language feels tossed off too breezily, like a fast-food sack flung from a speeding car. (You wonder why scraps like this weren’t tidied up: “One whom—and this really pricked up my ears—hailed from Gloucester, oddly enough.”) Yet the wayside debris can be overlooked, given the pace and inventive fervor, even joy, of these motley tales. The jazziness plays well in “Bone’s Blues,” about a circumspect tenor who bows out of a quintet just as it’s riding high on his shoulders. “The Dedicated Antiquarian,” told by a languid law student in Boston, opens with an echo of Nabokov:
When you’re engaged to be married, it’s probably not wise to live with a woman who is not your fiancée. I am no romantic acrobat, lithely swinging from one partner to another.
The woman not his fiancée is, happily, a sleepwalking lesbian with whom he shares nocturnal missions to the basement of their apartment house. There they find a storage unit packed with rare editions of Proust and Ambrose Bierce belonging to another grotesque, a “troll-like” mobster who lives on their hall.
The witty “Padraig and Lorcan” seems weirdly prescient. A duo of down-and-out scammers alight in Detroit and set themselves up as “communal organizers,” forthrightly dubbing the folks they organize “vagrants” and “bums.” Hard by the Dime Building they establish a “Decider Wall,” with crushed beer cans spelling out poems and uplifting slogans. Vagrant contributions are invited, literary and—more to the point—monetary. The media glom on, running fulsome reports on the “Transient Pride Wall.”
Poignant, improvised, messy. This is the country of Colin Fleming, the one in which we live. - PARKER BAUER
Colin Fleming, Dark March: Stories for When the Rest of the World is Asleep, Outpost19, 2013.
An island who becomes ambulatory and has adventures upon the land. A frigate captain with a singularly artistic method of punishment. Gulls who are players. Crabs who crack wise. A garage encrusted in blue crystals that harbors a secret. Rival haunted forests fighting for top billing. And a man who navigates that dream world known to anyone who has had a life pulled out from under them and a heart replaced with a question that has a beat of its own:
What the hell is happening to me? What the hell is happening to me? What the hell is happening to me?
Dark March may be happening to you. And probably some other things, too.
"Colin Fleming is one of the truly exciting and significant writers of his generation." - Richard Burgin
In “Dark March,” Colin Fleming’s linked collection of short stories, islands ambulate, birds bicker, forests compete to be the spookiest, and fish undergo existential debates. It’s the people who are screaming or mute, frozen or drowning, and, even in the rare instances of something resembling conversation, utterly alone.Fleming is a fabulist; despite his collection of protagonists from the animal kingdom — the winged and scaly, non-furry branches — his stories are as far from naturalistic as one could get. He writes with the faux simplicity of a children’s storyteller intent on conveying a moral, but one who’s had too much to drink. These are tales of talking birds, sea animals, and in one rather anomalous story, a voice, who follow and rebel against routine, observe the humans they inhabit or feed or eat, and debate the nature of life in colloquial, profanity-laced dialogue.
Though it quickly feels gimmicky, their insults and idle chatter nonetheless provide a break from some almost unbearably fussy, contorted sentences like this description of a ghostly highwayman: “But if you came across him again, he’d advance, as the leaves fluttered, despite there being no wind, with their ruffling producing a sing-song effect, like they were incanting some strange, marmoreal verse, the sort one would find on the outside of a crypt, which was fitting, as the Irish highwayman also spent a goodly amount of time in graveyards — when he was more than a column of fog, or less, depending upon one’s views on these matters — composing his verse, and awaiting the next flower-toting widow to set upon.” I can live with the herky-jerky syntax, and the abundance of detail, but is the “depending upon one’s views on these matters” really necessary? This sounds like nitpicking. It is. But the net effect of so many nits is that reading this book often feels like needless, tedious work rather than the hallucinatory but profound journey it is meant to be.
It’s not that Fleming doesn’t know how to put together a sentence. There are many moments of wit, beauty, and glorious imagination evident on these pages. No, it’s clearly his choice to write stories — especially about his human characters — that are oblique, that require us as readers to lean in, find the connecting strands between the stories, and weave them together. This knitting metaphor is actually a good one, because the cumulative effect of the stories is to show us the unraveling of a man, but in reverse. We meet Doze (clearly, Fleming has read his Samuel Beckett) at his most insane and get to know him from the inside out, from first, how he experiences the world to later, how he occupies it. We see his obsessions and delusions before we can even guess at the “facts” that are revealed over the course of several tales — that he lives near the sea, that he has in the past drunk too much and whored too much; that he once had a wife who fled; that he is now mad and lost in his own phantasmal world.
Finally, in “Lobby Lobsterson,” one of the last stories in the collection, we get to see a man we assume is Doze in his last moments of wholeness and clarity, as his marriage is ending. “The pain in that car,” Fleming writes. “When do you first become aware that someone else’s is greater than your own, and that it stems from your own, and is a result of feeling inconsolable not about what that individual is going through, but what you are going through? Does it always have to be after?”
Parsing this poignant question is still harder than it needs to be, but here, in the book’s finale, the effort finally pays off. I just wonder how many readers Fleming will have lost on the dark march to the ending. - Julie Wittes Schlack
The stories in Colin Fleming’s Dark March are most clearly connected by two major themes, water and loss. Smaller groups of stories, dispersed throughout the collection, are connected by recurring human and non-human characters: a naval captain of the British Empire, a combat veteran returned home, the voice (and only the voice) of a drunkard, rival forests, seagulls, and rock crabs. Everything is granted at least the potential of consciousness.
The book’s subtitle suggests the dreamlike nature and structure of its stories. The reader must attend to a story’s particular and peculiar logic. Although that story may share a theme or idea with other stories, it operates by individual rules, procedures, and uncertainties. “Secondary Drowning,” for instance, opens upon a hunting scene in which the protagonist may have been bitten by a rabid fox. This is recounted in a doctor’s office, in a discussion about rabies. The protagonist, fascinated by a stuffed bass, soon seems to enter a marine painting, where he must swim to freedom.
But what, exactly, is secondary drowning? That idea is developed in “In the Chum.” Its protagonist–like most of Fleming’s human protagonists–is missing his wife. When he loses track of a hagfish, “He wondered if the departure would split into levels of departure, like when she left. There’s leaving, but that’s just the start. Next was secondary leaving. First you have drowning, then you have secondary drowning, where some of the water that was hidden in some pocket of your lungs, or some nook inside of you—in following from the initial bout of drowning, which didn’t quite kill you off—leaks out into a portion of your being where it can do some real harm.” The reader may note two things about this passage. First, he gets a sense of the dreamlike nature of Fleming’s best sentences. In these exploratory passages, clauses and parentheticals are packed against one another, almost as though, if the sentence were to end, we’d lose the big idea. Secondly, while each of Fleming’s stories operates by its individualized, complicated rules, it is also connected to others by more than theme. While they can be read individually for pleasure, they are meant to be read in relation to one another.
The anthropomorphic stories, unfortunately, are a mixed bag. While a story like “The Hagfish” plays interestingly on the Icarus myths, others disappoint. “Incident at 7000 Hertz” is about a drunk who becomes more of a drunk and eventually shoots his lover. Despite the piece’s lurid sex and violence, its plot is bland. Told straightforwardly, the climax would come off as cheap melodrama. Instead it is told by the drunk’s voice. The story insists that we accept that each of this man’s bodily functions and juices, up to and including his stomach acids, as well as everybody else’s functions and juices (the voice receives news of other voices from some kind of industry magazine), all have perfectly realized human consciousness. They have ambitions, frustration, and personalities. The voice feels it could achieve great things if only the Moving Box (the whole human) would give him a break from wine. A reader may accept this premise. He may even accept the voice’s inability to influence people and events. However, this sort of distortion ought to create a new understanding of the melodramatic moment. It ought to lead to the sort of insight or idea or description as intellectually and emotionally engaging seen in “In the Chum.” Because it fails to do so, the reader is left empty.
The anthropomorphic stories, and “Incident . . . ” in particular, lack strong connections to one another. In this collection, it seems that where Fleming makes those connections, his fiction is strongest. Consider the stories about Doze, the only recurring named human. Among other roles, he plays both the veteran and the naval captain. Like the protagonist of “In the Chum,” he is almost always in search of his lost wife. That search leads him to funny moments of social inappropriateness. In “Blue Crystals,” he inspects the pelvis of a high school’s model skeleton. In “The Glazier’s Art,” he masturbates in open windows.
In the collection’s title story, Doze is most removed from the world. He spends his time watching the dead and gone float past his window. He decides to put together and paint a collectible model of Dracula: “Doze considered the color to be fittingly dust-like, as he was a big admirer of dust, and wondered, often, whether it came from bodies, or something more crumbly, like the piles of leaves he’d made in the past, in the backyard, so that he had places to hide away, and think.” In this piece, Doze is childlike, so it’s no surprise when he blows up the model with a cherry bomb. But no matter what he does to the model, he cannot get rid of it. The problem grows more complicated when his wife floats past, and the model is sucking on her throat. All this leads to a stunningly powerful end. Doze knows that he is in his room, watching. But he is also the Dracula floating past, set upon her throat, then her heart. We leave him in this moment of double fear, first of what he may have done to his wife and second of the consciousness that no one will rescue him if he falls. It’s the sort of moment which makes this collection, in spite of its flaws, worth reading. - MARCUS PACTOR
One can begin to grasp the aesthetic of Colin Fleming's Dark March by exploring the implications of the collection's subheading. What kind of stories float through our heads when the rest of the world is asleep? We must be awake, left out, and it must be an inhuman hour. We toss and turn in our restless quests to join everyone else in slumber. We obsess about our lives until we realize that's precisely what's keeping us awake, so we try to think about anything else. Or maybe we want to evade the rest of the sleeping world. Maybe it's the only time we get some peace and quiet. Maybe we use the opportunity to flesh out every silly idea we have ever jettisoned when everyone's eyes were open to judge.
Whatever the case, recognizing the many tracks the imagination can take when wandering in the pursuit or elusion of sleep is the key to Dark March. Sometimes dreamlike, sometimes employing the language and rhythms of myth and fairytales, Dark March's worlds seek to replicate the delirium, magic, and logic of an impatient, tired mind. These eighteen loosely connected stories are entirely present in that hazy state, and they mine it in celebration of the fantastic and the strange.
Decoding how and why Fleming chooses to return to particular settings and characters is part of the game this collection plays. In "Blue Crystals" we receive our first introduction to Doze, a returning veteran and a science teacher with very little memory of his war experience. In "The Glazier's Art," he appears as a child in search of the perfect conditions to observe the salt crystals that accumulate on his window. And later, in "The Bowsprit," Doze resurfaces, this time as a pirate captain intent on cementing his legacy among his ruthless contemporaries.
It is in the title story, however, that Doze's experience reminds us of the collection's central thread of late-night visions and their puzzling non-sequiturs. "Dark March" shepherds Doze through memories he associates with a treasured Dracula model, a gift from his late grandfather. Here, Fleming illustrates his mastery of the tricky task of translating dream logic to the page. Upon seeing his grandfather and father "floating past his window, in an endless march of bodies and faces," Doze notices his father "stuck to the glass, and that seemed wrong, because his legs and his torso clearly wanted to continue to drift in whatever current he was in." Doze decides to wave, and his father waves back, thus freeing his father to "drift on his way again…until Doze could no longer make him out against the purple and black of the evening sky." As it would be in a dream, Doze never questions the bizarre calculus of his world or what his prized Dracula model has to do with the parade of the dead. In this context, all of his decisions make sense and the recurring symbols—windows, crystals, toys, and absent fathers—make the Doze stories into a fabulous cycle that follows the forking paths of the subconscious.
In addition to the appearances of Doze, the current that carries the bodies along in "Dark March" evokes the collection's other recurring motif: water. Indeed, some of Dark March's most complex characters are ocean creatures coming to terms with their limited roles in the world. The titular protagonist of the first story, "The Spit," is a landmass downgraded from its previous standing as an island. His existential crisis compels him to seek the advice of a shifty rock crab, who suggests he "have a spree" before his new label becomes permanent. Only the spit recognizes that a spree for a seven-million-year-old pile of rocks is a difficult undertaking. "Fulmar" introduces a bird who, despite the counsel of some vulgar gulls and his otherworldly ability to accurately drop clams and fish, can only watch as a lost group of sailors cannibalizes one another. Throughout these and the other seafaring tales of Dark March, the ocean has its own vocabulary and hierarchy. The waves, creatures, and physical features share a language and a collective indifference to the behavior of the animals that walk and talk on the land.
When the collection shifts its attention from Doze and the sea, the effects are no less fantastic or experimental. "Beyond the Brambles" documents the rivalry between the Screaming Woods and Lorchen Grove, two dark forests intent on being the most ominous to the surrounding fishing villages. The main character of "Incident at 7000 Hertz" is a man's voice. The voice questions whether he's being put to the best use by the body he inhabits, whom the voice calls the "Moving Box." Like many of the characters in Dark March, be they human, animal, or geographical, the voice feels as if his potential has yet to be tapped, as if his efforts are being neglected, as if factors beyond his control have relegated him to a life of nothing more than grunting and screaming.
Perhaps the most surprising element of this collection is its relationship with the rest of Colin Fleming's work. A prolific journalist who regularly appears in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and Slate, Fleming's nonfiction generally covers cultural criticism, particularly popular music, literature, and film. Yet, Dark March is conspicuously absent of allusions, proper names, or any other decipherable, stable anchor to our contemporary world. It's as if, after a career committed to commenting on the objects of the real world, Fleming needs a break, an escape. At turns hallucinatory and contemplative, the stories of Dark March build that escape. And should we find ourselves awake while the rest of the world is sleeping, Fleming's fantasies posit that what's really keeping us up is the desire to dream. - Justin Thurman
“He almost lost it when one of the others said that the hermit crab probably just wanted a decorative hat, and that hermit crabs were very vain.”
Whether the occasional literary reference bolsters the mood or effect of particular stories is debatable. The more interesting moments seem to be when animals or inanimate objects are imbued with a personality or voice of their own. One such example is illustrated in the following passage: “–an octopus had spit out a hermit crab who had placed a sea anemone on his head. Sea anemones were not tasty to octopi. He almost lost it when one of the others said that the hermit crab probably just wanted a decorative hat, and that hermit crabs were very vain.”
If you’re looking for irreverent humor and unusual perspectives in your short story reading then perhaps Dark March will keep you entertained. - Jon Sanetel
My First Time: Colin Fleming
Find him on the web at colinfleminglit.com.