“Brackets,” the first story in the new book by Colin Fleming, is a strong opener because it firmly establishes themes that percolate throughout these eighteen stories and introduces a soon-to-be familiar voice that will inform the following pages, yet it is also an unexpected opener, being the most experimental with form—a paragraph of punchy narrative framed by a checklist of reminders and notes-to-self all in lowercase text with little to no punctuation, line breaks and enjambment bordering on poetry, the narrative bleeding in from the edges. Such as in its opening:
principles—get them in order; best when moving forward in relationship
bait the traps; no one likes a verminy apt.
buy paint and spackle; what is an artist without supplies?
+ floor cleaner, bug spray
pesto, oregano, garlic—dinner “bounceback” from friday’s argument (she will thrill to it)
A few more lines follow, hinting at the narrative before there’s a paragraph where the story reveals itself. In that paragraph, we glimpse what will become a consistent theme throughout nearly every story: a man, lonely, somewhere in the age range of that key 18-44 demographic you often see in the paper anytime there’s talk of poll results, elections, employment numbers, or fentanyl deaths, consumed by pain and heartbreak, likely scorned, possibly haunted by a lost love, and wrestling with what one story, in a moment of humorous self-awareness, refers to as “loss and yearning.”
It is also between the words of the first story where one, if they are as inclined toward a similar obsessive need of order as I, attempt to begin the categorization hinted at in the subtitle of the book by thinking in terms of defining each story as one of fabula, fantasy, fuckery, or hope. “Brackets” certainly established the fabula, the narratological idea of the story behind the story, the filling in of the [ ], as in its ending, which reads as a direct demand put to the reader to
just put it all together
and see what happens
it is not my place to tell you how
to [ ] or [ ]
And so we, the readers, do. We fill in the [ ] in order to better interpret, to [ ], at least when given the opportunity.
The very next story, “Blinkered,” throws the reader in media res, mid-fight between a woman and a man—the narrator, whose allegiance is gained by default for simply being the narrator, an allegiance which is cultivated through hints at the woman being less than reliable. The story moves at a frantic pace, begins to take shape, roles and lives begin to clarify, only for a single line to throw you off-kilter, a seeming admittance to the narrator’s own deeds, a possible hidden truth in what seemed to be the howling of a madwoman, and we are left uncertain, for the story ends soon afterward. Such an ending is common in these stories: abrupt, uncertain, [ ].
Fantasy appears less explicitly than other elements in most of the stories. It works best in the obscured allegorical story inside of “An Incident in Cathedral Romance” that deals with what seems to be a cyclical ritual of invasion and sacrifice and “war, or ceremonial war, or legal war, or traditional war, or ideological war, or manufactured war, or pretend war, or whatever it was.” Or in “Junction Regale,” more playful with sentence structure, run-ons, and fragments, in which we are given the scattered thoughts “borne from the past [as] they dreadfully crystalize” of another lonely man who waits at a junction between the living and the dead discussing the lost love of “Chuck” (re-named and gender-swapped to distance himself from the pain of true memory) to a series of ghosts who seem to be classical composers.
The fantastical element works most poorly in “EAP and Abe,” the most literally phallocentric story about the horny wraith of Edgar Allen Poe in a near-familiar afterworld where he and Honest Abe are real bros who talk chicks and swap the use of a massive, three-foot dick that Poe materialized into the world since “[that’s] what happens after you die if you write well, as EAP could, and believe in what you’ve written. You put your ghostly hand to your ghostly parchment, and whatever you set down came to pass as well, if you truly believed in its completeness. You could write it, or someone, right into your life. Your death-life.” This afterlife and its mystical manifestations are wasted in service of a puerile sense of humor. Perhaps file this one under the unflattering form of fuckery.
The idea of fuckery could be played with to fit a multitude of characters’ behaviors—in one story, a loner’s manic memory of a joke about sweatpants replays in his head during the foggy-street stalking of the possible wife who left him, in another story it is the jerk-off sessions of another lone loser who fights his anxieties in a seemingly lost battle, relegating a video of his former lady to the desktop trash bin where it remains much like Schrödinger’s cat in a between state, neither viewed again nor emptied into oblivion—but fuckery might count most kindly as play in the story “The Effect of Gravity Upon a Tub,” a roguish comedy of intrigue, deception, and witty banter between two Irish goofballs named Padraig and Lorcan in what feels like a near spy-genre take on Beckett’s Mercier and Camier that, like many of the stories, ends vaguely.
It is the idea of hope which resides most fittingly in a lot of these stories, specifically in the more standard literary narratives. There are three coming-of-age stories reminiscent of the once-oft-anthologized “A&P” by John Updike. Each story is told from the first-person narrative of a young male adolescent dealing with unrequited love and learning a valuable life lesson. In “Yellow Hammers” a baseball player realizes:
Sometimes there’s such a gap between you and someone else in one area that is relevant, maybe even super important, to both your lives, that you’re not all that threatened, they’re just better. But you’re also not threatened because you figure you’ll make up that distance somewhere else, and so long as the thing in the first place isn’t the single most important thing to you, you kind of wait for your moment elsewhere. You hover.
In the similarly sport-themed story “One Way Zebra,” our adolescent narrator comes to understand something his dad once said to him, that “a man will try to prove himself to himself even if that sometimes means hurting himself.” And in the 60s-set tale of brotherly bonding titled “A Deuce Cross,” we get this realization:
When you learn something big that you know you’re going to have to think about later on, because it’s never going away, maybe you cut it down, maybe it’s too much for then and there, so you leave it. You come back to it because it’s coming back for you, but on that first pass you wiggle out a little earlier than you should.
Across these three stories, we see Fleming at his most assured. There is confidence in the narratives and the wisdom they offer, albeit somewhat predictably. These stories provide the sometimes subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle revelations of human beings in all their messiness and contradiction, their ability to betray, capacity for joy, quickness to violence, skill at deception, and, most clearly, their ability to hope.
However, the hopes we witness in these youth-centered stories are, while still held on to, betrayed by their elder, world-broken brethren mentioned above in other stories, those of men hounded by dashed hopes, those crafted with more range and willingness to play with time, form, and sequence.
As one character comes to understand it, “he knew how forced his optimism was, as does everyone who endeavors to trick themselves.” These stories cast two ropes, those of self-deception and optimism, those of despair and hope, one a noose around which many of the men seem to be fitting their necks and one a safety to pull themselves from the snare.
David Southard lives in a small town in South Korea. He is the author of the novella K. at Liberation, the designer of strange ambient sounds as Building a Building, and the discusser of books on the Books of Some Substance podcast.