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, a Cambridge-based writer, can be reached at jwschlack@gmail