Book Review

If Colin Fleming’s collection of stories If You [ ]: Fabula, Fantasy, F**kery, Hope fails to make sense in any conventional way, that should come as no surprise. This is very much a collection of stories that reflect the absurd predicaments of our lives right here, right now, in our ongoing Covid and post-Covid reality. We live in a world where extremes of social and political power give us whiplash, where compromise seems nonexistent, where grand narratives that make sense of our very existence have fallen apart—and there appears to be little hope that the future holds any better outcomes. It seems that a reality that once adhered has fallen apart. The reader who plunges into Fleming’s world will find their own struggles with making sense of the reality reflected back to them.

We first encounter our fractured reality in “Brackets,” where the author experiments with strange syntax and symbols (also found in the title and subtitle of this collection): “dinner ‘bounceback’ from friday’s argument (she will thrill to it),” and “‘conciliatory note’ (???); should I? you never know; mistakes are made; but: the double-ended jelly dong; what the fuck; he didn’t even look surprised when i walked in.”

Here, in the very first story, the author finds himself stifled by the very text we encounter every day: the strikes, brackets, lower case words, and symbols which are omnipresent in our lives but ultimately fail to convey deep meaning. They are merely shorthand symbols for trivial concepts and ideas. In this story, Fleming uses strange syntax and symbols from our online world as the perfect medium to detail the destruction of a relationship.

Our fractured reality is also portrayed in “Blinkered,” a story of a relationship in the throes of a manic, out-of-control breakdown. The prose style is a perfect fit for the narrative action, which tumbles forward, one idea leading into another. For example: “I hate you. You have taken everything from me—my friends my family my dreams my hopes everything everything everything.” And later, “Do you think it will ever get better? she says. Me I mean? And us too?

Fleming takes us down the route of disintegration as a man and a woman unravel any sense of love and attachment they once felt, their motivations clouded by the language used to describe their actions. We search for meaning behind this couple’s dissolution in vain.

Fleming carries this sense of broken reality to another realm in “EAP and Abe,” the story of the ghosts of Abe Lincoln and Edgar Allan Poe inhabiting a realm that is death, but that still contains the world’s intractable problems, especially loneliness. Poe, known as EAP, is particularly depressed, failing to find any solace in the realm of the dead. He is lonely, and tells Abe his dating woes:

So, I’m back on the dating site, and I’m so fucking depressed at this point, and so horny, frankly, that I’m done looking for anything real . . . You meet one idiot after another, and if you can handle all the ridiculous text speak, you still have to handle people who know nothing about anything and taking in the same six cliches.

Apparently, the afterlife is much like our life. Poe says that most dating sites are filled with “ridiculous text speak” which is only a thin veil over a cold reality. Most profiles, Poe tells Lincoln, devolve into “I love to Netflix and chill.” Poe is so sad that he is repeatedly driven to suicide, but as he is already dead, he simply returns unharmed from drowning or hanging to face his terrible reality once more.

In “Sequentials,” Fleming approaches the broken nature of our existence from an angle that is strangely numinous—half in and half out of life. The narrator tells us “I became single again, and a wife was gone, and the children were gone, and I was gone from myself in many ways . . . .” His hold on reality becomes increasingly tenuous. He continues in this strange register:

I saw a girl who was walking faster than people walk. Faster than people run. She went in one direction, and then another, and when she arrived at each point she arrived in a way that you could not understand. She journeyed and was instantaneous. She was not there, and then she was there. She came, but she also just went.

In this story, the character does not even have the benefit of life or death. He moves in another realm, or perhaps no realm that has negative parts of each. There is cause and effect, action and reaction, but they make little to no sense. There is only confusion and a sense of ever-present loss.

These harrowing trips into the realm of the absurd continue in “An Incident in Cathedral Romance” where a “. . . horse descending through the night sky was the first indication that a countermove had finally been made.” This story appears to be in a medieval setting, but this is impossible to pin down with certainty. The story is about a war between otherworldly figures, but even this is in question. The narrator is not certain if this is “war, or ceremonial war, or legal war, or traditional war, or ideological war, or manufactured war, or pretend war, or whatever it was.”

Events occur, and they appear to be monumental, but they may just as easily be trivial. Something extremely important is happening in reality, but it may very well not be reality. The sense of where we are, who we are, and how we impact our world is radically up for grabs in this story, and one can’t help but make the connection that the same is increasingly true in our own world of Twitter shadows and “fake” news.

The story “Red Sweatpants” is set up to be the tale of a man who has hit rock bottom—a conventional story motif. But at this point in the collection, we know that Fleming will not provide us with this kind of relief. On the contrary, the main character relates his story in cryptic sentences such as “. . . where there’s a hospital I end up in when I couldn’t stop coughing up blood because my life had come apart and my wife made like a ghost and left without ever saying why.”

He appears to be a man who is living alone, having given up on life and wearing a pair of red sweatpants. But this conclusion may be wrong. He has the sense that he may not be alive, telling us that his solitary friend “tries to convince me that I am already dead. Because I usually think I am. I think it is possible that when you die, you’re not officially told.”

The narrator of “Red Sweatpants” has no clue of his most basic existential level. Am I alive or dead? He tells us:

I’m on the phone with my friend, talking about hell, saying how I’m fucked for work, and how I am working myself to death, or to a second death, if the whole hell thing is true, but all I can do is work, lose myself in it, because I can’t face anything else.

Here, the narrator tries a method from our own reality to bandage a broken sense of self: all-consuming work. He does this for the same reason we do: to hide from our despair, to escape our own loneliness, to occupy our barren minds with trivial tasks. But for him, the stakes are much higher. If he stops working, he may be confronted with a reality he cannot face, which is perhaps no reality at all.

If Not [ ] is a challenging series of stories to read, yet the collection is also deeply rewarding. Even in confusion, there is possibility. Flemings has given us tales that are very closely akin to the blank spaces between the brackets in the title. The blank space is the place we live, that open arena where things occur that may be catastrophic or trivial. There is always the possibility of humor and fun between those brackets. The subtitle is, after all, “Fabula, Fantasy, F**kery, Hope.” The subtitle is key to understanding this collection of stories. For Fleming, the space between the brackets is where human life unfolds, the literal “fabula” of literary theory, defined as “the chronological order in which the events of a story take place.” We are given a glimpse of how we can structure our world if we let go of our treasured expectations, and how we may even being to make sense of our fractured reality by weaving tales of our own fantasy, f**kery, and, most importantly, hope.

About the Reviewer

Eric Maroney has published Religious Syncretism, The Other Zions, and The Torah Sutras. He has also published short stories, articles and book reviews. He has an MA in philosophy from Boston University. He lives in Trumansburg, New York with his wife and two children.