Dark March: Stories for When the Rest of the World is Asleep

By Colin Fleming


June 2013

Reviewed by Justin Thurman


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.