Traditional narrative strategies and formal experimentation, as well as fiction and autobiography, blend comfortably in Anne Fleming’s latest collection of short stories, the delightfully titled Gay Dwarves of America.
Fleming, a University of British Columbia creative writing prof, is also the author of a novel, Anomaly, and a previous short-fiction collection, Pool Hopping and Other Stories, which was shortlisted for the 1999 Governor General’s Literary Award. In her newest book, she employs an engaging prose style to introduce characters chafing at the boundaries of relationships with lovers, children, best friends – and people who in some cases may be figments of their imaginations.
Elements from Fleming’s personal life, such as places she’s lived, from Waterloo to Vancouver, are woven into her fiction. “Backstock: The Musical” features an ensemble cast that includes a fiction writer named Anne who, like the author, is a lesbian. Like another of her characters, Fleming has played defence on a hockey team. Other stories incorporate fantastical elements along with biography, as in “Peter Who Once Loved Margaret,” which features a protagonist named Anne Fleming and her encounter with an aunt who has been dead for more than 50 years.
The stories are also stylistically diverse. “Backstock” takes the form of a musical score. All that’s missing are the treble clef, notes, and rests. “Puke Diary” is exactly what its title suggests: at their father’s suggestion, members of a family document every instance of vomiting they can recollect.
At the furthest end of the quirk spectrum is “Thirty-one One Word Stories,” which features 31 single-word entries, one to a page. Employing one word to tell an entire story is a provocative conceit, and the selected words bear multiple meanings and subtle intertextual relationships.
Often Fleming’s least experimental stories are most successful. In the masterful “Thorn-blossoms,” for instance, a hockey mom combats familial ennui while her journalist mother unravels from Alzheimer’s. In a straightforward narrative, Fleming offers her most affecting example of the fraught relationships that characterize the book as a whole.