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REVIEW: Flames – J. Scott Coatsworth

Flames - J. Scott Coatsworth

Genre: Contemporary Romance, Magical Realism

Reviewer: Lee

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About The Book

Alex always thought love was enough to keep him and Gio together. Why did they need wedding rings or legal certificates? But now, with Gio lost in a coma after a fire has destroyed their home, his partner’s mother banishes Alex from his side.

Locked in a gray limbo inside his head, memories are all Gio has left, and the urge to let go is getting stronger.

Nothing can keep Alex from Gio’s side, even if he has to break the rules. In their stolen moments alone together, Alex fights to reach Gio, one memory at a time.

What if Alex’s voice is the only thing that can bring Gio back?

The Review

J. Scott Coatsworth’s novella Flames largely takes place in a hospital where Gio is in a coma, while his longtime lover, Alex sits anxiously at his bedside, hoping he will awaken. Gio’s sleep is at first a blank room. He has lost all memory and sense of self. Alex’s mental state is quite the opposite; he carries a crushing burden of guilt. Only hours prior to the tragedy that hospitalized Gio, Alex abandoned his lover in an overblown fit of emotional pique. The story follows the reciprocal paths of Alex as he struggles to unburden his feelings of guilt and Gio as he attempts to rediscover himself. In a moving synergy, both paths are entwined: love is the cure to guilt and the anchor for memory.

When Gio’s homophobic mother arrives, she is able to banish Alex. This action allows Flames to explore the potential feelings of alienation and insecurity of people in gay relationships. Alex and Gio have been together for a decade, but they never married. Although this institution is available at the time of the story, gay marriage is a recent legal option. Marriage is an affirmation of love and spirituality, but it is also a legal instrument and—as an institution—marriage asks for the community’s support of the relationship. This element of the story feels both personal and authentic.

There is a parallel idea at work in Flames, a metaphor to a fundamental philosophical tenet. Most readers will be aware of the quote (translated from Latin) of Rene Descartes, “I think therefore I am.” How can this famous epistemological statement be tied into Flames? In his Meditations on Philosophy (1641), Descartes says, “I think therefore I am,” (though not for the first time) and expands on the idea. Descartes is attempting to decipher what it is that he really knows, especially in the light of untrustworthy senses, deception, and outside agencies. He decides that because he can think, he must exist, and builds his world, what he knows, and his sense of self from this basis. Descartes’ idea that, “The essence of the soul is a thing that thinks,” is indeed beautiful. Flames erases Gio’s sense of self by the agency of a trauma induced coma. Gio awakens in an empty white room, empty of self. But he returns, a piece at a time, to himself through emotional memories—feelings—derived from his loving relationship with Alex. Coatsworth has paid homage to Descartes in saying to the reader that, “The essence of the soul is a thing that feels.”

This is a brilliant device, elevating what would have otherwise been a too-straightforward, simple story. The motif, of reconstructed self, is emphasized at key points in the story, such as when Alex at first cannot make a list of the possessions that he and Gio lost. As the story progresses and Gio’s sense of self begins to return, Alex is able to populate that list.

Some readers may find Flames a little too feel-good or hyper-emotional. I did not, but I may not be completely objective on stories with comas. I was in one for an extended period of time due to illness and related to Gio’s predicament and the terrible state of those powerlessly watching his slumber. Seeing a loved one helpless and in jeopardy is an appalling thing and brings out an array of emotions. Sometimes it is the people watching on that suffer most of all. Lastly, I personally know that some persons in a coma do hear their loved ones. They feel love and have dreams relating to the presence of them.

Flames could have developed greater narrative power through better use of concrete detail in the hospital, and in some of the dialogue, which at certain times was excellent and at others felt bland. Despite these drawbacks, the ideas employed in Flames, and the clever use of metaphor, make this an excellent novella.

Takeaway: Flames ingeniously parallels Rene Descartes’ famous epistemological I Think therefore I Am into something more personal: the reconstruction of consciousness and self through piecewise emotional memory. The power and creativity employed in this idea deserves recognition.

The Reviewer

Lee has a background in physics and applied science, but has always enjoyed reading fiction. His first serious forays in writing came from dungeon mastering and high school drama club, although for nearly three decades as a geophysicist, he wrote only non-fiction. At the age of 25, Lee spent a prolonged period of time on the edge of death, had the last rights read to him, and enjoyed several near death experiences. Not even all the morphine could make him forget those. Lee enjoys rock climbing, cycling, hiking, swimming and writing. He is an Ironman Triathlete.  

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