Timothy Dyke, Atoms of Muses, Tinfish Press, 2017
Reviewed by Will Cordeiro
The self is an illusion produced by the self. A smattering of assorted fragments—splinters and wreckage of some elemental fiasco, radioactive and smoldering: a ghost-smudged afterimage dark from its bone-glowing vanishment.
Maurice Blanchot once wrote of a "fragmentary imperative, linked to the disaster," an explosive force that sunders some integrated, if only conjectured, wholeness into a shrapnel of loose ends.
Each of us is perpetually belated, picking up the pieces of ourselves in the wake of a disaster—and yet in the effort of assembling that heterogeneous mosaic, we continue to crush and scatter the very vessel we hope to reconstruct. Too, we are all comprised of dis-aster: particles of exploded stars still echoing in the void and lonesome night.
The self as lyric, the self as argument, or the self as narrative or drama cannot represent the miscellany of experience. The fragment, however, suggests the possibility of wholeness—and the largeness, the largesse, the multifariousness of that whole—while leaving open the suture of the self's illimitable energies.
Recently, the lyric memoir (think Wayne Koestenbaum and Maggie Nelson, Anne Carson and Claudia Rankine) has given birth to a perverse chimera that yokes the opposing valences of a continuous linear narrative with the obdurate duration of purely lyric moments. Lyric's semantic fluidity flies off every-which-a-ways while memoir's confessional self-definition locks down those outbursts or overflows into a chronological progression. No wonder so many lyric memoirs employ the fragmentary method in order to harness otherwise seemingly incommensurable genres. Still, as queer as several of these experiments are, the balance is often struck in favor of narrative and coherence and a singular self in a world where time shoots straight arrows. They tend, that is, to still be memoirs, with all memoir's attendant trappings and assumptions.
Timothy Dyke's Atoms of Muses is a lyric anti-memoir in which imagination circumvents memory, linguistic exuberance destabilizes narrative, and the self is a fractured medium of phantoms and fictions. The work has undergone a decades-long evolution. In one incarnation it was a novel; in another, lineated poetry; in still another, more traditional personal essays. Its final form, however, is an anatomy—an atomy, really—of trauma. Like the psychic structure of trauma, Dyke's work constantly circles back to earlier, damaging memories in light of newfound experiences, a circling back that also evades memory, fragmenting any coherent story of his life in an atom smasher and recombining those elements with pieces of his dreamlife and visitation by muses, of stray scenes and wordplay, of various personas and self-doubt. His muses, which begin much like flesh-and-blood divas such as those friends and lovers who inspired many a gay man à la Frank O'Hara, brood into darker phantoms and allegorical figures from some limbo of lost shades. Dyke offers us a disaster museum filled with the psychic fragments and phantasms of his painful journey, broken and remade and broken again.
In my estimate, there's three important moments of trauma in the book. First, Dyke is gang raped by counsellors at a Christian boys' summer camp, the same camp where Dyke had his first consensual sexual encounters with boys his own age. This, I take it, is the most literal, the most autobiographical trauma. Here's how Dyke describes the gang rape: "The counsellor who grew up to be a minister said, 'We'll make this quick.' He held the .22 caliber rifle. I wanted them to untie me." That's it. We're left to infer the rest. Not only the rape, but the representation of the rape are over quickly. The moment is not dwelled on, only suggested through its absence, as a traumatic psychic wound itself is an absence, a lacuna in memory, a vacuous cloud of blocked emotion which manifests in flashbacks, mood swings, or other symptoms that may lie dormant for years then suddenly, unexpectedly flare up when triggered.
Second, as a middle-aged man, Dyke mourns a rash of gay teen suicides that occurred in 2010, deciding—in what he describes as an "epiphany"—to write about one boy who hanged himself from a maple tree after being bullied in Texas. Dyke ultimately writes this scenario in the first-person, but not without questioning the import of doing so: "to exploit a dead boy's life for truth-seeking fiction is a betrayal of the boy you are trying to respect, and to ignore the dead boy's life as you seek to write fiction is also disrespectful, a betrayal by omission. The fair thing to do is to tell stories about the dead kids that fail to cohere as stories." The dead boy is at once a real child whose alterity should not be appropriated or distorted by fiction and a talisman, a correlative for the boyhood innocence that Dyke lost through the violence done to him and a synecdoche for others—the dead kids, plural—who have suffered due to specific incidents of bullying as well as the larger structural and cultural oppression perpetrated against people who identify as queer. The "I" as dead boy is a haint, a restless after-image of what could have been, the ghostly evanescence one still is. The story should not cohere because haunting is incoherent: both dead and alive, both ego and other, both embodied and ethereal. The dead boy is the emotional truth of Dyke's earlier self as well as entirely a metaphor—since the self is a metaphor we tell ourselves to live.
Third, Dyke has a fantasia in which one of his purported muses, a giant clitorized spotted hyena who calls herself Phil, pounces on another muse, The Homosexual Agenda, and tears him to pieces. Again, the traumatic incident is brief: "It is like that last line in 'The Lottery' by Shirley Jackson. And then they were upon her." Narrative is sequestered, scattered, analogized and replaced by an allusion to another text, which is likewise a scene of fragmentation. In killing off The Homosexual Agenda, Dyke seemingly absolves himself from internalized homophobia and guilt, the part of him that implicitly identified with disparaging stereotypes of gays which have been promulgated by the Christian right.
Throughout, the moment of originary trauma is eluded, deferred, dispersed, embroidered upon. One incident stands in for another; elided, interchanged, interrogated, troped; increasingly the whole becomes texturation, motif, meta-commentary. Theme and variation. Phonemes and derivations. "I repeat myself," he writes; "The song is on repeat."
Yet such repetition, as obsessive as it feels, also engenders an undercurrent of irony, or, more precisely perhaps, a disruption of any literalism. For example, the most common refrain in the book is "I am an earnest writer." At first the reader is inclined to take Dyke's assertion at face value—as an earnest claim of earnestness—since, after all, his mode appears confessional, even sentimental, at any rate a depiction of events deeply personal and harrowing. We are set up for an authorial performance of a tell-all memoir and the veridical professions of sincerity that undergird it.
The iteration of the claim, though, makes it feel sarcastic and then empties it of its signification. The recurrent phrase takes on the Wildean flavor of being "Earnest" and subsequently becomes a queer performance, a mask, a camp reference. Further along, however, the posture of earnestness shifts again: since the self is not tractable, since, as Leslie Jamison says, "no trauma has discrete edges," since writing is a process that expunges its author in favor of the style, the voice, the authority of the text, the idea of sincerity appears, well… complicated. Perhaps Dyke is an earnest writer, one who is earnest enough to confound any easy correspondence between the constellation of a self and the construction of a linguistic artifact. "I need to grapple with my own earnestness," Dyke proclaims, and the older root of earnest in Gothic and Old Norse—struggling, securing—comes through. Dyke grapples with his own grappling, with what is given and what is made. Or, in another sense, the book is in earnest, a pledge in advance of a fuller bargain, a promise that further reading will be repaid.
We don't have thoughts, thoughts come to us unbidden. Our being is elsewhere. Muses and demons infiltrate us. And if we presume we're the voices in our heads—then where are the meanings of the words they utter, where's the harmony to all our humming? Are we the tongues that wag us? Dyke's experiment in autobiography resembles Stein's: autobiography as pluralism, as other, as everyone, as language:
You should. You are. You should you. Are you? Should you? Are. You should you are. You should. You. Are you? Should you. Are you? Should? You are. I shit you not. You should share. You are word play. Your wordless playful world of would be.
Dyke's slippery switches—between first and second person; between question and statement; among subjunctive, indicative, and imperative moods—deconstruct such sentences into semantic fragments that await further context for reference; that resonate with overheard insinuations; that risk misunderstanding; that produce a dis-identification with any pronoun, even the generalized "you," which can be either singular or plural. In such ways, Dyke evinces a confession with no self, no selvage, only the text's always unravelling edges and the suggestive glimmers those edges might expose.
I don't want to give the impression that Atoms of Muses is unreadable, however, or an opaque and densely stuttering postmodernist stunt. In fact, it's more often chatty, full of anecdotal gab, glib anger, little digs and jabs, dithering self-recrimination and flippancy. In a word, amusing. It's eager to spill juicy gossip and cluttered with sticky pop cultural residue. As if an archeologist were excavating a gay teenager's room, we wade through the detritus of Cheetos and mix tapes, a Burger King wrapper and a Taylor Swift CD, a stray sock and a hamster cage, a John Travolta poster and a pair of Chuck Taylors. All these items, in fact, turn up in the illustrations which accompany the text, drawn by Jeff Sanner, in addition to a flipbook animation of a butterfly's tipsy fluttering. The butterfly is a symbol of transfiguration, escaping its chrysalis, a winged thing like poetry itself, fragile and adrift, not to be pinned down, the animal spirit for the ever-changing psyche. The black-and-white illustrations—with slight visceral smudges, slash marks, and spatters of ink—reinforce the inelegant, raw, and honest feel of Dyke's words; the pictures similarly transfigure the throwaway items they depict into the broad outlines of something both mythic and human.
In Dyke's work there is a productive contradiction between a fragmentary, fictive self—which is always dissolving, dissolute, inhabited by strange genii, most alive in its imagination, breaking down its own limits—and the idea that the self is a relatively consistent, transparent, and cohesive subject position that can be identified with its race, class, sexuality, and other politico-historically constructed markers in the social horizon. The atoms of Dyke's title, I assume, allude to the opening stanza of that brazen American salvo "Song of Myself" wherein it's proclaimed: "every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you." The self and other, each you and I, are rendered synonymous, made of the same stuff, in Whitman's Adamic scripture of comingling embodiment and transcendental consciousness. But, as Ben Lerner observes, "What makes Whitman so powerful and powerfully embarrassing is that he is explicit about the contradictions inherent in the effort to 'inhabit all'." Similarly, though Dyke is invested with a nebulous efflux and vestige of innumerable identities and characters, he nonetheless espouses the "whiteness of [his] witness."
He writes that his writing aims "only toward surviving confrontation with my own pink truth" and "what's at stake is waking. The action of the story is its own pursuit." He wants, at once, to be both "woke" and to wander in the fluency of dreams. He wants, at once, to acknowledge that everything is political without, however, reducing everything to predetermined vectors of power. He wants, at once, to recognize how being a white gay man has informed his truth yet also to use whatever vantage he's been given to envision a more encompassing, a more compassionate perspective. At times the muses refuse to speak to him; at times he fails to elaborate their narratives. The story of the hanged boy, at the end, is left dangling. The book resists closure, and the self it issues from, the self it composes, is fashioned from the atomic dust that forms a trail of its own unmaking.