On Tom Williams’s The Mimic’s Own Voice and Phong Nguyen’s Memory Sickness
In Tom Williams’s debut novella, The Mimic’s Own Voice, the protagonist’s identity is his work. A professional mimic, Douglas Myles has a near-supernatural ability to flawlessly reproduce and inhabit the voices of others: fellow comedians, audience members, long-dead relatives. It’s a parlor trick that allows him his sense of self and makes him famous beyond measure. All the world will cherish him for speaking in every voice but his own. In this irony is the existential knot Williams attempts to untie, or at least loosen: How much of selfhood is our own, how much borrowed, and how much is simply that which gets reflected back through the distorting mirror of others?
What separates Williams from writers who tackle similar themes—Sartre, Camus, Ralph Ellison—is Williams’s endless humor. The Mimic’s Own Voice takes the old saw that the best way to ruin a joke is to explain it and turns it on its head, creating an entire story—an entire world, really—where the comedy arises from unpacking the joke.
The anonymous narrator, a scholar of Comedic Studies, attempts to correct the biographical inaccuracies of Douglas Myles’s life using a newly discovered memoir. In the world of the novella, the average American household spends forty dollars a week on comedic entertainment, comedians sell-out football stadiums, and a whole academic industry of comedy historians is erected to study it all. Myles is born to this world, “in the Middle West, in a middle-sized city, known primarily then and now as a test market for fast-food restaurants, the only child of Angela and Ellis Myles, a black mother and white father.” The voice of the narrator is itself a kind of mimicry, lambasting the tone and syntax of contemporary scholarly criticism. And like a truly great mimic, Williams understands that greatness doesn’t come from perfect imitation, but from a near-perfection that continually nods and winks at the audience. The humor here is layered. From the meta-joke of the narration, to groan-inducing one-liners (the Comedic Studies scholars gather at the Pratt-Falls center), to jokes put in the mouths of the comedians (groupies are called Rim-shots because “if they came . . . it was after the comic.”)
Douglas Myles’s rise to fame will be familiar to any American with half an eye open at the grocery story checkout. It is tabloid cliché: a meteoric rise propelled by true brilliance leads to eccentric hermit-hood; think Michael Jackson, Marlon Brando. J.D. Salinger. Myles discovers while working in the library where he shelves books that his talent as a mimic was once valued. He begins listening to the library’s recordings of the famous mimics who “wrestled the comedic throne from one-liner royalty” decades ago. His own act is a reproduction of the acts of the most popular comedians; he tells their jokes in their voices. As he ascends the ladder of celebrity, his act changes, first pulling in the voices of the comedians of the past in something he calls “The History Lesson,” and eventually forgoing comedians all together and simply mimicking those in the audience, for which he is rewarded with standing-room-only crowds in the nation’s largest stadiums. All people, it turns out, want to see themselves as others see them.
In the end, Myles fails only when he turns his talents to true art, when he tries to create a show from the voices of his personal past, the past of a bi-racial mimic who never “belonged at all.” In this masterful novella of race and identity, of celebrity and art, Williams has created a character who is both black and white and neither black nor white. In doing so, he has a created a character mostly us, a man who is little more than a pastiche of voices, searching and failing to find an authentic self.
Phong Nguyen’s debut story collection, Memory Sickness, also deals with race and identity. But here identity, once firmly intact for these characters, is jarred loose and set adrift, often by memory and their relationship to Rhode Island, the tiniest of states and home to some of the country’s biggest oddballs. Both Roger Williams, the Puritan-goading exile from Boston, and Buddy Cianci, corrupt and convicted Providence mayor turned spaghetti sauce salesman and talk show host, would feel right at home among the damaged misfits and lost souls who populate Nguyen’s world.
In the title story, a boy named Roth suffers through a school health class. He is a Cambodian immigrant and a former boy-soldier in the Khmer Rouge. As the teacher names parts of the body by pulling each from a plastic dummy, Roth gets thrown into his own bloody past. In alternating sections, Nguyen relates the story of a mild classroom altercation with an American student who tells Roth he smells and opposes it with the truly violent tale of Roth’s pre-American life. While the story of health class is told in straightforward prose, Nguyen depicts these horrid flashes of memory in beautiful, lyrical prose. Roth recalls, “In Chau Doc, no one could tell us why a man was now kneeling on the dirt, his hair riot with blood, picked at by flies. No one said why they carved out his insides, emptying onto the ground like spilled soup. It was a lesson in something, but no one knew what.”
The memory sickness of the title refers to the feeling the boy-soldiers experienced in the camps, “haunted by residual thoughts of comfort and family.” But in the story, and in those beautifully wrought passages especially, we realize that memory and nostalgia are always intertwined, that in Rhode Island memory sickness has reversed itself for Roth, and once again, as his circumstances change, he must reinvent an identity.
This happens again and again for the characters in these stories. People are cracked and ruined, and they cast about for a way to fill themselves up, a way to live in the haunted world. In “Four Hundred and One,” Jerry Mason, a demented retiree spooked by a faulty memory of his dead wife, pulls apart the frame of his house to whittle toy boats because “there is memory in the hands. . . . But, like all other forms of memory, it is selective, and biased towards what we wish were true.” In “Penny Artifacts,” Abigail Gray finds an ominous note from her husband who has disappeared because he needs her to remember that he “can still be cruel.”
And here is where Nguyen shows himself to be the best kind of short story writer: one who experiments by degrees. While each story functions effectively on its own, a minor character in one returns a few stories later as a central character, and yet this collection is in no way a novel-in-stories. In has little in common with, say, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kittredge or Jennifer Egan’s The Good Squad. Instead, characters are shown snapshot-like at one stage in their lives, then revisited years later. It’s as if a camera pans the state of Rhode Island, alighting on characters with tangential connections. The stories themselves are connected by thin webs of memory and identity. Chuck Wonicki, the boy who teases Roth in “Memory Sickness,” will return in “The Opposite of Gray” as an ex-con attempting to sort out his life and how he got there. John Gray, who left his wife in “Penny Artifacts,” will discover one of Jerry Mason’s whittled boats and see “a curious consolation that has come to balance the desolations of every other thing…as clear a sign as though it had drifted out of the pages of a book.”
John Stazinski’s work has appeared most recently in Glimmer Train, The Southern Review, The Missouri Review, and The Hopkins Review. (10/2011)