There are few things in life, at least for me, as captivating as a puzzle. As much as my mind craves answers; answers that leave other lingering questions are the sort that I find most fascinating. I can’t stop myself from turning what I do know over and over in a vain hope that I will somehow work it all out. Though I know I might never put all the pieces into place, I am still compelled to keep puzzling. Tom Williams has created just such an enigma in the form of Douglas Myles in The Mimic’s Own Voice.
Presented as a fictional biographical pondering of a seventy-six page autobiographical manuscript in the context of imagined historical facts, The Mimic’s Own Voice tells the story of a true â€œmimicâ€™s mimicâ€ (literally), Douglas Myles. Far from being the sort who imagined fame and strained to achieve it, mimicry was just something Myles could do. â€œ[H]is talent was equal parts a gift from a kindly deity and an accident of genetics.â€ In fact Myles is born well after the age of the mimic comics has passed. His career as a mimic begins because his family members have all died and he â€œchases away the silence by reproducing the voices of his dead relations.â€
The fictional biography presented in the book is meticulous in giving life to the character of Douglas Myles. The reader is taken, beginning step by step with the early life of Myles as a â€œMiddle Westâ€ child of â€œa black father and a white mother,â€ all the way through his rise to success and eventual fade into obscurity. Everything that could be known by a biographer about the life of Myles is presented to the reader in vivid detail, excepting, of course, what really goes on inside the mind of Myles himself.
And yet, there is only so far that the reader gets into truly understanding what was going on with Myles. His very essence seems to defy precise distinction and understanding. Early on, â€œ[o]ne by oneâ€¦his family members departed this earth,â€ leaving no one for Myles to be able to define himself in relation to. His ethnicity is not much help, as being of both black and white heritage, he is not often easily accepted as either, though he does identify himself as black. His primary vocation, for which he becomes extremely famous, is being able to sound like someone other than himself.Â Further, being able to sound like someone other than himself is something inherent in him, not something for which he consciously trains himself. And, even after he becomes famous, â€œhis Spartan existence prevented him from cultivating a taste for drink, drug or smoke,â€ and likewise prevents the usual insight into the man behind the celebrity that usually comes along with such behavior.
Far from dispelling the shadows around Myles, the seventy-six page autobiographical manuscript at the center of the fictional biography only serves to make Myles more ephemeral. Though it does record some events that happened to him and what he thought about those occurrences, it takes the form of a â€œcurious second person usageâ€ instead of a first person narrative. One passage reads:
You couldn’t see anyone, but you weren’t looking, either. Had you seen any one face distinctly, you might have lost your voice, as the nerves hadn’t settled. You halfway convinced yourself your family had been too kind and your own ear was deaf to real speech.
Full of such impersonally rendered personal phrases as â€œ[y]ou knew you could do better,â€ â€œyou were already on your way,â€ and â€œ[y]ou wondered if anyone listened to the whole thing,â€ this manuscript makes it seem that Myles isnâ€™t even concretely grasped by himself.
So, when it comes down to the last word of this novella, when the cover is closed, one still asks: who is Douglas Myles?Â Sure, he is â€œthe greatest of all mimics,â€ but that is more of a role or an ability rather than an essential identity. Is he a shy and lonely man who uses his innate talent in a futile attempt to reach out to people before retiring into obscurity? Or, is he a remarkably skilled individual whose very skill progressively robs him of his own individuality and leaves him as only a pale reflection of those he impersonated? Did Myles write the autobiographical manuscript at the center of this novella â€œin order to remember,â€ demonstrating that â€œhe knew or believed he was in danger of forgetting it all?â€ In the end, who really is Douglas Myles?
The really compelling aspect for me of The Mimicâ€™s Own Voice is both the fact that I am unable to definitively answer this question after reading and the fact that I keep trying to fit what I know together to arrive at such an answer. Williams provides so much detail in such a methodical fashion in this bookâ€”finely balanced with so much final uncertaintyâ€”that I feel compelled to solve this puzzleâ€¦for which there seems to be no ultimate solution. Other puzzle-savvy readers are free to correct me if I am wrong, but I am willing to bet that they will be as fascinated by this riddle of a character as much as I was, and will continue to be so long after they finish reading.
David S. Atkinson is a Nebraska-born writer currently living in Denver.Â He holds an MFA from the University of Nebraska.Â His stories have appeared in “Grey Sparrow,” â€œChildren Churches and Daddies,â€ â€œSplit Quarterly,â€ â€œCannoli Pie,â€ â€œC4: The Chamber Four Lit Mag,â€ “Atticus Review,” “Brave Blue Mice,” and “Fine Lines.”Â His book reviews have appeared in “Gently Read Literature,” “The Rumpus,” and “All Things Pankish.” Â The web site dedicated to his writing can be found atÂ http://davidsatkinsonwriting.com/. Â He currently serves as a reader for “Grey Sparrow” and in his non-literary time he works as a patent attorney in Denver.