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  • From Our Own
  • Alissa Nutting (bio)
The Mimic's Own Voice. Tom Williams (ABR Associate Editor). Main Street Rag Publishing Company. 97 pages; paper, $9.95.

The novella form is notoriously hard to pull off. Like an unforgiving spandex leotard, the novella reveals all: there are no roomy, decorative chapters to pad out flat regions of the narrative, and portions of the story that are asymmetrically excessive in terms of the book as a whole will bulge out in plain view. The writer has to keep a reader's interest going far longer than a short story demands, yet simultaneously manage a satisfying conclusion in far less time than the average novel. Novellas are long enough that the toolbox of stylistic apparati with short literary half-lives—techniques such as building narrative by stringing together coy plural first-person command sentences—techniques that are punchy and delightful in a short story but would quickly become annoying or stale if extended on, cannot give the author any assistance.

In The Mimic's Own Voice, a ninety-seven-page narrative, Tom Williams does several things terribly right for a piece of fiction this length. One of the main wonders of is how seamlessly Williams avoids the inevitable pitfalls of the novella form. I'd argue that the secret behind how he manages this can be summed up in a line from the book's protagonist, Douglas Myles: "'It would be the voice alone.'"

Perhaps you've had the experience of going into a 560-square-foot apartment owned by a wise New Yorker who somehow made the space feel massive—white walls, mirrors, ceiling-to-floor shelving. In this book whose plot revolves largely around voice and mimicry (Myles is a prodigy at mimicking the voices of others, mainly celebrities and cultural icons), Williams as author is humorously mimicking a narrative voice of academic cultural scholarship with tongue-in-cheek lines such as, "To wit, a young man named Deavers, a professor from Lowell Tech, has fetched some notoriety of late with a psychological analysis of the mimic as a closeted homosexual, whose inner struggle with his sexuality produced all those voices." The narrative voice, purportedly a scholar in comedic studies, is often secretly maximalist: each page, and sometimes each sentence, is brimming with information and rumor about Myles (such as the speculation he might have "quaffed virginal blood to strengthen his vocal powers"), though it's so easy (and fun) to race through the book that one might not notice this on a first read. There are two main reasons for this. First, the humor and levity of the prose perform a clever balancing act on the multi-clause sentences, making them seem as light and quick as fragments. Second, Williams employs a digressive feel to the narration that manages to capture much of the charm of oral performance and storytelling—there's a spoken feel to the way information is relayed. It's a nice complement to Myles's onstage verbal performances the book is describing.

This humor and episodic pacing provides a great sense of velocity in The Mimic's Own Voice, as does the structure. There are no chapters, no section breaks that demand the waiting lounge of a new page between one scene and another. The space of two empty lines, passed over in a quick blink, is as close to a rest-stop as the narrative ever gets. New voices and quotations—both from the original source and those being mimicked—whiz throughout the text like busy traffic; we're given sections of a TV show transcript and a tabloid reporter's write-up of a confrontation between an increasingly reclusive Myles and a group of onlookers demanding he give them a performance. Packed with narrative energy and collages of information about the inaccessible Myles, this slim novella manages to seem anything but sparse.

The mystery of Myles's true character extends throughout the novella to raise important thematic questions of originality, derivation, and identity. The son of an interracial couple whose romantic inclinations are up for debate, Myles's personal identity resists the simple forms of categorization and stereotype that so...


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