Topside Press specializes in queer fiction with a focus on trans narratives and authors. Published earlier this year, I've Got a Time Bomb by Sybil Lamb expands their project with a novel that flips the typical disaster narrative on its head. In addition to a homemade explosive device, Lamb's book has dense, imagistic prose wielded with gleeful abandon. It has characters who each seem to inscribe or at least imply a kind of pocket universe. It even has accompanying illustrations by Lamb herself, who is an accomplished artist. Structured after the bomb in its title, the novel counts down in "ticks" instead of chapters, starting with Tick 10. Its protagonist, Sybil D'Lye, is named after the author.
A notable stylistic aspect of Lamb's writing is her eschewal of spelling and grammar norms, rendering "because" as "cuz," and "something" as "sumthin,'" among others. An extension of this technique alters nearly all proper place names: Philadelphia becomes "Filthydelphia"; Tennessee, "Tension"; America and Canada become "Amerika" and "Canadia." These alterations, though simple, generate immense effects for the reader. For one, they inject an irreverent sense of humor into the narrative voice at a granular level, to complement a wider sortie against notions of properness and respectability. These colloquial spellings can be understood as a kind of informality which shrinks the discursive distance between reader and author, and submerges us further into Lamb's authorial inscape. Yet they also hint toward a larger social stance on novelistic language. Growing up, we are taught that linguistic and rhetorical rules determine properness of expression and the respectability of a piece of writing in a given context. Where there are rules, however, hierarchies tend to form. Regarding language—including novelistic language—what is considered "proper," "respectable," or "correct" expression most often hews towards formality and spelling and grammar standards which overlap with certain privileges. By toying with these rules, Lamb expresses her distaste for the imperious posturing of a literary legacy dominated by cis male authors, as well as her disdain for the oppressive tool that is respectability politics more generally. As the reader soon discovers, this aspect of Lamb's technique is further reinforced by the book's content.
I've Got a Time Bomb's alternate place names have an additional effect, which is to invoke a rift between the novel's setting and the real world, thereby placing the book into a conversation with genre. The relationship between the novel's setting and our world is direct, yet ambiguous. Is Amerika a post-apocalyptic future United States? Is it an alternate-universe or hallucinogenic version of the present? Seeming to argue in favor of this interpretation is the strange, three-digit year of its setting ("this book," a Note From the Author reads, "describes events which snowballed between February 282 and January 288"). Yet when you come across passages like this, which so accurately capture a real cultural milieu, it doesn't seem to matter:
In early spring, the perimeter border was lifted. The National Guard became chummy cops-on-the-beat, cracking jokes and drinking cold beer out of the Hummper, with M-16s on their shoulder. The Hummper, and the M-16s, and their soldier rags were all the color of the flood swamp mud. The government must have ordered them special. Most of the soldiers were from the prairies. They had all had to take a weekend course in swamp criminal code and legal procedure. Morteville has no actual criminal code, except for the 10 Commandments mixed with the 12 steps of drug and alcohol recovery. (p. 47)
Concerns regarding the distance between the book's world and our own gradually dissolve as the novel resonates with current events, particularly in its dialed-up depictions of protest movements facing off against heavily militarized police forces. Following the arson of their second squat in Filthydelphia, where they first met, Sybil follows her younger friend and at-times lover Maybe from town to town as they volunteer to help medic crews at actions around the country. On their way to one in "Jack, Mississippissippi," Maybe hears about a rapidly growing flood in the South. She turns to Sybil and says:
"I prayed for the inside of my mind to not be so unlike the world everyone else lives just fine in. This is not at all what I meant, but we have a very big responsibility. It's the end of the world. We made it to the edge of the end of the world." (p. 21)
Sybil and Maybe drive straight into the flood zone. After arriving, they set out and make their homes among abandoned buildings caught in postures of apocalypse:
All guesses at the identities of former occupants were mere speculation, based on moldy, water-logged clues, hints from papers left on top of dressers and drawers, pages stuck together, all of it ruined and useless. Peoples' homes, made of decades of insulated small-southern-town life, were now each releasing their slightly-different cocktails of toxic chemicals as the water seeped slowly up everything and crumbled the walls apart on a long, patient, molecular level. (p. 31)
This deterioration of the previous social order, and the liquification of its institutions, borders, and boundaries, are required for the characters to build for themselves. What one might call survivalism reads like opportunity. "Not a week went by that they didn't see some new miracle" (p. 43). When they are forced back into "cities that [have] not been destroyed or depopulated," the characters face a much grimmer set of challenges. What one might call opportunity reads like survivalism. I've Got a Time Bomb takes the typical disaster narrative—whose core anxieties cluster around lamentations of a lost societal configuration—and inverts it. Flooded Morteville (post-Katrina New Orleans) becomes a promise of flourishing, while the unscathed cities elsewhere transfigure into multi-story landscapes of alienation and death. No sooner has the reader understood this than the water drains and electricity returns to Morteville, rendering the protagonists' "rugged, resourceful survival skills . . . no longer necessary," and submerging them in a more toxic and challenging environment: "modern society."
Perhaps the key thematic concern of the text is a psychic battle over notions of functionality and health. Maybe's experience failing to inject her hormones demonstrates a world so determined to cast her sense of self and identity as "broken" that not acquiescing to this label generates a schism between her subjectivity and mental health norms, manufactured as they are by cis-dominated cultural and medical institutions. Refusal to view trans identity as a kind of psychosis, she notes, is rendered itself as psychosis by society at large. This realization furthers the diametric opposition between the novel's protagonists—the majority of whom are trans women—and a "normal" civilization which, when it is at its most functional, is also at its most trans-antagonistic, and sets the stage for what is easily the most traumatic and disturbing event of the book.
On her way back from a wedding that took place on a rickety pier, two men brutally assault Sybil in a darkened rail-yard. It is an excruciating scene the horror of which somehow escalates once the assailants have left, with Sybil lying only partially conscious for three and a half days, then getting up and stumbling to a friend's house "while holding her brain in with her one working hand." "Who could have known," she asks between hallucinations and resurgent memories of being queer-bashed before, "that who you are is not written on your soul, but it's scribbled on your meat and that identity can thus be chewed up into a squishy wad of pink meat and spit?" (p. 85) This sentence ramifies through the rest of the novel, as Sybil is forced to deal with lasting memory loss and fugue states as a result of her brain damage.
Lamb has stated that this event is "completely true"—it actually happened to her. A longer, first-person account of the attack was published as a zine, one of several that were compiled, edited, and converted into third-person for the construction of the novel . The copyright page of I've Got a Time Bomb says "© 289 by Sybil Lamb," indicating a deeper imbrication between the text itself and the strange timeline of its contents. A preamble to the novel—a "Medical and Legal Disclaimer" pertaining to its protagonist Sybil D'Lye—tells us that "this book is a record of the rehabilitation of Sybil . . . after a traumatic brain injury in the spring of 285" (also that "this text is a minimum of 88% completely true") (pp. 1-2). Underlying the caricature "Amerika" and the story being told is a close correspondence to the real America and the author's own life. The seeming unreliability of the narrative voice swings away from hyperbole or an alternate universe, and veers towards truth rendered in a kind of personalized code, less expressionistic than it is at heart a vein of realism.
The movements in a dance between intimacy and distance, established at the beginning of Sybil's relationship with Maybe, become more pronounced throughout the rest of the book. We notice, long after the fact, that around the same time Sybil wakes up post-operation, Maybe has vanished from the narrative, while other characters reappear like flashes of light only to leave again just as suddenly. The people closest to her empty themselves from Sybil's life, or vice versa, inciting her to travel to new places and take up with entirely different groups of people. The disjuncts between the book's adventures, locales, and Sybil's series of friends mock the idea of plot and depict more accurately the qualities of day to day living. This is what a road novel is supposed to be. Having relinquished or lost at some point everything in her life, including her sense of personal continuity, Sybil improvises on a constant basis what most of us are mistakenly convinced is reliable or fixed.
When, in the latter half of the book, Sybil isn't on a mountain-top rebuilding engines to run on fryer oil, sleeping on the glass-strewn balcony of an abandoned desert hotel, or robbing a drugstore as part of an "anti-date," the book's sense of isolation melts away, as do the edges between one event and another. Sybil winds up in a major city. The location and its accompanying haze of drug use and hook-ups dissipate what in retrospect feels like a stately progression of dissociated yet adventurous set-pieces featuring her and usually a single other character. The countdown timer spins faster and becomes unwieldy; it has begun to wobble on its axis. This is by design—Lamb's book was never going to end with anything other than an explosion. It was never going to follow a meek trajectory, but rather rapidly expand until all vestiges of order and orderliness evaporated in the heat of her resilience.
- Source: http://www.vice.com/read/trans-writer-sybil-lamb-wrote-a-roman-a-clef-about-surviving-a-hate-crime
Ryan Elliott is a writer/critic based outside of Seattle.
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