There’s something deeply unsettling about a weird fiction writer (for lack of an appropriately defined label) who takes his or her own work seriously. Daulton Dickey is one of these writers. Seriousness is certainly not the “norm” around here, and it’s not a bad thing. All the nasty jokes and satirical hilarity is what the lenses of our inverse eclipse glasses are made of, after all. We’d go blind from staring into the black incisions our writing teases into existence otherwise. These incisions are gaps of the unknown, and it’s my conviction that weird fiction’s job is to create them. Allow me to elaborate on this claim, since it is far too vital in my analysis of Dickey’s work to merely mention in passing.
Weird fiction is a post-enlightenment program of reconstruction. The reason that money and rationality can never become gods, despite frequent warnings to the contrary proffered by well-meaning critics of capitalism, is because both elements are essentially quantitative. Only the unknown (and therefore unquantifiable) can become holy, as Adorno points out in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, and the holy, as we no longer require philosophers to point out, is dead.
Weird fiction doesn’t seek to restore the irrationality of God. It does, however, sanctify protected gardens against the rationalist dominion. The post-enlightenment graveyard of quantities is where weird fiction mines the dark matter used to manufacture miniature household inversions of Christ. Weird fiction transcends atheism in favor of a limited polytheism, seeking to restore the paradox of confined infinity best exemplified by the tribal and household gods of antiquity. The dusty remnants blanketing enlightenment’s battlefield contain trace elements of the old magic stolen from nature. This dust is the alchemical writer’s lapis philosophorum: the word radically liberated from denotation by the excesses of rationality.
It is no wonder, then, that the weird fiction frequently lapses into laughter marked by the fear and celebration inherent in holy ecstasy. What experimental writer, having written something visceral, tortured, and genuinely new (a genuine event, in other words, even if only for the writer) hasn’t said to herself, “enough is enough. It’s time for a joke.” This is a deeply human response to the magic of the unknown. To stare into the gap without flinching is something else entirely. And while Daulton Dickey’s 2017 novel Flesh Made World has its subdued moments of humor, its gaze is steady and fearless.
It’s a meditation on grief, an exploration of time, a surrealist depiction of depression, a fictional discourse on consciousness, an enthusiastic affirmation of the unconscious, a suicide letter. Flesh Made World is all of these, but most importantly, it is a fearless probing of the universe dividing all sentient beings, the external mirror image of all gaps we consistently rediscover in language. Dickey handles exactly this intersection between language and perception explicitly, adding a philosophical depth uncommon in contemporary fiction to Flesh Made World’s long list of literary merits.
Sarah and Daulton (yes, there is a metafictional element, which avoids coming across as gimmicky due to its plaintive sincerity), anchored by intensive moments of pain, grope their way through a dark, incomprehensible world in search of an authentic moment of connection. Connections are important in Flesh Made World, since these are what have been irrecoverably lost to the past and revisited with fetishizing intensity. In this way, Flesh Made World is also a touching description of loneliness. As Dickey writes, “Loneliness doesn’t by necessity entail the absence of other people. Sometimes loneliness is derived from missed or failed connections; sometimes loneliness is the product of less-than-ideal means of communicating or interacting with others” (Location 1825).
It is exactly these moments of missed connections that signal the holy gaps in Dickey’s novel. These are the rips in the fabric of Daulton and Sarah’s fluid residence in time, more real and vivid to them than the fading world of phenomenon (if, as Dickey constantly asks us, such a distinction is even tenable). Who, out of those of us who have sensed the vivid being of a vacancy left by death, would fail to grasp the import of Dickey’s “missed or failed” connections? Who, having read the book, would dare say that such vacancies aren’t aptly rendered in Flesh Made World? But they are not merely “rendered.” Dickey doesn’t stop at mimesis but transgresses into the world of ecstatic worship.
This transgression is both Dickey’s strength and the truly experimental aspect of Flesh Made World. While the novel bustles with surrealistic imagery in an admirable homage to his artistic influences, Dickey avoids the failures of other surrealist novels, which is the inability to communicate. The recurring spoon scene shared by grieving Sarah and her departed father is a particularly poignant incident of Dickey’s liberating transgression and bears quoting at length:
Sarah’s sitting in the kitchen now, examining the spoon. In the display case. Her father, sitting on the other side of the table, eyeballs her, then the spoon, as he tears into a New York strip […].
—There was lint.
—Right there. On the corner.
—I’m thinking about building a sturdier case. Maybe putting some glass on it.
—That seems excessive.
—It’s a valuable piece.
—It’s a spoon.
—With Paul Revere’s maker’s mark.
—Are you shitting me?
—It’s worth tens of thousands, he says. —Easily.
—Look it up.
Patina darkens it, gives it an almost marbled-copper coat. It’s old, but otherwise undistinguished. Just a spoon. Nothing fancy or ornate. It seems mass produced, recent, like a piece from one of those “heirloom” sets sold door-to-door in the fifties.
—The mark’s on the back, her father says. —I’m thinking about mounting it so you can see it, maybe include a picture or a brief history, or … (location 72 to 81)
Immediately following this quote, Sarah’s father dissolves back into the surreal world of transformation. The mystery of the spoon is lost until much later in the novel, and even then is never fully consummated. “So, what is in this passage,” you ask, “nothing?” Indeed—exactly nothing, and so much more: a brilliant move! Dickey conscripts the reader’s desire and uses it to force her to face the permanent loss of a moment, without freedom from its reenactment. The reader is trapped in a lost connection.
Mundane moments in Flesh Made World are ecstatic because they mark the gravitational center around which the narrative unfolds. Dickey treats each lost connection with care, fetishizing them into talismans against the primordial violence of the unknown. But like any talisman, they are immune to rationale themselves. They are magic insofar as they are elements of the unknown. They cannot be assimilated into a logical worldview; they carry the darkness inside. When surrealism fails to communicate, it is a failure of fetishization. Dickey’s masterful interplay between surrealist dissolution and mundane, failed connections brilliantly circumvents this failure. It’s no wonder that Dickey chose to write a surrealist novel despite his acknowledgement that surrealism’s “potential is weakest in the written word.” He discovered, after all, an effective method for its salvation.
Of course, readers are free to enjoy Flesh Made World simply as a psychedelic romp if they choose. There’s plenty of exciting imagery in these pages to keep things interesting. Nevertheless, such a reader is certainly missing out. It will come to no surprise that Dickey wrote this during his father’s unexpected death. Only a true experience with grief could inspire such an unlaughing gaze at loss. His descriptions of depression are worthy of David Foster Wallace, and while Wallace embraces humor, he would certainly applaud Dickey’s eschewal of irony. Dickey’s seriousness won’t be music to every palette. But this particular reader believes we could use more writers like Dickey; writers unafraid to examine the things we imagine are best left hidden. Best left hidden until, that is, we realize they have already faded into lost connections.
Dickey, Daulton. Flesh Made World. Rooster Republic Press, 2018.
Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Edited by Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, Stanford University Press, 2002.