The only way for me to begin a review of Ottawa-born Sybil Lamb’s novel I’ve Got a Time Bomb is by saying it’s the strangest, most unique book I’ve ever read, and I have no fucking clue how to review it. I think both Sybils (the author and main character share a name, among other similarities) would take this as a compliment, though, so here we go.
You know a book is really hard to describe when the publisher’s blurb barely manages to scratch the surface. Maybe we’ll start with that:
On her way home from a gay wedding, Sybil is ambushed, beaten, and left for dead on the train tracks. Days later, Sybil awakens in a hospital and finds her skull has been reconstructed, but it quickly becomes clear that her version of “normal” and “reality” may have been permanently altered. When she falls in love with a very beautiful, but very married, actress, Sybil does what comes naturally: she presents the object of her affection with a homemade explosive device, and then abruptly leaves town.
I’ve Got A Time Bomb chronicles her surrealistic journey living among the loners, losers, and leave-behinds in the dark corners of Amerika.
This “synopsis” covers everything that happens in, oh, probably the first third of the book. Really, it’s what happens after she abruptly leaves town that fills most of the pages. There’s a lot of them, by the way (almost 350). These are pages of rambling travels in a setting that is at once the future and the present. What the hell do I mean by that? Some of the details, for example, make it pretty clear that Sybil is in post-Katrina New Orleans. But other totally apocalyptic circumstances and technology and alternate city names and other random details like the dates make it clear this is not just North American reality as we knew it after a natural disaster.
For Sybil, this disaster is an opportunity: to cruise around in a modified ice cream truck, raid pharmacies for drugs, find new friends and lovers in all sorts of weird places, and squat in a bunch of different houses, all in varying degrees of falling-apartness. The real fucking disaster, of course, is the hate crime that begins Topside Press’s description of the book. It’s tempting to say Sybil maintains some kind of positive outlook after the attack, but I think it’s more that she maintains a will to keep on keeping on, even if she doesn’t know where she’s going.
Sybil is the anti-heroine that you learn to love: she’s a bisexual trans woman, she’s not above fucking you to get what she wants (you know, like maybe a place to crash), she’s the kind of friend who will help you burn down your own house if you want to, and she’s charming as hell (when she wants to be)—“she acted like charm was a minimum wage job she had to hold down 38 hours a week”—when she’s not acting like a self-proclaimed crazy bitch. She spends a lot of her travelling time looking for
The kind of people who would still let you hang out if you had brain damage and a 3-second attention span and sometimes forgot how doors worked and had 1 or 2 tiny yet epically absurd delusions a day, accumulating like an abscess of crazy right behind your dead left eye.
As you can see, Lamb’s writing is really stunning, amazing and poetic and impressively fresh, but not in a show-offy way at all. Also, funny as hell sometimes. Like, here’s her description of a brothel/strip joint in “Salt Plain City”:
The saloon was really, actually, seriously named the Fuck & Suck Saloon. At 10 A.M. at the Fuck & Suck, there was a motley crew of pansexual orientations and identities with every ethnic background and body politic represented so thoroughly that their team roll call sounded like a pamphlet from a progressive liberal arts college.
This novel is a lot of things, most of all intense. Was it too intense for me? Probably. I felt frustrated sometimes at the lack of character development and the constant wandering after about 250 pages. I’ve been trying to sort through this feeling of frustration, of what it means about what my expectations for this book were and for fiction in general are. I mean, Sybil is just not that kind of “developing” character, so why was I wanting something that so clearly didn’t fit with the book? Maybe I was just tired of the scenes of partying and drugs. Not in a moral way—don’t get me wrong. I just started to feel bored.
It’s funny, because I’ve had similar experiences reading other books, where at the same time that I’m really aware of how amazing and ground-breaking and interesting something is, I’m just not that into reading it. For me this certainly wasn’t all or even most of I’ve Got a Time Bomb, just the last quarter probably. Anyway, the only other books I’ve felt this way about are ones that I’ve been forced to read for school.
Actually, speaking of books I was forced to read during my English lit degrees, I had a brainwave about comparing this seemingly incomparable book. I’ve Got a Time Bomb is strikingly similar to Laurence Stern’s Tristram Shandy, a 1759 novel largely noted for being post-modern before modernity even happened. It’s super weird, rambling, tangents upon tangents, and similarly simultaneously wonderful and maddening. I also have a feeling Ulysses might actually be very similar to Lamb’s book but I’ve never read a thing by James Joyce, so anyone who has read both might have to confirm this.
I’ve Got a Time Bomb maintains a feeling of momentum throughout regardless of what I just said about my frustrations. I felt scared when I got to the end of the book, not wanting it to be over, despite it feeling like I’d been immersed in Sybil’s disorienting, trippy world for a long time. That momentum, of course, can’t go on forever, and with this kind of book, you know it ends when Sybil finally crashes. I don’t think I’ve ever quoted the end of a book before, but I’ve never read anything like this before, so maybe that’s fitting. In any case, this very last passage is probably the most beautiful in the novel and one of the best endings I have ever read:
when she burrowed to the bottom of the dumpster she found a cool ocean there. She let her thoughts float up and away, to get picked off by birds and cooked in the sun. She lost herself delighting in the shapes and lights way up above her. She didn’t need to know what they were. She just liked seeing that something was here with her. NO, I MEAN, she liked being removed from the whole world; seeing it leave traces of light while she was safe, where light couldn’t penetrate. NO, I MEAN, she looked out and saw a world that was just flashes of light and colour, and she felt bigger and more real than any of it. Perhaps the only being who ever was real. The whole world and every fucker she fell for or got beaten by was all things she did to herself insider her own head, which was broken.
Puffs of cigarette smoke and reflections from the street lights floated through one another, playing slow at the bottom of the ocean, beneath a mountain of trash. She had finally crawled down to the bottom of the ocean. Here she glided through blackness like outer space, she scuttled across rocks and lay on her back, surrounded by nuthin’ but darkness.