After her father dies, Sarah’s perception of reality seems to begin to fall apart. During what seems like a psychotic hallucination, she meets a man named Daulton Dickey. At first, it seems like Daulton is nothing but a figment of her imagination. As she learns more about what’s happening to her, she discovers she may be a figment of Daulton’s imagination.
“–It’s not a thought, really, so much as a feeling, Sarah said. –But not even a feeling. That, too, implies connection, if that makes sense. I don’t know. It’s like the experience exceeded the reach of language. I literally can’t describe it.
–It’s what Wittgenstein called the limitation of language, Daulton said.”
That’s the best summary that I can come up with. The plot of Flesh Made World seems straightforward, but is told in a very nonlinear and complex way that makes it hard to really sum up. Time and space are constantly shifting for Sarah and Daulton. Either of them will be in a mundane setting one moment, then the universe will “blink on and off,” and they’ll be inside a surreal nightmare.
This, of course, fits with the theme of reality vs. the perception of reality. The other major themes are dealing with loss, grief, and, as mentioned above, the limitations of language. Both Sarah and Daulton are grieving the loss of their fathers, which has a profound effect on them both. When Daulton is first introduced, it seems like he’ll act as a “guide” for Sarah, but it soon becomes apparent that he’s as lost and confused as her.
Perception and the limits of language play heavily into the metafictional elements of the book. At one point, Sarah comes across a story she previously wrote which mirrors her experiences with Daulton except from his perspective. Within that story, which makes up a large part of the novel, Daulton describes dealing with a miscarriage his wife suffered and the death of his father as well as trying to write a novel dealing with the issues. He mentions how he has begun to feel as if his fictional characters are real and that he’s actually speaking with them. There’s little, if anything, to separate Daulton Dickey the character with the real (or should that be in quotation marks?) author who wrote this book. Parts of it read like his notes that he made while trying to write the book.
When Sarah and Daulton interact, they often get into philosophical discussions that are explicitly about the book’s themes. One would think that this is ham-fisted way of exploring them, but Dickey manages to make their conversations sound natural. They still read as somewhat didactic, but they never come across as preachy.
One thing I found interesting is that as strange as many of the images are in the book, it’s less surrealist in the original sense and more expressionist. It’s told in a subjective manner and is more concerned with expressing an emotional experience than with either a traditional plot or with looking into the subconscious. I thought this while reading it, and Dickey confirms it in the Afterward. He states that while he was writing it, he set out to make a surreal novel about coping with death, but realized that what he had created was better described as expressionist.
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