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Lance Olsen is the author of several novels, including Girl Imagined by Chance, Anxious Pleasure: A Novel After Kafka, Head in Flames, and Calendar of Regrets, among others. He’s also written books on postmodernism and several story collections. I spoke with him recently about his newest novel, Theories of Forgetting, which is just out from Fc2. His website is here: http://www.lanceolsen.com/
BH: Lance, in terms of structure, Theories of Forgetting is a challenging book, with several stories running across each page, images, illustrations, and marginalia—and with such a great payoff. As a reader I love to be challenged, and I really loved this novel. What is it that interests you most about a novel’s structure both as writer and reader?
LO: For those unfamiliar with Theories of Forgetting: as you say, it’s comprised of three narratives. The first involves an experimental filmmaker completing a short one about Robert Smithson’s extraordinary earthwork, The Spiral Jetty. The second involves her husband’s slow disappearance across Europe and Jordan in the wake of his wife’s untimely death. And the third involves the marginalia added to his narrative (which may be a novel he wrote, may be his memoir) by his daughter. And along the way there’s a pandemic called The Frost, whose symptoms include an increasing sense of cold coupled with amnesia, and a religious cult called The Sleeping Beauties that, in reaction to The End Days, has come to worship barbiturates.
The first of those narratives runs across the “top” of the page from “front” to “back” of Theories. The second runs “upside down” across the “bottom” of the page from “back” to “front.” The daughter’s appears in blue script around and sometimes over the second.
And so: what is it that interests me most about a novel’s structure as both reader and writer? Like you, I’m all about challenge from both perspectives. That is, I find what I think of as manifestations of the difficult imagination extremely alluring—books that make us work both intellectually and emotionally as we navigate them; that refuse to deliver comfortable narratives in comfortable ways. I’m thinking here of myriad heroes of mine from, say, Laurence Sterne, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett to, more recently, Thomas Pynchon, Kathy Acker, David Foster Wallace, Mark Z. Danielewski, Ben Marcus, and Anne Carson. Their complex undertakings teaches us continually to be curious, thoughtful, crazy. Teach us to misbehave in incandescent ways.
The appeal for me of such writing practices lies in the argument made at a structural level: that there are other ways to experience reality, other lives to live, other stories to tell about our worlds and about ourselves than the ones that we’ve been pelted with so often we’ve begun unconsciously to imagine them to be something like the only ways we have to narrativize experience.
In other words, the difficult imagination reminds us that experience can always be different than it is. There’s no more powerful political and existential affirmation.
BH: As a writer, do you enjoy coming up with a book’s structure as much as writing?
LO: I don’t think I see a distinction between structure and writing. Isn’t it structure all the way down—from a novel’s architectonics down to a perfect phrase, how assonance enhances this word or that? Recently Robert Coover visited the university where I teach and met with students for an informal conversation. Someone asked him about how he structured his novels. His intriguing and revealing advice was that, instead of thinking about character first, say, or scene, or image, or plot, he asked himself what his guiding metaphor would be. Then he infused that metaphor all the way through his in-process project.
I love that. In retrospect, I realize that’s my usual method, certainly the one I used when composing Theories of Forgetting. The question I started with was this: how does one fully engage with Robert Smithson’s The Sprial Jetty in fiction? The beginning of the beginning of an answer became those central narratives I mention above literally spiraling around each other in a text that refuses the straight line.
But there’s another key metaphor that arises out of Smithson’s thought that began to obsess me: the idea of entropology, a term he appropriated from Claude Lévi-Strauss’s World on the Wane, and one that houses within itself both the concept of entropy and anthropology. Lévi-Strauss felt there should be a category of study concerned with the wearing down of things—from people to cultures—and Smithson appropriated that idea in his ever-receding-into-the-landscape Spiral Jetty—which, I should mention, also takes the shape of a labyrinth, an essential one for Smithson that has been associated for millennia with travel from this world to another.
Theories thinks through the metaphor of entropology—from its overall layout (which materializes decomposition in various ways), to dying Alana and dispersing Hugh (which is to say poor you and me), to conventionally designed pages breaking up into ruins, to a multitude of linguistic undoings, from failing sentences to crossed-out words and deliberate typos and misspellings.
BH: When you were writing Theories of Forgetting, did you switch around among Hugh, Alana’s, and Aila’s sections, or did you compose each one separately all the way through?
LO: Alana’s and Hugh’s voices and visions were too strong, too much themselves, to allow me to jump between them. So I wrote each separately, sans fancy layout, as pretty straightforward-looking novellas. While working Hugh’s narrative, I began to hear Aila—his daughter’s—initiating a one-way conversation with him. I came to understand she was the one who received the manuscript he wrote after his death, that she used it as a springboard to contemplate their relationship through her marginal (one could even say, in certain ways, parasitic) comments, often directed at her father through her estranged brother, whose name happens to be Lance, and who apparently edited the volume the reader of Theories is navigating.
I didn’t just want to write a novel. I wanted to build one. I wanted to actually construct each page, think of each page as a visual possibility space. So, after writing out the narratives in fairly traditional form, I spent several months teaching myself InDesign and laying out each page individually. The result is that no two pages appear the same, and the entire work becomes a visual as well as verbal conversation.
BH: That was my next question. Your books all seem to have a visual element to them—does that visual every occlude your narrative when you’re working? Or does it do the opposite and provide motivation?
LO: More and more I’m thinking of the visual as another part of the narrative—maybe part of the setting.
I’ve been married to an artist for nearly 34 years: Andi Olsen, who works in video, photography, and assemblage. Over that time we’ve collaborated on a number of pieces. You’ll notice, for instance, that she’s responsible for a number of the faux photographs that make up Girl Imagined by Chance, as well as a film one can link to from Theories of Forgetting (you can see it here: http://lanceolsen.com/tof.html). And we’re currently working on what we’re thinking of as a novel in twelve films—the films, in fact, that Alana in Theories made during the course of her life. The idea is to display those films in a gallery as part of a retrospective of Alana’s work. Andi and I want to create a novel you can walk through.
All of which is to say Andi has taught me to think about seeing. I don’t think I can divide the visual from the narrative anymore. The visual is always-already a form of narrative; it’s just that we’ve forgotten to look at it that way. And the visual always-already carries with it narrativity—even if it’s the viewer who must provide that narrativity, as when he or she looks at an abstract painting.
The visual in my work never illustrates the narrative. The narrative never describes the visual. Rather two components energize each other. In that space arises a tremendous dose of aesthetic opportunity.
BH: Earlier you mentioned David Foster Wallace, who spoke a great deal about the nature of fun in writing. Your work, aside from its passion, humor, and gut-reaching prose—I’m thinking particularly of Girl imagined by Chance, Anxious Pleasures, and Nietzsche’s Kisses, as well as Theories of Forgetting—breathes fun. Is the nature of fun in writing something you teach to students and also follow yourself as a motivation for the novel?
LO: Some readers, I’m guessing, associate what we’ve been talking about—narrative and linguistic complication, the serious politics of innovative writing practices, the problematics of the non-conventional page—with the opposite of fun. I’m not one of them. Just before turning my attention to our interview this morning, I was trolling—as I pathetically do for far too long every morning before starting to write—Facebook, where I bumped into a great Angela Carter quote. Talking about reformulating fairy tales, she says: “I am all for putting new wine in old bottles, especially if the new wine makes the old bottles explode.”
Sure, we could speak about her metaphor in terms of its inherent sober politics and call to challenge received norms. And we would be dead on. But we could also—and this is what I do with my students, what I do with myself in every sentence I compose, every page I construct—speak about the metaphor behind Carter’s metaphor: innovative writing as a possibility space where everything can and should be tried, thought, questioned. (I talk about this at length in my anti-textbook Architectures of Possibility: After Innovative Writing.)
Behind Carter’s quote in particular, behind experimental aesthetics in general, is an urgent invitation to remain mindfully playful with language, form, time, character, genre, you name it. Stay impish. Stay curious. Stay crazy. Don’t follow directions. Don’t compromise. Don’t settle. Don’t take anything for granted. Push yourself. Take chances. Ask yourself how you can write the contemporary rather than rewrite the past. Try to fail in ways that interest you.
Now what do we have, and why?