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Lance Olsen On the difficult imagination

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What we are left with is the death or at least the dying of what we might call the Difficult Imagination—one that often finds itself accompanied by charges of exclusiveness, snobbery, and elitism leveled by faintly anxious readers at those disruptive, transgressive, nuanced texts dedicated in heterodox ways to revealing, interrogating, complicating, and, briefly, short-circuiting the comfortable narratives produced by dominant cultures committed to seeing such stories told and retold until they begin to pass for something like truths about aesthetics and the human condition.

I am not at all sure, as we find ourselves discussing this question of the avant-garde and accessibility with respect to Kafka, what we really mean by the latter term, since accessibility is one of those highly fraught, highly subjective words that, as Nabokov claimed of reality, should always appear between quotation marks. Nor am I clear about to whom a work should be accessible—a construction worker, a bus driver, an associate professor in the biology department in Bonn?

Nor do I understand why many people seem to believe texts in general should be more rather than less accessible.

Whatever we may think of when we use that word, texts in general should be just the opposite. They should be less accessible, not more. Why? Because texts that make us work, texts that make us think and feel in unusual ways, texts that attempt to wake us in the midst of our dreaming, are more valuable epistemologically, ontologically, and sociopolitically than texts that make us feel warm, fuzzy, and forgetful.

When I speak of renewing the writing of the Difficult Imagination, I am not referring to the renewal of a narratological possibility space in which we are asked continuously to envision the text of the text, the text of our lives, and the text of the world other than they are. This interzone of impeded accessibility is an essential one for human freedom. In it, everything can and should be considered, attempted, troubled. What is important about its products is not whether or not they ultimately succeed or fail (whatever we may mean when we say those words). What is important is that they come into being often and widely, because in them we discover the perpetual manifestation of Nietzsche's notion of the unconditional, Derrida's of a privileged instability, Viktor Shklovsky's ambition for art and Martin Heidegger's for philosophy: the return, through complexity and challenge (not predictability and ease) to perception and contemplation. Kafka's writing will always make one feel a little foolish, a little tongue-tied. One will find oneself standing there in a kind of baffled wonder that will insist upon a slightly new mode of perceiving, a slightly new way of speaking. I am remembering, in a similar case involving one of Kafka's disciples, how I felt upon reaching the end of J. M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello, which commences by telling the life and obsessions of a contemporary writer in her late sixties by means of a series of lectures she gives and attends. It begins, that is to say, in the realm of psychological mimesis, but a psychological mimesis softly tweaked, askew, both by its structuring principle of those lectures as well as by a disquietingly flat prose style and the odd narratorial insertion (the passage of weeks, months, or years, for example, is covered by the abrupt phrase: "We skip."). In the seventh of eight chapters, as the reader settles into these conventions, the novel unexpectedly leaves behind the universe of logical realism and Freudian depth-psychology, veering first into a highly textured meditation, still from the protagonist's point of view (although her presence drops back decidedly from it, while symbol swamps personhood) about the relationship between gods and mortals in a variety of mythological iterations, and then, in the final chapter, into a retelling of Kafka's parable "Before the Law," in which Elizabeth rather than Kakfa's man from the country seeks entrance in vain, not from the quotidian world into the law, but from a purgatorial in-between place into some beyond-region-possibly heaven itself. The book ends with a brief, cryptic postscript that takes the form of an epistle from another (or is it somehow the same?) "Elizabeth C." (Elizabeth, Lady Chandos), this one quite possibly on the verge of madness, written on 9/11 … not in 2001, as we might expect, but in 1603, the year the English Renaissance begins its concluding with the death of Elizabeth I.

With that, everything we have just read drifts into suspension. Is the narrative supposed to add up to the hallucinations of a seventeenth-century woman? A twentieth-century woman imagining from beyond the grave, or on her way to it? A serious postulation of cyclical rebirth or eternal recurrence? An ironic one? Or, more likely, a text not about character and mimesis at all, but rather about a series of philosophical and literary problems, an investigation into a novel ripped open as unpredictably as our culture was on that glistery blue September day, a universe and a universe of discourse exploring the conditions of their own self-perplexing existence?

But one might rightfully ask oneself: can the Difficult Imagination's project ever hope for something resembling success—however we may define that word?

The answer is, of course, absolutely not. And maybe. Staging the inaccessible is an always-already futile project. And an always-already indispensable one. Its purpose is never a change, but rather a changing that will occur—if it occurs at all—locally. That is, writing of the Difficult Imagination cannot generate a macro-revolution (what art can, after all?), but rather a necklace of micro-ones: nearly imperceptible, ahistorical clicks in consciousness that come when one meets a surprising, illuminating, challenging fictive thought experiment.

What else could any of us ask for from a narrative?

Or, Carole Maso: at the launch of this new century, we write wholeheartedly into our own obsolescence, our own obscurity—a place at once tender and absurd and fierce.