Ever since the untimely death of Kathy Acker, experiments in form and voice and subject matter in the speculative genre have been all too rare. Luckily for us, however, a few brave authors remain willing to push ahead into uncharted literary territory. One of the finest is Lance Olsen.
Theories of Forgetting
Theories of Forgetting is a narrative composed of three parts. The first involves the story of a middle-aged filmmaker, Alana, struggling to complete a short experimental documentary about Robert Smithson’s famous earthwork, The Spiral Jetty, in the wake of having fallen victim to a pandemic called The Frost. The second involves the story of Alana’s husband, Hugh, owner of a bookstore in Salt Lake City, and his slow disappearance in Jordan while on a trip there both to remember and to forget. His vanishing may well be linked to the Sleeping Beauties, a rising global religious cult that worships barbiturates. The third involves the marginalia added to Hugh’s section by his daughter, Aila, an art critic living in Berlin. Aila discovers a manuscript by her father after his disappearance and tries to make sense of it by means of a one-sided “dialogue” with her estranged brother, Lance.
Lance Olsen’s Theories of Forgetting is a remarkably fugue-like ode to the intricacies of memory. Offering two intersecting stories about illness, loss, and forgetting, with annotations, this is an extremely smart and moving book about how our lives wind snail-like around one another as they risk flindering away into absence or death.
Olsen is among the finest writers of social critique and speculative fiction today.
Calendar of Regrets
Calendar of Regrets is a wildly inventive and visually rich collage of twelve interconnected narratives, one for each month of the year, all pertaining to notions of travel — through time, space, narrative, and death.
The poisoning of the painter Hieronymus Bosch; anchorman Dan Rather’s mysterious mugging on Park Avenue as he strolls home alone one October evening; a series of postcard meditations on the idea of travel from a young American journalist visiting Burma; a husband-and-wife team of fundamentalist Christian suicide bombers; the myth of Iphigenia from Agamemnon’s daughter’s point of view — these and other stories form a mosaic, connected through a pattern of musical motifs, transposed scenes, and recurring characters. It is a narrative about narrativity itself, the human obsession with telling ourselves and our worlds over and over again in an attempt to stabilize a truth that, as Nabokov once said, should only exist within quotation marks.
Lance Olsen misbehaves in all sorts of grave and playful ways. He throws Hieronymus Bosch in the mix with Agamemnon; God in the mix with the devil. Here are postcards, podcasts, and fairy tales; terrorism and angels; aphasia and aneurysm; bludgeonings and vacuous friendships. Calendar of Regrets is a spectacular synthesis, a wild ride through a free mind. I have never read anything like it.
Perhaps no other American author writes as expansively and insightfully as Lance Olsen about what it means to be alive at this place, at this time. The power of Calendar of Regrets comes from the ease with which it convinces its readers that the most astonishing thing about life is that we are here at all: the surreal visions of Hieronymus Bosch are no more vivid than the religious minds of suicide bombers; a tourist’s experience of an exotic country; or the moment when a teacher realizes that her students will never change. Page after page, Olsen places us in the position of those first travelers in hot-air balloons whose shift in perspective allowed them to see the world they lived within as though for the first time. The long view provided by the many private metamorphoses in this novel allows a portrait of posthumanity where forms endure, and each of us is a time traveler through them: a tour de force of elegance, thought, and transcendence.
Lance Olsen’s Nietzsche’s Kisses has a Dionysian soul that the great philosopher would have loved. More importantly, Olsen, and the novel, understand what Nietzsche meant about the scary business of looking into the abyss.
At once lyrical, comic, and deeply moving, Nietzsche’s Kisses is the story of Friedrich Nietzsche’s last mad night on earth. Locked in a small room on the top floor of a house in Weimar, the most radical and influential of nineteenth-century German philosophers hovers between dream and wakefulness, memory and hallucination, the first person, second, and third, past and present, reliving his brief love-affair with feminist Lou Salomé, his stormy association with Richard Wagner’s musical genius, and his conflicted relationship with Lisbeth, his rabidly anti-Semitic sister dedicated to assuring her brother’s legacy by distorting his philosophy into a cult attractive to the rising proto-Nazi movement. Here is an authoritative portrait of the Nietzsches we know and the Nietzsches we don’t — the one who killed off God, unmoored language from the things to which it refers, and invented the notions of the Overman and Eternal Recurrence, as well as the one evincing a fragile and hyper-sensitive intensity that contrasts eerily with the celebration of strength and the disparagement of consciousness in his own writings. His titanic ego, suppressed, squelched, and sealed up within him, all but unknown to his acquaintances, creates a maniacal and raging giant inside his own skull that is mysterious and unnerving, when it is not simply scary, sad, and haunting. Both stylistically and formally innovative, the prose in Nietzsche’s Kisses is surprising and rich. The result is a vivid, complex readerly experience of Nietzsche’s critifictional imagination, internal dividedness, and existential alienation. Yet, for all its technical and philosophical play, this book never relinquishes its profound empathy for what it means to be human during our final hours.
It is a riveting and evocative portrait, but far more than that, it is an experience, an experience in which the reader is instantly thrust into Nietzsche’s consciousness during his final hours on earth and they are hallucinatory, fantastical, tragic hours, hours not only achingly poignant, but terribly haunting.
Nietzsche’s Kisses is a brilliant book and a book of brilliances, one of which follows the logic of the disintegration of a great mind with poetic grace, profound comedy, and a sense of tragic inevitability. With this novel Lance Olsen moves well beyond mere experimentalism to occupy a ground worthy of the magisterial and manic figure of Nietzsche himself. This is a deeply moving, compelling, intelligent, and utterly human account of the power of mind and the glory of post-history’s first and most vulnerable superman.
This literary philosopher has haunted literature for a century, and Lance Olsen has decided to take a closer look at this ghost in Nietzsche’s Kisses, respectful of his spirit, but only enough to bring him down to earth where one can have a better look at him … he also treats his subject with enough respect and imagination, and little enough self-consciousness, to let it speak for itself, mediated for sure, but never subordinated.
Nietzsche is a man of many sometimes conflicting seasons and in this fascinating and structurally complex work by Lance Olsen, Nietzsche is shown the last night of his life, locked in a room, hovering between dream and wakefulness, memory and hallucination, the first person, second, and third, past and present, deliriously recalling a fraction of his seasons of glory in his dribbling impotence as we tune into a short stream of time at the end of his life, a refreshing, enlightening, disturbing, but altogether welcome accompaniment to the lore of all things Nietzsche.
Nietzsche’s Kisses is a brilliant achievement, a seamless, precise, marvelously affecting novel that must be read by everyone who appreciates the best of today’s fiction.
While it’s impossible to know exactly what was whirling through Nietzsche’s brain-body those last eleven years of his life, let alone those final hours, Olsen’s fictional account casts a few bright rays of lightning upon those moments. When recalling his years as a professor it occurs to Nietzsche as he is standing before his students that “for some people consciousness is a dangerous tenement whose rooms they should never enter alone” (109); few actually enter the dangerous realms of their consciousness, certainly not its utter and extreme limits as did Nietzsche. Most need companions along the dark road, though they only skirt its edges, never enter its depths. The abyss Nietzsche gazed into gazed back into him and it is that labyrinthine abyss which Olsen opens up to us. It is truly a “resurrection of consciousness” and that seems to be Olsen’s ultimate concern as we enter the dangerous, fascinating, fabalistic rooms of Nietzsche and his numerous selves, his masks only reflecting a plethora of other masks as he remains an indissoluble enigma, a Sphinx whose questions remain forever unanswered.
Come, join Nietzsche as he dies. Lance Olsen invites you … And so do Nietzsche, and Nietzsche, and Nietzsche … Let the Bardo begin.
Olsen is a fine and daring writer, equal to the material.
Olsen is known for telling strange stories in unconventional ways, and in Nietzsche’s Kisses he does not disappoint. With little warning, this book’s rich, sometimes oblique, prose jumps from twisted first-person images of the sanitarium to third-person vignettes of various episodes from his life to second-person stream-of-conscious rants. The sum of this is both a fictive biography and a compelling rendition of what the last day of anyone’s life might be like.… a book that is as smart as it is engaging.
Olsen … depicts this fallen übermensch with inventiveness and stark-raving prose.
Kisses, tears, and laughter. Pride, embarrassment, and humiliation. Lance Olsen’s beautiful novel gives us both the “human, all too human” side of Nietzsche, and the dream of lightness and grace that was central to his philosophy, but that is too often forgotten or ignored by his disciples.
Lance Olsen has composed a spare parable of representation and self, the loss of the real and the reality of loss. Girl Imagined by Chance is smart and moving and elegant, its seemingly offhand scenes as effortlessly poignant as a handful of old snapshots.
Girl Imagined By Chance
Girl Imagined by Chance is a critifictional novel about a couple who, in an unguarded moment, find themselves having created a make-believe daughter (and soon a make-believe life to accompany her) in order to appease their friends, family, and, ultimately, the culture of reproduction. Structured around twelve photographs, a single roll of film, Girl explores the nature of photography and the questions that nature raises about the notions of the simulated and the real, the media-ization of consciousness, originality, self-construction, and the way we all continually fashion our faces into masks for the next shot.
At its heart, Girl Imagined by Chance investigates the mystery of self-knowledge. Its prevailing metaphor and structural device, the photograph, examines the way images, in their magical ability to mimic memory, ultimately mock and eradicate it. The individual past, seemingly stable and fixed, turns out to be as protean and unknowable as the future, and the body becomes strangely dispensable, perpetually adrift in a cybernetic world of hyperlinks and interfaces. If Jean Baudrilard, Hélèn Cixous, and Clarice Lispector had collaborated on a novel, Girl Imagined by Chance would be the result.
This play between image/text and fiction/criticism leaves both Olsen and his narrator on deliberately shaky ground, and it’s precisely this tension which saves the novel from becoming another by-product of the Oprah-ization of literary fiction in the United States.
Girl Imagined by Chance is a fast-paced, hysterical sitcom for thinking readers.
Olsen tells this rather simple story in a sparse prose that belies a complexity that bewilders, provokes, and intentionally confuses.… Olsen’s knowledge of photography, philosophy, and the intricacies of cyberspace is impressive, and he is a master of his craft.
This quietly powerful book reads like a blend of the work of Italo Calvino and Michael Blumlein.
[Girl Imagined by Chance] is an absorbing and meditative work that explores modern identity and media-driven social customs.… This new, mysterious tale finds the author using sparse and beautiful prose to investigate perception, selfhood and the culture of reproduction.
Edgy, angular, these intricate narrative-pictorials fizz in that most anxiety-saturated space for high art, where the word and image meet easily and breezily on the bubbling rim of genre … Hell’s still a-popping in these techno-parables, filled with surprising insights and articulations.
Sewing Shut My Eyes
Sewing Shut My Eyes is a tour-de-force avant-pop anti-spectacle — nine darkly satiric out-takes of America tubing. Visions of mid-air synchronicities, robotic cockroaches, cyborg poets, and one monstrous HDTV, all rendered in a hypo-manic style of electrified clauses and full-throttle patter. Here’s Mona Sausalito, self-proclaimed “fricking gorgeous” bad-little-girl for Escort à la Mode and, on the side, Neogoth lyricist in the band of her boyfriend Mosh (“His real name is Marvin Goldstein”). Mona wants to be a poet.
I write about human sacrifices, cannibalism, vampires, and stuff. Mosh loves my work. He says we’re all going to be famous some day. Only right now we’re not, which bites, cuz I’ve been writing for like almost ten months. These things take time, I guess.
Olsen hallucinates a turned-on, channel-surfing nation where pain has become home theater and given enough channels, watching would beat sex. A nameless agent of the ultimate phantom bureaucracy holds his Yeltsin-70 at the ready and recalls O. J. on trial, supermodels and styrofoam landscapes, America screening fast and addictive. In the title story, Kerwin Penumbro wakes on his birthday to the ultimate TV, the renowned Mitsubishi Stealth, and at a point thirty-three thousand feet above the triangulation of Iron Lightning, Faith, and Thunder Butte, SD, Itty Snibb, supremely confident dwarf and prosperous entrepreneur, prepares to meet God.
These are fictions for minds lit with cathode-ray tubes, hands pixilated with static, for bodies that have become switching stations for the Society of the Spectacle.
The only thing left to do is start sewing shut our eyes.
Edgy, angular, these intricate narrative-pictorials fizz in that most anxiety-saturated space for high art, where the word and image meet easily and breezily on the bubbling rim of genre … Olsen and Olsen are to the current stream of American alternative art what Olsen and Johnson were to the vaudeville circuit of the thirties and forties: Hell’s still a-popping in these techno-parables, filled with surprising insights and articulations.
An exhilarating, high-octane performance … consistently inventive — at once frenzied and furious and tender.
A very casual reader would read this collection and think that it’s just sort of wildly inventive fiction having all sorts of zany fun with form and phonics. But what it is to me so powerfully is an extremely subtle, complex, and rigorous investigation into a set of related themes hovering around TV and death. Sewing Shut My Eyes is constantly exploring, with great rigor, wit, brilliance, and invention, how this folding screen actually folds. Andi Olsen’s visuals … take the coverlet off and assault the reader with the dream nation’s reptile brain.
In Sewing Shut My Eyes Lance Olsen creates his neocontemporary worlds of cybernetic consciousness to disturbing and hilarious effect. With customary high-voltage inventiveness (both verbal and narrative) the fictions in this collection are as edgy and outrageous as previous works such as Tonguing the Zeitgeist that have earned Olsen his avant-pop reputation.… Sewing Shut My Eyes adds to Lance Olsen’s deeply knowing, ever-startling oeuvre.
[Lance Olsen] exhibits a joyfully subversive Marx-Brothers mentality, spinning off deadly jokes and puns faster than Robin Williams can change voices. This is fiction that cuts you open and then patches your wounds with synthetic skin that’s shinier and more adaptive than your original epidermis.