An Illuminated Interview with Lance Olsen

lance-olsenby John Madera

In the first section of Lance Olson’s 2010 book Calendar of Regrets (FC2), which is told from a close-third narration in Hieronymus Bosch’s perspective, we’re offered this admonition: “Look closely: everything is webbed with everything, existence an illuminated manuscript you walk through” This passage could serve as a key to the entire book—key not only as a way or means of interpreting the text, but also as an instrument to unlock the text-as-lock or series of interlocking locks. It’s a heuristic move: the text is teaching the reader how to read it, especially regarding the following: first, the importance of perception and its innumerable complications; second, the interconnectivity between characters and events, but also in the text as a whole, both structurally and thematically; and third, being, whether realia or fantasia, ontic or hauntic, how it, too, is a text, lavishly illustrated, which not only creates openings that you can move through but is movement itself. It also brings to mind a passage from Georges Perec’s Species of Spaces and Other Pieces:

This is how space begins, with words only, signs traced on the blank page. To describe space: to name it, to trace it, like those portolano-makers who saturated the coastlines with the names of harbours, the names of capes, the names of inlets, until in the end the land was only separated from the sea by a continuous ribbon of text. Is the aleph, that place in Borges from which the entire world is visible simultaneously, anything other than an alphabet?

I recently sat down with Lance Olson to discuss the author’s philosophy of the “illuminated manuscript,” and in particular, his call for considered scrutiny.


John Madera: Would you talk more about this “webbing” that connects everything with everything, about reality as a text?

Lance Olsen: Maybe our real job as writers, I sometimes want to say, perhaps even as human beings (with the accent on the plural noun), is to continuously learn to pay attention to the world we move through. Yet the world—which is to say how we’re wired—plots against us. Our default mode of being often wants to be the habitual, which is to say the unexamined, which is to say our default mode of being-there wants to be not-being-there.

What’s astonishing and invigorating for me about what I consider difficult art—a sentence, say, in Ben Marcus’s Age of Wire and String or Gary Lutz’s Stories in the Worst Way; the architectonics of David Lynch’s Lost Highway; the complexity of any two seconds of a text-film by Young-Hai Chang or corner of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights—is that it seeks to return us through challenge to attention, which is to say contemplation.

Another way of putting this is to move from the aesthetic to the existential and think about what your answer might be to Annie Dillard’s rattling riddle: “Assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?”

In other words—and this eases us toward a tentative answer to your second question about reality’s textuality—paying attention is a continuous condition of learning (and unlearning) how to read. The world is nothing if not a text composed of a multitude of texts (just as each of us is nothing if not a text composed of a multitude of texts) we try to make sense of, narrate, and, as Derrida reminds us, there is nothing outside the text.

But here’s the deep-structure dilemma: humans are by nature story generators, pattern recognition machines, designed to tell what the world has done to them. Give us an incident, no matter how enigmatic, indeterminate, or tenuous its causes, and we will narrate in order to generate the hopeful, desperate impression of coherence. We are built to strong-arm links, invent causal chains that don’t exist. Give us a bedlam of stars and we’ll birth Sagittarius. This instinct is what Nassim Nicholas Taleb refers to as the narrative fallacy—that common intellectual blunder of forcing chaos into cosmos in an attempt to account for what eventuates around us and to us and through us.

JM: Why did you choose to engage with the life and work of Hieronymus Bosch in this way?

LO: I’ve always been fascinated by artists and thinkers out of step with their times. I suspect that may be a good definition of what it means to be an artist or thinker: someone who reads the world in ways most people don’t, thereby allowing us to see it in ways we haven’t, coaching us to pay attention to details the habitual has made invisible.

So one of the first short stories I ever wrote was about Nietzsche. Thirty years later it grew into my novel Nietzsche’s Kisses. Another was about Kafka, which grew into my novel Anxious Pleasures. Bosch is beautiful for me for the same reason: his work is visionary, discordant with its sixteenth-century present, asks the viewer again and again to rethink the script he or she has written about the way things work. Unlike, say, Nietzsche or Kafka, though, virtually nothing is known about Bosch’s biography—not his birth date, not his childhood, not his training, not his personality. He left behind no diaries, no letters, a couple traces in municipal records and the account books of the confraternity Brotherhood of Our Lady. From an authorial point of view, it’s an invigorating pleasure to write through those absences, plump them with imagination.

Such fictional biography (think Coover’s Public Burning; think Anne Carson’s Nox) is aware of itself as what Linda Hutcheon dubbed historiographic metafiction—i.e., past-tense writing practices that are aware of themselves as writing practices, aware that pastness occurs only in an incessant mode of being un- and re-written. That is, historiographic metafiction is the sort that by its nature problematizes historical knowledge.

Lance_Olsen's_novel_Calendar_of_RegretsJM: Let’s talk about form. Slightly tweaking the descriptive copy on the book’s back cover, I’d call Calendar of Regrets an assemblage of twelve interconnected narratives, one for each month in the year, each narrative divided into two sections, except for August, which is in the middle of the book, which acts as a hinge as the text double-backs on itself, returning you to where you began.

LO: One of the challenges I set for myself was to invent the narrative equivalent of a Boschian polyptych. Actually, and oddly, with this novel the form arrived first—as opposed, say, to character or situation or image arriving first. I was interested, as well, in creating—also à la Bosch—intricate sub-narratives (think back to Garden of Earthly Delights) that echoed and at times even contradicted each other. Finally, I was interested in exploring various styles and genres, since each invites us to pay attention in a different way to different things. Each carries within itself certain codes for reading the text of the text, the text of ourselves, and the text of the world. Because narrativity must be temporal, implies by its syntactic structure that one event happens after another and may be linked to it, I introduced the powerful temporal metaphor of the calendar as another shaping principle.

Then I set about introducing various dissonances into Western assumptions about temporality—assumptions which are intricately linked to the ideas of reason and capitalism. You know: time is linear, time is money, time is control, time is progress, time partakes in the logic of accumulation, and so on.

JM: Calendar of Regrets is dialogical: in conversation, generally, with, among other things, circular texts, but specifically three texts, namely, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, and David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten. The nine intercontinental narratives in Mitchell’s book intersect and interlock in ways that are, largely, immediately legible, and whatever isn’t becomes so after a single reading. Calendar of Regrets deliberately betrays such immediate legibility. Would you talk about this conversation you’re having with these texts?

LO: The central question I ask and re-ask my creative-writing students is this: How does one write the contemporary? Naturally, the answer will be different for every author, but the questions behind the question remains: What structures capture our sense of lived experience here, now?

Thematics is meaning, then, but structuration is meaning as well. And one could arguably argue that Ghostwritten is at the end of the day concerned, as you say, with a certain ontological and epistemological lucidity suggesting a certain existential readability. It is written in the key of comfort. And that simply isn’t how I experience experience. Or another way of saying this: our lives are so legible it hurts, but only to the extent they have been made legible by the narratives we swim in daily that are manufactured by the entertainment industry, the political system, academia, et cetera—narratives designed to be repeated so often they become chronic.

I feel a much greater affinity for Joyce’s Ulysses or Danielewski’s House of Leaves than for Ghostwritten because I find myself continuously drawn to texts that, as Bachelard said all art should do, function as “an increase of life, a sort of competition of surprises that stimulates our consciousness and keeps it from becoming somnolent,” and texts that, as David Markson once wrote, quoting Thomas Crowe, function as “a kind of research and development arm of the culture industry.”

JM: The book’s full of many surprises, one of which is the moment of authorial insertion: a photograph of “Lance Olsen.” Would you talk about this “versioning,” how it’s operating in Calendar of Regrets, and its relationship to works by writers like Borges and Sebald?

LO: For a sense of stable selfhood to persist, we need to convince ourselves that historical knowledge is an unproblematic realm. We need to develop a narrative (the kind at which Western culture has excelled) that affirms continuity—beginning, middle, and end—the notion of causality and solution. We tell ourselves into permanence and consistency. What I find remarkable about Borges and Sebald, two important writers for me, is that they trouble the relationship between pronoun and referent.

Is it conceivable, they ask, to imagine beyond Freudian theorizations of character? Beyond those we encounter in fictions by, say, Dickens or Fitzgerald, Chekhov or Morrison, that accept selves as dense products of past traumas, current conflictions and neuroses, unconscious fires and conscious tumblings? Character formations which are, in a phrase, emblematic of identities that are relatively solid through time and space, assume there are great swathes of us-ness that remain constant and complete, autonomous and fixed, aren’t invented minute by minute, second by second, from outside as well as inside, continuously changing constructions flickery as those vibrating strings we are told make up the metalogical essence of “reality”?

Which puts me in mind of Beckett’s astonishing Unnamable—that indeterminate, disembodied subject position (“character” is far too strong a word for he/she/it), uncertainly human, pulsing in and out of existence between gender and genderlessness, thereness and nowhere/nowhenness. Its modes of expression are hesitation, skepticism, and comma-spliced syntactic entropy. “But enough of this cursed first person,” it announces at one point in its self-canceling word cascades, “it is really too red a herring . . . Bah, any old pronoun will do, provided one sees through it. Matter of habit.”

Exactly. Matter of habit. Matter of the habitual. Beckett’s denarration serves as a memento that the pronoun (the heart of the heart of character) is, at the end of the day, a sort of hoax foisted upon us by the culture’s language. That character, self, and identity are quantum fields rather than Newtonian nuggets. The rules of grammar, Beckett’s novel undertakes to perform, have been repeatedly misunderstood by philosophy and fiction as a metaphysics.

JM: Calendar of Regrets offers many different stylistic approaches. There’s Joycean lyricism, Dada-esque textual fields, various minimalisms, interview and podcast transcriptions, bedtime storytelling, various mythologizings, notebook jottings, which include strikethroughs, and more besides. Would you describe the stylistic choices you made for each narrative, and how these choices directed the narrative and vice-versa? And how does all of this connect with the overall projects of the book?

LO: I guess the simple answer is that once I finish a novel I don’t want to write the same one again. Stephen King and Dan Brown have built dynasties on disagreeing with me. But what excites me is when novel-writing puts me back on my heels, tips me into a liquid geography of unknowing; presents me with a topography in which I need to navigate through unexpected and illuminating regions. For me writing is a precarious act of exploration. That’s what I set about gifting myself with in Calendar of Regrets: a complex and unfamiliar framework to live in for several years that would allow me to emerge understanding more both about my experience of experience and my experience of narrativity.

To accomplish that, I tried to match twelve incommensurate genres with twelve incommensurate styles—as well as with various points of view. Genres, styles, and points of view make certain presuppositions about the world, about how we should interpret our lives, about how the arc of narratives should go.

I wrote a science fiction story, for example, involving William Tager, the guy who assaulted Dan Rather near his home on the Upper West Side on October 4, 1986. It takes the form of transcripts of several psychiatric evaluations. Besides creating character, conflict, and a weave that would blend that narrative with the book’s other narratives, my challenge was to discover the rhythms and syntax of what I imagined Tager might have sounded like. I also needed to read a number of transcripts of psychiatric evaluations to learn what they looked like, how the language in them pitched itself. But I also wanted my narrative to be, not full-on SF, but one that from a certain perspective could be read as SF. Tager believes he time-traveled from the future only to become stuck in 1986. The psychiatrist evaluating him sees things quite differently.

I consider Calendar of Regrets a constraint-driven novel, some distant cousin of Oulipo methodology, and those constraints produced the text even as the text invariably had a mind of its own and reconditioned the constraints.

JM: Aging is another subtext in the book. Bosch again: “Growing old turned each day into a small catastrophe shaded with just enough wisdom to allow one to understand wisdom changed nothing.” Perhaps we can’t overcome such daily catastrophes, but what are some ways to navigate through them, minimize the damage?

LO: This question strikes me as almost too present to imagine. Last month I completed another trip around the sun. And I’m here to report that the cliché is exactly right: those rotations just happen at you faster and faster. You blink and you’re twenty-three. You blink and you’re fifty-seven. I’m coming to believe the collective noun for them should be a murder of journeys. Which is to say I wish there were ways to minimize the damage of those daily catastrophes, but in the end every one of us will discover breathing simply doesn’t work—even, as Don DeLillo once wrote somewhere, we seem to believe it possible to ward off death by following rules of good grooming. That, I think, is one of the Big Things Calendar of Regrets is about: how we all tell ourselves and our worlds again and again in an attempt to make sense of them, and fail every time.

Or to put it another way: the end of every narrative is a kind of formal death that reminds us precisely how the script each one of us is writing will invariably end. I’d like to suggest that in the meantime we can and should live as joyfully as possible while paying attention, while learning, while loving, and while knowing we’re only bluffing—but such sentences strike me as too fraught, too shot through with unexamined optimism, to take completely seriously.

JM: You employ various repetitions in the book—word clusters like “And what” in the Bosch sections, or names like Aleyt, or places like Aulis, or more broady repeated themes and subject matter. Would you talk about repetition as a rhetorical strategy?

LO: Calendar of Regrets is, I think, less invested in repetition as rhetorical strategy than it is in modulation and leitmotif as musical ones. At an aesthetic stratum I was thinking about how to unify those dozen diverse stories and decided one way was to create various harmonies throughout the book via names, places, and phrases. But each time those names, places, and phrases appear, they do so in a sometimes faintly and sometimes radically different context charged with a different set of associations—while carrying along with them their previous contexts and associations. The effect, I hope, is similar to the one you get when you surf from one website to another on your computer: a moment of disorientation followed by a moment of reorientation.

JM: Travel is another of the book’s major themes. One of the notebook entries describes it as “the Aesthetics of Misreading, a continuous reminder of the disorder of things.” Later, the traveler notes:

What I guess I’m trying to say is that movement is a mode of writing, writing is a mode of movement. So it suddenly feels like I’m cheating when I try to picture the travel article I’m supposed to be putting together. You know what I mean? Its heart seems diminishment, its prose the kind unaware that travel was originally the same word as travail, that travail originally referred to an instrument of torture with three stakes forming a conical frame to which the sorry victim of the Middle Ages was tied and burned alive.

It’s very Sebaldian: drawing connections between words, finding correspondences across time, and being horrified by them; that horror tentatively ameliorated, temporarily held at bay, by writing about it. Would you talk more about travel writing, travel and writing, writing as travel and movement, travel and movement and writing?

thereLO: We’re back to being in the alphabet of the world. The topic of travel—whether through a novel or a new country—obsesses and gladdens me. So much so that I spent my time as a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin last spring writing a nonfiction rumination about it titled [[ there. ]]. It will appear in the spring and is part critifictional meditation and part trash diary exploring what happens at the confluence of curiosity, paying attention, travel, and innovative writing practices. It takes the form of collage of observations, facts, quotations, recollections, and theoretical reflections, and it touches on lots of authors, genres, and locations, from Beckett and Ben Marcus to David Bowie and Wayne Koestenbaum, film and architecture to avant-garde music and hypermedia, the Venezuelan jungle and Bhutanese mountains to New Jersey mall culture and the restlessness known as Berlin. [[ there. ]], then, is an always-already bracketed performance about how, by inhabiting unstable spaces, we continually unlearn and therefore relearn what thought, experience, and imagination feel like.

JM: Would you talk about the Iphigenia sections, and their underlying feminist critique of Greek mythology?

LO: Those sections are emblematic of the essential gesture of the entire novel: appropriating received narratives and structures that have been repeated so often we begin to take them as truths and troubling them, deforming them, trying to make what our culture believes should be invisible visible again, if only for the brief moments one is invested in the reading experience, in order to ask ourselves what a culture must repress, forget, hide to remain whole and functioning. So while in the Iphigenia sections I’m interested in part in patriarchal narrativity, as you say, both in terms of form and content, in the Tager section I’m interested in part in our culture’s stories about what constitute sanity and insanity; in Bosch’s in the role of the artist; in the Christian fundamentalist suicide bombers in the dangerous role organized religion plays in our lives; and so forth.

JM: The “Man with Borrowed Organs” sections are full of paginal “transgressions”: Justified text is eliminated, as are conventional horizontalities. It’s replete with typographical play. Images interact with text in various ways, blur distinctions between them, reminding me of a notion articulated earlier in the book: existence being “an illuminated manuscript you walk through.” I also thought these sections might be engagements with Deleuze’s idea of the “body without organs.” How did these sections come about?

LO: In his study of formally radical contemporary poetry, Craig Dworkin tracks the idea of illegibility back to the Situationists’ focus on the politics (to use Jed Rasula’s distinction) not in the poem (think of the politics of Adrienne Rich’s feminist thematics), but of the poem (think, instead, of Susan Howe’s or Charles Bernstein’s typographical disruptions). Dworkin dwells on the Situationists’ investigation of “what is signified by [the poem’s] form, enacted by its structures, implicit in its philosophy of language, how it positions the reader, and a range of questions relating to the poem as a material object—how it was produced, distributed, exchanged.”

If some form of Debord’s argument obtains (that “the spectacle corresponds to an authoritarian univocality that encourages a passive reception and obedient consumption of its message”), then the formally radical poem calls instead for “productive dialogue” between reader/writer and text, a “two-way communication’ in which consumers . . . become (unalienated) producers of meaning in their interactions with commodities.”

The same is the case for fiction. Bill Gates teaches us every time we open our computer what a page ought to be, what it ought to look like, what fonts we ought to employ to fill it, what margins. I’m increasingly drawn to the body of the text as a non-body, a body of opportunity, and in that sense, I guess, my project correlates with Deleuze and Guattari’s’s concept of body without organs—those forms mobilized in opposition to the organism’s organization, those that stand in opposition to the functional specificity and definability of organs.

JM: The book is filled with various blots and stains, even insect “infestations.” In the middle of the book there’s a black square surrounded by text that reads:

Here the memories the teeth have chewed mix with the broth of nostalgia. Some of the recollections there are real. Some are imaginary. With some, it is simply impossible to tell.

Would you talk about these graphic “disturbances”?

LO: While Craig Dworkin focuses on poems that deliberately erase, deface, ingest, and otherwise vandalize the surface of their texts—“poetic works that appropriate and then physically manipulate a source text, employing erasures, overprintings, excisions, cancellations, rearrangements, and so on”—I want to say in this post-genre Age of Uncertainty there no longer remains any productive, articulable difference between innovative poetry and prose. There exist only innovative writing practices. And I’m interested in those that introduce manifold static at various strata—thematic, formalistic, surface, depth, in, of, wherever.

What emerges in such writings is a lively transactional condition of textual engagement, a condition of continual exploration and negotiation, that through its illegibilities disorients, deterritorializes, détourns our daily interactions with the dominant cultural mechanisms that read/write/think/feel us, thereby returning us, however momentarily, to a politicized version of Russian Formalism’s ambition for art and phenomenology’s for philosophy: a kind of defamiliarized meta-cognition, a suddenly being-present in the text of the text and the text of the world.

Dworkin’s interests fall both on the sorts of illegibilities the reader encounters at the paragrammatic level of word or phrase in an innovative poem, thereby challenging “normative referential grammar,” and on the sorts of formal disturbances the reader encounters at the level of the page—cutting up appropriated texts, for example, and scattering them, layering them, blacking out parts of them in something like a paratactic collage. My interests sometimes fall on those as well, but also on the sorts of illegibilities that find expression at diverse levels in diverse kinds of innovative writing practices—those of temporality, say, or genre, or character formation.

In Calendar of Regrets—all over, but especially in the areas you cite—I want both emotional charge and a continuous awareness on the part of the reader that s/he is reading. To become aware of what it feels like to read (something most of us have forgotten) is to become aware of how we make meaning, is to become aware of how we write and unwrite and rewrite our worlds. So in spaces like these reading is always a kind of writing, writing always a kind of reading.

JM: Calendar of Regrets features many collaborations with Andi Olsen. In your dedication to her, you describe her as “co-author of it all.” Would you describe your collaborative process?

LO: One of the wonders of collaboration is that it generates something none of the collaborators could have imagined alone. That’s the thrill for Andi and me. Yet the act of inhabiting the same creative space works slightly differently for us each time. Sometimes when we’re working on text-collages—in, for instance, our fake disease series—Andi will provide me with computer-manipulated images and I’ll let them work on me for a few days, then I’ll sit down at the processor and see what comes out. Sometimes those images will lead to a complete story, sometimes a character or situation, and sometimes something about their form will suggest a narrative or syntactic shape for me.

With Calendar of Regrets the process worked in something like the reverse. I produced the text, and had a vague idea of how I imagined it taking form on the page. Andi started working on her side and every once in a while I’d take a look and offer suggestions, to which she would offer suggestions, to which I would offer suggestions, to which she would et cetera. To say trust—even a will toward rethinking boundaries of identity—is essential to productive collaboration is perhaps too obvious a point to make.

(I’m always reminded of Seneca’s mischievous observation on the subject: “Every sin is the result of collaboration.”)

Still, the kind of collaboration I just described—the overt variety—disguises another invisible sort in our culture. At the end of the day, all acts of writing are collaborative in nature. When you sit down to compose, you’re collaborating with every other author across space and time who has ever written in your genre, against your genre, near your language, in your sociohistorical position, in your gender, out of your gender. And of course you collaborate with the writing application on your computer, with your editor, cover designer, publisher, reviewer, distributor, reading-program coordinator, and so forth.

It’s dizzying to think about how little of the writing process is ever a solo flight.

JM: Lastly, tell us about your forthcoming publications, and what you’re working on now.

LO: In addition to that critifictional meditation, [[ there. ]], I have two projects appearing in the spring. First is a new and selected short-story collection, How to Unfeel the Dead, which has been great fun building, since it’s given me a chance to look back at something like thirty years’ published work. The process feels akin to going back over old photographs you don’t remember ever having taken or found yourself in.

olsentheoriesforgettingThe other is a novel called Theories of Forgetting, 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, located where the Great Salt Lake meets remote desert about a 100-mile drive northwest of Salt Lake City, where I live and work. The second narrative involves the story of Alana’s husband, Hugh, owner of a rare-and-used bookstore in Salt Lake City, and his slow disappearance across Jordan while on a trip there both to remember and to forget in the aftermath of Alana’s death. His vanishing may well be linked to the Sleeping Beauties, a religious cult that worships barbiturates. The third involves 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—speaking of versioning—her estranged brother, Lance.

Each page of the novel is divided in half. Alana’s narrative runs across the “top” from “back” to “front,” while Hugh’s and his daughter’s run “upside down” across the “bottom” from “front” to “back.” Neither narrative finds privileged material footing. The “front” cover will look exactly as the “back” (ditto with the “front” matter) upon publication, except each will be upside down with respect to the other. Consequently, how a reader initially happens to pick up Theories of Forgetting will determine which narrative he or she is likely to read first, thus serving to pressure his/her meaning-making. The novel’s physical structure could therefore be said to suggest a spiral—the guiding metaphor at various strata for the whole, and a shape of critical importance to Smithson’s own work and thought.

I’m also about thirty-five pages into a new novel. I’m still feeling my way along, so I shouldn’t say much except that I think it’s a retelling of Theseus and the Minotaur. Here the latter isn’t a beast with bull’s head and human’s body, however, but rather the deformed girl of King Minos and Pasiphae hidden away from the public at birth in the Labyrinth.

 

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