Tag Archives: Spring 2014

The Trip to Echo Spring

triptoechospringOn Writers and Drinking
Olivia Laing
Picador ($26)

by Matthew Schneeman

In The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, Olivia Laing emotively employs the works of six great American writers, their biographical content, and her own history in an attempt to dissect alcoholism and the seeming relation it has with writers. Although an ambitious task that deals with cross referencing conflicting biographies, medical opinions, and the paradoxical confabulations that alcohol renders the drinker, Laing succeeds in making sense of this multilayered connection—not with aggressive statements of fact or declarations of authority, but with a gentle confidence that comes from the empathy of her own personal experience and the rigor of her scholarly abilities.

Under scrutiny are authors F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman, and Raymond Carver. This collection is comprehensively flavored by the variety of genres these authors worked in—poetry, play, novel, essay—and also in the wide range of personality: Hemingway’s hyper-masculine discipline in contrast to Fitzgerald’s bleeding heart, Williams’ sexual philandering compared to Cheever's isolation. Some similarities are obvious (they are all male, alcoholic, depressive, American) and some less obvious, like the recurrence of love for swimming or the sea, insomnia, fatherly suicide, fires as metaphors, shared locations like Iowa City or the Florida Keys, lover's paranoia. And all of these similarities and opposites are pulled from an equally varied collection of texts.

Laing uses her own trans-American journey from New York City to Port Angeles, Washington to frame the broader historical traipse through the six authors’ successes and failures, both literary and personal. Visiting the homes and haunts of her acclaimed subjects, she constructs as best as anyone can the context that propped up and amplified the disease of alcoholism—be it Cheever's father's suicide, Williams' clinical anxiety, or Carver's crushing economic instability. All catalysts are laid out not as overly simplistic answers to the question of why these writers drank, but as a working foundation to understanding.

Along with the context she creates for our subjects’ lives, Laing also gives us her personal life and feelings through gentle observation; relatable and unassuming, her thoughts are a welcome respite between the chaos and destruction that takes place in the authors’ lives. She subtly notes that her upbringing was “under the rule of alcohol, and the effects of that period have stayed with me ever since." She doesn't pretend this is a medical research project, though she includes compelling research from the Adverse Childhood Research Study and other ideas and theories from the medical community.

Laing does not finish her book with a clear answer to the vexing problem of alcoholism, but throughout the book she cites the Alcoholics Anonymous twelve-step method of recovery as the most effective approach to the disease, discussing the experiences that Carver, Cheever, and Berryman had with the system and their varying degrees of success. Her analysis of the authors who lived before AA was created can come off as less rooted and even a tad anachronistic, though admittedly there was a dearth of treatment options before the twelve-step approach was commonplace.

One immediate payoff from this book is the refreshing de-romanticizing of alcohol among literary giants, as too often are our heroes linked with their addictions as a casual oversimplification. Laing tempers Hemingway's pugnacious literary approach with his thoughts on drinking: “The only time it isn’t good for you is when you write or when you fight. You have to do that cold.” Other examples of the reality of alcoholism include Fitzgerald's regrets on writing much of Tender is the Night drunk, or Cheever's own realization that "To drink oneself to death was not in anyway alarming, I thought, until I found that I was drinking myself to death." By not shying away from woes, embarrassments, and suicides she takes the glory out of the tormented artist and shows authors as people first and heroes second. Perhaps most importantly, she does this without the omission of the beauty and joy of these writers’ lives and works.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

Kala Pani

kalapaniMonica Mody
1913 Press ($16)

by Elizabeth Robinson

Monica Mody’s Kala Pani brings together theater, folklore, faux-journalism, the suspending enjambments of poetry, and the disruptions and connections of electronic media in a fascinating formal pastiche that creates an environment of “mythic static.” Titled ostensibly after a British colonial prison to which Indian political prisoners were exiled, this book stages “a remarkable feat of intervention” into our assumptions about self and other, the private and the public, narrative linearity and associational scope. Kala Pani also applies pressure on our assumptions about the “elemental & artificial.” The reader revolves antically between these as opposing modes of agency, struggling for balance as disingenuous narratives multiply.

Mody demonstrates how narrative patterning can confine and overdetermine meaning. Tellingly, the book begins with a frame that stumbles, trying to get its “vision straight.” The frame itself is located on a stage, and this is a central conceit of the book: our realities are staged and restaged. One layer further, Kala Pani presents six world travelers who strive to travel within story, but who suffer under the constraints of rational presidents, rigorous training, and official narratologists (“These stories offspun by our most popular minds that were certain, certain that you would have no better story to tell”). With great inventiveness, Mody wends narrative around and within narrative, as though the bonds and bounds of story could twist, Houdini-like, to effect their own escape.

Her featured players, narrated with brilliant inconsistency by the world travelers, are “Sameshape” and “Othershape.” Any account of the relation of these two (sisters? lovers? performers in a Bollywood production?) is likely to unfurl into blatant contradiction. Is Sameshape a baseline by which any difference in Othershape can be manifested? It’s impossible to say. In any case, Sameshape and Othershape eventually become part of the audience. A long sequence that has the two reciting names and nouns back and forth to each other devolves into a kind of burlesque nonsense: the would-be protagonists tease the audience with names that don’t attach to any identity.

As witty and lightfooted as this book is, the shapeshifting characters function in an admonitory way, for no one ever truly gets away. The official news organ posts a headline that promises to explain “Why Freedom of Expression Will Prove To Be An Ordeal for You.” As the book comes to a close, the stage seems to dissolve as the “curtain falls apart, having nothing else to live for.” Thus, one framing narrative after another collapses. Mody erects this endlessly recursive line-of-dominoes structure and then topples it.

Having navigated this wild ride of a text, however, discouragement is the last thing that the reader feels. Rather, one emerges with a feeling of glee. Every moment of this book is a testament to resourcefulness and insubordination. The detours and proliferations of Kala Pani, along with its embrace of absurdity, become a means of survival that jumps over the limitations of the rational. There’s a sense of suspension, of process—“cursor in internal disorder”—that beguiles the intrepid reader to follow chaos into constellations that make order as we know it irrelevant.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

Boxing the Compass

boxingthecompasSandy Florian
Noemi Press ($15)

by Peter Grandbois

Sandy Florian’s Boxing the Compass defies categorization, subverts genre, and reframes our ideas of what story and language can do—all the while remaining intensely readable. In fact, upon “finishing” the book, this reader had to read it again. Perhaps a reader doesn’t ever “finish” a book like this, preferring to keep it at hand so that he or she can pick it up on a whim and reread random passages, such as: “she // unfolds her body the same way some people unfold letters from their lovers who’ve set sail, slowly, with caution, minding the curled edges of the cracked pages, that fading blue ink of time,” or “[she] steps onto the // sidewalk turning northeast on that landmass, concrete composite of well and of shell, of hole and of bowl, of buds from that ever budding past, so buckled by history and crumpled by memory, so embedded with remnants of crocodile eyes crying crocodile tears on these crocodile days . . .”

Florian’s work has been compared to Gertrude Stein’s, and the above quotation demonstrates why. However, in the metamorphic power of her surreal landscapes and the mercurial speed of her linguistic transformations, she seems closer to Baudelaire, Bruno Schulz, or Kobo Abe. Florian’s subject is nothing less than the ways in which tragedy precipitates questions of who we are and of what our world is composed. The title refers to naming the thirty-two points of the compass in clockwise order, to make a complete revolution—or, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, to return home and know that place for the first time. The problem is, how can you find your way home when your world has been thrown into flux? “The only thing she notices as she walks east-northeast to her apartment building is the shape of a dove dead at the entrance, like the shape of a brother, like the shape of a father, like the shape of a mother, a lover, a daughter.” The dead dove opens a gateway to the grief through which the narrator must work her way, a grief that is opening and closing just as the world around her opens and closes.

Life wanes into death, and death waxes into life. The problem is our desire to control the flow, to box the compass: “If she could only live inside this box. If she could only live inside this frame.” We open to one experience only to close off to another, always trying to find our bearings. The structure of Florian’s work beautifully reflects that ebb and flow as each paragraph, each chapter, ends mid sentence, only to pick up with the start of the next paragraph or chapter:

as she gathers herself into the shell of the tub, turning the handles counterclockwise, now hot, now cold, and

counterclockwise again, now hot, now cold,

and spills herself into that ocean predominating this world of ice and fog . . .

Even as paragraphs and chapters pour into each other, worlds collide within those sentences, as the dead dove becomes the brother and the bathtub the ocean. History, science, and geography crash like waves against the narrative as the reader, like the protagonist, tries to make sense of a world in which she is cast adrift: “Don’t be rash little thing. We are all lost on this boat. And the waters are rising higher, rising higher.” Florian’s Boxing the Compass forces us to look at our lives differently. As Pound demanded, she “makes it new.”

Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

The World Behind Gatsby: An Interview with Sarah Churchwell

sarahchurchwell

photo by Pete Huggins

by Mark Gustafson

Sarah Churchwell, Professor of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities at the University of East Anglia, grew up in the Midwest and received degrees from Vassar College and Princeton University. Her elongated academic title hints at her scholarly interests, which range widely across American (and English) literature as well as popular culture. She appears often on television and radio in the U.K., and contributes regularly to newspapers and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. Her first book was The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe (Metropolitan Books, 2004).

The title of Churchwell’s most recent book, Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby (The Penguin Press, $29.95), has a sensationalist ring. Its fresh premise is how an unsolved double murder of a pair of illicit lovers in 1922 forms a significant backdrop to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s composition of his masterpiece. But this book is really the biography of that novel, and compellingly conveys Churchwell’s love for The Great Gatsby. She has done the heavy lifting, and filters the findings of her own and others’ research, making it all palatable without dumbing it down. Her excellent literary analysis gains more power as contemporary economic issues (Occupy Wall Street, corporate greed and corruption, income disparity, etc.) are brought to the fore. It also does what any biography should do—impels the reader back to the primary source with newfound appreciation.

Mark Gustafson: My impression is that the device of the Hall-Mills murder is very effective in opening up the idea of the interdependence, the “contrapuntal relation,” of fact and fiction, but that once through that door the murder seems to recede into the background, its work done. Which leads to the question: What was the genesis of Careless People? Did it start with the discovery of the Hall-Mills murder and then develop from there, or did you see the life of the book—its biography—whole, and then flesh it out with the details?

carelesspeopleSarah Churchwell: It began with a question about 1922, the year in which The Great Gatsby is set. A few questions had made me start to look at the year more closely (why doesn't Fitzgerald actually mention the Charleston in the novel? Did green lights mean "go" in 1922, was that a meaning available to Fitzgerald when he composed the novel in 1924?) and the answers I found surprised me. Looking around in the newspapers of 1922, I discovered many more facts that countered our received wisdoms about the novel, and then I found the Hall-Mills murder case, and as I read it seemed to me that it had uncanny parallels with the novel. So my book was always conceived as a biography of Gatsby, a reconstruction of the year 1922, and it turned into a kind of nonfiction parallel of the novel. The Hall-Mills case seemed to me an excellent example of the kind of material Fitzgerald was seeing all around him, although I do include other contemporary newspaper murders and scandals; I'm certainly not in any way arguing that Hall-Mills was "the most" important influence on the novel. It has prominence in my book because A) it is comparatively unknown, B) I thought it was fascinating, hilarious and macabre in its own right, and C) its parallels with the novel are very strong, if one thinks figuratively rather than literally. Fitzgerald gives about twenty percent of his novel to the Tom-Myrtle story (more than people might remember), and so my book is about twenty percent Hall-Mills. It drops out of the story because that's what happened: it petered out. But that seemed to me appropriate, too, as the novel's significance comes not from the two killings that drive its plot, but from its move toward the meanings of America, illusions, disappointment, elegy, nostalgia, and hope. So I tried to move my book in similar directions at the end, always sticking to nonfiction.

MG: What were some of the significant and unexpected discoveries (coincidences, etc.) that you made along the way?

SC: I alluded to a couple above: the meanings of green lights were in fact debated in New York between 1922 and 1924, the period in which the novel was gestating and composed. The Charleston did not become a dance craze until after Gatsby was published, which is presumably why it's never mentioned in the novel. (Fitzgerald does mention it in a short story, the only murder mystery he wrote, just a year after Gatsby came out. In fact, the plot of that story, called "The Dance," hinges on the Charleston. But it's not in Gatsby.) Dresses in 1922 were much longer than we think: they were ankle-length. There was a senator in the papers in 1922 called Caraway (the original spelling of Nick's last name in Fitzgerald's manuscript), who was famed for his honesty. The bodies of Hall and Mills were found in Buccleuch Park, NJ—and Nick says that his family has a myth that they are descended from the Dukes of Buccleuch. Could this be a coincidence? Of course. But I came to feel that the resonances of fiction and history, even if coincidental (and they're not all coincidental) had their own beauties, symmetries and patterns. The whole book is built upon such patterns: every time I found a fact that pulled against, or amplified or enriched, received wisdom about Gatsby, it went in the book.

MG: You show how, in general, readers’ reception of The Great Gatsby moved over time from an appreciation of more superficial and flashy material to its deeper, transcendent meanings. It seems that Careless People progresses likewise, mirroring that pattern, moving from the more sensationalist, tabloidish background to the astounding prescience of Fitzgerald as he represented and seemed to foretell the emptiness of the American dream and what the consequences of corruption and unbridled capitalism (not to mention nostalgia) are.

SC: Yes, as I said above, I tried to mirror the structure of Gatsby wherever I could, without being slavish. But I wanted to create echoes and resonances, to show that fact and fiction have a more complicated relationship than we usually allow. Academic literary criticism tends, to its detriment in my opinion, to treat them as if they are mutually exclusive: so-called close readings, which exalt art and ignore history, or literalistic historicized readings that treat art as just another historical document. The truth is somewhere in between, and I tried to put my book in that space, in between the two. That said, I would resist, I think, the idea that my book moves from the superficial to the profound. Rather, I would say, my process was accumulation: the patterns only become apparent as they build and emerge, and the reader has to have a certain amount of patience (although I try to keep things entertaining along the way!). So I would put it a little differently: I would say that if my book is successful, it should show that details that appear at first to be superficial, actually contribute to the profound meaning of the whole of Gatsby. They all link up—everything in my book relates to Gatsby somehow, even if that relationship is not always obvious to readers who don't have the novel open in front of them (or memorized, like me!).

MG: This book is that rare scholarly achievement: you have successfully synthesized and augmented material from the mountain of scholarship on Gatsby, and have made it more accessible and appealing for a more popular readership without any condescension or obvious dumbing-down. Is this in any way related to your job as a Professor of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities?

SC: First of all, thank you! That is a great compliment. I think that just as we tend to have a false dichotomy between the literary and the historical, so we tend to have a false dichotomy between the fun and the serious. I think something can be seriously intelligent, seriously thoughtful, seriously original, and still be fun to read. One of my goals in this book was to restore pleasure to academic literary criticism, which has gotten itself into a rut where it (in my opinion) tends to suck all of the pleasure out of the books we all love, and to deaden them. I was certain that one could think hard and have a good time doing it, and that was the idea. The risk, of course, is that readers who believe in this false dichotomy will see that my book is amusing and think that's all it is, or see that it synthesizes existing research and assume it has no original research. In fact, it has many serious things to say, a great deal of original research, and I hope it has original things to say about Gatsby, too. But I tried to do all of that with a light touch, always recognizing the risk that the touch might be light enough that readers would miss it. The question is: is a book superficial, or an individual reading of it? As for condescension to the non-academic reader—well that's just snobbery, pure and simple. The idea that to be an intelligent reader you have to have a PhD . . . funny how it's only people with PhDs who think that. I've never thought that, because I'm surrounded by brilliant people who don't hold PhDs. What happens is that academics get caught up in technical arguments about minutiae with other specialists, and then when they are called upon to make their language less technical they think they are dumbing it down. This is a fallacy (and by the way, the phrase "dumbing down" comes from 1927!) and a nasty one at that, implying as it does that everyone else is dumb. I'm quite sure they're not. As for whether it relates to my day job, well yes, it certainly does, but my academic job has also been created to fulfill the same brief. In other words, everything I do starts with the convictions I just outlined, and I write books, journalism, and have created an academic role that are all working in the same direction.

MG: As you write about American subjects, do you take into consideration that you are writing both for an American audience but also for readers in the United Kingdom (where this book was first published)?

SC: Certainly. I have lived in the UK for almost 15 years, my husband is English, and although I have many American friends in London, by definition most of the people I come into contact with these days are British. That has altered my perspective on America in all kinds of ways. I definitely had both audiences in mind as I wrote, but for me part of the pleasure of writing this book was that it is all about America, and what it means to be American, and I was able to reflect on that. (One UK critic complained that I didn't say enough about Gatsby's European sources, and I thought: "Well that's because it's a book about America!") I always hoped that American audiences would get what I was doing in the book better than British audiences, and judging by reviews and readers' responses, that seems to be the case. That makes me extremely happy.

MG: How does Careless People intersect with the work of your earlier book, The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe?

SC: They're both projects that piece together the stories of stories out of other stories, which is what I like to do. So in the case of Marilyn, it was the larger story of the biographies of Marilyn, pieced together from those stories and their intersections. In the case of Fitzgerald, it was the story of Gatsby out of the stories of the novel but also biography, journalism, letters, diaries, etc. I like to piece things together into a different kind of mosaic, like those Life covers made out of hundreds of Life covers that turn into a holograph face, that sort of thing? A different Marilyn, and a different Gatsby, can emerge from these kinds of intertextual portraits. And of course Marilyn was a Gatsby in important ways: aspiring to wealth and recognition by a system that always rejected her, changing her name, chasing a dream (the American Dream, if you like) that defeated her. Just like Gatsby. On a more thematic level, the books share an interest in celebrity, glamour, icons, and again, whether something can be pleasurable and taken seriously at the same time. (Vogue called my Marilyn book "a rare combination of intellectual insight and guilty pleasure," which may be my favorite review ever; I thought it could serve as a motto for everything I write, except that I don't think we should feel guilty about our pleasures, we should just think about them harder.)

MG: You’ve just been to St. Paul, a city that would like to be synonymous with F. Scott Fitzgerald. Has your visit spurred any new thoughts?

SC: I was only there overnight, sadly, and it was too cold to go exploring! But apparently there are some plans afoot for a proper Fitzgerald center to be created, and I will definitely be keeping an eye on that.

MG: What’s your next project?

SC: Currently it's only a Platonic ideal of a project, so I think it needs space to grow up a little more before I start talking about it. But it will involve American literature and history, it will not be conventionally academic, and it will try to be both fun and serious.

Click here to purchase Careless People at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

American Amnesiac

americanamnesiacDiane Raptosh
Etruscan Press ($17.95)

by Daniela Gioseffi

American Amnesiac is Diane Raptosh’s fourth book of poetry, and very possibly her best. She attempts something quite unusual with this magnum opus—one long poem spoken in the persona of an older man suffering from amnesia. The book constitutes his stream of consciousness as he attempts to piece together who he is and what he’s experienced in his American life. His situation is laid bare on the first page of the book: “I . . . / woke in Civic Center Park three states away, four hundred bucks / stuffed in my right sleeve. My life has always been a flock of mishaps // waiting to take flight.”

A poignant and interesting saga follows, page after page, as the amnesiac travels through America in and out of his mind, commenting on the meaninglessness of his journey and the story of his life that only comes to him in bits and snatches of memory. It is a skillfully written journey through the American cultural landscape, as our “John Doe” becomes “a man missing a nation and a wife, strung up between a past / I may not want and a present in which I cannot make myself at ease.”

“John Doe,” as he prefers to call himself, thinks he may be anyone from a “Calvin J. Ex sous chef . . .” to a “Think-tanker in Singapore. Financial Consultant. Art historian. / Husband. Apprentice in P.R. NGO pundit.” His rambling thoughts carry us through seventy-two pages of his memories, snatches of speculations and ironic pronouncements that constitute a meandering critique of American culture. Yet this is a difficult conceit for the author to accomplish. Whoever John Doe is, he has a very developed vocabulary and knowledge of many things, and his observations are often witty or ironic to a fault—the reader cannot help but conflate the poet and this amnesiac persona.

Hints abound, however, that “suspension of disbelief” is the goal of this dramatic monologue. At one point, the author writes,

I am John Doe, no more modest than immodest. Whatever
is done to someone else comes back to me. I shake

my bangs equally at bombs and greed. But get a load of this: Gazump
is a process of which a price of land is raised higher

than the cost agreed on days before both parties sign their John
Hancocks. Through me surges much about the state of what is,

despite—or due to—amnesia. Prosopagnosia. Fugue.
Whatever this is. I can’t recall a thing I did for Sachs. I’ve forgotten

what herbs do. I don’t know my brother. I do not recognize
a world in which the claws of leopard crabs have turned

to oil clubs . . .

Neither do we recognize this world in which we are caught in our own delusions and jumbled recollections that boggle the brain into a uniquely American amnesia. Ultimately, that is the point of this stirring saga.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

The Dailiness

campdailinessLauren Camp
Edwin E. Smith Publishing ($14.95)

by Richard Oyama

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “and still retain the ability to function.” That was close to how I experienced The Dailiness, Lauren Camp’s stirring new poetry collection. The book has scope, complexity, and amplitude—a work of fine poetic intelligence. The title poem is a sort of daybook of images, testifying to Camp’s loving attention to detail, while the first poem, “Looking Around These Days,” catalogues varieties of unease and our compensatory behaviors to quell disquiet. It is a snapshot of our dark cultural moment.

The poet renders the bond between herself and her late mother with precision and unflinching frankness: “Our relationship / was always that haunted, that taut and that still” (“How I’d Explain What Kind of Mother She Was”). The poem is a remarkable exploration of the complexities of familial tenderness, rancor, and “hidden ways” of love. The mother braids “scattered people" into "a galaxy of necessary stars" ("For Those of You"). In the same poem, “Our faces / were her fiction, her tongue flowering with what was written / on her eyes” as though she has the power to transform those around her. The breathless, unpunctuated "Ten Years" begins, "where did you day and day gone / and you in the cement the blossoms the wind." It implies our helplessness in face of death, the contingency of life.

“A Colloquy on Water” is rooted in the thirsty New Mexican landscape: “Look here, where the wild olive lives, the berried sumac, / this earth, its tart face waiting, the crabapple weeping, / the honey locust, black currant, purple ash, the amurs / and cottonwoods standing, stiffening.” In "Journey," language assumes the garments of culture: "words that tickle and stumble, words in brown jackets, / brown shoes, words that hurl and kick, pray and dance." Auden said of Yeats, "Ireland hurt you into poetry." For Camp, that tormented country summons the lyrical impulse.

The jazz poems are especially stunning, a visual/verbal correlative to the music. From “What You Might Hear:” “His horn, that pliable prophet of conduct, offers its / sequence of agony, exodus, / the fanatical fancy of finding devotion.” It’s as though Ornette Coleman’s free jazz becomes a form of spiritual and moral practice. The personal anguish of his search for a sound mimics the abduction, “exodus” and enslavement of African people—or, for that matter, all diasporic peoples.

The final poem, “When,” is a series of propositions in the form of couplets: “When you shiver, you enter the radical center / —or tangible timidity.” Once more, there is the sense of the conditional, but also that the essence of what it means to be human is the capacity to be vulnerable, to “shiver.”

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

Christian Name

ChristianName2Lawrence Giffin
Ugly Duckling Presse ($16)

by Stephen Burt

Disturbing and bitter, haunting and at times bizarre, Lawrence Giffin’s collection of sequences and stand-alone poems can look like “theory,” or like collage, but it’s far more: Giffin uses his own dry articulations along with his sources (stories about feral children, the story of Jesus, “theory,” the Grateful Dead) to ask the largest possible questions about how we know what we know, whether we know anything, whether we are just patterns etched into the hard grooves of family life, and why—if we are only patterns, nothing but useless codes—we can feel so alone.

Giffin’s rough, arid poems describe their own goals often: one shows “how a tongue / decomposed in apostrophe / lashes out against truth.” He often turns his caustic tone on stories about children and parents, all of whom (for him) seem ready to abandon one another, as if in disgust at the failure of language to mean: how can I love you (the lines say), or love anyone, or protect you, if all I can say is a paste-up of habits and memes?

Sometimes he seems to be satirizing psychoanalysis, or taking flamethrowers to parenting advice: “More and more fathers are becoming aware of their influence / and regularly dating their daughters.” At other times he seems to be rejecting Christianity and all stories about redemption that derive from it: “My other god’s an atheist . . . / whose back is turned to us.” His longest poem rewrites the Gospels, in tiny verse segments, as the story of a disturbed, and educationally accelerated, Nebraska child who takes his own life: his mother explains his death as like the Crucifixion, a sacrifice on behalf of all other kids, which—though absurd—means that “the suicide appeared / now to be something they had / the vocabulary to understand.”

Giffin takes his cadence and verbal textures, often, from the cerebral, anti-representational sounds of the Cambridge School (John Wilkinson, J. H. Prynne), even when what Giffin says ends up far from opaque: one poem begins “You get nothing.” His forcefully abstract style, its “discarded bits / pulled apart by shear and / torque of intimacy’s involution,” admit the possibility that no vocabulary can help us understand one another much, because there’s not enough to be understood. If you look for “meaning,” Giffin says (in a poem called “Enchanted Whatever”), “a gesture appears with no end in sight.”

Giffin can also be sarcastic, or simply funny (in this he resembles Graham Foust), especially when he is attacking happy talk: “Today is a gift. You / know how you can tell? / It’s got your name written on it / in your handwriting. It reads ‘Equipment.’” But he can be serious at the same time, and not only when he is writing about damaged children. The poems are a kind of non serviam to social pressures (within the poetry world and far outside) that insist that literature should help us, that it should send messages, or carry morals, or do useful work, or celebrate the soul: Giffin writes instead about the unimprovability of everything, suggesting that feral children, and uncommunicative adults, are not so different from the rest of us, “left to want what we are without, / without the word for it.” His difficulties mime that wordlessness.

Do we all get nothing from life, from theory, from advice? Do we get happier, or wiser, after childhood, or through parenthood, or do we just wear ourselves down? Giffin’s poetry suspects the latter: it is a poetry of constant frustration, alleviated by intervals of clarity, like payouts from slot machines. Life may feel like that too, when you step back from it: it may all look like a “chasm / opening up in the center of town,” where there is no town, only “devotion in lieu of practical reason,” attempting “to handle its grief-stricken members.” I may have made Giffin’s creations sound deeply unpleasurable (indeed, he wonders why they give pleasure himself). And yet I have reread it, all the way through, now, four times: in certain moods, it tells, not the truth, but a truth, and I can’t put it down.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

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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