Theories of Forgetting
In Theories of Forgetting, Lance Olsen’s 12th novel and 25th book, he may have brought off the boldest departure of a career dedicated to such takeoffs. The formatting allows the text to be read in either direction, each featuring different fonts. The same arrangement exists for the photos and images, and then there’s the marginalia, presented in blue cursive. These comments eventually address the events unfolding both forwards and backwards. The content too covers new ground for Olsen. His last three novels, Nietzsche’s Kisses (2006), Head in Flames (2009), and Calendar of Regrets (2010), were set in Europe, and were to some degree historical novels. These helped him win both a Guggenheim and a fellowship with the American Academy in Berlin. Theories, however, is entirely contemporary and its home ground couldn’t be more American. This is Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, “earth-art” from 1970, located in Utah’s Great Basin. Both the novel’s primary stories, and its marginalia as well, reveal roots in conservative Salt Lake and far-out aesthetics, and though connections hardly emerge with perfect clarity, we do come to understand. We know a family breakdown when we see it. Some of the damage is done by a trope out of science fiction, a mysterious new plague; some appears to be old-fashioned paranoid schizophrenia—or, even older, sibling rivalry. In any case, this vision of the fall proves no less than unique.
More details come to light in the interview below, which Olsen and I conducted via email. He and I know each other a bit through writing circles; I’ve reviewed one earlier novel, and he was kind enough to provide a blurb for my forthcoming selected criticism, The Sea-God’s Herb. This spring, as the questions and answers took shape, we decided to forego the pretense of live conversation. Since the subject was so rare a text, why should we come across as anything but text, ourselves?
John Domini (Rail): Once I saw the formatting for Theories, I figured the reading experience should try to match it, and so I read in both directions, going say 10 or a dozen pages one way (beginning with the “dear bro” break-in, where the font’s I think New Courier), and then turning the book over & reading in the other direction (about the aging couple, though it took a while to learn which was growing ever sicker). Distinctive intervals, if not chapter breaks, asserted themselves. As I read, if some reference eluded me, I maybe made a note, figuring I’d find out what I needed in time. There were overlapping reads and skipping “back” for clarity, sure, but by the time I got to the end/middle, all was clear—and satisfying indeed, I must say. Did I do it wrong?
Lance Olsen:I love that you engaged with reading as an event—with reading, that is, as self-conscious, embodied performance. That’s exactly the field of play I had hoped Theories of Forgetting would invite the reader to enter.
For those unfamiliar with the novel: it’s comprised of three narratives. The first involves an experimental filmmaker completing a short one about Robert Smithson’s earthwork, Spiral Jetty. The second involves her husband’s slow disappearance across Europe and Jordan in the wake of his wife’s untimely death. The third involves the marginalia added to his section by his daughter; she discovers a manuscript her father apparently left behind.
The first of those narratives runs across the “top” of the page from “front” to “back” of Theories. The second runs “upside down” across the “bottom” of the page from “back” to “front.” The daughter’s appears in blue script around and sometimes over the second.
And so back to your question: if Theories does, as you suggest, conceptualize reading as an event, then it asks us to think about a couple questions.
First, what does the physical act of reading feel like?
Second, how is that act different in our digital age from, say, the act of reading a century ago? Three decades ago?
Which is to say one of the invitations Theories mails to its readers is this: We don’t have to take Bill Gates’s advice (influenced as it is by 400 years of print technologies) about what a page is and how it should work, do we? When we open a Word file, we are presented with a series of assumptions about how margins, fonts, headings, and so forth function. These assumptions are so deeply wired in us that we have forgotten to see them. One of the things I was interested in while working on Theories was to explore the materiality of the page—not only to write a narrative, in other words, but to build a book.
Another way of putting this: I was interested, at the moment of the book’s relentless disembodiment in our culture via Kindles and iPads, to ask what, precisely, makes the book bookish.
To ask: What can a book do that other media can’t?
My heart hammers knowing (especially in light of the pressure exerted on the trade paperback by the art-book movement) that, even as the book dissolves into bytes in one part of our world, the book beautifully re-embodies itself in another. Of course, there’s also a kind of semiotic feedback loop that has been set in motion: so even as the book (think of Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, Steve Tomasula’s VAS: An Opera in Flatland) becomes more itself, it also registers an awareness of the remediated, hypertextual reality of our networked experience of experience.
Rail: Your memoir (more or less) of your stay at the American Academy in Berlin, titled [[ there. ]], was released contemporaneously (more or less) with Theories, and in the former you express frustration over the limits of English punctuation, then suggest the double-bracket sign, your title punctuation, to signify “what must be removed from the chronic to be experienced.” A fitting punctuation, that is, for a travel memoir, since travel tends to remove experience from the chronic—i.e., the coffee in Sorrento strikes you as worlds apart from what you brew in your kitchen at home. Okay, but over in Theories, too, you use this double-bracket device, at times to poignant effect, signifying how quotidian detail, even a person’s bedroom detail, loses its chronic ordinariness in the face of death. Okay, okay—but how do you respond to the criticism that the resulting construct tends to seem dangerously private: written in a personal language, with its own code?
Olsen:In certain ways, I suppose, I think of [[ there. ]] as a gloss for Theories, in that the former is a critifictional meditation about the confluence of curiosity, travel, and innovative writing practices. When I say travel, I absolutely mean that coffee in Sorrento you draw for us. But I also mean the travel (a word that is etymological cousins with the word travail) we all perform as we navigate texts (especially complicated ones) written by others. For me, to put it differently, reading is a kind of journey, writing a kind of quest, and both (at least in the case of the innovative) are predicated on many things, one of which is an openness to possibilities, both aesthetic and experiential—viz., we’re talking, at the end of the day, about a motivated inquisitiveness, a desire to learn…and thereby unlearn what we’ve been taught about narrativity with a red bow on it.
Specifically to your question: it disheartens me that we have delimited punctuation in English to 14 marks. Imagine music (and punctuation forms the sentence’s musical notation) restricting itself in such a madcap way in the wake of Schoenberg or Cage or Stockhausen. I both trust in the generosity and astuteness of my readers. I trust that they feel—as I do—that part of the component of any experimental work, whether visual, aural, or otherwise, is the excitement we call challenge, which is another word for defamiliarization, which is another word for waking us in the midst of our dreaming.
Rail: All right, I do detect a fugue here, as voices and images spiral round each other. But don’t they risk sameness, those voices, those obsessions? Connecting (more or less) the bifurcate stories (more or less), you have sister Aila and her marginalia—her comments brush by winglike, cf. the ala of zoology, cf. a recording angel. But don’t those comments risk a similar range of concerns, a similar rhythm, as those in the diary left for us by her mother? Or in the globe-trotting third person depiction of a psychotic break, which seems at times to concern Alia’s “dear bro?” A figure who seems, at times, to bear the name “Lance?” As for the parents Alana and Hugh, aging and sick, on the page they reveal roughly the same culture, the environmental worries. I do note differences, yes, granted, but aren’t these people denatured by the book’s structure?
Olsen:I don’t hear the voices as the same at all. Aila—Alana and Hugh’s daughter, an art critic living in Berlin—writes in short, brash, blue parasitic bursts around her father’s discourse on the page. Alana’s prose I like to think possesses a broken lyric intensity. Hugh’s, however, is faintly flat and faded, shell-shocked in the aftermath of Alana’s untimely death.
Nor can I answer whether or not my characters are “natured” or “denatured” through other readers’ optics. I’m not even entirely sure what that might mean. Through my own optics, though, they are characterologically resonant even if the novel in which they are residents is structured unfamiliarly. But why, I wonder, would innovations in structure result in a character less charactered? For me, at some deep-structure level, Theories of Forgetting is a response to Barthelme’s dictum: “Write about what you’re afraid of.” And maybe at the end of the day what I’m afraid of most is Mr. Blue-Eyed Death, a guy our culture does everything it can to not think about.
In any case, although to me my characters are very different paper people, they do indeed share, as you say, a system of concerns that are evinced in various ways; that are materialized in the shape that most influenced the writing of Theories both in terms of structure and content: Robert Smithson’s astounding earthwork, Sprial Jetty, which exists at the northern tip of the Great Salt Lake, about a two-hour drive from where I live and work.
The formal influence is, I’m pretty sure, obvious: the narratives take the contours of a kind of spiral spinning in on itself—one running along the “top” of each page from “front” to “back,” as I say, the other running along the “bottom” of each page from “back” to “front.”
The thematic influence comes from Smithson’s own obsession with entropology, a term he appropriated from Claude Lévi-Strauss’s World on the Wane, and one that houses within itself both the concept of entropy and anthropology. Lévi-Strauss felt there should be a category of study concerned with the wearing down of things—from people to cultures—and Smithson picked up that idea in the ever-receding-into-the-landscape Spiral Jetty, itself a labyrinth, an essential shape for Smithson, associated for millennia with travel and travail (there are those words again) from this world to another.
Theories, then,is obsessed with entropology all the way down—from its architectonics to poor Alana and Hugh (which is to say poor you and me) to various linguistic undoings, from failing sentences to crossed-out words and deliberate misspellings.
Rail: Now, there you mention my favorite trick, when it comes to format or typography. I much enjoy the crossouts and retypings in Alana’s journal. Some excellent puns emerge, and many, like “firefrighter” resonate in other ways. That portmanteau construction, for instance, takes us to Alana’s frights over global warming’s impact on the Great Basin and Smithson’s Jetty. Then there’s my least favorite trick of the format, and hmm, maybe I oughtn’t be ungallant, but, okay, the star maps. I mean, if a book’s going to have star maps, shouldn’t they be larger, more legible, and in color? But then there are the meditations on fonts, from Palatino to the serifs—quite lovely. Great gimmick, if you’ll allow me the term—and I use it deliberately. It raises my question: aren’t these gimmicks, the typography and the rest? Aren’t they avoiding the basic task of storytelling built of words? Isn’t fiction a meaning-seeking activity that pursues phantoms in search of the real? So too this autobiographical tease, suggesting your craziest protagonist is named “Lance ”—doesn’t that undermine the novel’s power?
Olsen:Whether my use of these techniques is tricks or truths is up to the reader to decide. And, after completing a work, the writer becomes just one more reader among many. But this reader, me, the blond guy with the beard and glasses, would probably point out that “trick” and “gimmick” are unproductively loaded words, that any technical move in fiction is a subset of legerdemain, that the techniques you mention bear the same relationship to fiction as, say, the appearance of perspective in 14th-century painting: they’re tools to get the work done, means of inviting us to see ourselves and our environments in ways we haven’t seen them before.
This reader, me, the blond guy with the beard and glasses, would probably also point out how well you’ve tagged another key point in Theories of Forgetting: that it’s a work concerned with and curious about illegibility as a mode of reading and misreading, a mode of experiencing our experience of being in the world—from those portmanteaus like “firefrighter” to those sometimes difficult-to-discern images (the star maps, by the way, represent the constellations drilled into the top of Nancy Holt’s—Smithson’s partner and collaborator’s—Sun Tunnels, her breathtaking contribution to land art that exists on the far side of the Great Salt Lake from where Spiral Jetty resides).
What you list are ways of literalizing how meaning-making (which is to say language—written, visual, or whatever—which is to say Derrida: “The problem of language isn’t simply one problem among many others.”) always-already fires and misfires, is always-already less meaning than continuous deferredness of meaning. One of the limit cases I came up with in the text is the use of the noun Lance to refer, not to me, the blond etc., but to a certain trouble language has in pointing, as well as to a certain illusion created when we say the words nonfiction and memoir, genres that in my mind have forever formed subsets of fiction.
From one point of view, then, what I have to say here is a kind of recapitulation of John Cage’s reminder: “I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.”
Rail: Theories, like Calendar of Regrets and Head in Flames before it, proves much concerned with social breakdown and, indeed, the extinction of all life. The worst passages in both Alana’s diary and Hugh’s, whatever you’d call it, his fiction of his final days—the worst moments spell out the terrifying science of unsustainable energy use and environmental collapse. So too the climaxes, reading in either direction, take us to desert landscapes of vanished humanity: the decaying Spiral Jetty, the ruins of Petra. Beyond, it’s Ozymandias: “boundless & bare, / the lone & level sands stretch far away.” But this isn’t Shelley’s 19th century, when the social novel ruled, with its complaints and warnings about society and politics. Theories is very much 21st century, po-mo indeed, with its dozen-plus tricks of format and font and genre and plotting. Where does Theories get off suggesting a social conscience, a concern for humanity, and how it might prevail, in a work so experimental and hip?
Olsen:Your question seems to be constructing a binary opposition between formal experimentation and social conscience. I would argue—as I think Theories of Forgetting and books like it do by their very existence—that that’s not only a faded argument (one we heard back in the early ’60s, when experimentation was labeled navel-gazing elitism), but also a patently false one. So-called experimental fiction teaches a fundamental political lesson over and over again, as much through its structural complications as through its thematics: that the text of the text, the text of our lives, and the text of the world can and should be other than they are.
In the case of Theories, the formalistics of entropology reiterate the thematics of entropology, not only at the level of the biological individual, but at that of the increasingly impoverished planet. Like Spiral Jetty, our environment is not-so-slowly sinking into sand, wasting itself away, becoming, in a sense, illegible. A recent study sponsored by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center suggests we have a matter of a couple decades left before the convergence of strained resources like food and water, overpopulation, famine, the emergency called climate change, and the increasing stratification of society into über-rich and über-poor will lead us smack into social collapse.
This sort of news—because of its sheer magnitude—arrives as a kind of joke. It seems to exist at an existential stratum completely unconnected to, oh, I don’t know, running our sinks for minutes upon end every morning while we brush our teeth, running down to the gas station for another gallon of liquefied dinosaur. But that news isn’t a joke, and at least one role of the arts is to tap us on the shoulder regularly and whisper in our ear: this is what will happen if we’re not careful—and, um, we’re not careful.
In light of such almost inconceivable imminent catastrophic futures—in Theories a pandemic called The Frost has broken out, of which one of the protagonists is victim—genres like domestic realism strike me increasingly as machines built to whistle in the dark, modes of distraction tricked out in honest-to-god narrative gizmos and gimmicks designed to get us to not to think about very much at all, fabricated practices (and not theories) of forgetting who we are, where we are, and where we’re very rapidly un-going.