An Interview with Lance Olsen
Lance Olsen is at the center of every discussion I have about the contemporary landscape of innovative and experimental writing. Having authored over twenty-five books, he's as prolific as he is radical: I never, ever know what to expect when I pick up one of Olsen's books -- reading one cannot prepare you for another; usually, reading every book ever written could not prepare you. Olsen's books unwrite, rewrite, and rewire textual expectation in profoundly original ways that cause us to see the truth of the human experience from new angles (good news: we are more complex and beautiful than I might have ever been willing to give us credit for, had I not become acquainted with Olsen's writing). One of the more common misconceptions I often hear about experimental writing is, like most misconceptions, a problematic generalization: that experimental writing lacks empathy and emotion. May I gleefully direct all doubters to Olsen's newest book, [[ there. ]].
Produced over the course of Olsen's five-month residency at the American Academy in Berlin, [[ there. ]] is a hybrid in the most delicious sense. The book's description situates the text as, "part critifictional meditation and part trash diary exploring what happens at the confluence of curiosity, travel, and innovative writing practices." It's art-worship, philosophy, confession, time-capsule, and next-level cultural pastiche. I had the opportunity to speak with Olsen about his newest curiosity of a text and the thinking that went into the creation of [[ there. ]], the only animal of its kind in the universe.
The form of this book made me giddy -- it feels futuristic. How did you decide to do it?
I've been tremendously interested over the past few years in how form -- and not only content -- carries meaning. That is, in how the structure of a piece of writing asks us to engage that piece of writing in unique ways that inflect the event of reading.
So, for instance, my just-out novel Theories of Forgetting arrives with two back covers (each upside down with respect to the other) and no front one. How a reader initially happens to pick it up pressures which narrative she enters first, thereby pressuring the meaning-making strategies. Each page of Theories is divided in half. One protagonist's narrative (she's a filmmaker working on a short documentary about Robert Smithson's famous earthwork, The Spiral Jetty) runs across the "top" of each page, from "back" to "front," while the other protagonist's narrative (her husband scattering across Europe and Jordan in the aftermath of her death) runs "upside down" across the "bottom" of each page, from "front" to "back." The shape of the layout connotes a spiral, a super important structure for Smithson, for whom its suggests labyrinth, journey from this world to other, meditative space, space of transformation, and more.
With [[ there. ]] I asked myself what form best captures that strange sensation of contemporary traveling -- both in the sense of moving from one location to the next, and in the sense of traversing a piece innovative writing (the challenging topography designed by another). For me, those sensations are similar: like clicking a link on a website: a surge of disorientation followed almost immediately by a surge of reorientation. And hence [[ there. ]]'s structure: a kind of trash-diary collage comprised of observations, facts, quotations, recollections, and theoretical reflections.
One of the greatest delights for me was the rewiring processes that came from highly intimate details being juxtaposed with highly philosophical details and highly objective details -- the objective and philosophical began to feel intimate, the intimate began to feel objective. Now that it's in the world, what aspects of the text make you feel the most vulnerable?
Oh, well, for me all writing -- whether allegedly theoretical and objective or personal and subjective -- is a mode of spiritual autobiography, a way of charting self-consciously the ways we are lost and found and lost in the world. So whether I'm reading, say, Derrida or Kathy Acker, I always feel like I'm reading something profoundly intimate. Ditto whether I'm writing something that uses codes that create the illusion of the detached or the other thing. With [[ there. ]], therefore, I felt no more vulnerable than I usually do when I'm writing, which is to say terribly. On the other hand, what I think of as the last movement of the book focuses on grinning blue-eyed death himself, on that forever stunning fact that we die, we die, we die, no matter what we think, what we do, where we've been, what we've thought, what we've created, who we've loved, who we've left. Working through those pages reminded me from syllable to syllable how fragile our spacesuits really are -- an idea our culture needs to silence in order for it to remain whole and functioning.
Can you talk a little bit about the filtering process (or anti-filtering process) of what you decided to include in the book? Was there editing? Anti-editing? Research? Anti-research?
The first draft grew in the same way Barthelme once talked about his fictions growing: like barnacles on a wreck or a rock. I wanted to watch what interested me each day during my roughly half-year stay in crazy-mad-invigorating Berlin last spring, think about what I was thinking, noticing, hearing. I just wanted to open myself up to the data, teach myself how to pay attention in some deep-structure sense and see what happened.
So yes: I did lots of research, but only as something occurred to me on a specific day and led me in an unexpected direction.
After the fact, however, after the narraticulean barnacles had collected, I began to arrange them in ways that began to feel to me more like music score than conventional nonfiction: in ways that revealed harmonies, chords, dissonances, and so on, only with concepts and language instead of sound.
One of the many descriptions I could give of the book, it being so multifaceted, is, "a gloriously complex love letter to innovative art." You're known as a very frontline soldier for innovative literature -- how would you situate this book in terms of that mission?
I'm all over conceptualizing [[ there. ]] as a love letter to innovative art. That's it exactly. I've always been fascinated by the question: How does one write the contemporary? The answer to that (different, needless to say, for every writer) will by default be a form of the innovative, since the contemporary comes at us otherwise than it did for writers living in 1914, 1814, or 1314. In other words, the question behind my question is: Do I retell received narratives, thereby perpetuating their deep-seated lesson that the world of the text, the text of the world, should remain as it is, or do I short-circuit those narratives, imagine myself into different ones, thereby advocating that the world of the text, the text of the world, can (and should) always be a possibility space -- which is to say other than it is?
So for me every engagement with the innovative -- whether through the event of reading (which is always a kind of writing) or the event of writing (which is always a kind of reading) -- becomes a fresh and always political investigation into not-knowing.
That's what's always excited me about the innovative: it's a mode of art that asks us to continuously unlearn our worlds.
Another description: "the death-anxious and death-averse in conversation with mortality." As someone who's constantly worrying about death, thinking over it, [[ there. ]] is a rather sacred text for me. Did you know from the beginning this would be such a large aspect of the book, or did it end up aggregating in a way that surprised you?
In the foreword to his short story collection Slow Learner, Thomas Pynchon writes: "When we speak of seriousness in art, ultimately we are talking about an attitude toward death -- how characters act in its presence, for example, or how they handle it when it isn't so immediate."
That strikes me as precisely the case, both inside and outside art. Living doesn't get serious, which is to say seriously rich, until one understands entropy is a process that is always-already happening, not just in, say, the galaxies, but also in your mitochondria. Understanding (not just knowing) that changes everything. It's the most beautiful and alarming and revitalizing and hideous and liberating and imprisoning thought a human being can have, and so she or he should have it at least two or three times a minute. When talking at length about travel and curiosity, it's a foregone conclusion I also have to talk at length about the hole-in-the-heart realization that -- echoing Beckett -- birth is the death of us. Otherwise, the ideas of travel and curiosity would have no immediacy, no currently.
All of which is to say, when I started [[ there. ]] I had no idea it would drift into a meditation on death, but in retrospect it makes perfect sense.
Do you have a preference to the order the book's missives are read in? Should readers consciously shirk or obey chronology when reading it?
What a great question. I hope readers will perceive the weird layout on the page, the book's collaging together of incommensurate narraticules, as an invitation to engage with [[ there. ]] as a kind of hardcopy hypertext -- that is, read as their time constraints and inclinations dictate, finish not so much at the end as when they feel like putting the book down, forge narrative constellations where maybe there exist only this sort of textual star-blur.
In my bookshop, [[ there. ]] would also be shelved in the self-help aisle. Did you intend it to have healing powers?
I don't feel wise enough to offer healing advice to anyone except maybe myself -- and even then with massive caveats circling. Here's the thing: I used to have it all figured out. This was in, I want to say, in twelfth grade, although maybe it was eleventh. Ever since it's been one long slow fade-out toward not-knowing, the most stimulating and satisfying generative force there is. I wouldn't have it any other way.