Luke Taylor: What would you say are some misconceptions about “innovative fiction” and someone who is the “author of more than 20 books of and about innovative fiction”?
Lance Olsen: The most substantial may be that innovative fiction knows what it is, that someone like me could define it in any productive way, that innovative fiction might somehow be one thing, or somehow consistent through time and space. None of these is the case. That’s exactly what I find most exciting about writing it, reading it, thinking about it. Innovative fiction represents a process of exploration, an ongoing investigation into what such a term could possibly mean.
LT: In a lecture you gave on your latest novel, Theories of Forgetting, you said that you are as interested in the politics of structuration as you are in the politics of thematics in a text. Can you say more about what the politics of structuration can involve and how you address these?
LO: The politics that occur at the level of archtectonics—from narrative structure to how a sentence misbehaves—are less visible than the politics that occur at the level of thematics, and hence potentially more insidious.
Let me put it another way. We have been taught to read for, say, character and action. So it’s really easy to see and discuss the politics of the papery people and universes that comprise texts. But structure frequently works on us almost without our knowing it. Take conventional sitcoms, for instance, which teach us existential complications can be solved in 22 minutes plus commercials. Now up the ante: imagine the narratives that not only our entertainment industry but also our government and academic ones repeat for us so often we begin to believe they must be the truth—e.g., weapons of mass destruction, say, certain versions of history.
One of the many goals of innovative fiction seems to be to rattle those received narratives, which is to say rattle those received structures. It does so, not simply to have fun (although there is almost always an element of the joyously ludic at play in the innovative), and not merely to examine its navel (although there is almost always an element of serious self-consciousness at play in the innovative), but rather to remind us that there are always profoundly important alternative ways to tell ourselves, our lives, our experiences of experience.
LT: In your new critifiction, [[ there. ]],you note that Frank Berberich, editor of the Berlin-based magazine Lettre International, complains about university students’ “inability to invent a language that allows them to think beyond capitalism.” Would you please say more about this? Do you work with this idea at all in Theories of Forgetting?
LO: Capitalism is a power center that generates narratives (having to do with post-moral wealth and conduct) whose continuous recapitulation begins to sound like something very close to veracity. One of the tasks of innovative fiction, as I say, whether a given piece is aware of what it’s doing or not (and many times it’s not, or not quite), is to invent new structures to house our sense of the contemporary, our engagement with the everyday, to teach us that the dominant narratives are not the only ones. I’m reminded of a line from Lidia Yuknavitch’s wonderful and wonderfully raw memoir, The Chronology of Water: “Make up stories until you find one you can live with.” Bingo.
Writing and/or reading the innovative enables us to think about inventing languages (in the largest sense of the word) that might help us think beyond who, what, and when we are. Let’s call this sort of communication Beyonding Language.
Can we undo the dominant discourses? Absolutely. And absolutely not.
LT: In Theories of Forgetting you write about a man watching a video monitor on which is displayed a clip of a woman kissing all the objects in a vacant room. There’s a link on the page housing that description to a video. So I’m thinking I’m gonna go online and find a video of this woman on her knees kissing everything. Instead I get the very passage described in the novel dissolving and reconstituting itself into a kind of poem. Watching the text do so seems a little like watching the woman. The passage states that the video of the woman “[runs] without music,” yet your video has music.
LO: You just described the second half of the video you discover if you follow that link. The first half involves something else altogether—or almost altogether: Robert Smithson’s stunning earthwork, The Spiral Jetty. The implication is that you’re watching part of an experimental documentary about that piece made by Alana, one of my protagonists. But the more the reader/viewer thinks about it, the more impossible the film he or she is watching becomes. The voiceover is of a scene—her husband watching the video in the Istanbul Modern Art Museum you partially describe—to which she couldn’t have been privy.
On the one hand, then, you’re watching a film that can’t exist, or that exists in some alternate universe. On the other, you’re watching a film that embodies Smithson’s idea of entropology, a neologism containing the words entropy and anthropology, the study he argues should exist for large systems—cultures, cities, bodies—wearing down, fading away, coming apart: which is one of the key thematics of the novel at various strata, from sentences and strange page design to the characters who inhabit them.
So for me, in a way, that film is emblematic of the whole novel.
LT: One of your characters in Theories of Forgetting is named Lance, and you incorporate a photograph of yourself (although, presumably, as your protagonist Hugh). The result is like bouncing a little mouse-on-string cat toy in front of that readerly instinct, which we all are supposed to unlearn in Lit 101, to equate a character with the author. What motivates the decision to put Lance and that photograph in the novel?
LO: I’m interested in the problematics of representation: what is the relationship, for instance, between words written on a page, or light written on paper or bytes in a digital file, and the touchable world? What are the uncertainties that arise between a noun and the thing that noun tries to point to?
The last line in my novel Girl Imagined by Chance, which is in many ways about photography, which is to say simulation,is: “How they say the camera catches you, but how in point of fact you will always be able to get away.”
LT: Your inclusion of images in the text reminded me of Sebald. What would you say the addition of photographs and other images does to a novel?
LO: Well, it depends on what sort of photographs you use and how you use them. The least interesting for me is to employ them merely to illustrate text, as in a children’s book or newspaper article, or vice versa. The most intriguing—and Sebald often comes to mind here, as does, say, the Anne Carson of Nox—is to employ photographs to create a mesh of tensions between various modes of representation, to create, perhaps, visual-verbal non sequiturs, or other sorts of interruptions, in order to accent the complications inherent in the idea of historical knowledge, or the fact that every photograph, not to mention every word, is always as much—if not more—about what isn’t there as it is about what is.
LT: What are questions that you wish people more often asked you about your work?
LO: My sense is that when an author finishes writing a novel, a poem, a short story, an essay, she or he becomes simply one more reader among others. So I’m not sure I’m the right one to ask. But let’s say I were, not the signified of the signifier Lance Olsen, but someone else…which in a certain sense, of course, I am, we are, always. It would be nice, “I” might say (although, of course, “I” might say something else—who knows?), to ask how Lance Olsen’s works illuminate each other, what sort of obsessions run through them, which obsessions fall away over time, or erupt, which modify and how, what the relationship is between Lance Olsen’s theoretical writings and his fictional ones, if in fact there is a difference between those two terms, which this Lance Olsen—the writing this line this moment—would argue at the end of the day there isn’t, to the extent both theory and fiction are simply subsets of narrative, which is to say the linguistic mode of make cosmos out of chaos.
LT: Memory and forgetting are topics that seem to hold particular saliency for many writers. Have these always been strong concerns of yours? At this stage in my life, I think a lot about memory and forgetting as they relate to politics—e.g. I’m very concerned about the fact that not every U.S. History class teaches students about the Federal Housing Administration’s redlining and its implications. But I just don’t yet have that bellyfire when I regard the more apolitical domains of the topic of memory. Can you speak about its importance to you?
LO: Maybe the unfanciest way to put it is this: anyone who has experienced the death of someone close, or the death of relationship, or who comes to understand at a mitochondrial level that entropy applies not only to the realm of macroscopic thermodynamics, but also to you, to me, to the lilac-haired barista who served me my latte this morning, knows how important memory and forgetting are.
What haunts me about the issue—whether political or existential—and has haunted me at least since my first novel, Life from Earth, which appeared back in 1990, and which feels as if it were written by someone else entirely, is the troubled interaction between the two concepts. In what sense, for instance, is forgetting a kind of memory? Who and what are allowed to remember, be remembered, and by whom? How might we speak of architecture as a kind of ethics of remembrance? All one has to do to feel the bellyfire you mention is, at a certain age (22? 32? 42?), look in the mirror.
I’m responding to your questions from Berlin, where I spent last spring at the American Academy finishing [[ there. ]] and Theories of Forgetting, where I’ve just spent late April and May starting a new novel, and where I will spend another year beginning next May on a fellowship from the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst Artists-in-Berlin Program. All one has to do to feel the bellyfire here is to walk down any street and pay even mild attention to one’s surrounding—to the divots on the sides of buildings from the machinegun fire and grenade shrapnel sprayed during the Battle of Berlin, to the vague remnants of The Wall, or perhaps to what are referred to as the Stolpersteine, or Tripping Stones: the small brass plaques buried in the sidewalks in front of buildings from which Jews, gypsies, gays, blacks, Communists, and others were ripped and shipped to the concentration and extermination camps.
Maybe memory and forgetting is the deep-structure theme I wanted to explore in Theories of Forgetting, the one that runs all the way down from the situations in which my characters find themselves and the overall form to how the sentences commence undoing themselves during the endgame of each of the three central narratives.
All of which is to say the question of memory and forgetting is ultimately a question about various kinds of dying, the enterprise we’re all involved in on a daily basis, and if a piece of literature isn’t in some way about that, I wonder if it is really about anything important at all.
Luke Taylor currently lives in California, where he reads, writes, and does organizing for social, racial, and economic justice.
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