Theories of Forgetting by Lance Olsen. Fiction Collective 2. $22.95, 384 pp
Lance Olsen’s Theories of Forgetting is a masterful work structured around Robert Smithson’s earthwork “The Spiral Jetty.” Olsen’s novel is comprised of three narrations, written each by a separate member of a family. The husband’s and wife’s texts progress in opposite directions across the book, with each page divided among these two inverted texts; though they do not touch, they do respond to one another, much like the border edges of Smithson’s spiral. They give the book two “fronts” and two “ends,” and its reading will be inflected by which end the reader chooses to start from. Meanwhile, the daughter’s writing appears as notes to her parents’ texts. Throughout we encounter concerns of travel, memory, and generations; alienation; (in)attentivity; politics (apocalyptic and otherwise); and the “strangely productive effects” of disintegration. This last is a concern of “entropology,” a coinage of Claude Lévi-Strauss and an apparent obsession of Robert Smithson’s that combines “entropy” with “anthropology,” and denotes study of the erosion of both humans and human systems.
A series of diary entries form the wife Alana’s narration. While she works on a documentary about Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty,” titled “Theories of Forgetting,” she incurs the onset of an emergent pandemic called “The Frost.” Perhaps The Frost possesses an intelligence, or fleetingly elicits honesties stored within Alana, because the typos that increasingly surface in her entries frequently illuminate her subconscious. For instance, the following two excerpts: “It’s remarkably easy to be the anounanonymous tourist with the fami fanny pack…tucked,” and, “In a noun non-landscape (in a landscape, i.e., where human gesture is absent, where there is no middle ground, time), it is difficult, if not impossible, to construct narrative buildings to house our loves lives in.” Although Alana at first heavily censors these misprints, she misses some, and she increasingly lets them stand as the entries progress. Thus Olsen crafts a marvelous interpretive playground wherein, for just one example, an entry regarding love as “an earthwork of the changling heart” makes it uncertain whether Alana meant “changing”; is “changeling” is her thought, The Frost’s, or both? Fittingly, these corruptions are not so much a degradation of Olsen’s book as a growth; they formally embody the author’s concern with what disintegration can produce.
Alana’s husband, Hugh, narrates a memoir he disguises as a novel (in deliberate contrast to the more common opposite arrangement). His novel records the process by which he (or at least the protagonist of his novel) goes missing while traveling through Europe and Jordan after his wife’s death, and it is written in the tone and style of a thriller mystery. This genre—around which tends to hover the question “who?”—suits Olsen’s ideas about an individual’s multiplicity and the ways that language, family, and civics mediate us, ideas that are developed via the text’s shifts among third-, first-, and second-person narration.
Hugh writes his novel after Alana’s death and after he has read her diaries, and his manuscript variously reflects her writings. The reader must question the extent to which this reflection is artificially arranged by Hugh and to what extent it is otherwise determined. At moments, Hugh’s narrator’s voice mimics that of Alana’s diaries. (Perhaps this reflects the time she and Hugh spent living together.) And as Alana’s language largely dissolves by her diary’s end, so too does that of both Hugh’s novel and its protagonist’s speech. But this also mimics the aphasia suffered by the protagonist’s (and so Hugh’s?) grandfather.
In any event, Hugh’s and Alana’s portions of the book seem to grasp at each other. Yet in contrast to the way that Hugh’s tapering text reaches back in conversation with Alana’s own, their daughter Aila employs her marginalia on Hugh’s manuscript primarily for communication with her not-too-intimate brother, Lance—to whom she has sent the manuscript, and who, like her, was largely peripheral to Hugh’s and Alana’s attention. Aila’s voice is tough the way lifted scar is. Predominantly it is snarky, coy, and sharp, for instance when declaring, “I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours.” Even so, she offers Lance generous hints of her sisterly affection amid notes that otherwise cite theorists like Baudrillard and explicate etymology. At times Aila seems to be willing herself into unconcern about her father’s much-considered self-identity; when, after 319 pages Hugh’s narrator at last speaks in first- rather than third-person, Aila makes no note whatsoever of his arrival at “I.” Instead she jots down a random comment about The Flintstones’ production history that seems to be a somewhat spiteful effort at distraction. Whatever her exact feelings, her use of a manuscript that documents her father’s coming undone to forge new ties with her brother brings Olsen’s idea of building from decay into a familial node.
In addition to all of this, Olsen also explicitly broaches big political-social topics in Theories of Forgetting. Looming planetary and civilizational destruction are conspicuously invoked when Hugh’s protagonist is kidnapped by a college-age kid who asks (with sardonics afire) “Do you believe our kind has evolved to manifest one of two reactions before threats not perceived as imminent . . . : an either crazy optimism or a willful cluelessness?” This kid is followed around by a cult retinue called the Sleeping Beauties who drug themselves with barbiturates.
Similar concerns surface less conspicuously elsewhere. For instance, Alana writes of how “the Canadian firm Pearl Montana Exploit Exploration & Production had submitted an application for drilling two explana exploratory wells” to restore Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty.” One question is how the novel’s invocations of climate change interface with its treatment of intergenerational abandonment. A more interesting question: How is Olsen’s treatment of planetary destruction inflected or undermined within a novel so concerned with the notion of decay’s constructive effects, of building with “constantly depleting remnants”? Smithson, we are told, would not have wanted his earthwork restored as the elements gradually swallowed it. “For him,” Alana writes, “[that] forever wearing away into difference, would have meant the apotheosis of his aesthetics of entropy, the consummate embrace of the countless quiet catastrophes taking place around us, always and all ways, if only we could be awake enough, brake enough, to pay attention.” But would Olsen have the reader regard the Earth itself as an earthwork that can grandstage such aesthetics? More likely, rather, the Sleeping Beauties are a warning against the wholesale embrace of catastrophe, or against dormancy and distraction in the face of death.
Theories of Forgetting is designed to make the reader feel not at home among its numerous innovative elements—these ranging from invocations of Dorothy leaving Kansas to a hyperlink to a video in which a passage from the novel dissolves and reconstitutes itself into poetry. These and other departures from the traditional novel structure enable Olsen to ask, and begin to demonstrate, what a physical book can do that other forms of narration cannot. They also produce the sensation of travel, an activity recurring throughout the novel and one the value of which Olsen expounds on in his recent critifiction [[ there. ]]
These elements develop the work as an experimental novel, but Olsen’s book will be enjoyed by readers who prefer more traditional storytelling too. Theories of Forgetting is an elegantly crafted novel that for all its resistance to traditional narrative forms, and its development of fresh ideas about art and what a physical page can do, still provides an affecting family story upon which it does not depend for success. Olsen’s ability to inhabit self- and familial estrangement without being cold is admirable, and while he resolutely withholds resolution to many of the book’s questions, the basic storyline itself is easily legible. Readers would do well to tackle Theories of Forgetting in conjunction with Olsen’s [[ there. ]], which elucidates many of the novel’s references. But Theories of Forgetting can satisfy, move, and provoke on its own.
Luke Taylor currently lives in California, where he reads, writes, and does organizing for social, racial, and economic justice.
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