Lance Olsen interviewed by Adam Tedesco

 

Lance Olsen

Lance Olsen is prolific in the field of innovative literature: Having published over twenty volumes of fiction, poetry, essay, and theory, his work is wide ranging while remaining deeply embedded in the intertextual tradition of postmodernism.

Olsen’s latest novel, Dreamlives of Debris (Dzanc Books), is a mind-bending retelling of the Theseus and Minotaur myth in which the Minotaur is a deformed young girl who calls herself Debris, who channels the voices of a cast of contemporary and historical personae. Dreamlives presents us with the psychological effects of navigating the mythic labyrinth taking shape here and now as the omnipresent flood of data that fills our daily lives.

To quote Lidia Yuknavitch in her introduction to Dreamlives: “This is also the story of the Labyrinth called language, where meaning could take any turn, or return, or ‘maze’ us into a new ‘whirled.’”

Olsen and I found a window of time to connect via smartphone, during which I was on lunch break at a day-long teaching at a Buddhist monastery in Upstate New York. What follows is a series of messages we exchanged as I sat outside the monastery’s gift shop, overhearing visitors inquire about the prices of beads and books.

LO:

A monastery in the Catskills? How cool is that?

AT:

Yes, it’s been incredible! This morning I was listening to a Zen monk talk about koans and the “failure of language to tame reality.” This resonated strongly with me, having just reread Dreamlives of Debris. This failure of language seems to be a reoccurring theme in the work.

I’m wondering if it’s the weakness of language itself you’re pointing to in the book, or the ways in which this failure is manipulated.

LO:

In many ways, in my mind, the guiding metaphor of Dreamlives is the labyrinth, or, better, multidimensional maze — from overall structure to thematics to sentence — and, of course, one of the most important mazes we navigate is language. Wittgenstein reminded us one of the problems with Western philosophy is that it’s taken a series of grammatical mistakes and built a metaphysics out of it. I’m interested in exploring that mistaking, the deep inability of language to do what we want it to do unambiguously. Words always means more than they mean to mean, and that’s wonderful, unnerving, frustrating, and liberating.

Right now I’m teaching a course here at the University of Utah called “The Postmodern Turn.” While there are of course antecedent problemitizers of language, from Heraclitus to Christian mystics, I decided to begin with Nietzsche thinking about, among other things, language as a referential and hence existential problem, and follow a hypothetical trajectory from him through the poststructuralists and beyond.

Debris, my protagonist, a female minotaur, is painfully aware that language speaks through her, that we’re all spoken through by language (and hence spoken through narratives) that shape us in the face of another deep-structure myth: free will.

AT:

I’m wondering how you view the possibility, inevitability perhaps, that those narratives speaking through us are projected by political structures.

LO:

If there’s something inherently broken about language’s capacity to mean, that brokenness can be and is manipulated by all of us, even as it manipulates us, both consciously and unconsciously. This is the case in spades with the various webs of control that script us — from our sense of gender, to our sense of morality, to our sense of you name it. As Goebbels said, if you make a lie big enough, and tell it often enough, people will believe it. We’re living his news flash daily in our post-truth contemporary, where it’s maze all the way down. Maze in the twenty-first century doesn’t feel simply like an architecture, in other words, but like a way of being.

I’m fascinated by how, from our infant years, we’re fed narratives that become internalized as truths. One of the purposes of innovative writing practices can be to show the limits of those normative narratives, invite us to think that the text of texts, the texts of our lives, can be other than they are — that we can learn to unwrite and rewrite (and maybe for brief, utopian moments re-right) them.

AT:

Innovative writing practices as a therapeutic exercise seems to work against the notion of experimental work as cold or detached. Can you think of any specific practices that exemplify this contradiction?

LO:

I’m not very interested in bloodless experimental writing practices. Weirdly, perhaps, I don’t see the point in reading for purely cerebral pleasure. Of course, the issue — we’re back to the problem of language — is defining the border between the purely cerebral and purely emotional, a profoundly subjective zone. I imagine those concepts exist, instead, on a continuum. And the swath of that continuum in which I’m most committed is inhabited by a wide range of innovative writers, including Steve Tomasula, David Markson, Maggie Nelson, Anne Carson, Raymond Federman, Beckett, Robert Coover, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Gary Lutz, Thalia Field, Patrik Ourednik, and Lydia Davis, to name the first dozen who come to mind. All are, one could argue, abstract thinkers, yet each also breaks my heart in a special way.

AT:

Dreamlives seems to me deeply moored in the expansive and reflective possibilities of identity. I’m thinking about how identity is created through consumption of culture. I’m reminded of Debris stating “By that I mean networks. Weaves. How each of us becomes hole.”

LO:

Debris is, in addition to a little deformed girl kept by her parents below the palace on Crete, a switching station for a multitude of narratives — as we all are. Voices throughout history — from Herodotus to Edward Snowden — speak through her, speak her. She is a temporal instrument, a narrative time machine. At first that may seem like some crazy SF trope, and I guess in one sense it is. One could certainly read Dreamlives as speculative fiction in its largest sense. But it’s also the performance of Barthes’ definition of any text: a multidimensional space where a variety of other writings come together to blend and clash. And each of us is a text as well, of course, in which other texts a-maze us.

I wanted to think about that, make what our culture has made invisible visible again. Since those texts are always being supplemented, erased, transformed, one’s sense of identity is both horrifically and miraculously (we’re back to him again) Heraclitean.

AT:

In light of this the channeling of Chelsea Manning seems deeply meta.

LO:

Absolutely.

AT:

Do you think this notion of Barthes’ could be applied to human consciousness? I ask this while thinking about technology as an extension of the human nervous system, our current situation in relation to a post-human era.

LO:

Maybe in three senses. First, like my protagonist Debris, it seems to me our consciousnesses are nothing if not “multidimensional space[s] where a variety of other writings [read consciousnesses] come together to blend and clash” — nothing if not an amalgamation of all the thoughts, feelings, sounds, touches, scents, other beings we’ve encountered.

Second, in our contemporary, in which the web, social media, and so on, are almost-always some part of us (I think of my friends and students who have melded with their smart phones, feel less human without them [whereas in certain ways they are in fact less human with them]), our consciousnesses are almost-always jacked into the matrix, as William Gibson had it back in 1984.

In the third – and strangest, most dazzling — sense (one I imagine my way into in Dreamlives), as Nick Bostrum hypothesized in 2003 during his famous lecture at Oxford, there’s nothing to refute positively the idea that we are all living in a computer simulation of a more advanced species.

AT:

True… Can you talk a little too about form and your use of the page?

LO:

For the last decade or so I’ve been as much committed to building novels as writing them. So I laid out Dreamlives myself in InDesign. Every page is a perfect, unnumbered square that connotes a different textual room in Debris’ liquid maze: an impossible sort that bears no center and hence no discernable perimeter.

While, needless to say, every square may have a center, my book has none: one can and should begin anywhere, read in any order, and, at the end of the day, will have experienced something closer to an unlearning than a learning, if all goes well, a state of wandering rather than arrival. It is easy for the reader to become disoriented, lost, in a way that rhymes with Debris’ situation. Because Dreamlives arrives with no conventional location markers, the reader may feel, not only more or less adrift, but also a little freer to jump around, and begin to think of reading as a kind of improvisational choreography, taking various paths as the mood strikes, for as long as the mood strikes, and then perhaps wandering off in a different direction. So the book begins where one chooses to begin reading, and ends where one chooses to get up and walk away.

One could argue that for us, late in the second decade of the twenty-first century, it’s all liquid maze. I imagine the maze as dense metaphor for our current sense of presentness — the impression, for instance, that we are always awash in massive, contradictory, networked, centerless data fields that may lead everywhere and nowhere at once.

AT:

I’d second that argument. What’s somewhat paradoxical about this sense of presentness, as I experience it, is that what seems to be the only semi-sustainable release from it comes from the creation of new data points, if you will, the flow-state we can reach while writing.

Speaking of, what have you been writing most recently? Are there any upcoming projects you’re working on you’d like to share, discuss?

LO:

Right now I’m working on a novel titled My Red Heaven that harmonizes in perhaps odd ways with Dreamlives. It’s set in Berlin, in 1927, when all the fences were down, it seemed, all possibilities open, and the future unimaginable. I’m trying to think through that moment into our own, with its rise of populism, manufactured reality, and so forth. Neither period, I’m afraid, gives us much to be hopeful about.

AT:

I can’t think about this setting without drawing parallels to technological frontiers, the dream of the internet-as-commons that seemed so attainable several decades ago, and what that’s devolved into. Is this at all applicable to the work?

LO:

To the extent that dystopian corporate consciousness is the water we swim through without even thinking about or resisting it any longer, wherein we are manipulated into believing that we are somehow exercising our freedom, even as our decisions are at so many levels already decided for us long in advance, yes.

(AT: We ended here as I was about to head down the mountain, where there’s little to no coverage. )

Adam Tedesco is an editor of Reality Beach, a journal of new poetics. His recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Laurel Review, Gramma Weekly, Prelude, Pouch Powderkeg, Fanzine, Fence, and elsewhere. He is the author of several chapbooks, most recently ABLAZA ,the forthcoming Misrule (Ursus Americanus Press, 2019) and the forthcoming collection Mary Oliver (Lithic Press, 2019).