7/25/19: book notes: dreamlives of debris

Lance Olsen, Dreamlives of Debris. Dzanc Books, 2017. Novel

Disclosure: Lance was my Ph.D. Committee Chair and Mentor, and I owe him so much in my development as a writer, a thinker, a reader, a humanoid, as someone who breathes this world.

Some things for me to learn/mull:

As I’ve read Lance’s work over the last 12 years, I’m startled, in Dreamlives of Debris, how startling and lyric Lance’s sentences have become. In earlier works, the sentences, even the shard/fragments, felt more raw – and now I’m struck by how each small module, less than a page (what he would call a narraticule) leaves me breathless, striking in language, as scattered in flight as Daedalus and Icarus and Debris, of whom he speaks. This language-heavy work has the added bonus, I think (occasionally, curse) of decentering my pleasures in the narraticule rather than in the whole, because the density seems to risk diminishing the whole. I felt this, recently, when reading Shelley Jackson’s Half-Life as well – that the intensity of small sections comes (inevitably?) at the risk of larger effect.

(I wonder, too, if my writing is similar, not in its quality but in the kinds and amount of work readers need to address.)

The effect of this book is like mining a very beautiful field of debris (no pun). It risks fetishing the language gems. I love the ways in which this book, like many of Lance’s extensive works, undermine what we expect from a novel. I find myself straining against the apparent (trope-driven) lack of pathos in the novel, which leaves me to wonder: is this pathos an ancient, outmoded concept? How can one break the laws of fiction and still retain pathos, or does it the entire taxonomy need a total reconfiguration?

Startling juxtapositions, detournements of language, especially verbs. A radical ontology, in the Beckettian tradition, where one constantly is reborn, afresh: a collage mind, which liberally quotes others, creating a chaos chorus; a narrator that can traverse history, allowing for a greater expense/expanse/depense of knowledge and language bits; a deep reliance on theory, placing Olsen in lineage (Nietsche, Bataille, Beckett come to mind); a conception of the novel as curation rather than as inspiration. I wrote, at first, that this book promotes a radical ontology that is pathological, but now I have no idea what that meant, and I’m keeping it.

The danger of a book like this, I think, is something that I recall from Lacan: that we tend to see all the objects in the worlds as versions of ourselves. It’s not point/counter-point (In talking about this book with Anne, I invoked Middlemarch – which seems ridiculous), but a refracted version of an ur-point. You wind up seeing yourself in everything, which is both blinding (making sightless) and blinding (the lightest light): every tree, every idea, every noun. It’s a kind of language-based narcissism, which is perhaps inevitable. If we are constantly remaking and reconstituting ourselves, minute by minute, then we may, filled with anxiety, have to reconfirm our presence in the external world, time and time again.