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On Lance Olsen’s latest, Head in Flames

Top Reasons to stop what you’re doing, and read Lance Olsen’s latest Head in Flames (Chiasmus Press, 2009).

  1. Because HIF is part of a (loose) trilogy of Olsen’s work, dealing in innovative ways with Modern figures: Nietzche’s Kisses (FC2, 2006), Anxious Pleasures (after Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” Shoemaker and Hoard, 2007), and now HIF.
  2. Because the phrase Head in Flames can also be found, twice, coincidentally, in the story “Nerve” by Shelley Jackson (The Melancholy of Anatomy). What a small, fiery world.
  3. Because HIF has the best opening line this side of “Call me Ishmael”: “Look: I am standing inside the color yellow” (1) as spoken by Vincent Van Gogh.
  4. Because HIF is a history book—as Michel Foucault might endorse it. Forget regular history, in fact, forget the traditional triumphalism of the western mind mastering dates and stratagems and plots and characters and settings then and by the activation of these vectors into a sleek arrow—not “a” story, but “the” story—suggesting you can learn everything there is know about the world in, for example, The Outline of History by H.G. Wells. Over 20 million copies sold, sure, and that can buy you at lot of verbs.
  5. Because HIF is instead three voices in different fonts, rotating in the same order—Vincent Van Gogh; his great-grandnephew, murdered Dutch filmmaker and media provocateur Theo Van Gogh (namesake of Vincent’s art-dealer brother); and Theo’s killer, the 2nd generation Dutch immigrant Mohammed Bouyeri, who Wikipedia calls Dutch-Moroccan, even though he was born in the Netherlands.
  6. Because Bouyeri is multidimensional: from the generation of immigrant children unwilling to accept the menial jobs their parents took out of cold necessity. Bouyeri, on his father, in HIF: “Almost forty years in this country eight children a cramped flat a dishwasher’s salary and your father has to sit in a chair when he prays” (25).
  7. Because you’ll read fast, and even though the voices are only three, you’ll forget who says what, and that often it won’t matter.
  8. Because Theo, the murdered filmmaker, is far from the innocent. He’s a brash propagandist whose politics are inflected by a cult of personality in which he’s president and prime minister: “Some people get expensive haircuts, some manicures, Theo enlightening one of his ecclesiastical interviewees. I happen to get well-laid on a reliable basis, thank God.” (70)
  9. Because Vincent’s sections are written with a character narrator and Theo’s sections are external. This allows the reader to also have the Theo sections channel the story of his collaborator on the controversial film Submission (check youtube), Dutch intellectual and former legislator Ayaan Hirsi Ali: “The man stepped forward, reached between my thighs, and began jabbing and tugging at my clitoris as if he were milking a goat” (88).
  10. Because Bouyeri shares Theo’s sense of the incompatibility of Dutch and Muslim culture. Bouyeri cut his teeth on Brittany Spears and the like, only to become “radicalized” once he discovered the endless series of cultural dead-ends available to Muslims in the Netherlands.
  11. Because this may be the first or at least the most interesting twitter/facebook novel. I haven’t counted, yet the majority of segments must be 140 characters or less.
  12. Because I know that some of the segments appeared in Olsen’s FB updates, i.e.: “Shouldn’t there be a single word meaning homesick for the land of colors?” (111). Although the FB version substituted “Old English” for “single”.
  13. Because this section—“A brief dream: Toulouse-Lautrec kneeling behind a little puppet theatre, using naked dolls to try to explain something to me” (119) is a heck of a lot like this line from my story with Olsen, “Several Methods of Forgetting” in Exquisite Corpse annual #1: “You, or a disturbing stranger who looked precisely like you, squatted behind a little puppet theatre, using naked Barbie dolls to explain something to me.”
  14. Because yes, this is a plagiarized novel, in parts, as much pastiche from Vincent Van Gogh’s journals/letters as from the swirl of public documents surrounding the entire Submission affair.
  15. Because once Theo is wounded—he slowly dies, and so becomes absent from the text.
  16. Because once Vincent shoots himself in the chest, and soon after dies–he too disappears from the text.
  17. Because Bouyeri outlasts them both in the narrative, promising more versions of him, to follow.
  18. Because, even so, this is a not a one-dimensional portrayal of either fundamentalist Islam or its critics.
  19. Because you must think hard as to how Vincent’s story—a sort of personal tragedy—transforms a century later into this global-political tale.
  20. Because aesthetics are something also complicated in HIF.
  21. Because this is the world we imagine and the world that we invent and also the world that we inhabit.

4 thoughts on “On Lance Olsen’s latest, Head in Flames

  1. Yes! This is a fantastic, musical, refractive, challenging, compassionate, inspiring, thought-provoking book.

    My interview with Lance Olsen about it is forthcoming somewhere soon.

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