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Inverse of distraction

At the very moment the book is dematerializing, it is becoming more embodied than ever, the book celebrating the fetishization of the book’s bookishness: design, layout, texture, smell, borderlands. [[there.]]

Ever since the codex took over from the scroll sometime in what we arbitrarily call the middle ages, the book seems to have been under threat. Yet the book as object, as something over and above the contents of the book, is something we have experimented with and changed and revised time without end. Back in the 1960s Ace books introduced their Ace Doubles: you open a particularly garish cover and read a short sf novel which took you to approximately half way through the volume, then you closed the book, turned it over, and found another garish cover which you opened to reveal another short sf novel, sometimes by the same author, more often not. Haruki Murakami published Norwegian Wood as two small paperbacks, one red, one green, contained within a book-shaped box. B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates allowed the reader to assemble the book in any order they chose. In Our Ecstatic Days, Steve Erickson has one long sentence that runs like a thread from page 83 to page 315, cutting through the midst of all else that is happening in the novel. Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions tells its story in two portions, one occupying the top part of the page, the other upside down in the bottom part of the page, so that every so often you need to turn the book through 180 degrees. These, and there are more, many more, are all examples of the physical characteristics of the book being exploited as part of what the book is doing, an enhancement to the story.

In an age of e-readers it is easy for most stories to be translated straightforwardly to the screen, but the textural as opposed to textual characteristics of such books cannot be so translated. Any book that does anything more than simply tell a story defies the digital revolution.

Which is a way of saying you couldn’t, you wouldn’t want to read Lance Olsen’s Theories of Forgetting on a screen.


There are two linked stories occurring in Theories of Forgetting.

Open the book one way and across the top of the page you read the diary of Alana, a documentary film maker who is working on a short experimental film about Robert Smithson’s ‘The Spiral Jetty’. She is, however, coming down with a strange new disease, popularly known as ‘The Frost’, that begins by removing sensation in her fingers and ends by progressively cutting her off from her own sense of self.

Open the book the other way and across the top of the page you read a third-person account of Alana’s husband, Hugh. After his wife’s death he starts to loose his own sense of self, consciously seeking out forgetfulness, on a quest that will take him on a haphazard and barely comprehended journey through America and to the Middle East, where he will drift into the hands of a strange cult that worships barbituates before disappearing into the desert.

But that is but a small part of what this novel is doing.

[[ ]]

the difference between art and entertainment is this: art is that which deliberately slows and complicates perception to allow you to re-think and re-feel structure and experience; entertainment deliberately speeds and simplifies perception so you don’t have to think about or feel very much of anything at all.


The text replicates the loss of self in different ways. Both Alana and Hugh, for instance, are frequently identified by different names. Alana’s own doctor calls her Amy at one point; Hugh tries on a variety of names, Bill, Jim, Dan, Patrick.

Alana’s diary is printed in a clear, black serif face, but as the disease progresses, words and phrases start to appear in grey. Right from the start some words are crossed out, as if this is just a draft, something immediate and unconsidered; but as the story advances the crossings-out become more frequent, and there are misspellings, broken words, odd arrays of meaningless letters. The text breaks down as the supposed writer does. And steadily white space comes to predominate over text, until all fades away into emptiness.

Hugh’s story, meanwhile, is presented in a faint grey typewriter face. It purports to be a third person account of what happens to him, but towards the end suddenly and significantly it slips once or twice into first person.  Moreover, this text also fragments, the narrator regularly changes his mind about things seen, objects used, as if we are inside a consciousness that is never quite sure of the world. And this text, too, disintegrates, sentences are not ended, nouns are missing, gaps between paragraphs expand. All becomes whiteness.

[[ ]]

He wakes with a. The woman in the seat beside him on the plane is. The plane is. Chemicals. You close your eyes a-


Is any of this happening? When characters are so uncertain of their world, is there any solidity we can take away?

Smithson’s Spiral Jetty is not an object but an event. It is not a thing to be seen once and always, but changes constantly, day-by-day, minute-by-minute, as the light changes, as the water around it changes, as microscopic life in the water flourishes or fades. As the symbol, the spirit, of this novel it tells us that everything is in flux, that nothing is settled.

This is not the world, but it is a dying of the light.

[[ ]]

And there are other speakers, constantly cutting across what we are being told by Hugh and by Alana, interrupting, reinterpreting, questioning, revisiting.

Alana’s story is interrupted by photographs, by images, by symbols. They are arranged haphazardly, never squared off, never captioned. Sometimes they obscure parts of Hugh’s text, sometimes the text continues over them. She is a filmmaker, so this is appropriate, but the images themselves are losing sense are becoming distrait are fading like Alana.

Hugh’s story is interrupted by the handwritten comments of his daughter, Aila. Aila is an art critic living in Berlin who has received Hugh’s typescript out of the blue. She is sending the script to her estranged brother, Lance, but has circled the text with comments. These point out where Hugh’s memories don’t match her own, they query what he is saying, they expand on certain points; at the same time they litter the page with quotations (many of which might well have made it into the pages of [[there.]]), and carry on a long and one-sided argument with Lance, which suggests that the children too are falling apart, are fading, are losing a sense of who they are.


Who do we believe? All, or none? This is a novel whose trustworthiness, or lack of trust, is contained more in the texture of the page than in the text. Typefaces, darkness or lightness of text, arrangement of words and images on the page, overlaying of one thing upon another, all contribute to what is being told by this book.

Theories of Forgetting is a book that Hugh reads as he sits forlorn at the deathbed of his wife. We do not know what this book says, it would be too clever, too inappropriate, too recursive, to assume that Hugh is reading the same book that we are reading. Nevertheless, theories of forgetting, ways of drifting out of memory, are variously examined through the experiences of these characters. And forgetting, we seem to be told, is the way we end our tentative relationship with life.

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