Happy 60th Birthday, Lance Olsen!: 60 Reasons to Celebrate Lance Olsen


I’ve had the deep pleasure of knowing Lance Olsen (for at least seven years now), reviewing his work, interviewing him, teaching one of his books, working as his publicist on three books ([[ there. ]], How to Unfeel the Dead, and Theories of Forgetting), all the while impressed by his profound courage, creativity, intelligence, rigor, humor, generosity, and so much more. In fact, here are at least sixty reasons to celebrate Lance Olsen (This is a circular text, of sorts, in honor of Lance’s 720 months: 360 months times two, with best wishes for at least another full circle of 360 months.):

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A David Bowie of Literature?

Is there a David Bowie of literature?—such an asinine question, as dumb as asking, “Is there a Virginia Woolf of music?”—arguing against it arguably as asinine as answering it at all, even on its own terms, which is to say, which “David Bowie”? which “literature”?; not to mention the problem of even locating a “there” with any kind of certainty, and of establishing what and/or where or whatever “Is” in this case is.

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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. Continue reading

common place

:::: Learning to travel is another way of saying learning to read. (37)

there:::: For five months at the beginning of 2013, Lance Olsen was a visiting fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. [[there.]] is an account of that period.

:::: It is a book about place.

:::: It is a commonplace book.

:::: It is a more or less diary account of his stay in Berlin combined with a variety of apposite quotations, apercus on various subjects, memories of other journeys. He describes it as “a constellation of sense, thought, memory, observation, fast fact scraps” (10). It’s a fair description if not necessarily an exhaustive one. Continue reading

Happy Birthday, Lance Olsen!

Today, October 14, 2012, marks Lance Olsen‘s 56th birthday. In celebration of him and his work, and with a nod to a quote by Roland Barthes, I’ve turned most of the sentences found in the first chapter of Olsen’s The Architectures of Possibility into questions without answers. (You’ll also find that I’ve altered quotations, found in the selfsame chapter, from Brian Evenson, Fredric Jameson, and Curtis White, as well as the abovementioned Barthes).

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Big Other’s Birthday Tribute to William H. Gass, 2012


Photo by Frank Di Piazza

It’s probably too easy a move to begin my very brief remarks about Gass’s use of architecture as a metaphor by trotting out the old horse of a quote about language being the house of Being, before flogging it to death once and for all; but it seems appropriate, nevertheless, to do so, especially when I think about Gass’s positing that the sentence is a container of consciousness. Actually, the quote from Heidegger is useful only when held in contrast with Gass’s ideas about language. Whereas Heidegger placed speech, that is, the continuum of speech, which includes talking, listening, and silence, at the center of his theory of language, Gass does not see writing as a mere supplement to speech. The continuum of writing includes four modes: persuasive, expository, expressive, and literary; and two hybrid modes: argumentative (a fusion of persuasive and expository) and critical (a fusion of expository and expressive) modes. Of these modes, it is the literary that receives the primary focus in Gass’s critical writing. And so, one might perhaps properly say that, for Gass, writing, or, rather, the sentence is the house of becoming. And what is it exactly that becomes in a sentence? For Gass, the sentence is a container of consciousness, a “verbal consciousness, of course, one built of symbols, not sensations; yet one of perceptions all the same: perceptions followed by thoughts like tracking hounds, and infused throughout by the energies of memory and desire, the moods emotions foster, and the reach, through imagery and other juxtapositions, of imagination…” (“The Aesthetic Structure of the Sentence”). Like any house, this container can take any number of forms:

[S]entences must be understood to contain all sorts of unused syntactical space; places that could be filled with more words, but, in any specific instance, aren’t…Sentences are like latticework, like fences, to be left open or prudently closed, their boards wide or narrow, pointy or level, the spaces between them, ditto….A sentence can sometimes give its reader such a strong sense of its overall character that it provokes a flight of fancy, a metaphorical description: it’s like a journey of discovery; it’s like a coil of rope, a triumphal column; it’s like a hallway or a chapel; it’s like a spiral stair. To me, for instance, Sir Thomas Browne’s triplet—“Grave stones tell truth scarce forty years. Generations pass while some trees stand, and old families last not three oak.”—with its relentlessly stressed syllables (seven strong to one weak in the first row, seven to two in the second course, and six to one in the last) resembles a wall. I can even locate spots (the weak stresses) where its stones have crumbled. Families come to pieces the way the word does.

Yes, architecture is a theme running throughout William Gass’s oeuvre, not only in his critical work but in his fictions as well, particularly in The Tunnel, where tunnel-as-metaphor is used as the very structure from which the novel is built.

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Lance Olsen’s “Literary Pillars”

1. Petronius, Satyricon (1st century A.D.)

2. Cervantes, Don Quixote (1605, 1616).

3. Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy (1759-67)

4. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818)

5. Joris-Karl Huysmans, Against Nature (1884)

6. Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Gods (1889)

7. Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis (1915)

8. James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)

9. Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (1925)

10. William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying (1930)

11. Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones (1944)

12. Raymond Queneau, Exercises in Style (1947)

13. Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable (1953)

14. Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)

15. Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jealousy (1957)

16. William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch (1959)

17. Samuel Beckett, How It Is (1961)

18. Carlos Fuentes, Aura (1962)

19. Julio Cortázar, Hopscotch (1963)

20. Thomas Pynchon, Crying of Lot 49 (1966)

21. Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)

22. John Barth, Lost in the Funhouse (1968)

23. Robert Coover, Pricksongs & Descants (1969)

24. J. G. Ballard, Atrocity Exhibition (1970)

25. Peter Handke, The Goalie’s Anxiety Before the Penalty Kick (1970)

26. Raymond Federman, Double or Nothing (1971)

27. Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren (1975)

28. Guy Davenport, Da Vinci’s Bicycle (1979)

29. Gilbert Sorrentino, Mulligan Stew (1979)

30. Donald Barthelme, Sixty Stories (1981)

31. Kathy Acker, Blood and Guts in High School (1984)

32. Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot (1984)

33. Don DeLillo, White Noise (1985)

34. Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons, Watchmen (1986-7)

35. Carole Maso, Ava (1993)

36. William Gass, The Tunnel (1995)

37. Ben Marcus, Age of Wire and String (1995)

38. David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (1996)

39. Young-Hae Chang, Traveling to Utopia (ca. 2000)

40. Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves (2000)

41. Joe Wenderoth, Letters to Wendy’s (2000)

42. Laird Hunt, The Impossibly (2001)

43. Patrik Ourednik, Europeana (2001)

44. Gary Lutz, Stories in the Worst Way (2002)

45. Steve Tomasula, Vas (2003)

46. David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas (2004)

47. David Markson, The Last Novel (2007)

48. David Clark, 88 Constellations for Wittgenstein (2009)

49. J. M. Coetzee, Summertime (2009)

50. Anne Carson, Nox (2010)

Editor’s Note: This list is part of Big Other’s Tribute to William H. Gass’s 88th Birthday.

Some few thoughts on facticity

You know the difference between plain old “sci-fi” and “hard science fiction”? One’s boring.

Nah. I’m just joking. The distinction, according to Wikipedia, reflects the division in “hard” (read: natural) and “soft” (read: social) science, thus neatly reflecting the split between my own weaknesses/blindspots/most-hated-fields-of-study and my (thoroughly relative) strengths/interests. I never could swallow the idea that learning how to think involved so much memorization (which is only a trick our chemistry plays on us (or doesn’t), after all). There are apparati for remembering; once I had fallen for the book, the computer, the tape, those organs of recording, the natural sciences were lost to me (and yes, I realize that there is more to the natural sciences than memorization, but those first steps (high school Biology, Chemistry, etc.) are steep, and I am weak). The act of remembering is even potentially deleterious (those who do so too often “live in the past”; insomnia is, often, a result of remembering too much or too well; traumas (or really, anything, in excess) remembered (whether falsely or “truly”) haunt our present, produce erratic behavior (see: the Lifetime network)). I was/am engaged by the imagination, the dark side of the orbiting chunk of ourselves we call memory; memory served only to tell me which of my lies had worked and which had not. Facts were to be shed at the earliest possible moment following the assessment of the depth and success of my memorization of them. I was, in other words, a B student.

But this post isn’t about a B, it isn’t about my blindnesses and biases. (No, it probably is. They all are.) Continue reading

Best of 2011, Part 3

Euphorbia Rhizophora: A Harvested Ginger Rhizome

I love reading lists, especially lists from smart people who are paying attention and have insightful things to say. Hence, these lists from Ravi Mangla, Lance Olsen, Dawn Raffel, Joseph Riippi, and Penina Roth. With all these choices of amazing things to check out and revisit, 2012 is looking very promising already. Check out our first and second installments of Best of 2011, HERE and HERE.

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Toward a “Bibliography of Important Experimental Texts”

Recently, on Facebook, Lance Olsen mentioned that he’s in the midst of “compiling a bibliography of 100 important experimental texts for [his] in-progress Architectures of Possibility: After Innovative Writing, a book about how to imagine one’s own work as a space of opportunities.” He asks:

“[W]hat are some of the texts across place & time that should be present?”

This was my answer:

Here are some works outside of the usual, but still unusual, suspects: Thalia Field’s oeuvre. Leon Forrest’s Forest County Trilogy (There Is a Tree More Ancient than Eden; The Bloodworth Orphans; and Two Wings to Veil My Face) and Divine Days. The 1611 King James Bible. Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren. Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch. Vanessa Place’s Dies: A Sentence. Brian Evenson’s Dark Property. Gary Lutz’s oeuvre. Ditto for Ben Marcus. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s oeuvre. Ditto for John Haskell. William Gass’s oeuvre. Ditto for William Gaddis. Some others: Frank Stanford’s The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You; Luigi Serafini’s The Codex Seraphinianus; and Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.

Now, as I reconsider my answer in light of imagining my own work “as a space of opportunities,” I think that I’d have to add Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space; Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and The Complete Cosmicomics; and The Best of Rube Goldberg.

A Sentence About a Sentence I Love: An Anthology, of Sorts

A few months ago, in April, to be exact, I started a series of posts entitled “A Sentence About a Sentence I Love” with a sentence about one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s magnificent sentences. This concentration, or, rather, this obsession with the sentence may have come from my, at the time, recent readings of William Gass’s essays wherein he concentrates much of his attention on the sentence as a primary building block in poetry and prose. Essays by Gass like “The Soul Inside the Sentence,” “The Sentence Seeks Its Form,” “The Architecture of the Sentence,” take as their focus the centrality of the sentence toward the construction of thought, and particularly of thoughts within the parameters of fiction. In “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction,” Gass claims that sentences are “the most elementary instances of what the author has constructed….a moving unity of fact and feeling.” Moreover, sentences

must be sounded, too; it has a rhythm, speed, a tone, a flow, a pattern, shape, length, pitch, conceptual direction. The sentence confers reality upon certain relations, but it also controls our estimation, apprehension, and response to them. Every sentence, in short, takes metaphysical dictation, and it is the sum of these dictations, involving the whole range of the work in which the sentences appear, which accounts for its philosophical quality, and the form of life in the thing that has been made (Fiction and the Figures of Life, 14).

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This Wednesday: FC2 in NYC: Margo Berdeschevsky, Brian Conn, Lance Olsen, & Rob Stephenson

Just wanted to help spread the word for those not on Facebook:

An Unnameable Reading: Fiction Collective Two in Brooklyn

7:30–9pm, Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Unnameable Books (600 Vanderbilt Ave, Brooklyn, NY) (between Dean St. & St. Marks Ave.)

Come hear four recently published FC2 authors read: Margo Berdeschevsky, Brian Conn, Lance Olsen, & Rob Stephenson

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Over Forty Writers Over Forty to Watch

Writing the title of this post actually felt very silly; it seems such an arbitrary way of gathering a list of writers to look out for. What could be sillier than singling out writers in this way, according to their age? Surely, there are more worthy criteria. Well, there is an answer to what could be sillier than singling out over forty writers over forty to watch, namely, singling twenty writers under forty to watch, especially largely mainstream writers writing, for the most part, conventional and redundant fiction. And the New Yorker has done just that. But this isn’t surprising. Theirs is an idea once again institutionalizing, reinforcing our decayed culture’s obsession with youth, not to mention its eyes wide shut wallowing in mediocrity. So, not only have they missed, for the most part, who are the best fiction writers under forty to watch, but, with their unapologetic valorization of youth, they missed entirely. The following writers (and I include poets, essayists, and theorists among them) are writers who have consistently written great work. I anticipate great things from each of them in the years and years to come. With full awareness of how a corrective sometimes ironically and paradoxically legitimizes what it seeks to correct, here, in the order in which I thought of them, are over forty writers over forty whose work I will be busy watching.

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On Lance Olsen–4 years later

I’ve been thinking a lot about Lance Olsen lately—not only because he tied up and duct taped my mouth during the AWP 2010 session on copyright a few weeks ago, and not only because we’ve become friends over the years, but also because he is A) so damn prolific, and B) so damn insightful in his fictions.  Read Head in Flames (Chiasmus 2009), which I recently discussed here, for the most recent example.

Some years ago (2006), I conducted the following conversation with Olsen for the now-defunct econoculture.com. Two notable developments since then:

1)    Olsen has returned to academia at the University of Utah.

2)    My editor for this piece at Econoculture, Matt Kirkpatrick, has too gone to academia after years in the private sector, and, in an odd happenstance, is now one of Olsen’s Ph.D. students (and a damn fine writer himself) at Utah. They did not know each other when this interview was published.

Rereading this, I’m struck by the way it’s a snapshot of a great writer at a particular moment.
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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.
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Highlights from Artifice Magazine, Issue One

It’s always nice to get a beautiful art object in the mail, and so I was happy to receive Artifice Magazine, Issue One with its classy satin cover and embossed title, and, more importantly (I soon learned), its content, content that mirrors the form in which it’s contained.

Christopher Phelps’s “Word†” is a playful, reflexive piece, drawing attention to itself as an artifact, to its artifice. As such, it’s the perfect introduction to this new journal:

This footnote would like to apologize for being in the rain shadow Word saw,
looking down, relieved to be for a few apical moments,

Susan Slaviero’s poems “Phenomena of Probability” and “Pandora’s Robot” are texts as much marked by their rugged formal textures as for their concern with ribcages and wire-riggings; and with robots. And there’s mention of mermaids in the former and “milkdrowned homunculi” in the latter. From “Phenomena of Probability”:

Theoretically, there’s a way to create a ribcage from guitar strings, to
fashion jawbones from vintage bracelets. It so happens that a female
form is best woven from titanium knitting needles, peppermint hips,
the ends of French cigarettes…

Language is made flesh here; it’s a place where a woman “is a semicolon.” And in “Pandora’s Robot,” after “the brass plate over her sternum” is opened, the robot “let[s] out language. / Let[s] out codes / like apocalypse, alchemy, calculus.”
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&Now Conference: A Conference of Innovative Writing & the Literary Arts


I went to the &Now Conference held in Buffalo, New York, October 14-17, and enjoyed it on a number of levels. First of all, it was great to cross that cold digital divide and finally meet so many people that I’ve been corresponding and/or working with, and/or reading their work for a while, people like Matt Bell, Cara Benson, Blake Butler, Donald Breckinridge, Ryan Call, Mary Caponegro, Kim Chinquee, Rikki Ducornet, Tina May Hall, Lily Hoang, Joanna Howard, Matt Kirkpatrick, Josh Maday, Kendra Grant Malone, Lance Olsen, J.A. Tyler, Bill Walsh, and John Dermot Woods, as well as reconnecting with Brian Evenson and James Yeh. I also had a chance to meet Dimitri Anastasopoulos, Donald Breckenridge, Rikki Ducornet, Shelly Jackson, Steve Katz, Dave Kress, Christina Milletti, Pedro Ponce, Davis Schneiderman, and Steve Tomasula. Have I missed anyone?

And if it was only that, it would have been well worth it, but I also attended many dynamic, energetic, informed, inventive, and stimulating panels and readings. Below are some capsules of some of the events as well as recordings of some of them.

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