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.