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photo by Andi Olsen
O for a Muse of Fire . . .
An Interview with Lance Olsen
by John Madera
Lance Olsen’s Head in Flames (Chiasmus Press, $14.95), a novel distinguished both by its inventive, playful form and its evocative content, vividly limns the minds of Vincent van Gogh, Theo van Gogh (Vincent’s brother’s great grandson), and Mohammed Bouyeri, Theo’s murderer: three people linked by passion and belief, by their persistence and hubris, and by fire and blood. It is a musical work, where the three characters alternately speak, each voice a note forming a triad, a three-note chord, where Vincent might be considered the root, the note from which the chord is built or centered. Within each triad, Olsen explores all kinds of concord and discord between the three men’s varying worldviews; their concepts about the self; their thoughts on art, freedom, and the imagination; and their musings about gods, monsters and other invisible things.
Vincent is a dreamer, his synesthetic awareness evoked with a glistening lyricism; Theo is a maverick and outsider always sharpshooting from the hip; and Mohammed’s mind is a concatenation of resolute convictions, but also maddening misunderstandings and misplaced devotions. The coupling of these three distinctive characters and voices never coheres, as in Woolf’s The Waves, into a single silent consciousness; instead, through juxtapositional tensions, a kind of participatory dynamic is created wherein the reader is invited to puzzle the refractive narrative together into varying shapes. It is a “writerly” text, as Roland Barthes would say, where the reader is “no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text.” And as such it is a book that invents itself anew with each reader and with each subsequent reading.
A literary polymath, Olsen has an energy and enthusiasm for literature matched by a staggering output across genres and forms, which include ten acclaimed novels including, most recently, Nietzsche’s Kisses (FC2, 2006) and Anxious Pleasures: A Novel After Kafka (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2007), four critical studies, four short-story collections, a poetry chapbook, a textbook about fiction writing, and a hypermedia text. He has edited two collections of essays about innovative contemporary fiction. His short stories, essays, poems, and reviews have appeared in numerous journals, magazines, and anthologies. He’s also the winner of many awards including an NEA Fellowship and Pushcart Prize, and his work been translated into Italian, Polish, Turkish, and Finnish.
Olsen currently serves as the chair of the Board of Directors of FC2. He and his wife, assemblage-artist Andi Olsen, divide their time between the environs of central Idaho and Salt Lake City.
John Madera: Contextualizing Head in Flames and thinking about its layering, its collage elements, and its polyvocality, several things came to my mind: Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, Mary Caponegro’s collage pieces in Five Doubts . . . what inspired the novel’s construction? Did it emerge in the process of writing and researching the book’s historical elements?
Lance Olsen: I’d been reading, thinking about, and teaching collage around the time the premise for Head in Flames arrived. I stumbled across an observation by Robert Motherwell (“Collage is the 20th century’s greatest innovation”) and one by Donald Barthelme (“The principle of collage is the central principle of all art in the 20th century”) that wouldn’t leave me alone. I was and am intrigued by how collage is the quintessential mode of juxtaposition and the non-sequitur; how, in a sense, it represents the limit case of quotation, of pla(y)giarism (to plagiarize Raymond Federman’s term), but how it cuts up and cuts off what it’s quoting, and by doing so releases new meanings and contexts that can and do surprise author as well as reader.
At the same time, I was reading, thinking about, and teaching a lot of hypermedia work, which is often collage in essence, if in digital form, as well as print novels that use the structuring principle of collage at different strata: Joyce’s Ulysses, Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School, Barthelme’s Snow White, Eduardo Galeano’s Book of Embraces, Carole Maso’s Ava, David Markson’s The Last Novel.
When I became interested in the relationship between Theo van Gogh’s 2004 murder at the hands of Mohammed Bouyeri, and Vincent van Gogh’s 1890 suicide, the consonances and dissonances, and began to wonder what narrative architecture might bring together such radically different consciousnesses, perspectives, and time periods in a single text while actively refusing to privilege any—well, collage appeared as the obvious answer.
I didn’t write each voice (Vincent’s, Theo’s, Mohammed’s) separately and then interlace them. Rather, the collage, once set in motion, grew organically, barnacles on a wreck.
JM: When I think of collage in the visual arts or in music, I think more of overlap and mixture, where the edges of the disparate elements are blurred. In Head in Flames, as well as in some of the print novels you mention above, the disparate elements are usually placed, as you’ve described, in juxtaposition, rather than overlap and mixture. In other words, unless the typography itself is dealt with visually—that is, overlapped, inserted, interwoven—then the collage element isn’t necessarily experienced in a visual way. So then, what are the “different strata” you see of literary collage? What are the particular ways that Head in Flames uses collage? And how does the reader of your novel (and works like it) put it all together?
LO: My sense is the notion of collage can be used literally or it can be used metaphorically in fiction composition. That is, collage fiction can be deeply, actively appropriative in nature, cutting up previous texts to create new ones at the level of phrase, or even word, as in, say, the work of Eliot (think of The Waste Land) and William Burroughs (think of his cut-up technique). This impulse stays very close to the original French root of the word: coller, i.e., to paste, to glue. But it can also be used simply as a structuring principle—not only as a juxtapositional combination of ready-mades, then, but of just-mades, as in, say, the work of Milorad Pavic or Julio Cortázar.
Just as there are many modes of realism, there are also many modes of collage fiction. If we imagine a narratological continuum of textual possibilities, we discover at one end scholarly works with their will toward intellectual authority through citation—footnotes, endnotes, and scholarly quotation are, if you think about it, a strange form of appropriation, of cutting up and off, and of rearranging that developed in the seventeenth century.
Near the middle of our continuum are particulate fictions that assume but don’t require a reading strategy that arcs from beginning to end. Here I’m thinking of a short story such as Robert Coover’s “The Baby Sitter,” with its interlacing of multiple suburban realities in brief prose blocks that can be—but needn’t be, and usually aren’t—read in multiple orders, or Joe Wenderoth’s epistolary novel, Letters to Wendy’s, in which a deliciously unstable narrator composes a series of easily interchangeable prose-poem missives to the fast food chain. Farther on the continuum appear books that employ both text and graphics in collaged arrangements, like Kathy Acker’s avant-punk Blood and Guts in High School.
Beyond these are books like Max Ernst’s The Hundred Headless Woman that employ no or virtually no text whatever, and, at the far end of our continuum, we discover bookless do-it-yourself collage texts like Marc Saporta’s Composition #1 that arrives as a bundle of loose pages in a box along with instructions to shuffle and read, or web-based hypermedial compositions requiring a reading strategy uninterested in or even antagonistic to notions of beginning, middle, and end.
All these modes share, to one degree or another, a belief in the musicality of creative disjunction. In my mind, Head in Flames works as a collage both within each voice, as you say, in the sense that each voice appropriates and rearranges other texts (interviews, web posts, etc.), and works as a collage in the sense that the voices are in non-linear conversation with each other. That last point is why there’s a visual element to the text as well. That is, the presentation looks odd on the page because the novel is intent on turning page into collage. And the reader’s role is activated in such a way that she or he is invited to create narratives out of the collaged fragments. Different readers will create different narratives, collage my collages together in different ways.
JM: Head in Flames disrupts a conventional reading—that is, the search for one perspective that leads to a single truth; it opposes linearity, and privileges paradox over orthodoxy, and traditional ideas of coherence. What motivates your desire to create a “narrative architecture” that “bring[s] together such radically different consciousnesses, perspectives, and time periods in a single text while actively refusing to privilege any”? Is there a political dimension that informs this approach?
LO: Bakhtin talks about monologic, authoritative discourse, such as religious or political dogma, that demands what he calls “unconditional allegiance.” What’s wonderful about the novel as a form is that it’s polyphonic by nature, in that within any example of it live multiple voices, multiple points of view of the world. In the novels I’m most fond of, that drive toward hybrid utterance is radicalized, carried to various limit situations. Such hybridization, or polyphony, reminds us at a structural level that multiplicity is the human condition—that authoritative discourse exists to be set against myriad other discourses, and thus subverted. So, yes, there’s a deep political dimension at work that’s suggested by form itself.
JM: Considering that this work takes for granted the idea of parallel universes, or at least suggests a kind of simultaneity of experience across space and time, some readers might describe Head in Flames as speculative fiction. How do you feel about such a description? And how do you feel about genre categories in general?
LO: I hadn’t thought about Head in Flames in terms of speculative fiction until you mentioned it, but that makes good sense, so long as we agree to associate the term not with conventional science fiction, but with the deliberately defamiliarizing writing of someone like Borges or Delany, or a Beckett novel like The Unnamable or How It Is—innovative fiction that doesn’t foreground SF tropes so much as take a certain amount of unhinged reality for granted. I could also conceive of affiliations between Head in Flames and what in 1989 Bruce Sterling defined as slipstream—the kind of writing which “simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the twentieth century makes you feel,” or, presumably, the twenty-first, only more so.
Yet I’m probably most comfortable conceptualizing Head in Flames as a post-genre text, or perhaps one that inhabits the blur-space among several genres at once. It has qualities that align it with the novel (something like a plot, disrupted as it is; something like characters, despite them coalescing on the page quite differently from the way conventional characters might coalesce) and with poetry (its language and look share many more attributes with what we think about when we say “poetry” than with what we think about when we say “narrative”—although, if you asked me for the difference between the two, I wouldn’t be able to tell you; I used to know it, but I don’t anymore). The novel’s repetitions and rhythm, its leitmotifs and refrains, however, have most to do with music, at least for me. It’s concerned, too, with the materiality of the page, how texts matter, and in that way you can see it thinking continuously about its relationship to book art.
As we said, it’s also a network of quotations, half-quotations, memories, and faux observations, so it converses with collage. Too, it’s a kind of documentary. Since part of the text is an appropriation and manipulation of the experimental short for which Theo was murdered (the film is titled Submission, a translation of the Arabic word Islam), and since Head in Flames is strongly visual in nature, the novel is also in dialogue with film—particularly with film’s technique of montage, or collage in motion.
JM: “Post-genre” as you’re using it here sounds synonymous with another term being used these days: interstitial fiction.
LO: Either term is nicely suggestive. We’ve been witnessing at the creative peripheries of our culture the proliferation of a post-genre or interstitial composition that questions the need for discussing such apparently singular species as, say, science fiction and postmodernism, narrative and poem. We’re also witnessing the proliferation of a post-critical or interstitial writing that questions the need for discriminating between such apparently singular species as theory and fiction. This stuff fascinates me. And at the heart of these modes is, once again, a collage imagination committed to liberating fusion and confusion, cyborg scripts, centaur texts, narratologically amphibious writings that embrace a poetics of beautiful monstrosity.
JM: I’d like to hear more about the novel’s dialogue with film. Also, in regards to experimentation, who are some of your favorite filmmakers? Favorite films?
LO: The main film the novel’s in dialogue with, as I say, both structurally and in terms of thematics, is the one Mohammed Bouyeri killed Theo van Gogh for making. It’s ten minutes long, and was written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a controversial Dutch politician who herself fled from Kenya to the Netherlands to escape an arranged marriage and various sorts of abuse, both physical and psychological. Theo produced Submission. It was shown only once before Theo’s murder: on the Dutch public broadcasting network on 29 August, 2004. In it, four Muslim women (all, interestingly, played by the same actor) recite their narratives of mistreatment at the hands of Muslim men in the name of Islam. Although they wear veils, the women are clad in diaphanous chadors, and across their naked, bruised, and sometimes bleeding bodies are written lines from the Koran advocating the subjugation of women. In Head in Flames, I quote liberally from the text of the film, putting parts of it in Mohammed’s mind, parts in Theo’s.
While Submission is a politically crucial film, it’s not a particularly strong one aesthetically, I’m afraid. In fact, it’s flawed in a number of ways. But, of course, that’s not the point. The point is Ayaan and Theo had a right to make it, a right to critique the ideology advocating the subjugation and mistreatment of women, and no one had a right to send the former into hiding and murder the latter.
But the sorts of films and filmmakers I love? Oh, goodness, where to begin? Among my favorite directors are David Lynch, Werner Herzog, Terry Gilliam, Stanley Kubrick. Among my favorite films are Lost Highway, Aguirre: Wrath of God, Brazil, 2001, and Blade Runner. In terms of smaller, more intensely experimental filmmakers, I can’t get enough of Robert Smithson, David Blair, Bruce Nauman, Douglas Gordon, and, especially, Martin Arnold.
JM: In Head in Flames, you captured Vincent van Gogh’s acute yearning and melancholy, his incredible sensitivity, his profound awareness of his surroundings that can be found both in his paintings and in his letters to his brother Theo. When did you first discover van Gogh’s art? Why are his art and his life significant to you? And what brought you to examine his biography, or, rather, this particular fragment of his biography?
LO: My mother used to teach humanities to nurses at Englewood Nursing School in northern New Jersey, where I mostly grew up. When I was nine or ten, she started sharing some of her art history lectures with me. I was intuitively taken with the modernists, including van Gogh. About a half mile away from our house you could catch the 165 bus right into the Port Authority terminal in New York for, I believe, sixty-five cents. I began riding it when I was thirteen or so, and spent hours in MoMA and the Met, where all sorts of van Goghs live.
I adored his brash brushstrokes and colors, like everyone else, but, more, I adored how he transformed the world into a manifestation of his psyche. That is, his paintings took completely common moments—a late night in a shabby café in Arles—and translated them into spaces of radical anxiety through their use of complementary colors, foreshortening, and even the placement of weird painterly vibration lines around light bulbs that were all about, not the universe, but the universe Vincentized. If the early and mid-19th-century realist mode in the arts wanted to be a photograph, then the late 19th- and early 20th-century modernist mode wanted to be an x-ray.
When I heard about and began following the aftermath of his brother’s great grandson Theo’s assassination, I was transported back to Vincent for the first time in ages. Vincent, Theo, and Mohammed Bouyeri each considered himself an artist of a kind, yet each held a radical and radically different view of what art was, why it was, how it functioned and should function. If, to simplify, Theo for me represents art as political critique, and Mohammed art as monologic polemic, then Vincent represents art as existential and aesthetic exploration.
JM: Besides distinguishing the three voices in Head in Flames by their font, you also use different rhetorical styles for each character. Vincent’s is written in first-person point of view (with some shifts to the third) in a lush, lyrical style. He has a synesthethic appreciation of colors; “You can experience colors by their textures, smells, sounds,” he reflects, and thus regards the world with intense appreciation:
Afternoon sunshining in my chest. The high yellow note swarming. How the dusty heat sparkles the atmosphere with flecks of light.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
If you could see the olives groves just now—the leaves, old silver gathering into green against the blue sky and the orange plowed earth—you would know there was no such thing as I.
Theo van Gogh’s sections are rendered in a brusque third-person perspective. In contrast to his great granduncle, and in spite of acknowledging that “looking is not as simple as it looks” (a statement Vincent later in the novel quotes Pissarro as saying), Theo regards the world with a practiced disdain:
I’m deeply religious, Theo explaining to one of his devout guests. I worship a pig. His name is Allah. Do you know him?
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
I am a farce to be reckoned with, Theo told her.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
The duckshit green pond fringed with tall grasses worming through the park.
(Interestingly, Vincent also uses “duckshit green” (to describe a riverbank), but in the context of wanting to “live more musically.”)
And Mohammed Bouyeri’s fragments are written in a kind of stream of consciousness where standard syntax is often dropped and, where, because of its limited use of punctuation, thoughts collide into each other.
So, how did you come to decide on the voice for each character’s sections?
LO: The voices suggested themselves to me as I read Vincent’s letters, statements by Theo that appeared in various media (he had his own TV show, and a website called—very Theoesquely—The Healthy Smoker), and trial transcripts and the poem and five-page letter Mohammed left with Theo’s body (the latter stuck into the filmmaker’s chest with a large kitchen knife). Those shards suggested certain rhythms, dictions, obsessions, shadings, metaphors, syntax—all the things that make somebody’s language their own. While on occasion I quote verbatim, most of what developed as I went along was a mixture of slant quotes (what I think of as the equivalent of slant rhymes) and a faintly more insistent form of voice for each character than was present in the original: perhaps something like a concentrated version of each man’s style of communicating in the world.
The font choices you mention were an extension of those voices. Composing, I became interested in how font itself influences how we read, how we think of the text before us, how we (usually unconsciously) process it. I suppose for me there’s some—here’s that word again—odd synesthesia at play. Early on in the writing process, my imagination came to associate a gentle, graceful Times font with Vincent van Gogh. The brash bold version of that font seemed quintessentially Theo. And a font from an entirely different dimension—elementary, brutal, even—felt right for Mohammed: a Courier for the courier delivering a message that the western world doesn’t want to listen to; you can’t see that font, I don’t think, without hearing the loud, unsettling clacks of a manual typewriter.
JM: After reading Head in Flames, I thought about how experimental modes are sometimes discarded because they are no longer considered innovative. I’m thinking that while it’s important to find innovative structures and forms, it’s also important to reinforce and repeat forms, to develop traditions within the experimental mode. In this sense, experimentation and tradition may not always be in opposition. What are your thoughts about this?
LO: It’s a remarkably difficult issue. Essentially, we’re discussing how one might define “innovative,” “experimental,” “avant-garde,” and how that idea, whatever we choose to call it, exists in history—both public and private. I think of the sort of fiction we’re discussing as that which asks the questions: What is fiction? What can it do? How? Why? And I think we know it by realizing we are standing before something we can’t quite figure out how to talk about—standing before something that asks us to develop a new language to converse about it. In other words, in some profound way, the “innovative,” “experimental,” or whatever troubled and troubling word we’d like to use to refer to it, invites us to return to the awe we had as children before something utterly new and strange, and invites us to learn how to see and think and speak again.
The problem, though, is that what feels “innovative” for one person doesn’t feel innovative for another. And what feels “innovative” to us at one point in our lives might not feel “innovative” at another. And, more complex still, what feels “innovative” at one moment in our culture (1922, say) might not feel “innovative” at another (2011, say).
So the relationship between experimentation and tradition is a hideously complicated affair. The only thing we can be sure of is that one can’t claim to be “experimental” without a strong sense of tradition against which one is creating. Otherwise, chances are one will unconsciously just reinvent the wheel over and over again. Still, that assumes we can in fact define the idea of tradition in any meaningful way, and the problem there is that the notion of “tradition” itself is a slippery one.
Of course, contemplating these things is precisely what makes engaging the “innovative” so exciting.
JM: On your website you have a page devoted to some of your favorite quotations, and in this interview you’ve quoted some provocative thoughts from various thinkers. What’s the value for you of these cogent statements? And can you talk some more about “half-quotes” and “slant-quotes”? About how collage “represents the limit case of quotation”? How and when did this become an element in your fiction?
LO: I’m drawn to the concentrated, epigrammatic power of a rich quotation, how the rest of the world seems suddenly to reorganize itself around one. Or, to quote Nietzsche on the matter: “It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what other men say in whole books—what other men do not say in whole books.” That’s the effect quotations have on me: they’re insight-compressions. But I also like misbehaving with them, and hence the notion of the half-quote or slant-quote. Each element in a collage is a kind of quotation, either visual or verbal, but each usually exists so far away from its original context that it becomes disoriented, reoriented, almost not itself, and hence becomes a kind of limit case—in opposition, for instance, to the scholarly use of quotation, which is excessively concerned with getting the original passage and context right, using it as a mark of stability, mastery. Within my own fiction (and, I suspect, most other writers’ fiction), others’ words have always swum around: song lyrics, half a line from a poem or writer I adore, you name it, in order to wave across the tops of my characters’ heads to other authors whom I admire—a series of inside jokes. But it was probably with Girl Imagined by Chance back in 2002 that I started actively to use quotation as part of the fiction’s very texture and meaning, started to become increasingly self-conscious about how and why I employed quotation, what quotation is and how it functions.
JM: Mohammed Bouyeri, Theo’s murderer, is troubled by language, and how action, or rather physical violence, is more powerful than language. He states:
Because language can do anything that’s the danger not the other way around you have to be careful with it. . . . Because it isn’t what comes out of your mouth that gathers but the weight inside your fist. . . . You don’t need words to raise it. . . . You don’t need words to bring His tongue down upon the faithless. . . . You don’t need words to teach. . . .
Is this difficulty with language one of the sources of his prejudice, his violence? What is it about language that Bouyeri fears? And what do you think are the attributes of language?
LO: Mohammed is a space of dazzling confliction. He fancied himself a poet and polemicist, yet was suspicious of how western culture manipulated language against fundamentalist Islam and, during Theo’s murder, refused language while using language to get his point across. He was Dutch, born and raised in the Netherlands, and throughout his teen years drank, smoked pot, listened to pop music, partied, and wore western clothes, yet after 9/11 became increasingly radicalized, grew a beard, began wearing a djellaba, came to believe in the segregation of men and women, came under the crazy sway of Samir Azzouz, and with him helped form a terrorist cell called the Hofstad Network. When he returned to Morocco once to visit his ancestral home, he ended up feeling intensely alienated because he couldn’t speak the language, couldn’t communicate with his own relatives, his own past.
For me, he’s emblematic of religion’s increasingly dangerous and dominant role as engine of politics and passion, as well as of the involvedness of foreignness and assimilation. Mohammed is a territory of inbetweenness that rejects a language of inbetweenness. Rather, he adopted an absolutist discourse that denied the possibility of competing discourses, refused to acknowledge the range of competing worldviews the presence of those discourses suggest. To that extent he participates in an act of doctrinaire silencing. After Theo’s murder, which the Netherlands viewed as its own 9/11 in miniature, the Dutch, whose default mode of argument is conversation and compromise (illuminatingly—and chillingly—Theo’s last words to Mohammed before being shot eight times, nearly beheaded, and stabbed in the chest were: “Can’t we talk about this?”), saw the incident as a crisis of the Enlightenment tradition of secular reason that their culture champions.
My own sense of language and its use isn’t that far away from Jean-François Lyotard’s, which he appropriated from Wittgenstein and slightly re-imagined in his larger definition of the postmodern as the concomitant collapse of metanarratives and proliferation of micronarratives. In the absence of metanarratives, we must become alert to difference, to diversity, to the absolute incompatibility of our beliefs and desires with those of others. When we converse with someone else, we enter into a network of language games, always-already aware of the multiplicity of communities of meaning, the innumerable and incommensurable separate systems in which meanings are produced and rules for their circulation created. One might argue that such relativism gives the lie to the possibility of an ethics, but for Lyotard “injustice” comes to mean the imposition of one set of language games on another. Ethical behavior amounts to allowing multiple language games to be played, keeping the conversation going. Murder, needless to say, is unethical precisely because it violently terminates the possibility of language, the possibility of play, the possibility of conversation that is and should be unresolvable.
JM: Another significant aspect in Head in Flames is its wordplay, your extensive use/creation of compound words. Vincent takes delight in an old one: “Dayspring: a complete melody in a single word.” You created a number of your own here including: “funnygassedly,” “goneness, “joyjig,” “yelloworange,” “lung-tensingly,” “nightblur,” “suckerfish,” “duckshit,” “bluegray,” “windsucked,” “grayblackwhite,” and “footblur.” In addition, you’ve created blends like “moanage” and “cloudage.” And you’ve also turned nouns into gerunds by adding the suffix -ing: “possuming,” “tummying,” “nostalgiaing,” “doggystyling,” “graping,” “leoparding,” pigeoning, “tinseling,” and “bumblebeeing.” All of this suggests music, and a desire to capture the speed of consciousness, the way the mind compresses things. What is the motivation behind creating these compounds, blends, and other wordplay?
LO: I like really that—both the notion of music and of trying to capture the speed of consciousness. Too, I suppose I simply love words, am continually awed by what they can do. I’m smitten with stylists who nest a surprise in every sentence: Donald Barthelme, Ben Marcus, Shelley Jackson, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein. Viktor Shklovsky talks about the purpose of art being to defamiliarize perception so that we may experience experience, language, the moment of aesthetics, and the things of the world anew. Thickening and torquing language does just that; I’m reminded of how the word for poem in German—Gedicht—comes from the verb dichten, meaning to thicken.
I was also trying to echo the Dutch language’s impulse to neologize (like German) by compounding words, while finding a linguistic equivalent for van Gogh’s wild emphasis on each brush stroke.
JM: Let’s talk about your book’s title. At one point, Vincent becomes a literal manifestation of it: “To paint outside in the dark, Monsieur Vincent has rigged a hat rimmed with candles. His burning crown, he calls it.” And later: “In his hat rimmed with shivering candles, Monsieur Vincent looks like nothing so much as a flaming sunflower in the night.” Throughout the novel, Theo’s head burns with indignation about religious intolerance. And, after he’s shot by Bouyeri, a woman reports: “it appeared as if Theo were trying to shoo away flies from his wild blond head.” Finally, Bouyeri is himself a hothead—his mind burns with hatred, prejudice, and bitterness, as well as his own confusion. So what made you decide on this title? Were there any other considerations?
LO: You nailed it exactly. At the end of the day, my sense is that Head in Flames wants less to be about horrific action than about the rhythms of minds at the edge of delirium. Fiction can do at least two things that film can’t: produce rich language and rich consciousness. If novels don’t engage fully with language and consciousness, they might as well be rough drafts for screenplays or pieces of dreary journalism. I cherish how fiction allows us to inhabit the slips, stutters, and light bends of someone’s thoughts, sometimes for weeks on end, and usually someone whose thoughts (think Humbert Humbert’s, Raskolnikov’s, the Handmaid’s) are at odds with our own ethically, culturally, existentially. Fiction, not nonfiction, I’ve always thought, is the ultimate travel literature.
As I’m working on a project, I usually keep a list of title possibilities. I did the same here, but for the life of me I can’t remember any of the other choices. Once this one came to me, the others dissolved behind my back.
JM: Head in Flames examines the ways in which fanaticism breeds violence. Theo critiques religion throughout the text: “Fundamentalism in all its forms—Christian, Jewish, Muslim: the socially sanctioned excuse to abandon all humor.” He quotes physicist Steven Weinberg: “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” What are your thoughts on God and religion?
LO: I’m with Nietzsche: “In heaven all the interesting people are missing.” And I’m with William Frederick Kohler, William Gass’s narrator of The Tunnel, who points out that political parties exist to institutionalize human weakness, although for me the same is the case in spades with organized religion. I wish I could sound more charitable, but I despise it in all its forms, especially in its most fundamentalist ones. In all instances, belief replaces thought, monologic discourse replaces polyphony, hierarchy replaces carnival, goal replaces process.
At the risk of stating the obvious, even clichéd, more people have suffered and died in the zany names of assorted fairytales about our invisible friend above than by any other means save pure plain pestilence.
JM: Would you talk some more about your political beliefs?
LO: I’m not sure I can do that in any meaningful way in the space we have here, except, by way of shorthand, to restate Lyotard’s notions on language gaming above and to quote Ronald Sukenick: “If you don’t use your own imagination, somebody else is going to use it for you.”
JM: In an interview at Splice Today, Steven Moore says,“fiction is finally a more trustworthy guide to life than sacred texts.” In the introduction to his forthcoming book The Novel: An Alternative History he elaborates:
I would argue further that this should be the lifelong goal of every intelligent person: to see through the polite lies promulgated by political, corporate, media, and religious entities, the often irrational customs, beliefs, and prejudices of one’s social group . . . to arrive at a clear understanding of the true nature of things. This is why the novel is invaluable, for more than any art form it encourages and assists us on that goal. Traditionally, the sacred scriptures of various cultures have claimed the prerogative, but they are merely fictions of a different sort—giving a false view of the world and promoting repression—inferior to the “secular scriptures” of imaginative literature.
What do you think is the value of the novel in contemporary society? Do you think that it has usurped the authority of the “sacred” texts, that it can penetrate through the curtains of lies, that it can bring readers to “a clear understanding of the true nature of things”?
LO: I agree up to a point, but can’t give myself over to fuzzy ideas like “the true nature of things,” since I’m simply clueless about what constitutes the “true,” let alone “the natural.” Assume you know what such words mean, and off you go establishing another kind of religion, another kind of belief system. Rather, for me the function of literature, as Roland Barthes once said, is to provide the questions without the answers. That’s what the novel does best: it’s a tool to help us think and feel in complex ways, to challenge preconceived notions, fundamental assumptions, to help us become ourselves.
I hope it goes without saying I’m referring to novels which are art rather than entertainment, and there are fewer and fewer of those around these days in a culture where even bestsellers exist in a secondary position to films, iPods, and Xboxes. One difference between art and entertainment has to do with the speed of perception. Art deliberately slows and complicates reading, hearing, and/or viewing so that you’re challenged to re-imagine and re-feel form and experience. Entertainment deliberately accelerates and simplifies them so you don’t have to think about or feel very much of anything at all except, perhaps, the adrenalin rush before dazzling spectacle. Although, obviously, there can be myriad gradations between the former and latter, in their starkest articulation we’re talking about the distance between David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol; between David Lynch’s Lost Highway and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
Another way of saying this, to return to Shklovsky and his wonderful seminal 1916 essay, “Art as Technique,” is that art’s aim “is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception.” Through difficulty, through impeded progress (rather than through predictability and velocity), art offers us a continuous return to apprehension and thought.
JM: You’ve written: “We can’t escape narrativity (for me, every sentence is a narraticule), how we (dis)order our lives, and, thus, how we (dis)order our syntax and the syntax called our stories. The only question for me is always: what form will the (dis)ordering take, and why?” Would you provide a formal definition of “narraticule,” and then elaborate on its importance to your fiction in general, especially in regards to Head in Flames?
LO: Most people conceive of narratives in terms of large architectonics—you know, one speaks of the narrative structure of a novel, the long narrative poem, the narrative arc of a short story, and so forth. What I’m trying to get at with the word “narraticule” is the idea that narratives exist, too, at a micro-level: the sentence, even the phrase. It’s possible a single word (“ravaged,” for example, or “loved”) can suggest a narrative, if not enact one. In Head in Flames I was interested in trying to work primarily at that micro-level, attempting to turn each sentence or small group of phrases into atomic fictions—or, maybe better, for the purposes of my novel, quantum fictions. And I was interested in attempting to disrupt those sentence- or phrase-fictions (Barthelme referred to his own as “back-broke,” which I adore), experiment with their language and shape and adjacency in order to investigate how fictions happen and interact.
JM: Tell us what you mean by structural (dis)ordering—how it is present in our lives, and the ways you are investigating that in your writing.
LO: Existence comes to us in bright, disconnected splinters of experience. We then narrativize those splinters so our lives feel as if they have meaning—as if they possess things like beginnings, middles, and ends. It’s interesting to note in this context that the word “narrative” is ultimately derived, through the Latin narrare, from the Proto-Indo-European root gnō-, which comes into our language as the verb to know. At some deep stratum, then, we conceptualize narrative as a means of understanding, a means of creating cosmos out of chaos.
What I’m suggesting, however, is that meaning carries meaning, but structuration carries meaning as well. That is, the way we shape (or, more engaging for me, misshape) our narratives means. In a sense, every narrative’s form is a politics. “Our satisfaction with the completeness of plot,” Fredric Jameson noted, is “a kind of satisfaction with society as well.” I’d say much the same is the case with our satisfaction with undemanding style, character construction, subject matter, and so on.
What I’m doing, or trying to do, is rethink structuration in ways that allow us to contemplate how narrative works, and, I hope (although admittedly I remain an optimist), in ways that invite us to contemplate how we might challenge those narratives repeated by government, the entertainment industry, religion, and academia so often we actually begin to assume they must represent something like the “truth.”
By innovating narrative, writers are thereby suggesting that the text of the text and therefore the script of our lives can always be other than they are.
JM: Some of my favorite writers have been influenced by literary theory, philosophy, psychology, etc. For instance, Samuel Delany has extensively engaged paraliterary genres, comparative literature, and queer theory. Brian Evenson has drawn on the work of Deleuze and Guattari, Alphonso Lingis, and Thomas Metzinger, among others. And besides his powerful fiction, William Gass is a highly regarded literary critic, and his own deeply conceptualized philosophy of being and meaning has informed his fictions. I know that you have been inspired by Shklovsky, Debord, Lyotard, Aarseth, Barthes, Heidegger, Cixous, Bakhtin, and others. How has your study of literary theory informed/influenced your writing?
LO: I regularly teach courses on narrative theory and practice, the theory of the avant-garde, and the history of theory (with emphasis on Nietzsche forward), and I’ve read consistently in theory since my late undergraduate days. I couldn’t be the writer I am, for better or worse, without it. Confronting theory seriously works a lot like confronting knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Once you’ve done so, you can never look at yourself or the universe quite the same again. To realize that being conscious is always-already to be theorizing is an extraordinarily productive, if unnerving, instant in life. In a sense, you’re banished from a state of innocence. You can hear the flaming sword whoosh down behind you.
The sort of writing that most attracts me these days, and has most appealed to me for the last twenty or thirty years, is the sort that evinces, subtly or not, a rich awareness of philosophy and theory, a rich conversation with their ideas. I’m thinking of writers as varied as Calvino and Pavic, Beckett and Ronald Sukenick, Mark Danielewksi and Stephanie Strickland, Kathy Acker and Carole Maso. And, like you, I almost always find Delany’s, Evenson’s, and Gass’s fictions (and nonfictions) fascinating. Although wildly diverse, what these authors share is an allegiance to—to borrow another of Federman’s terms—critifiction: narrative that inhabits a “both/and” space between what we used to call theory and used to call story.
From my novel Girl Imagined by Chance on, that critifictional impulse has dogged me, and is perhaps particularly ascendant in Anxious Pleasures, a retelling of Kafka’s Metamorphosis that fractures the original (which, it turns out, wasn’t strictly original in the first place) into a number of different points of view, some of which masquerade as (and some of which in fact quote) critical/theoretical engagements with Kafka’s text. The idea in certain ways was no more complicated than showing a novella that had a huge effect on me that I cared about it.
Currently I’m working on a novel that in good part is infused with earthwork artist Robert Smithson’s theoretical writings about “entropology,” a neologism Smithson borrowed from Claude Lévi-Strauss that holds within it both the words entropy and anthropology. Entropology, Lévi-Strauss asserts in World on Wane, “should be the word for the discipline that devotes itself to the study of [the] process of disintegration in its most highly evolved forms.” For Smithson, entropology embodied “structures in a state of disintegration”—but not in a negative sense, not with a sense of sadness and loss. Rather, for him entropology embodied the astonishing beauty inherent in the process of wearing down, of wearing out, of undoing, of continuous de-creative metamorphosis at the level, not only of geology and thermodynamics, but also of civilizations, and, ultimately, of the individuals within them—like you, like me.
JM: Please talk about the value of collaborative work, in general, and then about your various collaborations, particularly your recent projects with assemblage artist Andi Olsen.
LO: Collaboration is the basic mode of most writing, most creation, although our culture usually likes to repress that fact by embracing the Romantic myth of the solitary artist creating in the solitary room. All published stories and novels are collaborative enterprises that involve author, editor or editors, publisher, printer, reviewers, teachers, critics, people who set up reading series, you name it.
I think of those involved in a self-conscious way in this ecology, especially when its goal is to produce innovative writing (writing, i.e., that isn’t concerned with keeping the economic machine running) as literary activists—people like Lidia Yuknavitch at Chiasmus Press, Ted Pelton at Starcherone, Steve Gillis at Dzanc. They’re my heroes. If it’s the case that the early twenty-first century is the worst of times for American fiction because of the market pressures that favor novels and short story collections that want to be films when they grow up, it’s also the best of times because of these sorts of people and presses—who and which, I’m happy to report, are proliferating. Competition in their universe has been replaced with collaboration. Corporate paradigms have been replaced with collective ones.
By way of example, FC2’s story, which now forms part of our culture’s past, points as well to one future of American publishing by offering a successful model based on alliance and partnership, a production paradigm run by and for authors, the idea that it is less important to make a profit than it is to disseminate significant experimental work. The result is to remind ourselves with every book printed that there are exciting options that stand against the commercial milieu’s structuring, functioning, and ambitions.
I’m also aware that simply putting pen to paper, or fingertips to keyboard, is to collaborate, to enter an intricate conversation across time and space with other authors. Or, as Barthes understood it, every text is “a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.” Every act of writing is either a conscious or unconscious act of pla(y)giarism. In novels like Anxious Pleasures and Head in Flames, I’ve wanted to bring that awareness to the surface, to think about it.
From the early ’90s on, my partner Andi and I have collaborated on text-image collages. Right now we’re working on a series of fake diseases for her ongoing installation called Freak Show. Once we began working together, the idea of the page lost its invisibility for me. It became real, part of the authorship of any text. Andi and I have collaborated recently on an entire text-image collage chapter in my next novel, Calendar of Regrets. One of the many things I love about working with her (and this is essential to any collaborative endeavor) is that something always results that neither one us could ever have envisioned at the starting gate. The sum is continuously more interesting and surprising and freeing than the parts.
JM: One of the excerpts I’ve read from Calendar of Regrets focuses on the painter Hieronymus Bosch, and the language in that piece is reminiscent of the style used for the Vincent sections of Head in Flames—heightened sense of color, lyricism, and emotional intensity, albeit darkly transmuted. Also, I may be seeing things, but in one evocative passage I’ve discovered that Bosch’s own head may be in flames: vivid colors for Bosch are the “only exotic municipalities a man need visit during his delay on earth, so long as he pays attention, keeps his inner eyes open, learns to listen to himself, which is to say to the noise light makes within your head.” In another excerpt, Iphigenia, legendary daughter of Agamemnon, imagines the underworld where “bodies extend across the wasteland to the blank horizon” and a “pyramid of smoke-wisped heads.” Alas, I haven’t found a flaming head in the third excerpt, the one about the pirate podcaster.
LO: Calendar of Regrets, which will appear this fall from FC2, is the first of my novels to come to me, not by way of character or plot or thematics, but as shape. It takes the form of twelve interconnected narratives, one for each month of the year, all having to do with notions of travel—through time, through space, through narrative, and (possibly) through death itself.
For the first half, each of the first eleven narratives breaks off midway through, at which point the next narrative commences. Each in some way grows out of the one before it, and so forms a story within a story; narrative number 1, for example, ends with a character experiencing a vision that becomes the pith of narrative number 2. At the heart of the novel exists a twelfth narrative in toto. For the second half of the text, each of the first eleven narratives will conclude inconclusively, but in reverse order. Thus, the sequence of narratives looks like this: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. And hence the idea of it appearing to me as shape rather than some other way.
In addition to Bosch, Iphigenia, and the podcaster, Dan Rather makes an appearance, as does a middle-aged schoolteacher who makes porn videos and mails them to strangers around the country in order to wake them up existentially, a husband-and-wife team of fundamentalist Christian suicide bombers, a fairytale about a boy born as a notebook, and others—all of whose stories come to approximate a Boschian polyptych, but may also be read as a record of Bosch’s tumbling visions on the day in 1516 he died, or nearly did . . . the historical record is anything but clear.
Each of the novel’s narratives is connected to the next, not through plot events, but rather through a musical structure of recurring metaphors and images, transpositions of the same scenes and/or phrases, and temporally transmuted characters. The result, I hope, is a multiple narrative about narrativity itself, the human obsession with trying to make sense through story-telling, how we tell ourselves and our worlds again and again in an attempt to stabilize a truth that, as Nabokov once said, as I keep claiming here, should only exist, if at all, within quotation marks.
JM: In his famed essay “Writing: Can It Be Taught?” John Barth concluded: “Do not despair; do not presume. It can be learned, by the able; it can be studied, by everybody and his brother; it can even (you know what I mean) be taught, even in school.” You have taught writing and literature for many years. What are your thoughts about teaching writing? And writing programs? Would you talk about your pedagogical style, your relationship to the academy, and how teaching has impacted your writing and life as a writer?
LO: It’s pretty easy, unfortunately, to write a merely competent piece of fiction—the kind cranked out in most of the 350-or-so creative writing programs across the U.S.: so-called well-crafted domestic realism, usually, where character is plump and Freudian, style transparent, plot pleasantly arced, and adversity always gives way to moments of human connection and insight. My own approach to teaching writing is to short-circuit that mode, invite my students to conceive of fiction as a possibility space where everything can and should be imagined, attempted, questioned—in workshops that are the opposite of therapy sessions. Along with that, I urge my students to take chances, urge them to realize that it’s only at the brink of failure that invigorating breakthroughs occur. I ask them always to keep in mind Beckett’s well-known assertion in Westward Ho: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
At their best, I think, creative writing programs can be special places of mutual support, mutual challenge, and personal growth by means of exposure to a multiplicity of voices and approaches, both “creative” and “theoretical,” both contemporary and historical. (In my workshops, we’re as likely to read theory or a novel or a collection of short stories as we are to discuss student work.) At their worst, creative writing programs can be stultifying assembly lines that produce flat, faded, predictable products in order to fill classrooms, generate money, and make administrators smile. In either case—and perhaps this is their greatest contribution to our culture—they generate careful readers, close readers, at an instant when many literature courses teach how to think in sweeping ideological terms while employing texts in general ways as symptoms or samples of this political position or that.
Creative writing programs usually exist within English departments that exist within some form of Humanities divisions that exist within the larger institution of the college or university that is in ongoing crisis due to recent budget cuts, but, more profoundly, due to the corporatization of higher education. The consequence is smaller numbers of full-time faculty, greater numbers of temporary adjuncts, more work for less pay, overcrowded classrooms, shorter comments on papers and stories, less valuable time spent between professor and individual student, more emphasis on silly national rankings that privilege quantity over quality, more emphasis on “outcomes assessment” (read profitable jobs) rather than education, and a departmental atmosphere shot through with a sense of being continually under the gun, which invariably leads to greater tension and petty squabbles. All of which is to say things are going to get worse before they get worse.
And all of which is also to say my relationship to the academy is clearly fraught at best. The thing that keeps me here now, will probably keep me here for a few years longer, is the extraordinary zone called the classroom. It’s a place that exists nowhere else in our culture, and when a conversation is firing beautifully there—well, for me it gets no better.
JM: The classroom was often a difficult place for me: a zone of competition rather than collaboration, of inculcation rather than dialogue, of hierarchy rather than equality. Most of my thinking of the classroom was informed by Paulo Freire, Augusto Boal, and John Holt, and also by Howard Gardner and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Who or what shaped your pedagogy, your classroom’s structure? And what are and/or would be some ideal learning environments?
LO: My experience of the classroom as an undergraduate and graduate was very much like yours. When writing, I always try to invent the narrative I’d like to read. It’s the same with the classroom. I try to invent the place I would have like to have inhabited as a student. So, oddly, much of my thinking about the classroom is informed by negative example, by thinking around what I experienced. I had professors who literally announced they wouldn’t be entertaining questions from their students, and so my job early on was to imagine ways to do the opposite, to shape our conversations around questions students think up and email me before we meet, so that class can be a conversation they help design and lead, or, as Barthes writes: “We need to substitute for the magisterial [classroom] space of the past (the word delivered by the master from the pulpit above with the audience below, the flock, the sheep, the herd)—a less upright, less Euclidean space where no one, neither teacher nor students, would ever be in his final place.” Beautiful, beautiful. Easier said than done, of course, but an important life project for all who think of themselves as educators.
JM: One last thing, towards the end of Head in Flames, Vincent says, “Take reality by surprise.” What are some suggestions for taking reality by surprise, both in life and in writing?
LO: Back to my comment about mere competence: why settle for the McDonaldization of writing or living, the literary or existential equivalent of Britney Spears’s marshmallow music? Push yourself. Take chances. Remain curious. Remain crazy. Don’t do the same thing twice. Try to fail in interesting ways. Ask yourself: what forms and fictions comprise the realism our culture understands? Don’t rescript yesterday. Always write what you want to read, not what you think others do. Don’t compromise. Realize if you’ve got an answer, chances are you’re not a writer. Realize, along with John Cage, that you shouldn’t be frightened of new ideas; it’s the old ones that should scare you. Realize, along with T. S. Eliot, that only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go. Reach out and support other writers. Realize you write because you don’t know what you think until you do, and then you know it even less. Understand this writing thing isn’t a competition; all of us can win all the time. Think of yourself as part of an oceanic conversation about life and narrative that extends across time and space, and ask yourself where your voice fits in, how you can help other voices be heard. And if you plan to write for fame or fortune, do something else immediately. Seriously.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010