Theories of Forgetting, a novel by Lance Olsen, reviewed by Joe Sacksteder


It’s cliché for reviewers to use the phrase “a _______ experience like no other.” When the experience is a reading experience, what the reviewer usually means is that the plot/characters/setting/language are particularly compelling/unique/distinctive/bold. In other words—if you read good books—an experience like quite a lot of others. But Lance Olsen’s novel Theories of Forgetting reminds us what this compliment could mean if more judiciously applied. Let’s get the obvious over with: when you pick the book up, you’ll notice that it’s difficult to tell which cover is the front cover. Not only the cover, but the spine, the author bio, the “Also by Lance Olsen” list, the title page, the bibliographic information, the dedication, the acknowledgements, and the epigraph are also identical from one cover of the book to—backwards, upside down—the other. Scratch that, the epigraphs are actually two different quotes. Each page of the book proper is split approximately in half. From one direction reads the story of Alana, “a middle-aged filmmaker … struggling to complete a short experimental documentary about Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in the wake of having fallen victim to a Pandemic called The Frost.” From the other direction, Alana’s husband, Hugh, and “his slow disappearance in Jordan while on a trip there both to remember and forget.” This layout leaves the reader with a choose-your-own-reading-adventure. Do you read Alana or Hugh’s story the whole way through, turn the book one hundred eighty degrees and then read the other? As I’m a person who likes to not be confused, that route would have seemed like my default. However, guessing that the book was largely about disorientation, I went against my suspected preference and rotated the book one hundred eighty degrees every page—or every two pages, actually. A meticulous round of eeny-meeny-miny-moe resulted in me reading Alana’s story forward and Hugh’s backward. Theories of Forgetting is perhaps the only book ever written that begs to be read cover-to-cover-to-cover. And I do suggest this method. Although you’ll get some strange looks if you’re reading it in public (insert Polish “rotate page three hundred sixty degrees to read” joke), you’ll find yourself more involved in the page-to-page associative logic and spatial play between the two texts. Compelled by the tension in each story, you’re bound to forget at least a few times which one you’re navigating linearly, which way you’re turning the pages, with the uncanny effect that you will turn back to a page you had previously read. This uncanny effect is further intensified if you’re an annotator. There is a third “story” I haven’t mentioned yet: “marginalia added to Hugh’s section by his daughter, Aila, an art critic living in Berlin.” Your annotations then become a fourth text that greets you by surprise with each mis-turned page, as if your existence as a reader, too, was “in a continual process of forgetting itself” (I know I stole that phrase from somewhere, either Olsen or Smithson, though Google is telling me I’m the first person ever to string these words together …). Yes, this reading tactic will leave you confused, not only because you will only piece (or parse) one story together/apart in retrospect, but because that text will interrupt the forward motion of the other’s linearity. Speaking of the uncanny, Freud’s famous description of E.T.A. Hoffman’s Die Elixiere des Teufels suggests one benefit of this difficulty: “One’s grasp of the story as a whole suffers, though not the impression it makes.” I would rearrange this quote in applying it to Forgetting: “It makes an impression because your grasp of the story suffers.”This interrupted half-knowing is perhaps more representative of how we live our lives; rather than our monologist brains narrating our days, we’re continually barraged by the competing voices of people, advertisements, art, etc. So we do not know ourselves aside from influence, and what we know of most other people is in a kind of continual retrospect. “How was your day today?” rather than “How are you right now, and right now, and right now?”

A teenager could probably think up a similar layout and put it to some kind of excruciatingly superfluous use. In the hands of a writer less skilled than Olsen, the layout might begin to reveal a purpose that transcends gimmick. But, like with all good experimental art, the specific form his experimentation takes for this particular novel is not arbitrary but is forced on him by necessity, by the subject matter and the task itself: how to approach the literary equivalent of walking the Jetty, of realizing that it’s a different work of art from one millisecond to the next, of trying to represent its process of entropy with clumsy, clumsy words. It’s the kind of book that infects you, not only in that it leaves less adventuresome books seeming inadequate, but that it’s difficult to look at a page the same way afterwards. I’m a composition teacher, and the way my first paragraph of this review wanders from one topic to the next is pretty bumbling. I think I have to leave it as it is, though, because it shows my frustration at being unable to say everything about this book all at once, which would be the only really proper way to do it. Even my one meager concession of a paragraph break seems a laughable violation of whatever Theories of Forgetting taught me. Here’s another—

One thing I haven’t said yet is that this book is FUN. It’s compelling in many of the same ways as those “less adventuresome books” I derided earlier. Primarily, the stories of Alana, Hugh, and Aila, are full of tension, pathos, bitterness, and forgiveness. In many ways, it’s an apocalyptic sci-fi story akin to the big-budget fare we flock to. Olsen’s writing, for me, belongs to an enigmatic gang of art that Werner Herzog calls “the secret mainstream.” Consistent with his contradiction-based aesthetic, art house all-star Herzog claims that he has secretly been making mainstream movies his entire career. In another typical Herzog maneuver, he refuses to explain away our confusion, further cloaking it behind the metaphor “awakening a dormant brother.” For me, I suppose Herzog or Olsen’s work could stir within us feelings of ineffable kinship, or what I might be saying is that Herzog and Olsen both deserve more devotees than they’ve yet accumulated, but a more pedestrian definition of the secret mainstream would probably be art that somehow stays true to both highly experimental and highly pleasurable aesthetic standards. Just as the camera circling the monkey-infested raft at the end of Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God represents a giant momentum slowly coming to a standstill over two hours of film, Olsen’s page-turner (and book-turner!) gyres vulture-like around the hypothetical existence of Alana and Hugh and Aila and the novel form as a whole, the ephemeral existence of the species that could comprehend it, the planet that could contextualize it.

In the legend of Theuth, when the inventor or writing presents his gift to King Thamus of Egypt as a remedy for forgetfulness, the king rejects Theuth’s gift on the grounds that writing will induce forgetfulness rather than counteract it. Students of literary theory might be familiar with the extent to which Jacques Derrida read into the slippery word Plato uses for writing, pharmakon, when he includes the legend in his dialogue Phaedrus. Pharmakon can mean both “remedy” or “poison.” I think most people generally see a lot of overlap between reading and learning and memory; however, parallel with The Frost that’s affecting Alana and the barbiturates involved in Hugh’s vanishing, Olsen here presents the acts writing and reading as more of a poison than a remedy. Theories of Forgetting makes us consider how each person we meet, each word we read, each byte of information we take in renders us incapable of returning to who we were before that every-moment catastrophe. Reading this book is a catastrophe you won’t want to recover from.

Theories of Forgetting, by Lance Olsen. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: FC2. 384 pages. $22.95, paper.

Joe Sacksteder’s story “Game in the Sand” appeared in Heavy Feather 3.3. Check out his Werner Herzog sound poems on SleepingfishQuarterly Westtextsound, and The Collagist. He’s about to leave for Utah to start the PhD thing.

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