“Graphical Variations”: MY RED HEAVEN by Lance Olsen, an historical experimental novel from Dzanc Books, reviewed by Daniel Green

My Red Heaven, by Lance Olsen. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Dzanc Books, January 2020. 200 pages. $16.95, paper.

In a career that now includes 14 novels and four collections of short fiction (as well as seven works of nonfiction), Lance Olsen has produced an admirable variety of experimental fictions, no one of which seems merely a repetition of any of the others. There are identifiable tendencies and gestures in his work, to be sure, all of which are designed to redirect our attention to the page itself, to the graphic embodiment of language, rather than to the “story” or “content” to which language is presumed to be pointing by many (if not most) readers of fiction, even so-called literary fiction. But the strategies by which Olsen accomplishes this larger goal are multifarious, especially in the context of such an abundant and still-accumulating body of work.

Of course, such variety is almost certain to result in some books that are less successful than others, a phenomenon unsurprising in what is after all “experimental” fiction. If not all experiments succeed, books as resolutely unconventional as Olsen’s, dedicated to sounding out alternatives to those practices that presume “form” in fiction to be synonymous with narrative, should be valued simply for their efforts to provide such alternatives to “exhausted” presumptions, as John Barth might put it. Still, the reading experiences afforded by Olsen’s novels and story collections themselves vary in the degree to which they manage to both effect an inventive formal strategy and to make that strategy an engrossing substitute for conventional narrative. Achieving this sort of synthesis of sheer technique and aesthetic gratification (not an easy task, to be sure) seems to me the fundamental accomplishment of the best experimental fiction, since a work that merely signals a break with traditional practices but doesn’t use such a rupture as an opportunity to then offer the reader a fulfilling reading experience, one that renews the aesthetic possibilities of fiction as more than “a story,” will surely not survive as much more than a literary curiosity. An honorable effort, perhaps, but ultimately indeed a failure.

Olsen actually began his career as an academic critic; most prominently, perhaps, as the author of Circus of the Mind in Motion: Postmodernism and the Comic Vision, but also books on “postmodern fantasy” and the science fiction writer William Gibson. His earliest novels are themselves most categorizable as fantasy and science fiction, although they could also be described simply as punkish provocation (with titles like Tonguing the Zeitgeist and Freaknest). These books rely more on extreme situations than on formal experiment per se, and, given the genre, are also more dependent on narrative than Olsen’s later novels would be. They are not without a certain kind of cheeky interest, but they aren’t likely to retain much future interest apart from their place in Lance Olsen’s development as a writer of unorthodox fiction.

With Girl Imagined by Chance (2002) and 10:01 (2005), Olsen began writing more straightforwardly experimental fiction, although each of these novels in their own way retain more connections to established narrative practices than will his subsequent even more adventurous work. Girl Imagined by Chance, while incorporating photographs as a structural device, tells an unusual story—a married couple pretend to have a baby in order to satisfy friends and family pressuring them to have children—but it relates the story in a relatively linear way, and the novel would probably remain accessible to readers not otherwise accustomed to experimental fiction. 10:01 is a highly fragmented novel that is held together by the conceit provided by its setting—a movie theater in the Mall of America. We are given a montage of sorts tracing the passing thoughts of a large group of people waiting in line for the next show. The result is essentially an exercise in “psychological realism,” a shifting set of vignettes that evoke the Mall of America as a metaphorical container of consciousness.

Nietzsche’s Kisses (2006) really marks the emergence of motifs, situations, and procedures that together have now come to seem Lance Olsen’s signature approach. Here and in the following books, Olsen takes historical figures, primarily writers and artists, as subjects, thereby making writing (language more generally) and artistic creation a central focus of attention. By and large, the depiction of such figures—Nietzsche, Kafka, Vincent Van Gogh—is accurate to the historical reality in most particulars, but Olsen fills in gaps, speculates about states of mind, uses these figures as quasi-allegorical characters illustrating the precarious position of art and intellect in the world at large. He does not employ these characters merely as subjects of historical or biographical re-creation: they are in a sense the vehicle for Olsen’s formal transformations and typographical pyrotechnics, which almost unavoidably become the point of interest, although at their best in these later novels character and event are revealed through form, and vice versa. The primary structural device in most of these novels is collage, but this relatively familiar method is itself further disrupted by the frequent unfastening of the text’s language from its accustomed place in the linear flow of the printed page through spacing or the unusual placement of words.

While experiment in Olsen’s fiction is quite apparent in the liberties taken with the traditional protocols of reading, a significant element in his audacious challenge to narrative-as-usual is less conspicuous although just as important in its effect. Olsen’s attention to form goes beyond merely devising some altered species of narrative, but involves replacing narrative with formal arrangements that are often more spatial than chronological. Collage itself in Olsen’s novels work spatially through juxtaposition and suggestion, frequently moving freely back and forth in time, as in Nietzsche’ Kisses and 2009’s Head in Flames (the latter moving from passages about Van Gogh to episodes concerning Theo Van Gogh, great-grandson of Vincent’s brother, and the man who ultimately assassinates him). Calendar of Regrets (2010) seems to invoke a chronological structure, but it too moves both forward and backward—its separate strands, set in disparate times and places, moves first forward through the calendar year and then back again—and Olsen has said that at the most general level he was trying to closely echo the layout of an Hieronymus Bosch painting. (Bosch is the subject of one of the narrative strands.) Theories of Forgetting (2014) similarly echoes Robert Smithson’s earthwork sculpture Spiral Jetty, about which one of the novel’s characters is attempting (or was attempting, since we discover she is now dead) to make a film. Designs of Debris (2017), a surrealist retelling of the Minotaur myth, uses the monster’s labyrinth as its underlying architectural principle, again an attempt to bring form and subject into a kind of aesthetic equilibrium.

My Red Heaven is the most intricately formalist, and also most successful, of Olsen’s novels to date. A kind of panoramic tour of Berlin, Germany in 1927, its fixed time and place creates more unity among its episodes and perspectives than in, say, Calendar of Regrets, where the variety of narrative strands (and the novel’s length) can at times make the text seem overly diffuse. If the audacious manipulation of the printed page is somewhat less insistent than in Theories of Forgetting, My Red Heaven nevertheless displays the sort of verbal and discursive heterogeneity (including the use of photos) we would expect in a Lance Olsen novel. In this case, however, Olsen has fully enlisted his graphical variations as a kind of representational device as well, working to evoke the historical and cultural degeneration that this moment in the life of Belin (at least retrospectively) portends.

As we might expect from the previous novels, many (not all) of the characters in My Red Heaven are artists, writers, and other intellectual figures prominent in Germany in 1927 (as well as one deceased famous figure—Rosa Luxemburg—now reincarnated as a butterfly). The novel weaves portrayals of these characters and their actions throughout the 24-hour period it records, usually through transitional markers that put one character in the proximity of the next or that otherwise associate the two. The gallery of characters shows Berlin in the 1920s to be a culturally dynamic place (characters include the artist Otto Dix, émigré writers Robert Musil and Vladimir Nabokov, as well as Walter Benjamin, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the physicist Werner Heisenberg), although the novel also features the underside of Berlin life, the drug addiction, violence, and poverty that made this “modern” German society so vulnerable to the predations of the Nazis, who also make their appearance, including Hitler himself.

While the primary structural device in My Red Heaven again appears to be collage, this surface feature is actually secondary to the novel’s controlling formal scheme. The novel’s title echoes that of the painting by the abstractionist painter Otto Freundlich. The painting is designed as irregular blocks of color (black, white, shades of gray, blue, green, and red), all of which are used as section names in Olsen’s novel, presumably linking in some way the episodes included to the color’s corresponding contribution to the painting’s overall aesthetic effect. Further, the painting’s colors are assembled in a grid-like assortment of rectilinear cells. The novel’s collage method, then, ultimately seems to be a progressive filling-in of these cells as rendered into literary form. This procedure is never intrusive, but it gives the novel an implicit shape that again governs “content.” The verbal mosaic that emerges in the depiction of 1927 Berlin is the product of form’s inherent artifice, but the depiction is no less vivid and no less faithful to the historical circumstances obtaining in Germany (and by extension European culture in general) during this between-wars interregnum.

In what is in part clearly an homage to 20th century modernism (including brief interchapters very close to the “newsreel” sections of Dos Passos’s USA trilogy), My Red Heaven both provides an historical panorama capturing the tenor of the period, while also embodying in its own departures from convention an extension of the modernist exploration of alternative styles and strategies. Although it might be tempting to think of a text such as My Red Heaven as a pastiche of modernism, and arguably more appropriately categorized as postmodern, neither this novel nor most of Olsen’s previous work seem accurately described as postmodern, except in the sense that Olsen is now about a century removed from the era of high modernism. Indeed, in Circus of the Mind in Motion, Olsen himself posits that postmodernism—which Olsen closely associates with a type of iconoclastic humor—was relatively short-lived and began to be replaced with a less radical kind of fiction after 1980. The radicalism of Olsen’s fiction might then be seen less as an attempt to revive postmodernism and more to validate the original experimental impulse animating modernism, which was also the inspiration, after all, for the postmodernists themselves.

Regardless of the label we might want to assign it, My Red Heaven fulfills the promise of experimental fiction: it challenges complacent reading habits, and at the same time it also offers to renew the conceptual resources upon which fiction might draw, to engage us in new and myriad ways. Although Nietzsche’s Kisses and Head in Flames also employ an unorthodox approach to effectively integrate method and matter, My Red Heaven might be the sort of book that convinces skeptical readers experimental fiction can be compelling reading even if it does not complacently fall back on the most comfortable modes of storytelling.

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Daniel Green is a literary critic whose essays and reviews have appeared in a variety of publications, both online and in print. He maintains the literary blog, The Reading Experience, and is the author of Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism (Cow Eye Press).

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