“I Cherish the Act of Sentencing”: Marcus Pactor Interviews Lance Olsen

Lance Olsen is one of America’s most formally inventive and intellectually stimulating novelists. Few writers have been as consistently excellent over the past thirty-plus years. In that time, he has evolved from a cutting-edge sci-fi writer into a wizard of form and narrative, infusing his singular works with poetically imaginative language as well as a rare range and depth of knowledge.

His work has earned him, among other recognitions and awards, a Guggenheim, Berlin Prize, DAAD Artist-in-Berlin Residency, NEA Fellowship, and Pushcart Prize. He served for many years as Chair of the Board of Directors at FC2. He currently teaches at the University of Utah.

His latest novel, Always Crashing in the Same Car, fictionalizes the life of David Bowie from a wide variety of sideways angles. In the following interview, we discuss this book as well as his approach to writing. I am grateful to him for his time and generosity.

Marcus Pactor: Early in Always Crashing in the Same Car, your character Alec Nolens writes that his new project will be “a love song, not so much to [David Bowie] as to the lacunae around the thought of him.” Do you think, as I do, that those words also describe the novel? What, beyond love, led you to explore and fictionalize Bowie’s life?

Lance Olsen: Alec is a deeply ironized academic, so we should probably take everything he says with a shaker of salt. I certainly do. But in this case he strikes me as dead on, both about Bowie and the novel Alec finds himself living in. In many ways, Always Crashing in the Same Car is about how we read others, how we are read by them, and how every reading is at best only a partial one. I’m fascinated by how parts of us forever remain black boxes to others … and, if we’re honest, even to ourselves. Bowie is the poster boy for that unknowability.

I’ve been drawn to Bowie’s bracing Heraclitean selves from my teen years on, how he changed his exterior every Tuesday, his musical style every Thursday, played in serious ways with identity, problematized it continuously and from continuously fascinating angles. Though I first tuned into his work, as so many did, with “Space Oddity,” with that corner of him that spoke to the adrift astronaut in all of us, it was the Berlin trilogy—Low, Heroes, and Lodger—that energized me aesthetically, how his undertakings with Brian Eno and Tony Visconti were truly groundbreaking for listeners like me.

Plus Bowie had great hair.

And so I wanted to understand better what it was that I couldn’t understand about him, and that was the launchpad for Always Crashing in the Same Car—my novels for me always being contemplation spaces, or, as Alec Nolens has it, “experiments in thinking, empathy, and doubt.”

MP: Bowie in your hands only sometimes appears to possess what we call normal human sentiments. Other times he appears to be an alien playing the part of a human, and still other times he is the passive dream-Bowie of whatever audience, large or small, is considering him. This sort of multiplicity makes it impossible to understand or sum up his true character. Is that multiplicity unique to Bowie and other high-level celebrities, or do we all, to some extent, share this feature? If we do, have we lost our ability to know ourselves?

LO:  Mikhail Bakhtin talks about this idea he calls unfinalizability. He says we approach people and books the same way. In both cases, our instinct is to categorize, interpret toward conclusion, fasten down—in other words finalize texts, be they biological or otherwise. Yet, he goes on, neither people nor books are finalizable, not even when the former have moved on to the wrong side of the grass, because they are always already several, can constantly be narrativized differently, understood variously. So for me the Problem of Bowie is the Problem of All of Us, and it’s an breathtakingly deep and human thing.

My sense is that it’s a hopeless undertaking, has always been a hopeless undertaking, to know ourselves completely, no matter what sort of examined life we might lead. I’m not even sure what that would look like. I don’t mean that in any negative way. Rather, simply in an observational one.

So for me Always Crashing in the Same Car is about, among lots of other stuff, bringing that awareness to the surface and exploring it through a prismatic optics.

MP:  Similar to Bowie, the novel has no constant form but is a Proteus made of words, shifting from (among other things) collages of incidents, minibiographies, quotations, interview answers to unspecified questions, interview questions with no given answers, fragments of time-travel adventures, and variations on the Lazarus story. Is it, in fact, a sort of textual representation of Bowie’s own shifting, uncertain nature? How much of this protean form did you envision beforehand, and how much did you discover in the process of writing?

LO: What a great observation, Marcus. Thank you. Every form suggests a philosophy. We have been taught to look for the latter in a text’s thematics, which is to say how characters behave, what they say, how they interact and where and when. But there’s a stratum of philosophy that often remains invisible in texts because we haven’t been taught to see it: how a text is structured, what its form has to say about a vision of the world.

So what you say strikes exactly at what I’m trying to do in Always Crashing in the Same Car—i.e., suggesting Bowie’s chameleonics through a chameleonic form that refuses to settle.

I read all the Bowie biographies, lots of the scholarly work on him, and of course lived among the documentaries about him and his own work and interviews, taking copious notes. By the time I launched into the writing itself I knew the form had to be a mode of collage because collage—disparate voices, disparate perspectives—is all David Bowie is to us. I wasn’t quite sure what those voices and perspectives would turn out to be, and that not-knowing was one of the spaces in which I found joy each morning as I woke to write.

MP: In your essay, “(Trans)forms as Philosophy,” you write that the impossibility of clearly and straightforwardly describing the chaos of the world led you to your novels’ various formal innovations. You call these innovations alternately “extreme narrativity” and “defiant narrativity.” This narrativity “asks us to envision the text of the text, the text of our lives, and the text of the world other than they are, and thus asks us to contemplate the idea of fundamental change in all three.” How much of this idea is at the forefront of your mind when you are writing? Do you ever find your novels leading beyond the bounds of that idea, or does its conscious articulation guide you to previously uncharted territory? Will you accept my apology for such a long set-up to these questions if I tell you there is no set-up for my next question?

LO: I adore your long setups. The longer the better, is my feeling. At the heart of the heart of what you quote is the advice I always give to my creative writing students—that their existential job isn’t to entertain, or simply (with an emphasis on the word) entertain, but to capture what it feels like to live the contemporary. Everything else at the end of the day is just cliché and window dressing.

Each of them will, I propose, find their own mode to do so, but find it they must. That’s the real mission, the real excitement, the real pleasure of writing, whether it’s what we once designated fiction, or nonfiction, or poetry. And, I further propose, the contemporary feels to me like the Age of Uncertainty, the Age of Extremis, in a register, say, that the contemporary in a small English village in 1387 didn’t, because, for example, we’re in the midst of a climate catastrophe that will surely in time make huge swathes of the planet uninhabitable; generate millions, if not billions, of climate refugees; and devastate resources even as it collapses economies.

Or, for another, that we’re entering, our epidemiologists warn us, a pandemicene, wherein before long we will be battling three or four pandemics at a time, and ones that make our few years with Covid look like a walk in Disneyland. How do we write that feeling? How do with think about it? What does that feeling and thinking look like on the page? How does form argue that philosophy?

Which is to say: How can we have anything save radical, defiant narrativity in our Age of Emergency? All the rest seems like ostrich stories with their heads in the sand, telling us easy resolution is possible, love conquers the rest, all endings are happy. Well, all endings are utterly happy … until they’re not.

Those questions are what make me want to write furiously into every day.

MP: Would you say Bowie lived a sort of extreme narrative?

LO: What I love about the narrative Bowie—and there’s no doubt it was crazy-wild early on, and sometimes narcissistic, and sometimes vicious, and sometimes manipulative, and sometimes tender, and always incredibly homo sapiens—is how it was to the very end one infused with expedition and transformation. He couldn’t stay put. He was omniphagic both intellectually and creatively. And while his work, as all our work does, had its high points and less high points, I found myself, many of us found ourselves, continually interested in where he would travel next. That should serve as a great beacon, I think, for us all.

MP: Your Bowie spends some memorable pre-fame time in Berlin. This is no surprise to your regular readers—you have often made Germany a setting for your fiction. What about that country has made it a touchstone for your work?

LO: I adore Germany generally, and Berlin particularly, for about 10,000,000 reasons. My partner Andi and I lived there for a year and half, and we travel there yearly for a month or six weeks … or at least did until the pandemic crashed in. We hope to return this spring for the first time since 2020.

So Berlin, which is as much idea as city, is one especially conducive to dérive because it doesn’t possess the orienting axes of Paris or New York. Rather it’s a gallimaufry space—one could call it a collage—where on a single block the gentrified nineteenth century dwells next to the crumbling eighteenth dwells next to the frayed East German dwells next to the clean Bauhaus dwells next to a McDonalds, a trendy café, an untrendy Indian or Vietnamese or Turkish bistro, a currywurst stand, a chunk of leftover. I’m struck by how the entire twentieth century happened in Berlin with a dark vengeance.

The US, by contrast, as we all know too painfully well, is devoted to repressing its atrocities, its amoral heart. That’s our inheritance, I assume, from the nineteenth-century doctrine of Manifest Destiny. Americans continue to swear an oath of allegiance to leaving their shit behind them while believing they are bustling ever forward toward righteousness. Berlin—much of Germany—has, on the other hand, dedicated itself to perplexing the act of remembering.

I understand the difficulties with that gesture, yet I’m buoyed and grateful and absorbed by such serious cultural self-examination, as well as the electric art, music, and literature it triggers.

MP: Of all the types of sentences you write, I love your single-sentence portraits best. Here is one from Always Crashing in the Same Car: “A triceratops of a woman, stooping gingerly to bag her dachshund’s shit amid the human river, breaks off singing along to some aria on her iPod, stands erect, and hisses at the courier’s receding back.” Does this sort of sentence really begin as a single sentence, or do you scale it down from a series of sentences? If it is the latter, how do you select which details to keep and which to kill?

LO: I cherish the act of sentencing so hard. The sounds. The rhythms. The verbs. The metaphors. All the senses and thoughts a single one can contain. All the archives of the world. The belief that each can and should carry within it a little grenade of surprise.

So I build mine step by step, often reworking each—like the one you quote—many times over the course of several days. Each thereby grows into its individual self, rather than, for instance, condensing from many. That’s one of the most splendid happinesses to be experienced in writing, at least for me, doing what only the novel genre can do: relish language sentence by sentence for hundreds of pages at a time, even as it relishes the complexities of consciousness.

Just think: We writers get to do that as a mode of being. Not bad. Not bad at all.

MP: In my first question, I quoted the fictional Alec Nolens. His name is an anagram that tempts readers to view the character as the most personal injection of yourself into any of your works of fiction. Should they succumb to that temptation, or is this fictional Nolens like your fictional Bowie: a completely visible subject of our gaze but never truly knowable?

LO: It’s so awesome you picked up the anagram, Marcus! Your latter instinct is my intent: showing, in a sense, we’re all anagrams for other anagrams for other anagrams that can never catch us, from which we will always be able to slip away.

Or, in a phrase: David Bowie.

MP: You recently announced your retirement from academia. Are you also retiring from literature, or do you (as this interviewer selfishly hopes) have more books to offer?

LO: Me retiring from literature would be like a tuna retiring from water.

No, I conceive of retirement as a mode of relifement. That’s to say I’m stepping away from the current iteration of the corporate university, which drives me a little madder every day; stepping away from the perpetual classroom, which I adore in a multitude of ways, but which is hampered a bit more every hour by said corporate university (though I hope to continue to teach shorter gigs here and there); and stepping into new rhythms, new travels, new everything—and most especially new writing.

In fact, I’m just now finishing a book of selected essays titled Shrapnel, which Anti-Oedipus Press will bring out in December, and a novel called Absolute Away, which Dzanc will publish next spring, and I have before me a stack of notes (and a form that suggests a philosophy!) for my next novel, tentatively titled St. Dargarius and His Squadron of Benevolent Butterflies, which so far I know very little about, thank goodness.

So I guess the best way to put it is: If I’m still living, I’ll still be writing.

Marcus Pactor is the author of Begat Who Begat Who Begat (Astrophil Press) and Vs. Death Noises (Subito Press). The latter book won the 2011 Subito Press Prize for Fiction. His story “Megaberry Crunch” was selected for Best Small Fictions 2021. His work has most recently appeared in Always Crashing and 3:AM Magazine. He lives and works in Jacksonville, Florida.

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