Theories of Forgetting

By Lance Olsen


February 2014

Reviewed by Nick Kocz


"Geology has its own kind of entropy," earthworks artist Robert Smithson declared in a 1971 interview. A year earlier, he created what would be his masterwork, Spiral Jetty, a 1,500 foot long construction of mud, salt crystals, rocks, and water that coils counter-clockwise into Utah's Great Salt Lake:

I'm interested in collaborating with entropy. Some day I would like to compile all the different entropies. All the classifications would lose their grids. Levi-Strauss had a good insight, he suggested we change the study of anthropology into 'entropology.' It would be the study that devotes itself to the process of disintegration in highly developed structures. After all, wreckage is often more interesting than structures.

This notion of "entropology" informs every page of Lance Olsen's ambitious new novel, Theories of Forgetting. Entropic forces and the inevitability of time interfere with, disrupt, transform, and otherwise obliterate lives, intentions, and accomplishments. Narratives physically coil around one another. Text runs in one direction at the top of each page and another direction at the bottom. Reading in one direction, readers encounter the journal that Alana, an experimental film director, writes while making a documentary about Spiral Jetty. Flipping the book upside-down, readers find a memoir (written mostly in the third person) of her husband Hugh's life after her death. A third narrative unfolds in the handwritten marginalia added to Hugh's manuscript by the couple's daughter, Aila, a Berlin-based art critic.

"Something is happening to me," Alana announces in her first journal entry. What exactly is happening isn't immediately clear, but it has to do with her fingers. They tingle. As Alana describes it, "It was like the 9-volt battery you touch to your tongue when you're little and hold there as long as you can because it's both tinnily unpleasant and fascinating." Entropy being entropy, her condition worsens. A feeling of impending doom overwhelms her. She finds herself "grasping completely, piercingly, that someday something will go wrong, terribly, it always does, there's just no escaping it, that's how every story ends no matter how you try to outwit its narrative arc, but not now, no, right?"

Misspellings and strikethroughs begin to infiltrate the journal entries. Reports about a viral epidemic in Vancouver appear in the newspaper clippings Alana pastes onto the pages. The epidemic takes a predictable path and spreads. Heat retention becomes an issue with those afflicted: they're forever feeling mind-numbingly chilled. Because of these symptoms, people start referring to the epidemic as "The Frost." Alana buys warmer clothing—"new parka (hood raised), scarf, ski pants, thermal boots, gloves, gloom"—but that doesn't help.

How sleet has mgsatrf ip, migrated up my arms, across my shoulders, into my neck and jawbone. How it makes every swallow a conscious performance. kslf ajslie w,cpx how i woke last night to sheets spongy with perspiration heart fieldmousing breath short […] How, when I tried to stand, disdizziness sat me dun down again on the edge of our bed. How it went on that way 30 seconds 40 & then quik as it came flipped away how I made my way into the bathroom & brakebraced against the sunk sink, door shut light on waiting while I caught up with myself watching versions of me rinse thru dark water & merge with my body, with this body

As Alana ebbs toward death, the misspellings and strikethroughs increase. Text appears in varying darknesses; the experimentation in grayscale suggests her drifting consciousness. Lineation becomes abbreviated, like poetry. On one of the last pages of Alana's journal, only a coffee ring appears. And soon after that, there is no more.


Robert Smithson died in a plane crash in 1973. He was 35. For an artist of his stature, he completed remarkably few major works in his short life. Fewer still remain intact. Asphalt Rundown (1969), his first major earthworks project made by releasing liquid asphalt down the hillside of a gravel quarry outside Rome, now exists only through pictures and film footage of its creation. Partially Buried Woodshed (1970), accomplished by partially burying a woodshed under twenty truckloads of earth on the grounds of Kent State University, was demolished decades ago, though no one's sure exactly when.

But what to make of Spiral Jetty?

The natural micro bacteria residing in the section of the Great Salt Lake where Smithson's sculpture resides can give the water a red coloration, like tomato soup. To Smithson's mind, it resembled the prehistoric seas from which primordial life forms first emerged. Debris dotted the area. "Old piers were left high and dry," he recalled in a 1972 essay (also titled "The Spiral Jetty"):

Two dilapidated shacks looked over a tired group of oil rigs. A series of seeps of heavy black oil more like asphalt occur just south of Rozel Point. For forty or more years people have tried to get oil out of this natural tar pool. Pumps coated with black stickiness rusted in the corrosive salt air. A hut mounted on pilings could have been the habitation of 'the missing link.' A great pleasure arose from seeing all those incoherent structures. This site gave evidence of a succession of systems mired in abandoned hopes.

As Alana awkwardly quotes Smithson, "Every object, if it is art, is charged with the rich rush of time."

Spiral Jetty is not an "abandoned hope," but its remote location ensures that few will encounter it in person. For decades, it lay totally submerged. Now, at times, it is so crusted over with precipitated salt crystals that it can resemble a snowed-over sleigh trail. Alana writes:

Smithson's signature work didn't only change from year to year, season to season, but day to day, hour to hour, second to second, an Impressionist's perfection, depending on the texture of the light, how it veils, what it stresses, the level and tincture of the water, the quality of the clouds, the consistency of the atmosphere, the person you were when you observed it then and the person you were when you observed it then, which was, needless to say,

Smithson's specific point

Hugh's narrative begins some months after The Frost claims Alana. Depressed and grieving, he has sold his house, yet we find him back in his old kitchen in a disoriented state.

The cereal bowl, black, black or gray, is half full of granola and the man realizes there is something in his left hand and something in his right. An open carton of strawberry yogurt. A spoon with an aerodynamic design. To the best of his knowledge, he is making breakfast.

He's not exactly sure when he sold the house. Though the granite countertop and kitchen island are familiar, the utensils, bowls, and coffee maker are different. The house's new owner, an older woman, awakes and confronts him. She brandishes what might be a pistol: "'I've already called the police,' she is saying."

What he thinks is a pistol—or maybe a pack of cigarettes—is actually a cellphone that's been on since she entered the room, "meaning somewhere out there a 911 operator is listening on their conversation, recording, evaluating, which is when he understands he no longer has anything to add."

Delicious moments like this occur throughout Hugh's narrative. He's an unhinged character, his judgment just unsound enough that it opens up the possibility for bad consequences. Incredibly, he revisits his old house on multiple occasions, each visit creepier than the last. He sits on spare beds in his underwear, rifles through the owner's medicine chest. One night, he hears her throw off the covers and rise out of bed. Perhaps she needs to pee. He worries about being noticed, but then he imagines knocking her to the floor. "It would be weirdly easy. He wouldn't need to employ a utensil. A vase. A potted plant. He could do that." At other times, something more intimate seems to be developing: "He would sometimes lie on the floor next to the sleeping woman's bed and, hands cupped behind his skull, pass time looking up at the ceiling through light textured like the static on a rabbit-eared TV set."

Although Smithson (and, for that matter, The Frost) is never explicitly mentioned in Hugh's section, his notions of entropy and time continue to play out. Hugh is forever spiraling back to his old house, which increasingly looks less and less like his home, and the woman who occupies it doesn't quite match up with the image of the woman (his deceased wife) he keeps expecting to find. With purposeful effect, Hugh's disorientation becomes our disorientation. Given how he refers to both his wife and the new homeowner as, simply, "the woman," it's sometimes not entirely clear who he keeps thinking about.

Later, the novel takes a bizarre turn. Hugh flies off to Europe and, eventually, Jordan, where he wanders through deserts and the ancient abandoned city of Petra. The Sleeping Beauties, an apocalyptic cult that's "waiting for time itself to run out" abducts him, leading to some truly harrowing moments. The cult "worships" barbiturates, but the cult leader's is pretty intelligent. He asks Hugh whether he believes:

[t]hat history's real lesson is how the world is today will absolutely, positively not be how it is tomorrow?

And/or that future humans will therefore someday look back on us, here, now, with a mixture of dumbfounded awe, deep-structure exasperation, and unadulterated loathing in the face of what we allowed to happen?


A packet containing Hugh's memoir arrives one afternoon at Aila's Berlin apartment. Because it's written in the third person, and because she doesn't recall her father ever being a writer, she's unsure who wrote it. She reads through the pages, perhaps several times, yet though this is a memoir of her father's final months, she doesn't seem particularly concerned, or curious, or moved, by its contents. Instead, she reads it as if she's seeking evidence to her existence, to her relevance, in her parents' lives. When a particular room in her old house is mentioned, she jots down her own memories of that room and muses about whether her parents harbored resentments against her and her brother because they were never able to travel much after having children.

We learn that Aila's in a relationship, that she's concerned about her brother who's been estranged from the family for some years, and that she's curious about the drugs The Sleeping Beauties use, but her direct engagement with Hugh's text rarely rises above the superficial. Most of her notes are addressed to her brother, asking why he chose to separate himself from the family, and from that we infer that they grew up in an emotionally distant household.

She recalls being slapped by her father as a girl for spilling a glass of milk.

Then it was over, and mom and you were sitting there, & i was standing in front of him, and he was appalled at himself, at what his body had tried to get away with behind his back.

Later we heard them shouting in their bedroom. it was one of those kid moments when you realize with a rush that no one outside the airtight box called Family could possibly understand who you are.

Later, she asks her brother:

Did you ever have the feeling our parents were uncomplicatedly nice people who may have loved us, but just didn't like us very much? Okay, no, that's not quite fair. They were simply committed to living their lives, of which we were simply a very small part, a fact simply impossible for us to take in.

It's as if Olsen is showing us how insignificant, in a cosmic sense, each person really is.


Smithson laid out the critical framework for the Earthworks movement in the Artforum essays he published in the late 60s and early 70s; in one, he coined the term "destructuralized." In Theories of Forgetting, Olsen delivers what could be called a "destructuralized" novel that successfully resists the temptation of a conventional narrative strategy, yet for a novel that so self-consciously flashes its experimental bona fides, Theories remains eminently readable. Innovation and accessibility need not be in opposition to each other.

Olsen's dialogue—at times DeLillo-esque, at times reminiscent of Mamet—sizzles. Consider this conversation between Hugh ("the sweating man") and The Sleeping Beauty's leader, who speaks first:

You know what we have in common, you and me?
Exactly zip.
After religion went away, nobody knew what to say about death.
Can I ask you a question?
What country is this?
We're both motion addicts.
Motion addicts.
I'm a not-knowing junkie, the sweating man says.
You and me, we've caught a bad case of difference dependence. Our world has to be different yesterday, or it doesn't feel like today.
I've caught a bad case of please get up and walk out that door.

Stuffed as it is with Smithson's entropology, the novel still abounds in real and touching moments. A few pages after Aila divulges how her father slapped her, we feel her remorse when she adds, "Not a hard slap or anything. More of a sharp nip."

Near the end of her journal, Alana lists the discoveries she made in her life:

2. How one sentence you write will be your last although you probably won't know it.

3. How every video you make, that anyone will make, will have its final viewer the somesame way every book [. . . ] will have its final page-turner.

4. how our species will have its last delegate; our planet its last rain; our galaxy its lost last H atom;

Meaning, we are all, each of us, the chief audience to our own deterioration.