By Lance Olsen

Anti-Oedipus Press
February 2014


:::: I came to consciousness in a jungle compound surrounded by twelve-foot-tall cyclone fencing in Venezuela.

My father had taken a two-year position as port captain at an oil refinery on Lake Maracaibo—not a lake at all, but an 8200-square-mile bay, the largest in South America, whose northern tip feeds into the Gulf of Venezuela.

We lived in a squat flat-roofed cement house that flooded during the rainy season. I remember watching our living-room rug suspended in two inches of brown water.

One morning a fat three-foot-long black snake thunked onto the floor out of a wad of sheets my mother had extracted from the washing machine. They were stained yellow where the snake had struck repeatedly as it drowned.


:::: Back in the States several years later, I biked my leafy bland suburb, wandered the hermetically sealed climate-controlled malls comprising northern New Jersey.

My elementary-school teacher hosted show-and-tell on Friday afternoons.

When I recounted my experiences near Lake Maracaibo, she sent me down to the principal's office. He made me phone my mother to verify my memories.


:::: Traveling, I want to say, is like clicking a link on a website: a surge of disorientation followed almost immediately by a surge of reorientation.

Only in three dimensions.

Over and over again.


:::: Here is Derrida: The unrecognizable is the awakening. It is what awakens, the very experience of being awake.


:::: Click.


:::: And here Czeslaw Milosz: The purpose of poetry is to remind us how difficult it is to remain just one person.


:::: Click.


:::: I'm at a theatrical rethinking of Kafka's The Castle in Berlin.

Instead of speaking, the actors in the Novoflot opera company sing gorgeously rendered Schubert lieder against a sonic background generated by a dissonant ensemble featuring improvisation by a trombonist who, at one point, uses his instrument as a sledgehammer against a metal wall.

Ten minutes, and audience members are asked to rise and move from the primary theater to a connecting one. As soon as they take their seats, the stands they're sitting in commence revolving. Tucked into a corner, an artist at a computer doodles stick figures, arrows, phrases that are projected onto the walls. The ceiling lowers, compressing space.

The production doesn't retell Kafka's text so much as actualize a series of moments that half-rhymes with it.

I end up feeling what I felt when I first read The Castle, only more so: I negotiate a non-space more Kafkaesque than Kafka's original, a production more like The Castle than The Castle is like itself.

Near the end, a dead child lowers by cord from the ceiling.


:::: Which is to say when traveling you always feel like yourself, and not like yourself, and not not like yourself.

That's the satisfaction exactly.


:::: Which is to say I am performing a verb: I am hoteling.

But it goes deeper than that: each of us occupies a perpetual condition of hoteling, although many of us prefer to act as if we occupied another altogether.


:::: We hotel when we're in a state of physically not-being-at-home, but also when we read, think, become curious, start paying attention as we reach across the writing desk for the coffee mug, focus more than a millisecond on a building or a bird, notice how the light outside the window has just now changed from Honda Accord gray to a chalk smudged with blue.


:::: No wonder we cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke, David Foster Wallace once advanced: that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from the horrific struggle.

Our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home.


:::: In your novel Girl Imagined by Chance, you write the following scene, pretending it's fiction, although of course it isn't, except to the extent that everything one writes is fiction because it has been composed, is language, has been edited, embellished, erased, misremembered—precisely in the sense it exists nowhere besides in the troubled territory between word and the other thing:

How once you strolled along the banks of the Bagmati in Kathmandu, watching cloth-wrapped bodies burn on the funeral pyres.

Families of the dead in prim circles, passing time.

Holy men spattering butter on the fires to help them burn faster.

You could hear steam building in the skulls as you strolled along.

Sadhus cooked bread by burying it among shards of smoking bones.

How guilt and happiness are not mutually exclusive emotions.

How a group of children stood knee-deep in the river, oblivious, in the black oily water that used to be strangers.

Throwing a red rubber ball through gusts of coppery haze.


:::: O. never understood why we should stop at 14 punctuation marks in English. Why there shouldn't be special punctuation for not-being-at-home.

Maybe       ::::        , say, for what cannot be accurately articulated.


:::: Kafka's three sisters were deported—Elli and Valli to the Łódź Ghetto, Ottla to Auschwitz.

None left their hotelrooms again.


:::: Because when traveling you're aware of maneuvering inside the spacesuit made of your own skin, which isn't the same spacesuit you wore 40 years ago, let alone 40 months ago, let alone 40 weeks, let alone, quite, 40 seconds.


:::: For me this is exactly what writing the contemporary feels like.


:::: RHETORIC  The art of making life less believable; the calculated use of language, not to alarm but to do full harm to our busy minds and properly dispose our listeners to a pain they have never dreamed of.

Ben Marcus.


:::: Learning to travel is another way of saying learning to read.


:::: Learning to read is another way of saying learning to travel.


:::: We hotel when we feel things we don't recollect feeling before, sense ourselves becoming interested, when we imagine, recollect, stare at the shimmering whiteness of our computer screen the second before we commence typing the next sentence—


:::: Inhabitants of towns near concentration camps reported tufts of human hair from the crematoria occasionally drifting down into the streets.


:::: Serious travel—the kind that doesn't involve air-conditioned busses, fanny packs, and American buffets in Best Westerns—is accompanied by an element of play: the same sort that takes place in readers when discovering their ways through what Roland Barthes referred to as writerly texts—those which, by short-circuiting literary codes, fling the reader out of his or her subject position, put everything up for grabs, announce bliss's entrance to the banquet.


:::: Serious travel is also accompanied by an element of calamity that can run the gamut from mild discomfort to affliction, depending on who you are, when you are, where, with whom.

Why, I wonder, hasn't more been written about reading as a mode of pain?


:::: What won't leave me alone about Ben Marcus's definition of rhetoric is how it is and isn't one. How it is indicative of the backbroke sentences that comprise his bafflement before not-knowing, about conventional mimesis as a kind of somnolence, about the very problematics of representation. How that sentence, like them all in The Age of Wire and String, is a post-genre edifice that exists in some smudge between or beyond theory and fiction, poetry and prose, meaning and the other thing, by means of what we might call paragrammatic illegibility that gives rise to an abstract language that almost means, but doesn't, quite (why do alarm and harm rhyme so loudly, so close together?  in what sense can language make someone receptive to a pain she or he can't imagine?  shouldn't our listeners be our readers? and by our the narrator—who is, come to think of it, who, exactly?—means … what, exactly?), a language whose signifiers point to non-existent signifieds, unhinge the process of reading by fashioning something approaching asemic wordage that looks and sounds like it should make perfect sense … until, that is, you pay any sort of attention to it.


:::: All knowledge, then, is a border problematic: what's kept in, kept out, by whom, why?


:::: Because not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention.

Observed Donald Barthelme, winner in 1972 of the National Book Award.

In the category of Children's Books.


:::: I don't write a book so that it will be the final word; I write a book so that other books are possible.

Apothegmed Foucault.


:::: Nassim Nicholas Taleb coined the term narrative fallacy to refer to the common intellectual blunder of forcing chaos into cosmos in an attempt to account for what eventuates around us.

We are by nature story generators, pattern recognition machines, designed to narrate what the world has done to us, whether what the world has done makes sense or not. Give us an incident, no matter how enigmatic, indeterminate, or tenuous its causes, and we will tell in order to generate the impression of coherence. We strong-arm links, invent causal chains.

Hello conspiracy theorists, Greek mythologists, biographers, New-Age everything-occurs-for-a-reasoners, historians, cargo cultists, voodoo worshippers, doctors, chemists, Nabokov's Austrian crank with a shabby umbrella.

Give us a bedlam of stars and we will birth Andromeda, Draco, Virgo.


:::: Under ordinary circumstances we should like to recommend another publisher to whom the work might appeal; but we regret to say that we do not think it probable that you will find any publisher for work of this kind.

Wrote an editor when rejecting a manuscript submitted by Gertrude Stein.


:::: Click


:::: Wandering Berlin's streets, I find myself thinking about the morality of architecture: what you choose to reference, demolish, build, rebuild, reshape, augment, bury, unearth, partition, rename, retell, put a plaque on.

How. Why.


:::: Schlager: the word (literally meaning hit—in the musical sense—as well as wooden club) for the overly sweet ballads with catchy melodies and love lyrics that were especially popular in Germany during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and that saw a kitsch comeback in the 1990s and early 2000s. Schlager is the sonic lint Krautrock groups like Kraftwerk, Popol Vuh, and Tangerine Dream tried to sweep out the door.

Schlager isn't political. That's precisely what makes it so political.


:::: Which is to say the difference between art and entertainment involves the speed of perception. Art deliberately slows and complicates reading, hearing, and/or viewing so we can re-think and re-feel form and experience. Entertainment deliberately accelerates and simplifies them so we don't have to think about or feel very much of anything at all.


:::: How Marcus's sentence exiles the reader from knowledge, forces him or her to imagine in slow motion. It bears family resemblance to one by Barthelme. It is fifth cousin to one by Burroughs. It performs what it has been about all along: how, in the end, it is what it is talking about, as all rhetoric should be, all art—how it causes life to be less believable, which is to say more conscious of itself as cultural construction, as experience mediated by language, a kind of fiction making itself strange in order to startle said reader into waking, again and again, in order to feel, which is to say in order to think, which is to say to feel in exciting ways that challenge all he or she takes for granted, again and again, about language and experience and therefore about narrativity.


:::: Trolling Facebook, which I employ daily as a mode of digital daydreaming, I'm shocked to land on a friend's page and read she died yesterday afternoon.

She and her husband, who had since divorced, were among our closest friends and comrades while we lived in Kentucky during the late eighties. We were both assistant professors, both barely out of our careers' gates. We moved on from Lexington at the same time, lost touch. Cancer found and, I had thought, misplaced her. My wife and I bumped into her again in 2004 by chance during an intermission at a play in London. She looked good, happy. We caught up over drinks afterwards and promised to stay in better touch, which we didn't.

Dearest friends, the Facebook post read, for those who do not know, we must sadly share that we lost our dear friend, Patricia Troxel, Sunday afternoon. She was surrounded by an extraordinary amount of love and support during her final hours and transitioned very peacefully with both of her hands being held by dear friends. We will miss her so very much, but are so grateful that she is no longer suffering and can now rest in peace and light.


:::: Assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?

Queried Annie Dillard.


:::: I think I've heard of Lance Olsen. I wonder who he was.

People in 50 years won't ever say.


:::: If you cut through the main exhibition at Berlin's Hamburger Bahnhof's Museum for the Present, cross into the sparsely populated hallways and rooms that once functioned maybe as storage facilities at the once train station, you will eventually arrive at a blacked-out glass door tucked into an easy-to-miss corner.

Step through, and you're inside Bruce Nauman's installation Room with My Soul Left Out—a hangar-sized gray expanse dimly lit by two rows of high filthy windows and a few yellow light panels. Before you lie three narrow dark corridors, two crossing horizontally, one vertically. On the shadowy black floor far beneath the grating covering the latter so that viewers can walk over: perhaps an origami bird and figure of a human with arms outstretched, each a couple inches in length. It is impossible to tell with anything like certainty.

The whole thing feels uncannily empty, black, bare, like descending that enormous spiral staircase in House of Leaves and trying to reckon your way among the infinite featureless cubicles at the bottom, their walls the color of cinders and Borges.


:::: Traveling, i.e., as a state of finding and losing your selves, encountering/performing others, rejoicing in that which you can never be, those places you can never reach.


:::: Or the flâneur: the French noun denoting stroller, lounger, loafer, with connotations of the amateur urban detective, the intellectual nomad and parasite, the waster of time—and in the 19th century referring to a way of being in the European city.

The flâneur, Walter Benjamin points out, enjoys the incomparable privilege of being himself and someone else at the same time.


:::: This is not for you, reads the epigraph to Danielewski's novel about a blind man's critical meditation on a documentary that can't possibly exist about a house that's bigger on the inside than the outside. Will Navidson, the impossible film's protagonist, cautions: And if one day you find yourself passing by that house, don't stop, don't slow down, just keep going. There's nothing there.

Nothing—not only in the sense of not anything, but also in the Nietzschean one: that big black void beating in the pith of things.


:::: Nauman's is the only installation I can think of that consciously uses the air itself—here uncomfortably cold, oily, dark—as part of the material of the work, a construction that goes nowhere, teaches zip, embodies the purest form of Freud's unheimlich: a term that contains within itself heim (home), unheim (not home), and heimlich (hidden, secret).

The unheimlich signifies what we know, yet has been made unfamiliar, a forever being-at-home that is also a never-being-at-home.


:::: Travel removes one from clock time, from the capitalist insistence that minutes are money, our lives meant to be segmented, regulated, reified. Travel serves as compelled and compelling dislocation and temporal smear. When it is no longer that, it is no longer travel: you have arrived somewhere.

The same being the case with innovative writing practices.


:::: Hitler, e.g., was a vegetarian.


:::: The last impression you have before reaching out to shut down your computer today: the diaphanous clouds against an ash-blue sky.