When you pick up your copy of Lance Olsen’s Theories of Forgetting you will see the back cover and you’ll flip it over and upside-down only to see an identical back cover again. You will do this a few times and you may mumble and grumble or possibly show it enthusiastically to someone nearby. Then you will decide to open it. You’ll look for any indication of which side is the beginning until you find a reason to start here or there. Your reason will be your very own. And while we often pride ourselves on forging ahead or jumping in, when it comes to starting a book, you’ll realize, as did I, just how vulnerable we all are as readers. We give ourselves to a text, often willingly, and say, “Do what you will with my tender bits and my mind will do all it can to keep up. I’ll follow somewhat knowing, half-guessing, and often hoping for whatever seems like safety—security—or something we can call Truth.”
Yet, Theories of Forgetting doesn’t want to handhold us through its stories. It’s not that it privileges instability over backstory, linear story development, and easily accessible life lessons in a story. Instead the stories in this novel are ones of losing memories—if we ever really owned them to begin with, which is inevitably the same as losing oneself. The only way to live in this world of loss is to give into fragments, repeating images, and associative leaps. This is carried out through both the content of the novel and in its shaping. This novel consists of three stories, which take up three different parts of the page and are provided in different fonts. The story of the filmmaker Alana is told through journal entries on one half of each page. Alana is struggling to finish her short documentary on The Spiral Jetty (a famous earthwork by Robert Smithson created near the Great Salt Lake’s edge in Utah). Alana is one of many victims of The Frost, an infectious disease that eats at her memories and cognition while she loses sensation in her body and becomes colder and colder. Her story is provided through reflections on her life and her experiences with the earthwork as well as through reports of her current state of illness and research about Smithson. It includes various photos sometimes stationary, sometimes swirling throughout. Her husband’s story is provided on the other half of the page and inverted. Of course, if you start with Hugh’s narrative, then Alana’s would be inverted. Hugh’s text is told in third person (most of the time). Hugh is part lost-soul and part-traveler as he drifts throughout dangers in the deserts, cities, and towns of Jordan. Following Hugh means unseeing what we would call “reality,” and instead mapping his journey through his sensations, dreamscapes, traces of the past, and haunting possible futures. If there are any questions from Alana or Hugh’s stories, the answers aren’t necessarily found in each other’s narrative though the two push away and fall into one another at times. I suspect answers would be wispy, terrible things if included in this novel since responding to the type of philosophical questions the characters have would trap them in a confined and linear notion of the world. Nevertheless, the novel understands the reader’s impulse to want answers and mimics this desire by including a third story: the story of Aila, the daughter of Hugh and Alana, who hopes to find in Hugh’s story where her father has gone. Her story is told through her marginalia, which is made up of musings, quotes from heavy hitters such as Jean Baudrillard and Roland Barthes as well as remarkable artists like William Gass, Miles Davis, and John Cage. Keep in mind her notes are addressed to her brother Lance (Lance!?). While she asks some questions in order to piece together her family’s story, she learns to abandon this search and loses herself in a text—not in the romanticized way we often imagine one lost in a text (think of all the pictures of pensive and tidy people reading in nooks and pristine libraries; these pictures sprawling across social media as badges that claim “I’m a dreamy reader!”). Rather, she makes notes that only bring about more questions. She gets pulled into certain words or lines only to spin out again. Reaching for her absent brother, her past-self spirals. To some readers it may seem too challenging to keep track of the stories, but this novel isn’t necessarily interested in keeping track of things. We are to read this novel as one might experience The Spiral Jetty or “a device designed to focus [our] attention on what isn’t there” (p. 205 & 175).
In the tradition of experimental works, keeping track or hand-holding isn’t as important as the experience of reading or rather of invoking the experience of putting together bits and shards in the hope there is an answer, an equation, or a resolution. It is the great experiment of invoking life as a present state of being rather than as a tidied up, linear, boxed truth. We are all the time readers—readers of our own reality, and limit (or innovative or experimental) texts don’t let us forget it. The danger in saying as much is concluding then that traditional-looking texts only want to keep a reader informed and safe, and aren’t as interested in the sensations of experiencing reading. This is not the case. But for the sake of starting somewhere, let’s say this: in experimental texts, the hand that holds us doesn’t always hold tight, but sometimes morphs into different textures and grips and directions. Our experience with the text is then one of learning to trust. Either we trust the hand leading us despite its chameleon behavior or we learn to trust that reading and living are always acts of trust. We give into the novel (this life’s) pull and sense its movement. We take comfort and pleasure in knowing we are all raw, new things when it comes to reading and to living.
Experimental texts seem to fail when that trust vanishes—when we are vulnerable explorers and the hand we imagine guiding us forgets us or gets clumsy. Fortunately, Lance Olsen is a well-known, accomplished, and experienced creator of innovative texts. And Theories of Forgetting offers us multiple moments of skilled, gifted, and inspired narration. The poetic line, the story-building moves, and the layout make any confusion a reader has a trusted confusion, which is to say when I felt a little lost, it was because lost is just another state of being and holding tighter only fails me. Instead, I’d ease up and breathe through these moments of text. I drift, float, half-dream along with Olsen’s sentences, metaphors, and characters. In less skilled hands, easing up and letting go might lead to a chaos that is too confusing to enjoy or worse too boring: that type of chaos that pushes a reader straight out of the book, back into her chair, and wondering what games, updates, and flicks are waiting for her on her nearest robot companion. Thankfully, this novel is not a journey of simply dropping fragments on a page or flipping text or attempts at hiding lazy half-stories behind gimmicks. Thematically, The Spiral Jetty does more than take up space in Alana’s memory or in photos. It doesn’t just inform the structure of the novel either. The entire telling of this story—the structure, narration, themes, character, plot, and the reader’s ability to make meaning—is an invocation of the Golden Mean. It is a summoning to that exquisite spiral, whose architecture is, as Alana says, “such an organic, ancient, and over-determined one that it unfolds, not into meaning, but into an emblem of semiotic possibility” (p. 182 & 197).
For example, the rotating images on the pages of this book and the constant pull towards another narrative or perspective are in the service of one looming question that the characters are all facing: Are we coming or going? Do we arrive at life minute by minute or are we always in the process of leaving it? What marks a beginning and what marks the end? For me and possibly because I read Alana’s story first, I felt pulled tighter into her truth—into her experience of coming closer to death due to some vast mathematical equation of space and time and disease poured into the body—pulled tighter to the importance of her work on The Spiral Jetty as both an image of life and as an image of loss. Hugh’s story propelled me outwards again—the loosening of his identity, the great expanse of desert and time, an undoing. Hugh at a bus stop “hanging in the middle of bright nothingness” (p. 286 & 93). Even Aila’s marginalia is a slow spiral outward from her parents, as she works at unfastening her father’s words and family story and inward as she is pulled into the text and things she has put away in side of herself. There is a fourth story-type entity as well: the crossing of genre between fiction and non-fiction as I struggled to place the images of Lance and Andi Olsen in the novel and began to question when characters were characters and when they were “real world” characters. I could never capture this fourth dimension or fasten it methodically within the rest of the text. This was another lesson in accepting that the line between fiction and non-fiction has always been blurry and both work in service of the other whether they propel story outwards or cull it together … or both.
Of course, I could be wrong on all these counts—or if not wrong, then living in an upside-down version of someone else’s experience of reading. Maybe starting with Hugh’s story is the spiral moving inwards and Alana moves outwards. Maybe a reader decides before picking up any book that a story must move one way or another and she reads in whichever direction feels natural. Maybe I too quickly decide a story is one direction and hold to that notion in order to stabilize my reading in fear that Smithson is right and that “Planning and Chance almost seem to be the same thing” (p. 183 & 196). Of course, these crises of reading are delightful to me. But puzzle-reading is not the only pleasurable take away from this book. Mostly I’ve been changed by my sympathy for Alana when she notes, “the weigh of today will always be just a little more dog-eared than yesterday” (p. 247 & 131). The misuse of “weigh” instead of “wait” is just another tease that both expands and collapses several meanings in this line. And my heart has found a new sore and dangerous terrain for both characters especially when Hugh’s life is described as “everything [becoming] repetition, the groove at the end of the record where the needle refuses to lift” (p. 70 & 311).
However, next to these things (after or before), I will always be haunted by never having read this book for the first time from the other direction. Of course, there will be other firsts: the first time I reread it having planned to reread it; the first time I reread it upon stumbling upon it when moving my books around; the first time I lend it to someone and then read it to “see” how they read it; the first time I assign it in a class and then read it again to imagine how my students might rebel against, purr into, or toss about when reading it. I can forever attempt to find the story that is the start and the story that is the end, but I imagine the truth is less easy. The answer is something I can only sense and I must let go of careful orders and forwards and backwards and other silly directions that only work to suggest there is such a thing as one way and then another.
About the reviewer:
Natanya Ann Pulley has a PhD in Fiction Writing from the University of Utah and is an Assistant Professor at the University of South Dakota. A writer of primarily fiction and non-fiction with outbreaks in poetry, Natanya’s publications include Western Humanities Review, The Florida Review Native Issue, Drunken Boat, As/Us, and McSweeney’s Open Letters(among others). Links to Natanya’s publications can be found at her website: www.gappsbasement.com