Lance Olsen’s writing takes numerous risks on the page–from unorthodox structures and narrative lenses to stylized layouts across the physical book itself. His latest novel, Dreamlives of Debris, is a retelling of the story of the Minotaur that weaves in a host of much more contemporary concerns. It’s a dizzying work of fiction, and a bold one in terms of its ability to address issues both ancient and current. I talked with Olsen about his approach to this book, the attraction of retelling older narratives, and more.
Dreamlives of Debris juxtaposes a version of the Minotaur story with much more contemporary concerns. When did you first get the idea to juxtapose the two?
I don’t see what I’m doing as juxtaposition, exactly, so much as an exploration of how the past is always infected with our present, our present with the past.
The central point of view of Dreamlives of Debris rests with the Minotaur. Here, though, we’re not talking about a monster with bull’s head and human’s body, but rather a little deformed girl whose parents hide her away at birth from public view in the labyrinth below Knossos. She calls herself Debris, and possesses the ability to hear/see/feel the thoughts, memories, desires, pasts and futures of others throughout history, from Herodotus to Silk Route traders to Borges, Derrida, and Edward Snowden. In fact, she can’t stop herself from receiving all those voices speaking through her, which arrives as a continuous shock. The only thing worse than hearing the voices, she learns, is when they go silent.
Debris, then, is a kind of living instrument through which time travels, but also an emblem for our lived experience, in which temporality often feels like a flurry of abrupt slaps. The question for me was how to generate that sensation in a reader.
How did you go about finding the more contemporary voices that you juxtapose with the action of the novel?
Whenever I begin to imagine a new work into being, the first thing I do is search for its guiding metaphor. I follow that metaphor down through the text from overarching structure all the way to grammar, syntax, word choice. I’m much less interested in conventional narrative components — plot, say, or what usually comes to mind when we conceive of fully-rounded character (Debris feels like something else to me) — than I am in thinkfeeling through that controlling metaphor. In Dreamlives, it takes the form of the labyrinth where Debris lives — an impossible liquid architecture that bears no center and hence no discernable perimeter.
In our post-truth contemporary, it’s become labyrinth all the way down. That is, I imagine the labyrinth, not just as a structure, but as a way of knowing, a way of being, an extended and dense metaphor for our current sense of presentness — the impression, for instance, that we are always awash in massive, contradictory, networked, centerless data fields that may lead everywhere and nowhere at once.
Debris is our problematics of knowledge in human form. She suffers a kind of information sickness.
The voices that speak through her are meant to suggest various aspects of the contemporary, this crazy networked unreality we inhabit: Derrida, for instance, as maze thinker; Julian Assange as anarchic data liberator, a Shiva-esque creator and destroyer; Mandelbrots as fractal cousin of the labyrinth.
Debris is both a fearsome character and a physically unassuming one. Where did that idea – and the larger questions of what makes someone or something monstrous – come from?
Maybe weirdly, I think of Debris less as fearsome or unassuming than as hurt, enraged, lonely, vulnerable, brilliant, frightened, naïve, and, finally, loveable — all of which is to say as heart-hammeringly human. I’ve been obsessed with cultural notions of monstrosity ever since I got addicted to horror and science fiction films as a kid. (In many ways, Dreamlives is a hybrid horror-cum-SF novel in the key of the innovative, or experimental, or whatever you want to call it.) Like most people, I sense, I often respond more deeply to the Frankensteins, Mothras, Terminators, and Aliens than I do to the so-called people. In part that’s because the monsters tend to strike me as more human than the wooden humans trying to eradicate them. (To see what I mean, just think of Roy Batty in that amazing last scene in Blade Runner.)
Another way of saying this: most of us wear our monsters on the inside. Debris is just like us, only more so — she wears her insides and her outside.
I also wanted to gender the idea of monstrosity, make Debris a little girl, so that I could explore how our culture has often conceptualized the feminine as the monstrous incarnate in order to contain and silence it in various social labyrinths beneath the polis.
Lidia Yuknavitch wrote the introduction to your novel, and both of you have experience retelling centuries-old stories using avant-garde techniques. What do you find to be the appeal of that approach to storytelling?
Our culture has always felt retelling essential to the act of knowing. Virgil retells the Odyssey, as does James Joyce. Robert Coover retells fairy tales, Kathy Acker The Scarlet Letter and Don Quixote — the latter arguably a retelling of all romance narratives preceding it. One could argue, more broadly, that every narrative is a retelling of former ones in the sense that every narrative is in constant conversation with the genre in which it’s working, which is to say all examples of it. Every love story, for instance, is a reiteration of all those that went before.
That insight becomes fascinating when we look at which myths, fairytales, ur-stories each age finds it necessary to rewrite — and by rewriting re-righting, bringing them into contemporary experience. Through retellings we un-tell, compose our present rather than simply perpetuating someone else’s past, interrogate the assumptions of received narratives and recast them so they continue to mean for us.
By doing so, we remind ourselves that there are always other ways to narrativize our lives, which is to say other ways to live them, other ways of scripting them than the ones we’ve been taught.
Given that you’re hearkening back to myths that date to the time when oral storytelling was the default mode, did that have any influence on the format of this book?
Almost yearly I teach the Odyssey — strangely, maybe, in my course on Modernism, as a companion piece to Joyce’s Ulysses. What’s stunning to me is how that pivotal text represents one of the moments in Western culture — 2800 hundred years ago, no less — when myriad oral traditions solidified and stabilized into the written. For me what echoes from that moment in Dreamlives of Debris is the oral tradition’s attention to rhythm, repetition, and the complex urge to narrate — a word deriving from the Indo-European root gno, which comes into our language as know. Storytelling, that is, is the manifestation of a culture’s need to find cosmos in chaos.
The problem for Debris, as for so many of us, however, is that all the voices of history speak through her in a kind of narrative maelstrom, yet there’s no longer anyone there to listen, sort, and make sense of the rush.
Your work frequently makes use of unorthodox structures and page layouts. How did you go about finding the right way to tell this particular story?
I went back to that overarching metaphor of the labyrinth. I should mention I laid out Dreamlives because I was as interested in building a novel as in writing one. Every page is a perfect square loud with white space. Each represents a different room in Debris’ labyrinth (which she refers to as her heart). And each arrives without a page number, so it’s easy to become disoriented, lost, as a reader, just as Debris and her victims become disoriented, lost. Because the novel arrives with no conventional location markers, the reader may feel a little freer to jump around, begin to think of reading as a mode of choreography, a way of being in the world, taking various paths as the mood strikes, for as long as the mood strikes, then perhaps wandering off in a different direction.
I guess this comes as no surprise to anybody, but I’m not a strong believer in linear narrative, alluring as it might seem. Linearity teaches us through its structure that life is an interlocking whole that moves uniformly and comprehensibly from beginning to end. But my sense of being alive is very nearly the opposite.
The real story is that life isn’t one.
Photo: Andi Olsen