Different Routes to Rarified Airby John Domini
Dreamlives of Debris
(Dzanc Books, 2017)
(Coffee House Press, 2017)
Both these texts expand the mind, taking the reading experience to places most never risk. One, Dreamlives of Debris, gets up into rarified air indeed, cleansing the system. As for The Gift, that’s perhaps less bracing, but always tangy and whip-smart. Before I explain further, however, I’ve got to look back half a century.
In 1963 Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Pour un nouveau roman appeared, which argued that for the novel to remain vital, it needed to change; in ’67, with “The Literature of Exhaustion,” John Barth made the same case. Those works (and others) now trace a cultural watershed, on one side tradition and on the other experiment, but the silting has all but buried the authors’ own mad skills. Both Barth and Robbe-Grillett were born to make book-length narrative; the iconoclasts themselves produced breathtaking icons. This remains what people don’t get: it takes a true novelist to dream up a new novel. It takes the likes of Lance Olsen and Barbara Browning, who care enough about where they’re going to carve out distinctly different routes.
Browning has a two earlier novels, which drew award notice, but she’s also a dancer, musician, and activist, teaching Performance Studies at NYU’s Tisch School. All these interests liven up The Gift, which often features “weird naked performance art.” The description also suits her own dances, sampled in photos here and there. An opening note provides the website for viewing these “nine dances referenced,” and online only the last resembles what most people would call a dance, with music and a performer seen full-body. But Browning’s costume is see-through, the music mostly bird-song, and in going from video to novel, likewise, the ambience remains that of a long night on the Lower East Side. It’s easy to spot the out-of-towner: “Frankly, he didn’t look like a typical audience member for Movement Research. He looked like a regular guy. He had a pretty normal haircut.”
Such self-deprecating charm helps warm us to narrator, “Barbara Andersen.” Though an inveterate Bohemian, she tends to simple constructions (“Sami’s father was stunning”) and in some regards looks like a regular guy. She’s caught in a generational sandwich, with a college-age son sharing her apartment and a mother in a nursing home. The mother, a crotchety wit now suffering spells of dementia, would be this fiction’s most sympathetic figure—except, like everyone else, she’s not so fictional. The dancer in the text is separated from the one in the videos by a veil as gauzy as the one in her performance. The Gift often refers to its own composition and shares quotidian flotsam: “I <3 marathon texting w u.” An early climax (triggered by a Brooklyn Rail piece) takes the form of single-line paragraphs confessing that the novel doesn’t use the “real name” for its major players. It’s not news, exactly, but it’s crucial to Browning’s magic, moving matter-of-factly through balletic material.
Likewise engaging is the sweet thought in the title. The opening pages lay out two readings for the word, relating how Lewis Hyde arrived at his famous Gift by reinterpreting an earlier work of anthropology. Thereafter the notion goes through many hands, now down at Occupy Wall Street, seeking a “gift economy” to replace capitalism, and now with “lover” never encountered in the flesh. Via phone and internet, rather, Barbara exchanges an improbable array of gifts, including the dances, with an improbable German recluse she discovered through his music.
This “Sami” too inhabits the demimonde, and in no time the two start violating boundaries, though the affair never stoops to phone- or cyber-sex. The man’s too much of a hot mess for that. His disorders, rather, prompt fascinating speculation, and when he and Barbara speak of love as a form of autism, it may also define their text. We may have a dissociative love story, here, its antagonist the volatile Olivia, Barbara’s lover IRL. The problems intrigue, they flicker with heartache, but everyone involved keeps pausing for another weird naked performance. These are rendered wittily, sharply, but they never achieve the compulsion generated by Ben Lerner, whose Leaving the Atocha Station draws a significant mention. Lerner too keeps things brainy, sexy, and close to autobiography, and this Gift can’t quite match his, in winning that virtual lover we call the reader.
In Dreamlives of Debris, the artist shadowing Lance Olsen is equally formidable, namely Anne Carson. Like Carson in her Red books, Olsen works with Greek mythology and plays with the form of a narrative bound in pages. His varietal has an odd shape, square, and no numbers for keeping track; I count about 250 pages, including the cheerleader’s intro by Lidia Yuknavitch. Also Olsen’s Minotaur story sometimes breaks down into what you might call a prose-like spatter:
:::: CATASTROPHE CHORUS
Why do monsters cease?
Now, that question about monsters, by this point in the text, has a greater resonance. You might say it’s central to the plot, since what makes the Minotaur “cease” hangs over the whole. From the first we expect Theseus, and the possibility of some alternative outcome—could the beast escape?—eventually stands in for novelistic suspense.
So when Olsen does develop a sequence of events, the focus is never on hero vs. monster. Dreamlives does sketch in the myth, via his primary narrator “Debris,” a/k/a the Minotaur. The first twenty or so pages all bear the “DEBRIS” headline, and stay with the creature, its birth and raising. The thing is female, and that’s strange, but much else sounds familiar: the decadent royals of Crete, the Athenians slaughtered in the maze. You’d almost call the opening reader-friendly, if not for the prose-like spatter:
Daedalus designed my heart. Maybe I should mention that. Maybe I already have...
His nomad mind lives in the bloodless body of a man-sized toad sans ass.
Note the poetic distortions, like “heart” for labyrinth. Olsen has never lacked for verbal pyrotechnics, but his peak to date, among a couple of dozen titles, came with the novels Head in Flames (2009) and Calendar of Regrets (2010). Both engaged with contemporary crises and therefore used plainer language. Here he’s set his prose free—the voice of Debris’ mother, for instance, is “star smearage”—by stepping outside history.
“Stories that make sense,” Debris declares, “are called lies,” whereas “stories that maze you… are called the whirled.” A terrific pun, that last word again sets off resonances throughout the novel. Dreamlives whirls dreamlike, its settings unsettled even during the early chapters. The language isn’t just poetic, it’s telegraphic, and scenes take place at warp speed. Then, once Olsen’s finished his set-up, he begins to interpolate other voices, each in its own “Song.” The first, “J.G. BALLARD SONG,” is a provocative koan: “all clocks are labyrinths.”
As Time plays hide-&-seek, it lurks everywhere from a patchy Minoan fresco to a happenin’ Berlin disco, in a span of reference that owes something to Carson. But Olsen earns his own effects. At one point he sets the formal rigor of St. Augustine against a smart-aleck remark of St. Thomas Aquinas: “Is the labyrinth a plan for a prison, or the instructions for a dance?” Then too, isn’t the Aquinas line another that threads through all the whorls of this text, now grim and now playful? No less than a wonderment, this is fiction that obliterates walls even as it draws you in. Indeed, one of the few stable points about Dreamlives is its utter difference from Gift: in no way autobiographical and rhetorically glittering. The nouveau roman couldn’t ask for two copains more diverse, or more beguiling.
JOHN DOMINI's latest book is The Sea-God's Herb, selected criticism, and in 2016 he will bring out a new set of stories, MOVIEOLA!