The Choreography of Reading

Lance Olsen on Dreamlives of Debris

By Alex Behr

Craft Q&A

Lance Olsen. Readers of his new novel may “begin to think of reading as a kind of choreography.”

Lance Olsen’s new novel Dreamlives of Debris (Dzanc Books, 2017) explores the Thesesus and Minotaur myth through Debris, a deformed girl/monster hidden in a labyrinth—or what Olsen calls a “liquid architecture”. Each page, devoid of a page number, is a turn or fall in the labyrinth in which Debris accesses shimmers—voices—through history while navigating her desires. —Alex Behr

Alex Behr: The voice of Debris, the human-blood-drinking monster/girl: how did you access the voice of a girl and her longings?

Lance Olsen: Steven Pinker, the cognitive scientist, reminds us fiction is empathy technology. That’s one of its most important functions for me, both as writer and reader. I already know what I think and feel, more or less. But what’s miraculous is that fiction allows us to imagine others’ fears, desires, hopes, hurts. I’m interested in trying to imagine imaginations, ways of being, that aren’t me—different genders, races, occupations, times, modes of consciousness and feeling. That might be one way to answer your question. Another is that Debris is just like all of us, only more so. That is, we all carry monsters within us. Many of us like to pretend that isn’t the case. Be that as it may, it certainly accounts for my predilection from a very young age for science fiction and horror films and TV shows. Invariably I rooted for the teratoids because they felt much more like the humans than the humans did. I mean, just think of Roy Batty’s death scene in Blade Runner. A third way to answer your question might be along these lines: We are all scripted in good part by others. We exist as spaces in which a number of texts come together to blend and clash. (This is Roland Barthes’ observation, not mine.) Debris knows this only too well, whereas most of us don’t. She knows she performs as an instrument through which others speak, and it drives her mad. Literally. A last way to address your question: Once upon a time at a conference, someone asked Donald Barthelme what advice he would give to beginning authors. “Always write about what you’re afraid of,” he replied.

Behr: We use sanitized myths and fairy tales to teach children how to create story maps when they write fiction, yet your book deliberately resists cause/effect pattern (except there are causes and perilous effects of actions throughout). It resists a typical narrative. Do you want your book read in high school? Why do you think it’s so hard to break teachers/students of these ritualized rising action habits?

Olsen: From our infant years on, we hear certain narratives repeated over and over again—so much so, in fact, they begin to sound like the truth, even though, of course, they’re not: they’re just a few ways of arranging the world among myriad ones. I’ve always been drawn to writing that challenges those received narratives and their assumptions about existence, structure—about, in other words, how life flies at us. So I’m continuously urging my students to ask themselves how they can write their contemporary without rewriting their past. One’s response will open possibility spaces that will help one’s writing practices become themselves rather than someone else’s. Which is a roundabout answer to your question about high school: yes, although I suspect not many high schools would agree with me.

Behr: Did you choose the Minotaur myth because you have an interest/obsession in mazes? Do you/did you draw them?

Olsen: I like that you used the word “maze” rather than “labyrinth,” the one usually associated with the Minotaur myth. Labyrinths are unicursal; they possess only one way in and one way out. Mazes, on the other hand, have many entrances and exits. So, yes, I think of the maze as the central metaphor at work in Dreamlives of Debris, but a special subset of maze: an impossible liquid architecture that bears no center and hence no discernible perimeter. In our post-facts contemporary, one could argue it’s become that sort of maze all the way down. I imagine it, therefore, not just as a structure, then, but as a method of knowing, a method 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.

Behr: Where were you when you wrote most of this novel? I know you spend some time in Utah, Idaho, and Berlin. Each land is home to myths that may be far from Greek ones, but might have echoes of mazes/labyrinths. Did any physical space help you write?

Olsen: I wrote Dreamlives of Debris in all three of the physical spaces you mention—Utah, Idaho, and Berlin—but for me it’s the last of those that formed the deep existential territory of the novel. Berlin is especially conducive to the dérive because it doesn’t possess the orienting axes of, say, Paris or New York. It is a gallimaufry space, a city that’s grown out of a bog (the word Berlin seems to be related to the Old West Slavic for swamp, berl, even though folk etymology connects it to the Bär, German for bear, an image that appears on the city’s coat of arms) like salt crystals on the rocks that comprise Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty on the northern shore of the Great Salt Lake near where I live and work (and another sort of labyrinth—rather than maze—suggesting, as so many do, spiritual contemplation, a movement from one world to the next, a zone of transformation). On a single block in Berlin, the gentrified 19th century dwells next to the crumbling 18th dwells next to the frayed East German dwells next to the clean Bauhaus dwells next to a McDonald’s, a trendy café, an untrendy Indian or Vietnamese or Turkish bistro, a hip club, a currywurst stand, a bit of leftover Wall (now graffitied and encrusted with bubble gum), a five-story bunker built by Albert Speer that couldn’t be blown up after the war because it was so massive, and so was transformed (after an earlier iteration as the hottest site for techno raves and gay sadomasochistic festivities in Germany) into a gallery by the Polish advertising entrepreneur Christian Boros. Berlin feels disorienting because it is disoriented. That’s what I love about it. I can’t conceive of writing a normative novel there.

Behr: While in the Strand recently (its own labyrinth), I bought a Paris Review and read an interview with Susan Howe. Can you respond to this quote and how it connects to creating Dreamlives? “Howe: William James says that in times of trauma and crisis a door is opened to a place where facts and apparitions mix. I wrote Frolic Architecture shortly after my husband Peter Hare’s sudden death from a pulmonary embolism in 2008. I was constructing what I thought was a collaged text, often while listening to Morton Feldman’s music and John Adams’s Shaker Loops. As I moved between computer screen, printer, and copier, scissoring and reattaching words and scraps of letters, I thought, I’ve never gone as far or felt as free.” Howe also says that as she looked through archives of private work on a light table, the sister of an author she was researching became Narcissus, reflecting and reflected. There’s a level at which words are spirit and paper is skin. That’s the fascination of archives. There’s still a bodily trace.” How did you collect the material for Dreamlives, and do you share her feeling about the bodily trace in letters and other ephemera?

Olsen: What beautiful quotes by such an extraordinary writer, and absolutely: this goes back to my point about how we’re all, essentially, collages—amalgams of texts. This is Roland Barthes’ point in his seminal 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author.” Our writing is always archival, although usually unconsciously so. In Dreamlives, I simply literalize the metaphor. It is a text performing its own making.

Let me answer in a slightly different key. For the last decade or so I’ve been as much committed to building a novel as writing one. So I laid out Dreamlives myself in InDesign. Every page is a perfect square representing a different textual room in Debris’ maze. And each arrives without a page number, and thus as a reader it’s easy to become disoriented, lost, in a way that rhymes with Debris and her victims. Because Dreamlives arrives with no conventional location markers, the reader may feel, not only more or less adrift, but also a little freer to jump around, to begin to think of reading as a kind of choreography, taking various paths as the mood strikes, for as long as the mood strikes, and then perhaps wandering off in a different direction.

Collage-as-structure, I’ve found, cuts off, closes off, even as it opens up and out as a series of surprising juxtapositions, interpolations, quotations, irruptions, invitations, reiterations that feel wholly new, and not wholly new, and not not wholly new.

The cover of “Dreamlives of Debris.”

Behr: Interesting that Minotaur connects to Moloch from the Near East, a god that also fed on virgin girls and boys. Supposedly they were sacrificed into the flaming mouth of a bronze statue of the monster (head of a bull / body of a man): yet you chose a deformed girl as your monster. “I was very young. I could barely toddle across a chamber from wall to wall. Apis carried a clay bowl stacked with pastry squares made from paper-thin sheets of dough layered with chopped dates, honey, and buttery oil mixed with Athenian blood.” Was Debris-as-girl a feminist choice? Debris reminds me the sybil/oracle. Was that an intent, too?

Olsen: When we retell myths, fairytales, novels, poems, plays from points of view other than the “original” (and I use the term loosely), we make them our own rather than somebody else’s. We rewrite the past, and, at least from our perspective, re-right it. I wanted to gender the idea of monstrosity, make Debris a little deformed girl, so that I could explore how our culture has often conceptualized the feminine as the horrendous incarnate in order to contain and silence it in various social mazes beneath various poleis. I also wanted to explore an aesthetics of the “ugly,” both at the level of theme and structure. In form, Dreamlives, after all, is a kind of monster, too.

Through a perhaps disparate set of optics, Debris is a kind of postmodern oracle in the tradition of, say, Cassandra, who speaks truths others either can’t understand or don’t believe. Classical Cassandra (all oracles, really) is a metaphor for the artist. Debris possesses the ability to hear, see, and feel the thoughts, memories, desires, pasts and futures of others throughout history, from Herodotus to the Silk Route traders to Borges, Derrida, and Edward Snowden. In fact—and this is her gift-as-nightmare—she can’t stop herself from receiving all those voices speaking through her.

So she’s a kind of living instrument through which time travels, but also an emblem for our lived experience in 2017, in which temporality often feels like a flurry of abrupt slaps.

“The idea of interruption—that needle picked up in midsong—is also, I hope, an essential part of the reading experience.”

Behr: Did you end some sections with an em dash because you don’t intend the book to be read linearly, or is it like a needle picked up midsong?

Olsen: Both. Since there’s no real beginning, middle, or end to Debris’ story, and no page numbers to guide one, there’s no particular pressure on the reader to move from start to finish, even though the form of the codex may suggest as much. To that extent, I guess one could think of Dreamlives as a hypertext written with atoms instead of bytes. But the idea of interruption—that needle picked up in midsong—is also, I hope, an essential part of the reading experience: that feeling many of us have of the contemporary as a network of distractions and almost-completions. Every new page in Debris should—to switch metaphors—feel a little like every click of our mouse on the web: a moment of disorientation followed by a moment of orientation followed, unfailingly, by a moment of disorientation, forever.

Behr: A quote from Apis the Healer: “Because in the slick rust-gray entrails of a sacrificial goat I once divined there exist no monsters, only creatures appearing among us for the first time—and hence ones we are unable to recognize for what they are. These shocks to our lives should be treated as holy beings for which we do not yet possess a name. They arrive to teach us how to unlearn everything we thought we once knew.” What do you think of destination “trips,” in which people go to Peru and consume medicinal psychoactive drugs, perhaps as ways to understand death? Have you taken mushrooms or acid? How have those experiences affected your writing?

Olsen in the Métropole in Rouen, France, a cafe once frequented by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

Olsen: “Assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients,” Annie Dillard once wrote. “That is, after all, the case. What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?” Which is another way of saying one doesn’t need to go to Peru and/or consume psychoactive drugs to understand death. All one needs to do is fathom that monster always-already lives inside every one of your cells. So while I very lightly dabbled in some drugs when I was younger, I soon came to feel I would rather be awake when I’m awake.

For me, Apis the Healer’s quote is about something else—that we tend to experience the new, the unfamiliar, as monstrous, and that that experience can be a positive one: it can teach us to unlearn normative ways of perceiving.

Behr: This is a translation of the Minotaur tale from Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca E1.7-1.9: “[Ariadne] pleaded with Daidalos (Daedalus) to tell her the way out of the labyrinth. Following his instructions, she gave Theseus a ball of thread as he entered. He fastened this to the door and let it trail behind him as he went in. He came across the Minotauros in the furthest section of the labyrinth, killed him with jabs of his fist, and then made his way out again by pulling himself along the thread.” Do you feel there is a thread in your novel to find a way in and out? Or is it for each reader to find?

Olsen: I like to remember that Ariadne’s skein of string is also known as a clew of string — a phonetic variant of clue: namely, that which points the way toward resolution, and that in Dreamlives both the clew and clues no longer work, no longer add up to product, but rather remain process. If all goes well, the only out to that narrative is further in—which may sound faux-profound, but which is really the way all novels operate. Again, I’m simply literalizing a metaphor to point out we never finish reading a novel. Rather, we enter into an active relationship to it, encountering a new one every time we enter, because, inarguably, we’re always different people, both cellularly and existentially; because our memories are fallible, and so we recall this patch of words, but not that; because between one reading and another we have encountered a slew of other texts that have had their impact on our us-ness; and so on. For me, that’s one of the magnificent and astonishing things about the Heraclitean act of reading.

Behr: I took a hybrid workshop in which we discussed works by Dao Strom, Samiya Bashir, Claudia Rankine, and Maggie Nelson with these lenses: classification, insertion, annotation, speed. Would any of these lenses appeal to you when you read or teach? How would you apply one to Dreamlives?

Olsen: All of those lenses appeal to me and might prove fruitful applied to Dreamlives, but let me settle momentarily on the idea of speed. The theorist N. Katharine Hayles makes what I find a tremendously helpful distinction between two cognitive modes, deep attention and hyper attention. Deep attention, usually associated with normative writing and reading practices, is the sort that asks us to concentrate on a single object thoroughly for an extended period of time. Think of your experience, for instance, of reading a novel by, say, Dostoevsky or Balzac. Hyper attention, on the other hand, switches focus rapidly and often. It is attention with the jitters. Think of your experience, for example, of navigating a video game like, say, Berserk and the Band of the Hawk.

Oddly, so-called experimental writing practices often invite you to employ both cognitive modes simultaneously: an intense, extended focus coupled with a quick-scanning function in order to discern both the deep-structure rules and limits of serious play.

Or I might use the idea of speed in a very different way to illuminate innovative writing/reading practices in the classroom and out. One difference between art and entertainment has to do with the speed of perception. Art deliberately slows and complicates reading, hearing, and/or viewing so we are challenged to re-think and re-feel structure and experience. Entertainment deliberately accelerates and simplifies them so we don’t have to think about or feel very much of anything at all except a certain adrenaline rush before spectacle. I’m interested in writing and reading against simplicity, renewing what I think of as The Difficult Imagination—that dense space in which we are asked continuously to envision the text of the text, the text of our lives, and the text of the world other than they are, and thus contemplate the idea of fundamental change in all three. This isn’t simply an aesthetic but also a political undertaking.

In other words, The Difficult Imagination is an area of impeded accessibility essential for human freedom, where we discover the perpetual manifestation of Nietzsche’s notion of the unconditional, Derrida’s of a privileged instability, Viktor Shklovsky’s ambition for art and Martin Heidegger’s for philosophy: the return, through complexity and challenge (not predictability and ease) to attention, contemplation, and change.


Lance Olsen is the author of thirteen novels, one hypertext, six nonfiction works, five short-story collections, a poetry chapbook, and two anti-textbooks about innovative writing, as well as editor of two collections of essays about innovative contemporary fiction. Olsen currently teaches experimental narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah. He serves as Chair of the Board of Directors at Fiction Collective Two; founded in 1974, FC2 is one of America's best-known ongoing literary experiments and progressive art communities.

Alex Behr is the author of the story collection Planet Grim (7.13 Books). Her last interview for Propeller was with author Margaret Malone.