Fallout, Carry On
By Lance Olsen
FC2: University of Alabama, 2010
[Keith] Haring’s work is … Look. It’s simply too goddamn easy to like, That’s the problem. In the same way, say, Vonnegut’s last fifty or sixty novels have been simply too goddamn easy to like. They’re about as complex, emotionally and intellectually resonant, and revealing of the human condition as a tube of Prell.
This offhand literary criticism, delivered at a dinner party by a popinjay named Jerome about thirty pages into Lance Olsen’s massively likeable new novel confirmed my growing suspicion that Olsen’s primary mode of engagement, of reader-stoking, is the dare. Though Olsen is superior as a thinker and novelist, Kurt Vonnegut did come to mind, as did Gilbert Sorrentino, while I read the twelve separate stories cut up into Calendar of Regrets. Like Olsen, both Vonnegut and Sorrentino fractured their narratives, scrambling the order of events and further indulging in a number of asides – digressions in their plots and digressions on the level of language – but neither had designs on being difficult or self-consciously avant garde. Both were having fun, dipping into and out of the story where it suited them, mugging, flirting, daring the reader to say “don’t,” daring the reader to find lines of meaning, trace them through the book, and adjudge them deliberate. This is true of Olsen too.
There are twelve major stories in Calendar of Regrets: among them, a Christian suicide bomber’s second thoughts on the way to a mosque, William Tager’s physical assault on Dan Rather in 1986, the imagined story of Tager’s subsequent psychiatric sessions, and Iphigenia’s sacrifice at the hands of her father Agamemnon. Each story (save one in the middle) is interrupted at its midpoint by the next, and each picks up again in reverse order in the second half of the book – stories consequently envelop each other like matryoshka dolls or, to acknowledge the calendar in the book’s title, reoccur like months and days. (I described the structure of the book to a friend the other day and he said, “I thought that was just Cloud Atlas. Is that like a thing that people do now?” I said I guessed it was).
Each of the twelve stories is designated by a different month and each is differently structured (one, a story about a boy born as a notebook, is obviously magical realism in the Joe Hill mode; another, about a man getting lost on foot in Burma, is a realist epistolary travelogue; etc). All of these stories are wry, absorbing, readable, and suspenseful, but what do they really have in common? Olsen dares us to speculate, then throws in more stories.
In the novel’s second section, “October,” Dan Rather entertains fellow dinner guests with a description of the fallout he’s just been reporting on at Chernobyl:
… in a real sense this was why he existed: to shake people up. This was his job. Every night at six o’clock he took his seat before the cameras, straightened his tie, and made people feel uncomfortable. He was the guy who told the country that their thirty-fifth president had just been assassinated, that they couldn’t win the war they were waging in Southeast Asia, that the space shuttle had shredded seventy-three seconds after liftoff and yet the crew survived for an additional minute, maybe more.
A dare: Vonnegut’s bromides vs. Rather’s provocations. Are we to judge one the better actor? Calendar of Regrets itself is playful rather than solemn – does this impinge on its profundity? So much of the pleasure of reading this book is that questions like these are left open enough to excite the reader. In the suicide bomber story a woman who straps herself into explosive lederhosen is named the phonetically wry “Iphi”; by clapping this story alongside a re-imagining of the sacrifice of Iphigenia, Olsen is daring us to make connections. What, besides mortality, do both woman share? And of course there is another suicide bomber in the book, also a woman, though I won’t give away so much of the plot as to say who it is. How do the stories of these three triangulate? Well, the answer’s not simple—it’s not even an answer.
Motifs in clusters play through these stories: the near-death and the afterlife, the likelihood that both earth and heaven are synonyms of hell, the perils of the mundane, high culture vs. low, revelation. As each theme appears, Olsen dares his readers further: connect this, make sense of it. But with so many stories digressing into one another and depending each from each, there is no way to simply draw a straight line. When, on pages 214 and 215, a border of text forces the reader to physically turn the book 360 degrees, I began to get a sense of how multi-dimensional Calendar of Regrets was intended to be – and largely succeeds in being. The stories, too, work in several dimensions: the calendar page becomes a Rubik’s cube; one story ends mid-sentence where the next picks it up; the relics of one set of characters appear in the body of THE MAN WITH THE BORROWED ORGANS in his own tale. In the story of two fairy tale Finnish boys discovering a wounded angel and carrying her to safety, that multiplicity of dimensions is literal:
It becomes night becomes day becomes night, each time they blink.
Sometimes they wake to find it is snowing heavily. The lake vanishes in a boil of flakes. Sometimes they wake to find the mid-summer sun brutalizing the arid countryside all the way to the dusty apricot horizon. Without warning, the voluminous bluegreen clouds of northern lights churn above them. Without warning, the boys are freezing. Their skin is oily with perspiration. It is raining. They discover themselves slipping and stumbling with their precious cargo through the mud. No. Autumnal reds and yellows rust the low foliage around them. No. It is a perfect spring dawn, only there are no birds anywhere, no signs of life far as the eye can see.
When physically close to the wounded and blindfolded angel, time speeds up around them. The “insectile” angel speaks to them, but they can’t understand what she’s saying:
The second Jarmo’s fingertips contact her gown, the angel begins speaking to him without moving her lips, explaining, perhaps, explaining or describing, traveling with him without stirring, and yet her soliloquy is lost on the boy, for he misunderstands every word she utters, replacing each syllable with another that starts with the same letter of the alphabet but appears slightly earlier in the lexicon. So all he can think of as he removes his hand from her shoulder is the chatter of coins falling from one of his palms into the other.
Another dare: is Calendar of Regrets a kind of code? Are its characters poised a step away from what they mean to be? Or are each of these stories mistranslations of the others? If Lance Olsen were Michael Cunningham, Calendar of Regrets would be Specimen Days, and the same archetypes would simply reappear in different centuries and different stories. But Iphi isn’t Iphigenia, Dan Rather isn’t Hieronymus Bosch. They’re connected not by shared fates, but by shared striates.
Dan Rather’s assailant, William Tager, is the teller of the angel tale. He too lives in another dimension: “We all live right beside our twins all the time, only in a different universe. There are an infinite number of them. This is common knowledge among physicists.” He too is both here and not here. In “December,” a traveling writer observes a dog, “scratching his ribcage absentmindedly with a hind leg, staring straight ahead, as if the locals were moving in a less interesting dimension than the one he inhabits.”
And as we read the eerie and gorgeous parable of the Finnish boys and their angel, we think of Bosch’s story – the first story in Calendar – in which the young artist is persuaded to paint our world as an image of hell by the trauma of seeing his town destroyed by fire. A burning girl appears, a kind of angel in pain. Years later, when old Bosch suffers a stroke, she appears to guide him through a void, the void in which one endlessly falls after death.
This kind of serious playfulness is not a question – or a series of questions – to be definitely answered, but a beautiful shape, a nautilus worth owning for its own sake.
Beginnings give way to trauma out of which blooms not so much an ending as a carrying on. From “October”: “Enjoy your firm asses and baby fat while you can, my pretties.” All of these tales tell of characters (or environments) in extremis. The first halves of a few end, for example, with Bosch hitting the floor, dying; with Dan Rather, the distinguished public man, fleeing for his life; with the “wild chemical broth” of the Salton Sea spawning “monstrous algal blooms.” The worst thing happens: a little girl is led to sacrifice—and then what? “It was an ordinary day and then it was a horror”—and then?
Then something happens, time moves on: we have a sandwich, or buy a ticket, or we’re permitted a glimpse at how the world we’d dreamed would have come to nothing better if we’d been able to keep dreaming, or we disappear.
At that same dinner party in 1986, Dan Rather describes Chernobyl:
On windy days, there are localized radioactive dust storms. Stay in one for three minutes, and your organs start falling apart.
Robert stubbed out his butt in a large glass ashtray swirled with orange.
You call that a happy ending? He said. He turned to Jerome: This is why people delight in Haring, you know.
Jerome looked like a student called on unexpectedly.
I’ve lost you, he said.
Who wouldn’t want to gawk at a stupid painting of two guys draining each other’s little Elvises than listen to this sort of thing Robert asked. And it’s people like you, Dan, who are ultimately responsible for people like Haring’s success.
You should be ashamed of yourself, bringing all this goddamn reality into the American public’s living room night after night. No wonder art is going to hell in a handbasket designed by Basquiat.
At Chernobyl, the world ended. Miles away, dinner parties blithely persisted, time didn’t stop, the fallout took up maybe five minutes of a few diners in the midst of a conversation about design.
Talking of which, it’s worth noting that Olsen’s wife, the artist Andi Olsen, has helped him to make a striking interior design for this book. The text breaks up, runs diagonally, and at times reads straight across two pages; there are beautiful black and white photographs of Burma; the margins are blessedly generous and the font is perfectly sized and enticing to the reading eye. I wish, however, that I could be as enthusiastic about the binding. On my second read (and I’m not a rough reader), pages started coming loose. Pages 11 to 18, in fact, were my bookmark. I don’t know what printer the University of Alabama Press customarily uses, but I’d advise them to use more glue, a lot more.
And I speak here advisedly of the strength of pages, because they’ll be turned with force. Calendar of Regrets is one of those wonderful monsters, the intellectual page-turner. I raced through this book on my first read – on the subway, while my students were testing, when the house was asleep – and then found myself racing through it a second time. The language is quite fine but the suspense built into each story propels the reader past it. One’s mind races, too, with increasing wonder at the wealth of worlds and perspectives into which we dip: 16th century Belgium, the mind of a modern suburban paranoid, Boeotia in 700 B.C., and the pregnant anecdotes of a strung-out traveler in Burma in the 1970s, all of which show different faces of a million-faceted world. This is a world that keeps finishing and starting again, falling out and recollecting anew, stopping for good and not stopping. This is a book which wrests us from the world we create for ourselves even as it widens that same world.
John Cotter is Executive Editor at Open Letters Monthly. His first novel, Under the Small Lights, was published in June 2010 by Miami University Press.