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July 25, 2014

Book Notes - Lance Olsen "Theories of Forgetting"


In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Lance Olsen's novel Theories of Forgetting is as challenging as it is rewarding, successfully weaving together three narratives told in distinctly different forms.

Brian Evenson wrote of the book:

"Lance Olsen's Theories of Forgetting is a remarkably fugue-like ode to the intricacies of memory. Offering two intersecting stories about illness, loss and forgetting, with annotations, this is an extremely smart and moving book about how our lives wind snail-like around one another as they risk flindering away into absence or death."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Lance Olsen's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, Theories of Forgetting:

Three narrative strands braid into my latest novel Theories of Forgetting.

The first involves the story of Alana, a filmmaker working on a short documentary about Robert Smithson's famous earthwork, The Spiral Jetty. She falls prey to a pandemic called The Frost, whose symptoms include an increasing sensation of coldness and growing amnesia.

The second involves Alana's husband, Hugh, owner of a bookstore in Salt Lake City, and his slow disappearance across Europe and Jordan on a trip both to remember and forget Alana's death. He gets drawn into the Sleeping Beauties, a rising global religious cult that worships barbiturates.

The third narrative strand involves marginalia added to Hugh's text (which may be a novel, and may be a warped autobiography) by his daughter, Aila, an art critic living in Berlin. Aila discovers her father's manuscript after his disappearance and tries to make sense of it by means of a one-sided conversation with her estranged brother, Lance.

So, depending on your tastes, it's a pretty weird novel, which calls for a pretty weird playlist, which what follows may or may not be, depending on your tastes. Each song registers, not what I was listening to while I wrote it (I don't listen to music while I write), but some large-ish aspect of it: mood, character, theme, structure, vision.

"Singing Color," by Pocahaunted

If there existed a soundtrack you should listen to while reading Theories of Forgetting, this would be it: a sample of P-haunt's gorgeous psychedelic drone sonics that, like my novel, take a certain amount of unhinged reality for granted. This song is what dreams sound like.

"Blessed is the Burning Room," by Controlled Bleeding

Because maybe of crossed phone wires, maybe something odder, down-and-nearly-out strangers begin leaving messages on Alana's voicemail asking her for existential advice. When she calls the phone company to complain, the tech on the other end puts her on hold. A muzak version of a Controlled Bleeding song—possibly this one—drifts in while Alana daydreams about the nerve gas testing accident that in 1968 left thousands of Skull Valley sheep dead near Salt Lake City. This song is for Alana.

"Haunted" by Poe

Poe—Mark Z. Danielewski's sister—composed the album (inspired by her discovery of a box of audio tapes of her late father's voice) on which this eponymous song appears in harmony with her brother's wildly important novel (at least for me) House of Leaves. Most readers think that novel is a riff on the horror film, but the real horror in both album and book has to do with the fact that the world is absences all the way down. The same is the case in Theories of Forgetting. You can feel Hugh's lack in every word of Aila's marginalia, hear his AWOL voice. Alana is nothing if not a growing gap as The Frost colonizes her body and prose. And the novel itself is a text of voids, silences, acoustic deserts, from crossed-out words to large swaths of white space. This song is for Hugh.

Anything by Laurie Anderson

"I'm not usually where I think I am. It's kind of spooky."

"The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet," by Frank Zappa

My cousin John Dasilva, who became a jazz trumpter later in life, called me down into his basement to listen to Freak Out!, the album on which this appears, sometime during the summer of 1966, a month or two after Zappa and The Mothers of Invention's released it. John was maybe seventeen, I was nine, and suddenly everything was possible. According to Zappa, this aural exploration began as a rhythm track that he never finished as intended. None of that mattered to me. What mattered was its complete auditory alterity, what Derrida once called monstrous thinking-otherwise.

It was also the first mention on a Mothers album of the mysterious Suzy Creamcheese. She was widely thought to be a fictional creation, but it turns out she is really a musician named Suzy Zeiger.

This song is for another real fictional creation, Aila, who in my mind embodies it.

"I've never worn fake eyelashes in my whole life," Suzy says in another Mothers song, "Uncle Meat." "And I never made it in the surfing set and I never made it in the beatnik set / and I couldn't cut the groupie set either."

"4'33''" by John Cage

Speaking of present absences, for this infamous three-movement composition the muscians are instructed not to play their instruments for precisely four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Initially then, the piece seems to be about silence. In fact, though, it's about the opposite—about how there's no such thing as real silence, about how the world is always alive with beautiful music we've been taught to think of as noise. Hugh, you may remember, disappears in the Jordanian desert on a trip there both to remember and to forget Alana's death. The desert is a space that always appears to be about the visual equivalent of silence: emptiness. But deserts are, again, just the opposite: spaces alive with color, movement, possibility to those willing to remain curious and pay attention. Aila has a running argument in her marginalia with her absent and apparently silent brother, Lance, who turns out, if you look at the opening pages of Theories of Forgetting, is the book's editor. In other words, in a sense his is the loudest voice there, not there, and not not there. This song is for him.

"The Suburbs" by Arcade Fire

Much of the plot of Theories of Forgetting takes place in the scariest place on earth: the American suburbs. In this case Salt Lake City, to be specific. And hence Win Butler sings: "So can you understand / Why I want a daughter while I'm still young? / I wanna hold her hand / And show her some beauty / Before this damage is done."

"The Future" by Leonard Cohen

Theories of Forgetting is set a handful of tomorrows in the future. Given its apocalyptic pandemic, its general investigation of entropology (a neologism Robert Smithson borrowed from Claude Lévi-Strauss that combines the concepts of entropy and anthropology within it, and denotes the study of things running down, running out, unraveling), I can't think of a better thematic audio-apotheosis than this by one of my favorite singers, whose voice personifies abraded loss: "I've seen the future, baby: / it is murder."

"Spiral Network" by Gene Coleman

A richly innovative piece influenced by the ideas of Buckminster Fuller that employs film clips of images from Japan and a mixture of voice, traditional Japanese and Western instruments, and electronica, "Spiral Network" uses the spiral shape as a shorthand for the vortex called complicated human thought. For me, it also serves as an emblem for my interest in Theories of Forgetting in how words matter—that is, my interest in the materiality of the page, and in how a literary work might react against mass reproduction and textual disembodiment in the digital age.

This interest manifests as soon as you pick up the book, which possesses two back covers (one "upside down" and one "right-side up"), but no front. Open the book, and you will discover each page is divided in half. Alana's narrative runs across the "top" of the page, from "back" to "front," while Hugh's and Aila's tale runs "upside down" across the "bottom" of the "page," from "front" to "back." How a reader initially happens to pick up Theories of Forgetting determines which narrative s/he reads first, thereby establishing the reader's meaning-making orientation with respect to the novel.

Some of the information in Hugh's narrative is incompatable with that in Alana's. Ditto vice versa, and with Aila's narrative. Whose narrative you engage with first colors your reading of the others.

Tour of Homes by Spiral Jetty

When Alana and Hugh first arrived in Salt Lake City from their university days in the Northwest, Robert Smithson's The Spiral Jetty had already forgotten itself. During its construction, Smithson believed the lake was receding. In fact, the water level was low due to a short-term drought. By the time the Hoboken band named in the sculpture's honor released its debut album, Tour of Homes (1985), whose sound combines those from another Hoboken band, The Feelies, and Sonic Youth, Smithson's Spiral Jetty had been submerged for nearly fifteen years. It would remain that way for fifteen more, specter of the original quivering just a few feet below the lake's surface. This song is dedicated to forgetting that can't be forgotten.

Anything by Laurie Anderson, redux (side a)

"People only stutter at the beginning of the word. They're not afraid when they get to the end of the word. There's just regret."

"Itchin' on a Photograph" by Grouplove

Interest in the materiality of the page, continued. Theories of Forgetting is laced with photographs, diagrams, and other visual addenda. What I love about photographs (many here of The Spiral Jetty itself) is that they are always about what isn't there, what is already gone, yet can't go away.

"Fade into You" by Mazzy Star

"You'll come apart and you'll go blind," Mazzy Star sings, and, in a sense, that's what Alana's narrative soon begins to do as The Frost reaches its hands inside her. Alana begins misspelling words, dropping phrases, falling off in mid-sentence. Her language undergoes slow erasure, a form of linguistic entropology. There is a link in a footnote in Theories of Forgetting to a video my partner Andi made that she didn't make. It's all about Smithson's Spiral Jetty and the idea of undoing, but it's by Alana. It's part of the film she's been working on, and you can find it here:

"Revolution #9" by the Beatles

Two years after Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention released Freak Out!, the Beatles released The White Album. Side four, track five: "Revolution 9," one of their most experimental works—part Yoko Ono's influence, part Karl Stockhausen's, and part Paul McCartney's ghost from his unreleased 1967 sound exploration, "Carnival of Light." But it was mostly John Lennon's work that fused and confused overdubbed vocals, track-looping, reversed musical performances, echoes, distortions, and strange fading.

The music critic Ian MacDonald once called the piece "a sensory attack on the citadel of the intellect: a revolution in the head." In retrospect I like that, but at the time I first heard it I had no idea what to make of the thing. That's exactly why I felt thrilled and curious in its presence. And that's exactly the feeling all innovative writing practices should engender, I think—a sense of language loss, a sense of wanting to develop a new way of speaking to capture what it is you're listening to, or reading, or seeing, because you've never experienced anything quite like it before. That's the feeling I'd like to engender in readers of Theories of Forgetting.

But like John Coltrane says: "Sometimes I wish I could walk up to my music for the first time, as if I had never heard it before. Being so inescapably a part of it, I'll never know what the listener gets, what the listener feels, and that's too bad."

Anything by Laurie Anderson, redux (side b)

"I hate zoos."

Audio Files of Arrhythmic Heartbeats by the American Medical Association

If there existed a second soundtrack you should listen to while reading Theories of Forgetting, this should be it. My partner Andi's father was a physician. He used to receive professional journals in the mail. One included one of those old-time floppy 45's packed with thirty-second audio clips of various sorts of arrythmic heartbeats for diagnostic purposes. When she was seven or eight, Andi used to put that record on her stereo up in her bedroom somewhere in the Des Moines, Iowa, suburbs and dance freeform to that not-quite-normal percussion track on her bed.

The images I have in my head of her footing it are the best album I've ever owned.

Lance Olsen and Theories of Forgetting links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Heavy Feather Review review
The Small Press Book Review review
Word Riot review

Bookslut interview with the author
Brooklyn Rail review

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists