April 3, 2017
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Lance Olsen's new novel Dreamlives of Debris is a marvelously inventive retelling of the Minotaur myth.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:
"Olsen frequently heads into challenging territory, whether through the juxtaposition of current events with revisionist takes on mythology or through the haunting, fragmented manner in which the story plays out. A reference late in the novel to the work of filmmakers Werner Herzog and David Lynch suggests that not all of Olsen’s aesthetic reference points are literary, and it also suggests a larger structure in which experimental techniques are used to achieve a deeper emotional truth. In this way, the novel manages to be simultaneously experimental and accessible."
Dreamlives of Debris retells the Minotaur myth — only here 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 in the labyrinth beneath Knossos.
She calls herself Debris, and can hear/see/feel the thoughts, memories, desires, pasts and futures of others throughout history, from Herodotus and Silk route traders to Derrida and Edward Snowden.
The problem is Debris can't control those voices speaking through her. She's both a kind of living instrument through which time rushes and an emblem for lived experience, in which temporality often feels like a fury of abrupt slaps.
Dreamlives is part speculative fiction, part horror, part nonfiction, part love story, part myth, all narrative experiment, which is to say it requires a pretty outré playlist …
A collaboration between Irish composer/sound artist Karen Power and me that combines lines from Dreamlives with an experiment in aurality (using, in good part, hi-sensitivity recordings from the World War Two bunkers that exist beneath Berlin — you can hear them breathing) in which we asked ourselves: What would a sonic labyrinth sound like? It premiered in Berlin in March, 2016, and was recently featured on Irish radio — Bernard Clarke's Nova, on RTE Lyric; we come in at about 1:33:30.
Part of a second and much larger collaboration between Philadelphia-based composer Gene Coleman and me: an opera-in-progress for voice and electronics based on Dreamlives. Here Debris is a bass baritone (the extraordinary Nicholas Isherwood), and the project an investigation, among other things, into integrating various cultural sources, from Japanese Bunraku theater to manga, Monteverdi's operas, and neuroscience research. "Kokhlos," by the way, refers to the inner part of the ear — a kind of auditory labyrinth. It has been performed in the U.S., Europe, and New Zealand.
"Homeric Singing" by Georg Danek & Stefan Hagel
Danek and Hagel are a pair of Austrian musicologists who have researched and tried to imagine what ancient Greek music — the kind performed at roughly the same time the events in Dreamlives unfold — sounded like. The result here uses excerpts from The Odyssey.
Think of this track (one of my favorites by Cohen, whom I miss every day) as the color of mood in Dreamlives, rich with gorgeous lines Debris could have spoken and I wish I'd written — "It's lonely here / There's no one left to torture"; "The blizzard, the blizzard of the world / Has crossed the threshold"; "I've seen the future, baby: It is murder."
Debris learns it's always the end of the world as we know it, every hour, every minute, every second, and if you could compress Dreamlives of Debris into four words, it would be this line from R.E.M.'s song: "Listen to yourself churn."
As you can probably tell by now, I'm drawn to retellings — like this one, which recasts Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet. Our culture has always felt retelling essential to the act of knowing. Virgil retells the Odyssey, as does James Joyce, while Robert Coover retells various fairy tales, and so on.
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.
David Bowie has been a tremendous influence on me, both for his continual challenge to continue innovating, and for his embrace of the thematically and aurally monstrous. Debris, like Bowie's others, isn't fearsome, so much as hurt, enraged, vulnerable, brilliant, frightened, and, finally, loveable — all of which is to say heart-hammeringly human.
Speaking of terratoids, I've been obsessed with cultural notions of monstrosity since I got addicted to horror and science fiction films as a kid. I often respond much more profoundly to the Frankensteins, Mothras, Aliens, and, yes, all the other sweet transvestites from Transexual, Transylvania, than I do to the so-called normatives in those flicks.
Another way of saying this: most of us wear our "monsters" on the inside. Debris — like those representations of radical otherness — is just like us, only more so: she wears her insides on her outside.
I learned so much from Kathy Acker over the few years I got to know her a little before her death in 1997, and I love her own version of opera in her collaboration with The Mekons. This track functions as marker of a different impulse in Dreamlives: to gender the idea of monstrosity, my decision to make Debris a little girl, so I could explore the ways in which our culture has conceptualized the feminine as atrocity in order to contain and silence it in various social labyrinths beneath the polis.
Poe (named after Edgar Allan, which is to say after the gothic) is Mark Danielewski's musician sister, who wrote the album Haunted to converse with Danielewski's House of Leaves. One of his questions in that book intrigued me: How does one not only write a novel, but build one? It's stayed with me through a number of my novels since I first encountered it, including Head in Flames, Theories of Forgetting, and now Dreamlives of Debris.
Something else House of Leaves invited me to consider is the idea of architecture as a kind of literature, literature as a kind of architecture. In Dreamlives, I wanted the protagonist's deformation to be echoed by the infinite space she inhabits (Freud tells us our houses are extensions of our selves) — an impossible liquid architecture that bears no center and hence no discernable perimeter.
I was twelve when I first heard this one on the White Album (shortly after, through a cousin invested in eccentric sonics, I was introduced to Frank Zappa's, John Cage's, and Luciano Berio's work), and ever since I've been trying to rethink what we once called fiction in ways analogous to how this sound experiment rethinks what we once called music.
By way of conclusion: a 1929 recording of Joyce reading from the Anna Livia Plurabelle section of what would become Finnegans Wake — a passage proving language is always music, and vice versa.
When beginning a new work, I ask myself what its guiding metaphor is and follow that down from overarching structure to grammar, syntax, word choice, and punctuation — the musical notation of the sentence.
The central metaphor in Dreamlives is the labyrinth, every page a perfect square loud with white space. Each represents a different room in Debris' house. And each arrives without a number, so it's easy (I hope) to become disoriented, lost, as a reader, just as Debris and her victims become disoriented, lost at the level of character.
Because my 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.
Lance Olsen and Dreamlives of Debris links:
Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for [[ there.. ]]
Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for Theories of Forgetting
Vol. 1 Brooklyn interview with the author
Welcome to Literary Ashland interview with the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (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)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
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