November 11, 2021
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 novel Skin Elegies is brilliantly innovative and propulsive.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the collection:
"This ambitious novel juxtaposes historical tragedies with a futuristic frame. ... While these storylines can be emotionally devastating on the page (particularly the Challenger subplot), the skill with which Olsen links them together keeps things moving at an impressive pace. Readers willing to immerse themselves in this challenging novel will be left with plenty to discuss afterward."
In the dystopian future I imagine for Skin Elegies, a couple flees their increasingly authoritarian country—a metaphorized version of our United States—by uploading one of their consciousnesses to a quantum computer in Europe, one to a quantum computer in Africa.
For me, mine is a novel about refugeeism in several senses. What does it mean, it asks us to consider, to live in a perpetual in-between? To be an exile, not only from place, but also from our own bodies, our own perception of self? What does it mean to try to be a refugee from death itself?
Skin Elegies’s structure mimics a constellation of firing neurons in the mind of one of the digitized—a collage of nine fractured, scattered narraticules that flicker through his consciousness at the instant he reanimates in the gray beyond as a cloud of zeroes, ones, and memories: the Fukushima disaster; the internet’s birth; the Battle of Berlin; John Lennon’s murder; an assisted suicide; the Colombine massacre; deadly domestic abuse; a Syrian boy’s escape from war; the Challenger’s final plummet.
Here is a song for each:
“Catastrophe,” by Rainer Maria
Let’s call this the alpha. Let’s call it the omega. Skin Elegies is built upon the idea of disaster, from what happens to our cells in time’s blast furnace to the nuclear nightmare at Fukushima. Yet it’s also built upon the realization, as Rainer Maria puts it, that “catastrophe will keep us together.” So I wanted to mine a single metaphor throughout to see how it might open up onto possibility: human hands touching, which is to say, human beings connecting, however fleetingly, however fragilely, in the face of our myriad afflictions.
“Welcome to the Internet,” by Bo Burnham
Picture this: A cramped computer lab in the basement of a nondescript building on the UCLA campus, and one just like it up at the Stanford Research Institute. At 10:30 p.m. on October 29, 1969, a grad student at the former and programmer at the latter reached out, flipped a switch, and the Internet came to life. Nothing less than our communal hallucinations, our collective mind uploaded, that infinitely complex, almost incomprehensibly networked ectoplasm we find ourselves adrift in every day snaps on as if it has been there all along and…and virtually nobody even noticed. Or, as Jean Baudrillard once pointed out: “There is more and more information, less and less meaning.” Bo Burnham’s song bites so viciously because it understands this from the inside out.
“Ghosts of Berlin,” by Andrea Schroeder
Everywhere you look in Berlin you see ghosts in the form of machine-gun divots across buidlings, far-right protests, escalating attacks on minorities. The past—particularly the one evincing the scars from the final days of World War Two called the Battle of Berlin—is always present. Germany—unlike, say, the U.S. with its own panoply of historical barbarities—has chosen as its continuous project to ask how a country can come to terms with a history that houses both one of the greatest atrocities of the twentieth century and some of Western culture’s most exquisite art, music, and literature. How does a country come to terms with the image of the Auschwitz Orchestra with its more than forty members, all Jewish women, who escaped death in the gas chambers by playing Bach beautifully at the death camp as their peers became smoke?
“Watching the Wheels,” by John Lennon
The idea of John Lennon—rather than the actual complicated, damaged, often hypocritical biological being—is something I fell in love with as a teen. So the death of that idea at the hands of an unhinged assassin at 10:50 p.m. on December 8, 1980, ripped up my utopian hope at its core, all the more so because of songs like this one about Lennon having gone to ground for years to raise his son, be with Yoko, and see what stepping off the merry-go-round felt like—only to step back into the public eye and into Mark David Chapman’s line of fire.
“Creature Comfort,” by Arcade Fire
There are surprisingly few songs about assisted suicide, which in Skin Elegies involves an elderly woman whose body has come undone, whose stamina has leeched away, whose husband has died years ago, and who (like my grandmother, who one day at 95 simply got into bed, stopped eating, and turned her face to the wall) decides she has lived enough. Arcade Fire’s “Creature Comfort” deals with a much younger manifestation of the issue, in a completely different existential key, yet carries these cutting lines that slant-rhyme with my novel’s take on the subject: “God, make me famous. / If you can’t, just make it painless.”
“Pumped Up Kicks,” by Foster the People
There are also surprisingly few songs about the 1999 Columbine massacre, but this one, read from a certain angle, is a fantastic and fantastically dark retelling from the point of view of one of the shooters and, by implication, an acidic indictment of gun culture and slaughter porn. It’s made only more so by the ironically cheery music that carries the grim lyrics. How can you not experience a little shudder with every listen?
“Behind the Wall,” by Tracy Chapman
Nearly twenty-five years ago, a student named Michelle Neurauter signed up for one of my creative-writing classes. She was incredibly sweet and sharp, and we stayed in touch on and off ever since. She ended up moving out east with her husband and kids. When I gave readings in the area she attended, we’d catch up over coffee. Then one day, I went over to her Facebook page to see what she’d been up to recently, only to discover her husband—with the help of one of her daughters—had murdered her after years of domestic abuse. I wrote this part of Skin Elegies for her. The police never come in time.
“Matamoros Banks,” by Bruce Springsteen
In my novel, not only does an American couple flee their repressive regime, but a Syrian boy tries to flee war to the hope Berlin offers—a Berlin opposite of the one I write about during the final days of World War Two. In Bruce Springsteen’s hearthammering ballad, he follows a refugee backward, from the bottom of a river where he has drowned to his home just inside Mexico. Each story is a call for reinvigorated humanity, a hope for us hopeless, a reminder that a real traveler (as opposed to a mere tourist) is an anti-teleological activity who continually risks, continuously loses self in liminal spaces.
“Last Rendezvous (Ron’s Piece),” by Jean Michel Jarre
Ronald McNair, mission specialist, was the second black astronaut to make a flight into outer space in 1984. He was also an accomplished jazz saxophonist. On Challenger, he planned to play a solo for the French composer Jean Michel Jarre’s album of ambient/electronic music Rendez-Vous and participate in a concert with him via live feed. It would be a first. January 28, 1986, had other ideas. By way of tribute, Jarre made the piece they were going to collaborate on the album’s sixth and final cut. It forms a gorgeous and poignant elegy to skin waving goodbye everywhere.
Lance Olsen is author of more than 30 books of and about innovative writing, including, most recently, the novels Skin Elegies (Dzanc, 2021) and My Red Heaven (Dzanc, 2020). His short stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in hundreds of journals and anthologies. A Guggenheim, Berlin Prize, D.A.A.D. Artist-in-Berlin Residency, two-time N.E.A. Fellowship, and Pushcart Prize recipient, as well as a Fulbright Scholar, he teaches experimental narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah.