- Absurdity is Interested in You
198 Pages; Print, $22.95
Lance Olsen’s imagination creates its own gravity. The author of more than 20 books, Olsen’s name is synonymous with innovation in fiction. His latest collection, How To Unfeel the Dead, spans twenty years of writing; it contains twelve previously published stories and eight “new fictions.” The book pulls the reader onto its strange surface and holds her for the duration of an unpredictable and pleasurable visit loaded with linguistic play, bizarre scenarios, left-field references to science and pop culture, and the cosmic background radiation of loneliness, loss, and confusion Olsen’s characters never fail to encounter.
For those unfamiliar with Olsen, the compassion he affords his characters, their worlds, and even the lobsters therein, this collection is a great place to jump in. It balances structurally traditional narratives like “Moving” and “Small But Significant Invasions” with the experimental forms of the accurately titled “Table of Contents,” the point-of-view hopper “Why, When It Dreams Our World, the Lobster is Not a Telephone,” and a story in which a couple of the pages contain fewer words than the title itself: “We Are at the End of the World.”
Olsen’s prose is varied, crisp, and punctuated by turns of phrase that surprise and amuse. On an awkward first date, a man laughs at his own joke, startling the woman from her lobster-focused reverie, after which she instinctively “musters a laugh’s dead grandmother.” We feel the passage of a long, difficult day when we’re told of a man: “In the morning he didn’t eat breakfast and in the afternoon he didn’t eat lunch and in the evening he didn’t eat dinner.” Not even commas break up this poor soul’s dire existence. The visceral, physically mundane activity of eating is often masterfully linked to a character’s deeper emotional state. In “Watch and Ward,” a story about a man who takes to improving his neighbors’ properties without their consent, the narrator notices the next-door lawn is in terrible shape. It affects him deeply. After seeing such a thing, he tells us, “I went in to lunch and chomped away as though hopes and aspirations are things that parch every day.”
Oh, and just because this is literary fiction doesn’t mean the reader need forget about celebrities. In “Sixteen Jackies,” the multiple identities created for Jacqueline Kennedy by the papers and tabloids come to life as the First Lady narrates what amounts to a series of out-of-body experiences: She sees herself in her own bed and mistakes the figure for “one of Jack’s women.” We’re left to wonder who we really are in this media-run era and who or what makes us so. In another story, Britney Spears appears on a cooking show while her ex, Kevin Federline, slowly commits suicide in a Las Vegas hotel room. These are worlds of farmers and professors and Frank Sinatra and Red Lobster and Taylor Swift. No one is safe from sorrow or hardship. Life is change. As if to drive this point home, “Status Updates,” a paragraph-break-less litany of what strangers are thinking, doing, and feeling, reminds us that no one stays happy for long.
In “Family,” absurdity and compassion live side by side as dead ancestors slowly populate a couple’s home. The family lives peacefully with its ghosts, and the deep undercurrent of sadness they carry with them. When he and his father see one another, they eye “each other for several heartbeats.” Whose heartbeats? Can a ghost have a heart? In this story, the answer seems to be yes. The wife treats them as guests, making more and more food, which the ghosts can’t eat. She, according to her own logic, which is not questioned in the story, eats all the leftovers and finally grows too large to move. We are saddled with our past, with the weight of our family, even if they ask nothing of...