Head in Flames by Lance Olsen

About Lance Olsen: He is the author of more than 25 books of and about innovative writing, including, most recently, the novels Dreamlives of Debris (Dzanc, 2017) and My Red Heaven (Dzanc, 2020), and most recently Skin Elegies (Dzanc, 2021). His short stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in hundreds of journals and anthologies, such as Conjunctions, Black Warrior Review, Fiction International, Village Voice, BOMB, McSweeney’s, and Best American Non-Required Reading. A Guggenheim, Berlin Prize, D.A.A.D. Artist-in-Berlin Residency, Pushcart Prize, and two-time N.E.A. Fellowship recipient, as well as a Fulbright Scholar (Finland), he teaches experimental narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah. His website is here.

I interviewed Lance Olsen here.

“To paint outside in the dark, Monsieur Vincent has rigged a hat rimmed with candles. His burning crown, he calls it.”

The flames of absinthe, madness, damnation, immolation, fervent faith, creativity, even sunflower petals, all congregating into a conflagration. The structure of Lance Olsen’s collage novel Head in Flames (Chiasmus Press, 2009) could almost be envisioned as the helix of DNA, with two narrative threads spiraling on a single day in 2003 when the boisterous critic of Islam Theo Van Gogh is murdered by the Muslim terrorist Mohammed Bouyeri. Connecting the coils are the ladder base pairs of a single day in 1890 when Vincent van Gogh committed suicide. Visually, with each “narraticule” set in a different font, it reads as a triturated triptych ticking down to tragedy with an almost Grecian flavor but more accurately Dark Age for its brutality ignited by Oedipal-blind belief in the religious fundamentals of Islam.

Theo’s ‘crime’ is akin to Salman Rushdie’s, although rather than writing an artful novel, Theo created a film that addresses how women are treated as less than human under Muslim theocratic rule, whether as government or household or both, as dictated by the Qur’an: “I feel at least once a week the strength of my husband’s fist on my face,” a line from the film which is quoted in the novel. The screenplay was written by one of my heroines, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has continued to be an uplifting voice of reason in a world where left-wing non-Muslims do mental gymnastics and equate the critique of Islam (a set of ideas) as Islamophobia (i.e. ‘racism’) and right-wing Christian theocrats engage in actual racism against people with brown skin whether or not they’re actual followers of Islam (left-wing, right-wing, together they resurrect the dodo bird). While it’s not unreasonable to have a phobia of Islam, a religion that calls for the death of apostates and infidels, it is unreasonable to demonize every human being who follows the religion. Hirsi Ali makes an important distinction in her book Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now: there are billions of peaceful Muslims who follow Muhammad’s teachings when he was in Mecca, but millions of “Medina Muslims” still follow or condone the violent methods of Muhammad after he was exiled to Medina. That method can be summed up as: convert or die. This mindset includes Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, the Muslim Brotherhood, and rogue-esque individuals like Bouyeri. While the crime of apostasy is death, the crime of having another faith is either death or a tax called the jizyah, supported by verse 9:29 of the Qur’an: “Fight those who do not believe in Allah or in the Last Day and who do not consider unlawful what Allah and His Messenger have made unlawful and who do not adopt the religion of truth from those who were given scripture—[fight] until they give the jizyah willingly while they are humiliated.” So no, like the fundamentals of Christianity, Islam at its core is not a religion of peace, but with reformations similar to those that Christianity went through, its major toxic tenets can be neutralized if not neutered, and with the billions of peaceful Muslims, there is hope, but only if these topics can be spoken of openly, honestly, and without fear of violence. (For further reading on the experience of women under Islamic rule, I suggest Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, Lipstick Jihad by Azadeh Moaveni, and Daring to Drive by Manal al-Sharif.)

And but so, each voice in Olsen’s literary collage has no dominance over the others, until the very end, of course. As one might expect, the most poetic narraticules often come from the artist Vincent, while Theo is fairly crass, seeing as he embodies a sort of Bohemian lifestyle coupled with a fully free speech and all the crude honesty that can include (“It’s not my fault that some citizens hang on to the fundamentally uncivilized faith of a little-girl-fucker who roamed the desert in 666.”). While the other threads are mostly written in first-person and third-person respectively, Boueyri’s thread is chiefly second-person, and also crass, but in a different way, a combination of the outcast immigrant and the emotionally-abused son of a displaced family, someone who is looking for purpose in his purposeless life (“Feeling your stereotypical father turning you into another stereotype.”). Bouyeri finds that poisonous purpose in a sheik, and while the novel’s themes explore the collision of the free versus the subservient, the artful versus the literal, the West versus the East, etc., there’s complementary humor to be found in the fact that almost every time the sheik is mentioned, he’s snacking on capitalist treats: “We have all been mentally disappeared the Sheik informing you over a Philly-steak-and-cheese Hot Pockets,” and “Destroy them thoroughly the Sheik instructing you and your friends over lukewarm Cokes and Cheetos Puffs.”

The collage construction creates not just connections, not just individual droplets, but juxtapositions too, such as Bouyeri accusing Hirsi Ali of being an “intellectual terrorist” as a younger version of herself is held down on a table by her family so that a stranger can rip out her clitoris and inner labia, sewing the outer labia shut, “he snipped off the thread with his teeth,” all while Vincent contemplates his artistic approach: “aesthetic savageries….”

Overall, this is minimalism done right, sparsity that doesn’t sacrifice an evocative nature, and although there’s plenty of white space on each page, there’s both a building momentum that makes one want to read faster and a counter-momentum that begs for an appreciation of each isolated and magnified detail. Aside from his knack for nouns as verbs (graping, bellying, leoparding), Olsen also has a knack for elements wrought uniquely, whether epiphanic or quotidian: “The row of clunky black bicycles feeding at the trough of a bike stand,” “Adult torso roosting atop moppet legs,” “The heat of your gun against your thigh: a pocket-sized sun,” and even the opening sentence, “Look: I am standing inside the color yellow.”

This is my first Olsen, but certainly not my last. While this particular title is currently out of print, it’s not too hard to find used, and Dzanc has released an eBook version.

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Check out a video review of Head in Flames at Travel Through Stories.

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineHouse of ZoloThree Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreadsInstagram, Twitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

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