“What do you
do with all these tenses,
misplacements in time?”
What Lance Olsen does is make a mosaic of temporal mourning. With his latest novel, Skin Elegies, he continues to demonstrate his talented penchant for the narraticule, molecular narrative bits arranged to form something larger than the sum of its parts, including the story of a Syrian boy trying to reach Europe, the assassination of John Lennon, a woman going to Switzerland to die with dignity (“Today we have a new kind of refugee turning up at our borders, begging us to help them end their lives.”), the Columbine massacre, the Challenger explosion, the Fukushima explosion, the internet’s birth, a woman killed by her abusive ex-husband who also has control over his brainwashed children, among others. Some of these narraticules are more robust than others and thus are felt more fully. For instance, the ending of the Battle of Berlin feels too slight while the Challenger disaster is wrought perfectly.
The assisted suicide story occurs on September 11th, 2001, a date that inevitably brings to mind a different kind of tragedy, and while it’s not completely ignored, that terrorist attack serves as an almost constant presence in the blurred foreground.
“When you’re inside a tale like that, it never feels like you’re inside a tale like that.” While the context of this quote is referring to the invention of the internet, a tale of bathos when compared to the technological revolution it gave birth to, this observation could just as well apply to historical stories of all kinds, especially those included in Olsen’s ambitious mosaic.
And then there’s the question of why these moments in time in particular, other than their capacity to evoke deep emotions. While not as tight and purposeful as Head in Flames, Skin Elegies manages to unearth various revelations that one wouldn’t be able to discern otherwise.
On the Challenger, Dick Scobee tries to process what is happening: “He sees what the end of his story will look like, feels himself giving over to it, knowing at a certain point everyone becomes the same age.” Which is, of course, no age at all. In fact, this brings to mind Chuang Tzu’s philosophical musing: “No one has lived longer than a dead child, and Methuselah died young. Heaven and Earth are as old as I, and the ten thousand things are one.”
There are some of the segues that Olsen is known for, connecting one disparate scene by the mention of the same song, for instance, but other than these sparse instances, the only semi-tangible phenomenon is the ambiguous God Swirl, which manifests when Lennon is murdered and when the brainwashed children become complicit in their mother’s death. I would have liked to see more of this Swirl and how it connects across time. Despite this lack, there is a frame tale, the not-so-distant future of 2072. The exact nature of this frame doesn’t fully reveal itself until the end, in which, emotions aswirl, the reader learns about the technology of uploading consciousness to a quantum computer, Moore’s Law become Frankenstein’s Awe (archaic grammar from the Bhagavad Gita intended):
“We can lose our bodies and conceptually remain ourselves.
Take our brains away, though, and it is another matter entirely.”
A refugee couple in this dystopian future is the first to be uploaded to this quantomb and the end is an eerie, stuttering repetition of “why can’t I touch her hand”, for Olsen seems to be emphasizing the need for basic human contact as the crux of all conflict, a simple gesture, an act of caring, kindness, love, that can reverberate as much as its opposite, perhaps even more so. We don’t know what happens next, but we can speculate, and one would hope that such sophisticated technology could program the sensation of touch even if its ‘reality’ is absent, but would that be enough?
By arranging these stories as he does, Olsen creates a new story in which “Memory is the mother of grief.” When the elegies are over, it’s hard to feel anything other than somewhat disconsolate, and yet this is the consequence of remembering’s necessity.
“At this point
the tale is nobody’s.
At this point
At this point
catastrophe keeps us
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George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The Dark, Black Dandy, Zizzle Literary Magazine, House of Zolo, Three Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in Isacoustic, Atticus 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 Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Twitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.