A Review of Dreamlives of Debris by Lance Olsen


Strictly speaking, I mean to inquire: is the labyrinth a plan for a prison, or the instructions for a dance?

Published by Dzanc Press in 2017, Dreamlives of Debris by Lance Olsen is a 6×6 labyrinth. Had Daedalus been a wordsmith above all, then this is something he might have concocted. Pages unnumbered, the only guide you have is the words, as unreliable or outright delectably convoluted as they are, beguiling even. 6×6, with a single inch of width, yet like any labyrinth worth its weight in wonder and wander, it’s bigger on the inside than the outside.

Olsen’s Medusa-headed muse is, in fact, the labyrinth as puzzle, as symbol, as all. At the center of this labyrinth, while also being the labyrinth itself, is a girl named Debris instead of a familiar minotaur, or, as her mother affectionately and somewhat creepily calls her, “My Little Duration,” because she had lived past the expiration date of whatever type of golem she is, reaching the Christian-significant age of 33.

What adds to the temporal depth of this book, the moral depth too, is the structural inclusion of what is by now Olsen’s trademark: the narraticule. Chapters are mostly a page long, often no longer than a couple of lines, sometimes a single sentence. In addition, Olsen includes anachronistic quotes from the most varied sources, making this a collage novel, and thus the words and voices range from the boilerplate novelist Danielle Steel to the WikiLeaking computer intelligence consultant Edward Snowden. Aside from adding to the maze effect of the reading experience, these excerpts create a kind of cacophonic chorus, hence every narraticule chapter that isn’t Debris is referred to as a song.

This Daedalian construction puts a modern spin on an otherwise age-old tale, modern and post-modern and pre-modern and mid-modern too: universal. The effort and overall effect are reminiscent of Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, an ostensible novel in verse inspired by “Geryoneis.” Lo and behold, one of two epigraphs in Olsen’s novel is from the Greek lyric poet Stesichorus himself, whose work is mostly extinct rather than extant: “The sound of the horses like roses being burned alive.” What an amazing simile that could very well echo the future in the form of Dalí’s particular brand of searing surrealism. Like Carson, Olsen every now and then gives his own similes and metaphors in this evocative vein, such as: “…the dying of his skin sounded like a field shrouded in locusts.” I also loved when death is referred to as “the umber inevitable.”

Whereas Carson creates a new (arguably too modern) myth out of a forgotten one, Olsen creates a new one out of a tired one, assuming anyone can tire of such titillating tales. With Olsen on the scene, we don’t need to wait around to discover such potential disappointments, an author who joins the ranks of other labyrinth lovers, including Mark Z. Danielewski and the great Jorge Luis Borges (who appears briefly in the novel’s chorus).

As we slide further into the dreamlives of Debris, who seems to be the recipient if not the flooded fount for all these voices, we encounter iconic characters of Greek myth as well, including Daedalus, his falling offspring Icarus, Apis the Healer, and Theseus of course. Let’s take a moment to appreciate the invigorating plummet of Icarus when Olsen describes how the boy’s hands are “raking sunlight — shredded wings coming apart in mid-flight — a miniature cloud of gray-white commas….” Yes, commas, for the stuff of printed story is part of the debris too, all elements of a dying alphabet even as Olsen gives it new life.

The novel ends with an utter reversal of expectations: Debris following the snipped thread of Theseus’ clew, presumably ending in his chewing by the jaws of the girly ogre. Simply put, everything is malleable, from the sense of Debris’ identity to the structure of her very heart. Childhood, maturity, deceit, the consequences of invention, the nature of reality, etc.—these themes and others are immense, if not infinite, so this reader wished for a book that went beyond its one inch of width despite the admirable depth it reaches in so relatively shallow a leaf bundle. Still, as an example of minimalism in particular, like Head in Flames (an earlier Olsen effort), it’s a noteworthy and time-worthy accomplishment.

I interviewed Lance Olsen here.

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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 FacebookGoodreadsInstagramTwitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

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