Today’s guest is the writer Lance Olsen. Olsen is the author or co-author of fifteen novels, four short story collections and seven works of nonfiction. His short stories, essays and reviews have appeared in hundreds of journals and anthologies, including Conjunctions, McSweeney’s, Bomb, Best American Nonrequired Reading and Black Warrior Review. Olsen’s accolades include a Guggenheim, the Berlin Prize, a Pushcart Prize, and an NEA Fellowship. He teaches experimental narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah where he directs the creative writing program and he is the author of the anti-textbook Architectures of Possibility: After Innovative Writing in collaboration with Trevor Dodge. A graduate of the Iowa Writing Center, from 2002 to 2018 Olsen was the chair of the board of directors at Fiction Collective Two, a publishing house for artistically adventurous, non-traditional fiction that has published past Between the Covers guests Brian Evenson, Lucy Corin, Lidia Yuknavitch and Amelia Gray as well as Samuel Delany, Noy Holland and many others. Lance Olsen is here today to talk about his latest novel, out from Dzanc Books entitled My Red Heaven. Carole Maso says of My Red Heaven: “Lance Olsen locates his porous, alluring, heartbreaking, and haunted narrative in Berlin on a day in 1927. Poised at a moment of such hope and doom, it is a ravishing meditation on history, on time, and on what is it to be alive.” Diego Baez at Booklist says: “Olsen employs a full suite of experimental techniques to tell the story, including newsreel headlines, screenplay excerpts, poetic verses, and ekphrastic reflections on unsettling scenes of bombed-out and abandoned buildings. But the real draw is Olsen’s supple, exacting prose, which captures the energy of cutting-edge art movements amid impending political uncertainty. There’s an eerie familiarity to the air of technological and social breakthroughs, with fallout or resolution just around the corner. Olsen manages the best of both worlds, a historical novel remarkable for its verisimilitude and a work of innovative fiction that never employs invention for its own sake.” Finally Melanie Rae Thon says: “The moment in which you awaken is on fire. You are alive or the other thing, falling to scorched earth or ascending to the rooftops of Berlin, a radiantly red heaven. You feel yourself besieged, swirling inside one startling sensibility and then another, deliriums of joy pierced by devastations of loss and sorrow. Sparked by the exuberant energy of his own multivalent perception, ignited by the brilliance of his wildly playful imagination and unfathomably expansive compassion, Lance Olsen has translated My Red Heaven, Otto Freundlich’s abstract cubist painting, into a novel full of dissonant shocks and thrilling confusions, a library of loss revealing the perilous ecstasies of life in Berlin between the wars. Layer by layer, he unpeels a palimpsest of paint, turning his fiercely attentive, unbounded love to every being in every moment, exposing infinite unknown dimensions, delivering us to exhilaration and terror as we watch the future and the past irradiate our present moment.”
David Naimon: Welcome to Between the Covers, Lance Olsen.
Lance Olsen: Thank you. It’s great to be here.
DN: My Red Heaven takes place on a single day in 1927 in Berlin. Given that it’s this specific time and specific place that serve as the foundational connective tissue for the book rather than a specific character or a specific consciousness, talk to us about why you set us between the wars in Europe and also why we are in Berlin. What compels you about both this time and this place?
LO: To begin to answer the first part, I guess, I have a relationship with Berlin that’s very, very close. I was over there for one year on something called the DAAD Fellowship, another half year at the American Academy in Berlin. I also travel over there now, at least, once a year for four or five weeks. I grew really close to the history of Berlin, to the energy of Berlin as this incredible artistic mechanism but also began to read about the history and what was going on between the war years. What was haunting me, as we approached 2016, were the parallels, the rise of populism, the slow erosion of democracy, the upending of how a government works. I became increasingly interested in that part of Berlin. Also, I think that Berlin is the protagonist of the novel and all the people are part of that larger canvas of Berlin that was filled between the wars with this cultural exuberance. All of those and more.
DN: If we think of both the 1920s Berlin and the 2020s America, this sense that the norms have been cast aside, anything is possible to the extreme on either end of the spectrum, how does the rise of that happening now, how is that informing you when you’re approaching the Berlin of then?
LO: Not too long ago, I actually came across an article in The Wall Street Journal that was published in 1933 just after Hitler had become Chancellor. It talked about how calmly Berlin, the German capital, responded to this because they felt that though Hitler was out of control, he would be surrounded by those who would keep the lid on. In certain ways, it was a good thing that he had been elected, they argued, so that he could enter into the institutional tamping down impulses of the culture. That didn’t work. Again, I’m intrigued by the same sorts of impulses going on now where we have a president who is out of control in so many ways. Forty-two percent of the population seems to embrace that because I think, in really deep ways, certain parts of every culture want a really strong-daddy figure who gets things done and is in control. I started seeing all these sorts of parallels and wanted to explore those in more depth. What was amazing about Berlin and June 10th, 1927—this day that I focus on—so many people that we think of as essential to the idea of modernism, intellectual, and aesthetic freedom were either moving through Berlin, people like Heisenberg, or settled in Berlin, people like Vladimir Nabokov, enjoying this incredibly rich cultural environment where everything really was possible, all the fences really were down. At the very same moment, this authoritarian regime was increasingly coming to power and would ultimately undo all of that. Over those 1920s, there’s this incredible sense of irony floating this grim understanding in retrospect of what was going to happen and everybody being utterly oblivious to that.
DN: Berlin of then and American of today aren’t the only things porous to each other in this project. You’ve also talked about how the Berlin of today is open and porous to its own past. Could you talk to us about what you find unique about the Berlin of today in relationship to the Berlin of its past?
LO: One of the things I have come to really admire about German culture—if we put it next to American culture, it really comes out—German culture, after the war, made a project of asking how one comes to terms with one’s past, particularly, the atrocities of one’s past. How does one deal with that as a culture? What Germany decided to do was to seriously never forget but always remind us. There’s something called tripping stones that one runs across in Berlin all the time. They’re little brass plaques that are set into the sidewalk in front of buildings. You would just be walking down the street and you’ll see this in a doorway. Each of these lists the family members that were taken out of the building, where they were shipped, and how they were murdered during the war. It’s that idea that the past is incredibly present but also always being intensely and dynamically remembered. Then you think of the US and you think of race relations or you think of the Native American population and the atrocities that have been committed, the genocide that’s been committed, and America just has this crazy sense of leaving—not even leaving it behind, but absolutely negating that it ever happened. One of the things I wanted to do in terms of the novel was to really meditate on how the past ghosts us all continuously and what it would look like to begin to create a project to remember that sense of atrocity in a culture.
DN: Even that small gesture of the tripping or the stumbling stone, if you could imagine that in the United States, if instead of Confederate statues we had a tripping stones in front of a house where a Japanese family used to live before they were taken away to internment, if we had another tripping or stumbling stone in front of a black-owned business that was firebombed, or a place of particular importance to a native nation, and everywhere we walked, we would stumble and remember our country’s complicity in something, I wonder what that would do.
LO: Right. Just the way you’re saying that, imagine what the present would look like if it were infused with the atrocities that went on, if not on every corner, nearly on every block in some way, shape, or form. One of the things that I’m really interested in, at the largest level, is how any culture deals with its sense of history and how the past itself is a problem. Because who’s telling the past? How one tells the past? From what point of view that the past is told changes the very nature of that past. There’s a theorist who’s named Linda Hutcheon who has this idea of historiographic metafiction. What she does is to go in and look at texts that understand that idea of the very act of trying to tell the past is a problem. Part of what I was involved with when I was working on My Red Heaven was exactly that, “to what extent do you need to be absolutely accurate in one’s manifestation of the past? Can one be accurate? What does that even mean when one retells?” That got me thinking about this whole larger question of how cultures tell and retell the past and how we can disrupt those retellings, make ourselves conscious of the very act of telling as a kind of engagement with power dynamics of history.
DN: Before we leave Berlin as a topic or, at least, leave it briefly, there’s this great line in My Red Heaven, “If Berlin were a part of speech . . . it would be a transitive verb.” I just wanted to hear your thoughts on that line a little bit.
LO: It is great. I first went to Berlin about, I think four years after the Wall came down. It was really pretty grim in the East, there is still a lot of pollution, and everything felt very gray and misty. However, what happened was—and this is indicative of Berlin, it’s still one of the cheapest cities in Europe to live in, it’s so much less expensive to live in than London or Paris—the result was that there was this flood of artists into the area and indeed, even when the Wall was up, there was this whole thing—people like David Bowie, for instance, going over, Iggy Pop, and so on—that they understood, when they went into the west of Berlin, that the world could end any minute and there was this tremendous sense of freeing up. The result of that is there was still this artistic centre there that is extraordinary for its vitality as opposed to Manhattan where you can’t live there anymore as an artist. Here, you can live, you can flourish. But also, you can do just these craziest projects and there will be a built-in audience that will love that, come to that, and enjoy that. That’s very much what was going on in the 1920s, people were always like, “Wow, you’re really pretty crazy. You should go to Berlin. Don’t go to Paris, don’t go to London, go to Berlin. That’s where everything can happen.” I think of fiction as a possibility space where everything can and should be tried, and Berlin is a possibility space where everything is continuously being tried. That’s beautiful.
DN: Considering Berlin as physical space—and how that physical space is in relationship to time—is one entryway into My Red Heaven. But I think the most obvious and immediate way the book assumes a certain architecture is in relationship to the abstract cubist painting of the same name, by the German Jewish painter Otto Freundlich. His painting and your book both share the same name, but the sections of the book are also named after aspects of the painting and the painting process. We start with underpainting much as a painter would begin with the paint that would eventually get painted over. We are not only moving through Berlin on a given day but we’re moving across the canvas and through the process of the painting coming into being. Talk to us about Otto’s painting, who he was, and why this specific figure and this specific painter engaged you enough to organize a project around him in specific.
LO: Otto Freundlich is not a well-known painter. He was an abstract cubist painter. His one claim to fame in retrospect is that one of his pieces appeared on the cover of the Nazi Entartete Kunst, the Degenerate Art Exhibition in Munich. That’s mostly how we remember him. He was also a utopian artist whose grand idea—though it never came to fruition—was to build a road that linked Berlin to Moscow and to line this road with sculptures. It was this beautiful project that was going to be his life work and it was going to show how art could bring together such diverse cultures and visions. Alas! What actually happened was that he had moved to France, to Paris to get away from the Nazis. When the Nazis came into Paris, they rounded him up, they took him to a concentration camp, and he was murdered the day he arrived. I happened to just be passing through Paris, the Pompidou, rounded a corner, and saw his painting My Red Heaven (Mein roter Himmel). The painting itself is interesting, it’s a lovely painting to look at, but what’s very cool about it is that it’s made, let me describe it, if you move the top down these blocks of different shades of red at the top, in the middle, there are these blocks of different shades of green and blue, and then at the bottom, there are these blocks of different shades, different qualities of black and gray. Otto’s eye moved from the bottom of the painting up, from this hellish black up to this utopian red. What I saw on that painting—the painting came out or was finished in 1933—was the embodiment of everything that was going on in Berlin, the energy, the vibrancy, but also this idea of incommensurate positions with respect to reality, each of which was both tenable and completely arbitrary in each of those squares or shapes that were different sizes and so on. I thought to myself—and this is how I often come to a novel—what would happen if that were translated onto a page? What would that look like? Novels often come to me in a shape with some general idea and then I think how that works in a narrative, what that will do to a narrative. If you translate Otto for English’s painting on to the page, you get this incredible canvas of different voices speaking and that’s what I wanted to explore. In part, I think I wanted My Red Heaven to be a love song to modernism. That’s really where the novel came from was his painting. Then if you think about it, my book actually reads the painting backwards. It starts from this very energetic, very lively vision of the reds and moves down toward the blacks because, in fact, in retrospect, we saw that in 1933, everything changed in Berlin.
DN: Yeah. You’ve said the painting My Red Heaven gestures toward a collage aesthetic, and your book, My Red Heaven and much of your work does that as well so much so that there’s a chapter dedicated to you in the book Collage in Twenty-First-Century Literature in English: Art of Crisis. I was reading about Collage in that book. It was interesting to discover that while collage is widely regarded to be an invention of the painters Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, it was the Berlin Dadaists who were the first to subject collage to a political end. It feels like you’re employing the collage aesthetic to a political end here as well like the Berlin Dadaists. I was hoping we could talk not about the politics of the story of My Red Heaven but the politics of Collage or what are its philosophic and aesthetic underpinnings for you that you would choose it as the way to tell the story that you’re telling in the interwar years in Berlin?
LO: It’s a great question. When we usually read a novel, when we read, for instance, a psychological realist novel, we fall through the language into the world of the novel and we inhabit that world. The cliche is we lose ourselves in that world. But what a collage does is something else. What a collage does is to create various voices, none of which is privileged over any other voice. In that space, we’re continuously reminded that we’re living in an aesthetic form, that we’re reading a novel that’s part of an aesthetic form even as we’re falling into this voice, this voice, or this voice. For me, form always suggests philosophy. The question to ask ourselves is “what philosophy does a given form suggest?” What’s so miraculous about the collage form—the thing that I’m always drawn to in the collage—is it’s a polyphonic form that refuses to neutralize diverse voices. From an aesthetic but also from a very human perspective, I love that idea of exploring a consciousness that’s absolutely incommensurate with another consciousness, a voice that’s absolutely incommensurate and just letting them bump against each other, sometimes pay no attention to each other, sometimes conflict with each other, sometimes harmonize with each other just like a city. Collage is a beautiful form also to engage with cities because cities are, by nature, collage, polyphonic, and conflicted. That’s what drew me into notions of collage, in general, in my work and then, of course, in My Red Heaven, each of these little consciousnesses that are moving through Berlin on a particular day are part of this larger canvas, this larger collage canvas.
DN: Let’s hear a little bit from the opening chapter.
LO: “Every evening the dead gather on rooftops across the city. Bodies, sexes, injuries, illnesses shed, they become aware over and over again that their lives are going on somewhere else without them.
Maybe they imagine others taking up where they left off, Anita Berber thinks, heroin heat seeping up her arm. She sprawls across Otto Dix’s bed. Vinegar fills her mouth. Love happens. She extracts the syringe and the thought lands within her that everything wasn’t all right and now everything is because her bobbed hair is red tonight, her thin heart-shaped lips.
Next year Anita will collapse on a stage in Damascus during her cabaret tour of the Middle East. Four months later she will succumb to consumption in a Kreuzberg hospital. On a November afternoon feathering with snow she will be lowered into a pauper’s grave in Neukölln. The only people present will be two cross-dressers, three ex-husbands, her lesbian lover Susi, a hooker named Hilda, and Otto Dix himself.
But all Anita knows at present is it is sometime past midnight. It is June 10th, 1927. It is her twenty-eighth birthday and earlier this evening a skinny mean cop mistook her in her tuxedo and bowtie for a man.
Her slackening awareness attempts performing an idea: maybe that’s what they do, the gathering dead, standing on those rooftops, faces raised to the flaming ocean of desire above: watch their lives going on without them. A stubby woman surprised last summer by influenza hears her silver brush (she can smell the horsehair bristles after a lavender bath) huff through a stranger’s hair. A gaunt widow whose hope gave out last month arging up the third flight of stairs to her fourth-floor flat pictures her husband encountering the shock of a young woman’s jasmine-and-lily perfume at the nape of her neck.
Everything wasn’t all right and now everything is.
Anita is sure everything will succeed.
She can feel it in her —
Anita got so high last night she turned up half an hour late to her own dance number at The White Mouse. In the middle of her solo she tripped over herself. Several assholes started laughing. She took a swig from the brandy bottle on a table up front and spat it over them, smug fuckers.
Only that isn’t now.
Now is simply this soft heat breathing through her. Now is this overwhelming love. Anita loves that love, how she can sense everydayness leaving her, watch herself drifting into her special silver light.
She sees the world as if it is not within her but beside her. Below her. Not within her but across the room.
Her body sheds away from her like the bodies of the dead.
She lingers above her not-her in Otto’s cluttered studio.
Linseed oil. Mildew. Late-spring leafiness.
She studies how the skin people call Anita Berber allows the skin people call Otto Dix to position her limbs whichever way she wants across his narrow disarranged bed because — because he has paid her to become his little marionette
— because —
Just a minute. Just a minute.
— because Anita adores cocaine. Because after the second line she always knows she will live forever.
Her favorite drugs are chloroform and ether stirred in a porcelain bowl, whisked with a white rose, the petals of which she nibbles at elegantly like lotus flowers. The twilight sleep she drowns in is a miracle followed by another miracle followed by another.
Except Otto couldn’t score any today.
Heroin is fine.
Heroin will have to do.
So the skin people call Anita Berber allows the skin called Otto Dix to position her limbs whichever way he wants because his strong face, his slicked-back blond hair.
Because he earned the Iron Cross on the Western Front, was wounded in the neck and almost bled out. Otto says he can’t remember hearing the grenade explode. He was squatting in a trench in a fog at dawn and then waking up in a hospital tent, his panicked swallowing an incongruity.
Sometimes Otto tells Anita the dream that won’t leave him alone. He is crawling through narrow passage after narrow passage in bombed-out house that has proliferated to become the universe. An incinerated corpse with shattered jaw attempts whispering something in his ear as he drags himself over it.
In place of words, a handful of thin gold necklaces and rotten teeth pour out of its mouth.
Otto painted Anita for the first time two years ago. Oil and tempera on plywood. One hundred twenty centimeters by sixty-five. He made everything in her portrait a great upsurge of red save her charcoaled eyes and penciled black brows and pale angular face and pale long-nailed hands.
The canvas felt like lust and amphetamines.
Anita couldn’t stop contemplating how Otto saw her. It proved if you gave her fifteen minutes she could seduce any man or woman on the planet.
Only that isn’t now.
Now is Otto working on another piece in his murdered-women series. Anita can’t understand why. It’s not that the idea bothers her. The problem is everyone is doing murdered women these days. George Grosz. Karl Hofer. Even Murnau in his movie with Max Schreck in frock-coat, pointy ears, bad incisors, broody shadows.
What Anita wants to know is why anyone would want to do what everyone else is doing.
It takes effort to make yourself into yourself.
She adores Otto, absolutely she does, but he’s almost forty, for God’s sake. Old men should know better.
Old men should know the secret is if you need to act in films with titles like The Skull of the Pharaoh’s Daughter, you act in films with titles like The Skull of the Pharaoh’s Daughter. The secret is if you need to dance nude at nineteen, show up to parties draped only in a borrowed mink with a pet monkey hanging around your neck, participate in the odd private-blue movie, you reach for your zipper.
You become your own little marionette while pretending to be someone else’s.”
DN: We’ve been listening to Lance Olsen read from the opening of My Red Heaven. I love how the form that we’ve been talking about is immediately influencing the way we might read the characters, not only because the book is structured after the painting of a painter who ultimately becomes labeled as a degenerate artist, and not only because you’re using a collage aesthetic that was first put to political aims because of the Berlin Dadaists, but the book itself opens with a scene of two such artists—of two such degenerate artists, essentially—or artists that would have been labeled degenerate. Otto Dix was labeled as such. But the book also begins in a section called Underpainting so we know that the paint is going to be painted over. It feels almost like the form is telling us something that the scene isn’t telling us, that these artists and the art that we’re opening with, are the artists that either are going to be painted over or that the Nazis would like to paint over. I found this quote by Otto Dix, “The object is primary and the form is shaped by the object.” But I think as you mentioned before, it seems like the opposite is true for you that the form is primary. I feel like the form is already strangely creating narrative for the reader that may not even be on the page except for the form.
LO: Another quality of the collage form that really interests me—and you can hear that in this passage—is it’s all about perspective, it’s all about the angle that you’re looking at something at which will be completely different from the angle that somebody else is looking at an object from. That shapes the quality of our perceptions in a really deep way. On the one hand, what we’re seeing is Anita Berber’s perception as the heroin is kicking in and she’s living very much both within herself and floating above herself. The second chapter flips point of view and you see Otto Dix looking at Anita Berber and he begins to think about his relationship to her. Then as a reader, we overpaint both of those chapters as it were from yet another perspective which is the perspective of 2020, looking back and realizing what is going to happen to both of them. One of the joys of this book, obviously, and it’s such a geeky thing, is I just love doing the research and all this stuff. We all think of Otto Dix as a very special painter, a sort of a neo-objectivist, slightly grotesque subject matter, and so on, that kind of painter. But indeed, as the Nazis came to power, they didn’t allow him to continue being Otto Dix, so the latter stuff that he paints are these just incredibly trite landscapes that are fluffy, hazy green, and all of this stuff. He had to give himself over to an aesthetic that wasn’t his simply to stay alive. All of that informs our perspective on what’s going on in the scene. That’s what I meant earlier by just this shot of irony in each of these scenes, thinking of how incredibly freeing these scenes seemed to be in one way and in another, completely the opposite at the same time.
DN: To go a little further with this idea of Underpainting—we know that the painter of My Red Heaven dies in a concentration camp, and as you say, Otto Dix has to give up the power of his own painting—I was reading about Dix’s painting, The Trench, which I don’t think survived, but he did a lot of paintings of sexualized murder, dismembered, and decomposed bodies. Apparently, this was such a powerful painting that they had a curtain in front of it. He’s been overpainted or he becomes underpainting by having to do these landscapes and Anita Berber either dies of tuberculosis or morphine overdose. All these characters that we’ve mentioned are real historical figures. Some of them are more lost to history—I’m assuming a lot of people probably don’t know who Anita Berber is anymore—but some of them in the book, quite a few, are really well-known people like Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger. This isn’t unique to this book for you, your interest in historical characters, you have books that center on the life of Nietzsche, Kafka, and Vincent van Gogh. Talk to us about writing fiction using real people as your characters, what it gives you, and how it either constrains you productively or liberates you in some fashion.
LO: Oh, man. This takes us back to that conversation about historiographic metafiction. All sorts of things come to mind about this. I am attracted to people whose consciousnesses are out of step with their time in some way, shape, or form. Nietzsche, whose imagination revolutionized the way we think like Derrida couldn’t have happened without Nietzsche, Heidegger couldn’t have happened without Nietzsche, and yet Nietzsche himself was this isolated figure who had to give up his teaching job and, to attain his Nietzscheness, had to completely separate himself from society and so on. That just fascinates me. That’s amazing. I think of fiction as empathy technology in a lot of ways; the ability that fiction has to go into minds that aren’t our own so that we can better understand and feel those minds. I think of these historical personages that fascinate me, I start reading everything I can about them, and I try to fall into their consciousnesses at the very same time I’m very aware that one can’t fall into their consciousnesses, that trying to write history, trying to write another imagination in certain ways is impossible even if that’s all we try to do—certainly, that’s all I try to do. It’s such a generative space for me to find these people who have also really touched me in some way, shape, or form. I wouldn’t have become a writer had I not fallen into Kafka when I was 13 or 14. Part of what’s going on here is to thank these people, try to understand another imagination, and part of what’s going on here is my understanding that that understanding is impossible at some level. As I go into this period, into the interwar years, I was stunned at how many people, who we now think of as just essential to the modernist spirit, were moving through Berlin at this time and they were all my heroes. It was just extraordinary. [laughs] Schönberg is there, Einstein is there, it just blew my mind at that level too about who was actually popular, and that Heisenberg would probably be walking down the street one day and walk by Robert Musil walking the other direction, that was crazy to me.
DN: [laughs] It is amazing.
DN: I wanted to stay in this impossible-to-answer space around the accuracy of retellings, whether accuracy should even be the question, and how to find a retelling that feels, in some way, honest to yourself around the retelling. Because one of the joys of reading the book is being reminded of characters from history that I either remembered or half-remembered. At one point, I knew about Moe Berg, the Jewish-American baseball player who later became a spy in Europe who both tried to get German physicists to defect but was also supposed to determine if they were close to the bomb, and you touched on something that I had forgotten that I then half remembered (which I then needed to go look up to make sure it was real) that Berg had an assignment to go attend a lecture by Heisenberg, and if it seemed like, in the lecture, they were close to the bomb, he was supposed to kill Heisenberg. But another joy of the book is reading things that one doesn’t know about at all, that maybe are invented only to discover with a little bit of research that they’re true. For instance, for me, that Nabokov was a tennis instructor to make ends meet or that Rilke wrote letters where he both praised Mussolini’s speeches and characterized fascism as “a healing agent”. But as a writer reading this, I was curious about what level of granularity there was in relationship to established truth. For instance, in the section about the romantic relationship between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger, I suspect she really did meet him for the first time in a class on Plato but I wonder, did she really compare him to rain because rain was something that seemed unavoidable? Did you go to the level of looking at their letters or is that where we get a moment of Lance Olsen’s imagination? I guess I wanted to hear a little bit more about the imagined and the real and how far you felt you needed to go in that granularity before you fully depart into the imagined.
LO: It’s such a complicated question. The short answer is yes, I did read the letters and yes, she did compare him to rain. But here’s the problem, you start doing this and you think, “Okay, if I have enough facts, I can begin to put a character together.” Then you realize that there really aren’t that many facts associated with any person that allows you full access to a consciousness. I’ll leave this book for a second and just talk about Nietzsche because I’m about to do a talk on Nietzsche at Georgia College and it’s with this Nietzsche specialist. I was looking over Nietzsche’s stuff again—I did this novel called Nietzsche’s Kisses—and as I went into the novel, I originally told myself, “I would say nothing that wasn’t based in fact.” Then I got to Nietzsche eating his first meal in my novel and I was like, “Crap. I don’t even know how people ate in the 19th century. I don’t know what utensils they used, I wouldn’t know what a normal dinner would be, then I wouldn’t know what a normal dinner for Nietzsche would be.” Then I started trying to research, “What utensils did you use in the 19th century for dinner and what would Nietzsche have eaten at this stage in his life?” You could get certain things like Nietzsche was a big meat-eater at one point and he thought that wasn’t really good for you. Then he became a vegetarian. The point was even when you just try to get to the most obvious facts, you can feel Nietzsche falling between your fingers and you’re not getting to who Nietzsche was. Anyway, I was getting ready to talk to this guy about Nietzsche and I just realized everybody—when I was doing the Nietzsche book, I read a lot of biographies, every biography was a different Nietzsche, every intellectual study created a different Nietzsche, and I realized it’s impossible to get back because it goes back to perspective, it depends what you’re emphasizing, what you’re not emphasizing, how you connect the dots, and what your heart connection is with these people too which is a whole different set of things; the Nietzsche that I read or misread is going to be very different than anybody else’s. You’re dealing with mercury the whole time with all of these people where you’re realizing how much you don’t know, at the same time, you’re realizing how much you do. What’s interesting to me about that is it’s just like real life, it’s just like trying to understand another human being. Bakhtin has this really interesting idea that most people don’t associate with Bakhtin, they always talk about the dialogical stuff with Bakhtin. Bakhtin has this little paragraph in his work on the dialogic where he talks about unfinalizability. He says that when we meet another person, what we try to do immediately—it’s just the way we’re wired—is to categorize the person so that we can dismiss the person, that people are unfinalizable, the only time they become finalizable is on their deathbeds. So it is with characters in fiction, so it is the way we read novels, we try to move into novels, we try to move into characters and novels, categorize them, and make them finalizable. But they’re always these slippery entities depending on where we focus in a novel, what we think about, what little corner we see, and so on, and that each time we go back over and reread a novel, the novel becomes less finalizable, not more finalizable for us. So it is when you’re writing a novel. It’s just been fascinating for me. I know that most of my facts, most of the facts you can check in the novel, especially the weird ones, are all totally there. But then there’s all this space in between that you have to fill out. That’s the joy, that’s what novels can do that other forms can’t. The novel can do deep consciousness in a way that no other art form can. You live in somebody else’s imagination for a week, two weeks, and the other thing it can do is language for an extended period, 300 pages, 400 pages living this incredibly textured language. In addition to that, it can do the complications of a psychology for extended periods of time that struggle between trying to understand a psychology and not understanding a psychology which just delights me.
DN: I wanted to stay on this question of character and characterization with regards to this book and your work as a whole, because in tandem with reading My Red Heaven, I also read your writing textbook or anti-textbook Architectures of Possibility, and my favorite chapter is the one on character called the metaphysics of the pronominal hoax. I wanted to read a couple of things from the opening chapter that you just read to us of My Red Heaven, then read some things from the textbook, and then just see if that sparks any thinking or thoughts from you. Here are some lines from the opening chapter:
“She studies how the skin people call Anita Berber allows the skin people call Otto Dix to position her limbs whichever way he wants across his narrow disarranged bed”
Then later when she’s critical of how all the painters are painting murdered women, she says that the real goal is to “become your own little marionette while pretending to be someone else’s.” In your textbook, you quote Alain Robbe-Grillet who said, “The novel of characters belongs entirely to the past, it describes a period: that which marked the apogee of the individual.” Perhaps, in a similar spirit, when you’re discussing Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable, you say, “It serves as a penetrating reminder that the pronoun (the heart of the heart of character) is, at the end of the day, a sort of hoax foisted upon us by the culture’s language. That character, self, and identity are quantum fields rather than Newtonian nuggets.” I was hoping maybe you could talk more about character, what you’re advancing, what you’re troubling, or pushing back against around the notion of character and what you’re doing with the skin people call Anita Berber, the skin people call Thomas Mann, or the skin people call Hitler in the book.
LO: Wow. Okay. The quandary behind all my quandaries is what we mean when we talk about an “I”. Wittgenstein has an observation and the observation is that a lot of philosophical issues boil down to issues with language and the misuse of language. One of the things that he points out is that one of the greatest misuses of language is the first-person pronoun, that because our language has created a first-person pronoun, we believe there’s a continuity to the thing associated with the first-person pronoun. But we all know deep, deep inside us that isn’t the case. We know that we aren’t the same person we were 10 years ago and that we’re not going to be the same person in 10 more years that we are. That’s a real problem, it’s like “what does that mean to the contemporary writer?” One of the things I’m really interested in my work—though with all our talk about history would seem it would be the opposite—is how we write the contemporary without either abandoning the past or perpetuating the past. One of the things I’m super interested in is what even constitutes identity and how that might manifest in a novel. With Dreamlives of Debris, the novel I wrote before this, it’s a retelling of the Minotaur story. I tried to create a diffuse and ever-changing, a kind of Heraclitus sense of what a character even was, switching pronouns, switching voices, and so on. The Minotaur is a she in Dreamlives of Debris. In all of my writing, I’m always troubled by the language our culture has given us to talk about selfhood and how I can trouble that or defuse that in such a way that we began to think about that. The skin people call Otto Dix and the skin people call Anita Berber are just little cues of that problem and how it exists at a sentence level both for all writers and for people in the more general non-writing world. Even over the course of the novel, even over just these few pages, Anita Berber floats in and out of various Anita Berbers. There’s the high Anita Berber, there’s the memory Anita Berber, there’s the engagement with Otto Dix Anita Berber. They’re not all synchronous and that fascinates me.
DN: There’s even the two ways she views being a marionette, she’s being a marionette, she’s being objectified by Otto Dix and by others and yet she’s claiming, at the end of that passage you read, the being of a marionette for her own purposes. But it also reminds us as the reader that you are the puppeteer as the writer since we have you creating the skin that’s this person, and you creating the skin that’s that person.
LO: Also, we’re all marionettes to history. I’m working on all of these characters but the historical facts are working on me as well. Another layer to this as well—and I’m really interested in, especially in My Red Heaven—is temporal changes to subjectivity. While a lot of My Red Heaven is written in present tense which is a glassy, energetic tense, I also work a lot in the future tense and it was in the passage that I just read too, you’re both seeing Anita Berber here on her birthday and you’re seeing her death. That notion of finalizability, unfinalizability is this fraught immediate space that most of us don’t think of when we meet somebody in the street, but the person you just met in the street is going to have a future we can’t imagine and will eventually die, all endings are happy until they’re not. That’s another way of bringing up into question this idea of what we would call a stable identity.
DN: You said earlier that this book is also a love letter to modernism. By having a book set in one day, it immediately makes me feel like it could be in conversation with Joyce and Ulysses and with Mrs Dalloway and Virginia Woolf but talk to us about what you mean by modernism, what modernist aesthetics for you are being employed or how you’re doing an homage too in this book, tell us a little bit more about why you set it in one day, perhaps in relationship to others, but I would say not even perhaps because those books both take place in June. I doubt it is a coincidence that your book takes place in June too. And they were both written within five years before the setting of My Red Heaven as well.
LO: I really cut my teeth on the modernists. Let me digress into a little story and then come back to what you had just asked. I was a terrible student in high school, I had about a D-minus average going into eleventh grade, and then I had a teacher—one of those magic teachers—whose name was Joyce Garvin who did the English class. I was the kid who sat in the back of the room by the window and stared out most of the time. I have no idea what incredible mind and sensitivity she had but she called me up after class one day, she said, “Clearly, you’re not interested in anything we’re doing in class.” I said, “Clearly not.” She said, “Let me just give you this book, read it, we’ll get together out of class, and we’ll talk about it.” She handed me Kafka’s Metamorphosis like “what was that about?” I’m like this kid around 15 or something like that. I opened it up and the first line, “Gregor Samsa awoke from uneasy dreams one morning to find he’d been transformed into a gigantic vermin cockroach,” however you want to translate those terms. I immediately fell in love with German and I immediately fell in love with Kafka. Little did I know I immediately fell in love with modernism. When I went to college, I started majoring in journalism and that didn’t go well. So, I began to gravitate toward the modernists and there was something about meeting these texts—and I think we all go through this in some way, shape, or form—when you get to a text that is really difficult like Joyce’s Ulysses or Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and some of us get turned off by that, we’re invited into this field of play and you either say, “I’m going to leave the field of play because I don’t understand the rules,” or you go, “How does this work?” I was always the, “Why is this happening? Why did Faulkner get away with this?” Faulkner’s is a collage novel, Joyce’s Ulysses is a collage novel. Mrs Dalloway is a more complicated narrative form and I don’t think you can talk about it in any way as a collage in that way, it works in a different set of principles. But in each of those cases, I just felt like I was in the zone of a kindred spirit but the one that was so much smarter than I was. I want to understand how it all worked. Again, I always go to forms so these forms were incredibly fascinating, their sense of voice and voices—Stephen Dedalus’ voice being so incredibly different from Molly Bloom’s voice, Addie Bundren’s voice being so incredibly different from Vardaman’s voice, that fascinated me too that an author could encompass all of these perspectives in one work. At that level, I was drawn to modernism and then at a different level, I’m just constitutionally drawn to narratives that disrupt traditional narrative forms. I think over the years, I’ve, at least, come up with an excuse for that, maybe even an explanation, but we’re handed narrative forms down through the years. If we hear a narrative form repeated long enough, we begin to take that form as a truth. I think what I’m interested in is trying to short-circuit those kinds of forms to both bring out their artificiality and to suggest that there are other ways of telling the world of telling our lives, of conceiving of this textuality that we live in this three-dimensional textuality called living in ways other than we’ve been given. For me, fiction is always a possibility space where everything can and should be tried. Modernism is the first huge drive in our culture that does exactly that, that turns forms on their head. Not only we’re talking literary forms, but artistic forms, post-impressionism or the avant-garde music of Schoenberg are all taking these received narratives and exploding them to say, “The world doesn’t feel like that to me. The world feels other than that to me. How does that work?”
DN: To take this idea of not receiving received forms without troubling them—the goal is to take these received forms, to trouble, and complicate them—and bringing this back to character, in your textbook, Architectures of Possibility, you talk about Freud’s stranglehold on the idea of a character. The idea that characters are motivated by past traumas, unconscious desires, and certain neuroses, and that a lot of what you’re writing in this textbook is troubling this received form of “Freudian fiction” and creating different types of characters, opening up possibilities for other ways to render a character. But I wanted to hear if you had any thoughts about Freud in relation to modernism because it’s a super complicated relationship. He had an influence on modernism, at least, early on. Woolf and Joyce were very aware of him. She corresponded with him. It was a fraught relationship I think, but it wasn’t entirely in opposition. It was somewhat in opposition but the opposition was still in response to Freud. In a way, he’s playing this productive role both in a positive and a negative sense. But I think you probably know more about it than I do.
LO: I think you said it really, really well. Modernism couldn’t have happened without Freud. The thumbnail sketch that I draw for my students about the difference between say, mid-19th-century fiction and early-20th-century fiction is the difference between a photograph and an x-ray. 19th century fiction, think of a Dickens’ novel how he got everything right about how, essentially, the industrial urban world worked, the smells, the looks, all of that stuff. As you get to Joyce, to Woolf, to Faulkner, that becomes so much less important and what becomes important is the interior consciousness of everybody. That hinge is Freud, that hinge is somebody who said, “What’s important is our internal conflicts, our past traumas, our incredibly rich and dark desires that drive us.” Modernism happens in many ways because of Freud. At the very same time, there’s a struggle because Freud was such a categorical determinist and people like Joyce, Woolf, and Faulkner did not see it in those terms. Modernism could be seen, in terms of consciousness, as a continuous struggle with Freud. But what happened in modernism were these new ways of telling consciousness. Molly’s section in Ulysses and this development of stream of consciousness comes as much from Freud as also from William James, Henry James’s brother who coined the term stream of consciousness, and that consciousness doesn’t move in this logical—think of Dickensian or think of Flaubertian moves—but rather in this associative mode. One of the things—again, in My Red Heaven—I try to do is to tell consciousness in different ways. We heard, in the Anita Berber section, more realist telling of consciousness even though it was troubled in the ways we talked about. But there are parts of it that are more stream of consciousness like when Einstein thinks and that textual thing. You also asked about some of the forms that happen in My Red Heaven. What I tried to do was to mimic, essentially, to pay homage. A lot of times, when I write a book, it’s to say thank you to other books for existing in the world. What I tried to do was to tell each chapter in a form that was both compatible with the consciousness that was the center of the chapter while, at the same time, trying to connect with some essential modernist form. We talked about the larger level of collage but its smaller levels in My Red Heaven, I look to filmic forms for modernism, I look at, as I say, the stream of consciousness from modernism, but also this whole idea of the materiality of the page which becomes increasingly important in the modernist undertaking, that the page itself becomes a space of performance, not only what’s in the page but how the page acts. That goes to who you were alluding to earlier, Hannah Höch who’s a Dadaist modernist collage artist who is shot through with a gendered political disruptive consciousness who did these magnificent surreal proto Monty Pythonesque collages that just captivated me. Form, again, we keep coming back to form and we keep coming back to undoing narrative forms. Modernism is the thing that gets us to move that way in the 20th century.
DN: If we were to think about William James version of stream-of-consciousness versus Freud’s and look more to association, I did want to talk about the way you make transitions from chapter to chapter because unlike Ulysses, there’s no Leopold Bloom. We leave the skin of one person and enter the skin of another and we don’t return to the person we’ve left except, possibly, as a character seen by the new protagonist. There is this sense of connection between everybody within a chapter. I’m just going to read a little excerpt from Sam Sacks in The Wall Street Journal that I think captures the way you create connections between people in a chapter, but then afterwards, I was hoping maybe we could talk about the transitions and your thoughts about transitions on how to carry the reader along when you’ve so evocatively have created the world of Anita Berber and then we end up in another consciousness in the next chapter. This is what Sam Sacks said about My Red Heaven in the Wall Street Journal:
“Mr. Olsen strings together the artists and revolutionaries who lived in the city into an intricate skein of happenstance. Figures as disparate as Werner Heisenberg and a young Vladimir Nabokov are momentarily entangled. In one scene, Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger, on a lovers’ tryst, witness a deadly traffic accident; Walter Benjamin is disturbed by the commotion from a nearby cafe, while Greta Garbo views the ruckus indifferently through her hotel window. Elsewhere in the city, the soon-to-be anti-Nazi martyrs Otto and Elise Hampel walk their dog past the apartment of Franz Kafka’s lover Dora Diamant just as, overhead, an airplane carries Goebbels and Hitler away from a successful rally.”
That feels like both a weird form of historical collage that shows how retrospectively possibly random things seem to have some coherence or meaning in the cultural moment, but how do you carry us when you’ve brought us into or given us the illusion of being in the consciousness of a specific person? Obviously, with Anita Berber, we get that transition to Otto Dix in the next chapter so there’s that maybe stronger ligature from chapter-to-chapter. But tell us about some of the other ways you move.
LO: Yeah. Okay. First of all, I should back up just a little bit and say this is a hat tip, at one level, to Virginia Woolf and Mrs Dalloway. There’s this moment in Mrs. Dalloway where different people in London are seeing this plane flying over. That plane was skywriting and people can’t figure out what it is writing in the sky. That becomes a plot triangulation. It goes: consciousnesses sees plane, we see plane, then we drop into a different consciousness seeing plane. What drew me into that moment in Mrs Dalloway is this beautiful sense of perspectival change again that a different consciousness engaging with the same object sees that object in a completely different way and reveals itself. One of the structuring principles in My Red Heaven is a chapter will end with character X and then they’ll be a pivot. In the next chapter, character Y may see the same thing, may see the character X before it, but in some way, negotiate. You’d mention Nabokov and Heisenberg. Heisenberg is going up into a train station, somebody picks his pocket, and he’s left in this little chapter patting himself down realizing that his wallet is gone. Then the next chapter pivots in from Nabokov who’s sitting in a train, pulling out of the station, doesn’t know it’s Heisenberg but sees some guy in a shabby jacket patting himself down as the train moves away. There’s something, for me, so poignant about how important we each feel we are. David Foster Wallace has a lovely line somewhere about how if we just take a moment to think how few people in the world are thinking about this in a given moment, we would become a little bit more humble. I love that idea of each of these people think their whole world is in this little, I don’t know what, just getting pickpocketed and patting yourself down, whereas to everybody else in the world, you’re some weird guy doing a strange dance on a platform in the shabby coat, you’re not Heisenberg, you’re something else. I think a lot of what I was doing with the ligature was trying to tie one chapter into another by some switching point of view that got us to understand both this huge dance that’s going on called “the city” and also these incredibly dense little microscopic consciousnesses that are moving through that city that seems so important at the moment and then, with another switch of perspective seem completely unimportant or just background noise to somebody else’s life.
DN: Tell us a little bit about the butterfly as one way you more fancifully connect some of the chapters.
LO: Yeah. Rosa Luxemburg, in history, the real Luxembourg, gets killed by the Freikorps who are these proto Nazis. In the novel, this is a hat tip in a very different way, an early influence on me was Gabriel García Márquez as well and I adored how he could do magical realism by treating something like a block of ice at the beginning of One Hundred Years of Solitude as the most magical thing in the world but then a woman’s transcendence as she’s hanging clothes outside as she floats up into heaven as the most realistic thing in the world. I just wanted to do something along those lines. Rosa Luxemburg, after her death, turns into a butterfly, is wheeled up in the air in this gust of wind, blown across Berlin lands, and is instantly crushed by the boot of somebody who isn’t even paying attention, they’re just walking across a little pasture meadow and happens to kill Rosa Luxemburg again. Tongue in cheek the whole time but also something that’s emblematic of how the whole novel works in terms of that switch of point of views.
DN: The butterfly wasn’t Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle?
LO: Oh, I wasn’t even thinking about that, that’s awesome. Yeah, totally—and the butterfly effect. I hadn’t thought about that, but yeah, that works. Now I will simply echo you. [laughs]
DN: Also these transitions where we’re, in a way, forever leaving also makes me feel or makes me think of how many of the modernists were actually fleeing. They’re either refugees themselves or they’re fleeing or being pushed to the margins of the cultures that they remain in.
LO: I think modernism has really gotten a bad rap. I don’t know how it’s perceived in the world in general. In academia, it has been categorized and finalized as this elitist mode of all of these old-white males doing crazy avant-garde things that nobody can engage with. Actually, if you look at it, it’s not that at all, it’s a whole bunch of people who are politically incredibly engaged with their daily lives, most of them are, like you say, refugees, certainly, from their pasts, often from repressive regimes like Nabokov who had just fled Russia and went to Berlin because he thought that Berlin was going to be a safe haven for intellectuals only to find out that didn’t work well and have to flee again, first, to Paris and then to the United States. All of them were trying to answer this incredibly important existential question that we were talking about earlier: I live in this world of extreme flux, I live in this world of extreme authoritarian repression and the rise of a kind of politics that was almost unfathomable, how do I write that space? How do I come to understand my contemporary and then reinventing art itself in these incredibly poignant ways? You can’t read Kafka’s Metamorphosis, As I Lay Dying, or The Sound and the Fury without your heart breaking a million times. Then the language, this is something that the modernists also taught me, was just this texturing of language, not language as invisible glass-like thing that you just fall through, but language that continually calls attention to itself, not just to show off in some avant-garde way but to say language is the problem. Derrida has this line that says, “We should all remember that language is simply not one more problem among other problems, it is the problem. How we represent is everything. What are the consequences of representing one way rather than another way, not only formally but even linguistically.” Somebody like Wittgenstein, another good modernist, coming along and saying language is such a problem that even our pronouns, as we said earlier, have all these consequences to use.
DN: Roughly, at the center of the text, we have Walter Benjamin fleeing his flight across the continent to escape the Nazis where he’s ultimately turned back by Franco in Spain. Just as he’s about to be sent back to occupied France and ultimately back to Nazi hands, he commits suicide. He’s one of the early pioneers of bringing the collage technique into literature as well as the fragmentary and the disjunctive, in general. You have this long section, in My Red Heaven, told in numbered fragments. At one point, you have him say, “Suppose you began to regard the essay you are writing, not as a piece of music that must move from first note to last, but rather as a building you could approach from various sides, navigate along various paths, one in which perspective continually changes?
This building, we might submit, would constitute a literary architectonics that pits itself against narrative’s seemingly inflexible arc from birth to curtains.”
This quote made me wonder if Benjamin was, in particular, serving as an avatar for Lance Olsen because elsewhere, outside of the book, you talk about an essay by Milorad Pavić, The Beginning and the End of Reading—The Beginning and the End of the Novel, which asserts that there are two kinds of art: reversible and non reversible. Non reversible is like a piece of music or a conventional narrative where you’re supposed to experience it linearly, and reversible is more like architecture or sculpture where it can be entered at various points and wandered through without a sense of beginning, middle, or end. Are these words in Benjamin’s mouths your words?
DN: Are they his words? Are they Pavić’s words? Also, do you think of My Red Heaven as a reversible text in this sense?
LO: The answer is yes and yes. Let me backup for a second, a lot of people don’t realize that the shape—we’re back to form again—of say psychological realist novels always move from beginning, to middle, to end and that mimics this super deep structure level, the structure of all our lives. The end of every novel is a kind of death. Deep structure, you’re being reminded that we die, we die, and we die. What I’m really fascinated by is Pavić’s point that we could create art that short circuits that movement in ways that, I don’t know how you’d say it, embrace a different narrative of life rather than this deep structure of movement toward death. Pavić himself, in Dictionary of the Khazars and other novels, tries to design novels that just refuse that movement. I love that. It’s a lost cause from the beginning because the realist novel is right, we die, we die, we die, but I just love those moments of life. Anyway, in My Red Heaven, because it comes in the form of a codex, that thing that’s bound along the spine, it’s a little harder to conceive of as something that breaks a form because the codex itself follows that form. You think you need to begin on page one and then end on page 268. But it is true that there’s absolutely no rhyme or reason for why one section of My Red Heaven needs to be read before any other section of My Red Heaven. I think the only part of it that shades everything, colors everything is the last few pages where there’s this very strong sense of world collapse, page collapse, and materiality collapse—we can talk about it if you want to. I really love the question to ask yourself as a writer of how can we tell the world in a way that doesn’t begin, come to a middle, and then an end, because most of it for us is all middle.
DN: If we think about this idea of writing as architecture rather than as music, or as possibility space, as you mentioned before, you’ve done a three-dimensional novel with your wife, Andi Olsen. Can you talk about that as a novel, one that you can literally walk through?
LO: That’s right. I wrote a novel, I think in 2014, called Theories of Forgetting. Theories of Forgetting, in a lot of ways, captures its form through Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. One of the protagonists in there is named Alana and she’s a video artist. There’s a little passage, something that’s like a footnote in that novel that’s a URL. If you type that URL in, you can actually go and see one of the films she created. This is what I was thinking of originally. Andi and I were sitting around one day talking about this very cool possibility of a novel spilling out into the world, of confusing itself with the world much more like that little URL that was the birth of it all. It suddenly dawned on us, it was like, “Oh, what would happen if we staged a retrospective of Alana’s work?” That is to say take a character for my novel, create a retrospective by generating all the films, all the videos that she produced, or as many as might have survived in her life but throwing it as a straight-faced retrospective so as people walk into it, you’re walking into a three-dimensional novel, you’re walking into a fictional space where you, as a reader, do what you do in regular novels which is to try to figure out who this character was, what the past was, what her life felt like, and create a density to it. We did that and ironically, what would be the most comfortable and welcoming space to do that except Berlin? We had some friends who ran a gallery there and we pitched this project, they were like, “This sounds really great. Okay, let’s do this.” It was beautiful because we gave no sign that this was a fictional space except that if you read carefully enough the descriptions, there were inconsistencies among the descriptions. I wrote up and designed a catalogue for it and if you look closely at the catalogue, the date of the show on the catalogue is always several months in the future, it’s not the actual date of the time that the show is going on. There are all these little cues that you’re moving in fiction but you have to pay attention. This show is all about attention, it’s all about curiosity, it’s all about the things you need as you read any text but this is a three-dimensional text. Then there’s something called a vernissage in Berlin where usually, the day before the show opens, the audience is invited in to talk with the artists, and because Alana had passed away, I stood in and talked about her. But then in the audience, there were some plants and the plants would raise their hands and think back on what an amazing person Alana was, what a complex life she had had, and all of that. There was all this cognitive dissonance floating in the room, it was like, “I think this is real but I’m not sure this is.” That’s the space I really wanted to explore. We’ve done that and we’ve shown it a number of times both in Europe and in the US since then and also gave talks on it where we show our hand. That space also is really interesting because—it goes back to what you were saying—you inhabit that space in a reversible way that you tend not to inhabit most novels, that is to say, when you walk into a gallery space, usually, your attention is drawn out of chronology very quickly, something catches your eye across the room or some plaque says something that’s really interesting and so you read the room differently because you see that plaque before you see that plaque, that sort of thing. The experience of it is both like a traditional novel in the sense of character, and so on, and not like a traditional novel because it’s a three-dimensional reversible space.
DN: Yeah. That sounds amazing.
DN: You should bring that to Portland. [laughs]
LO: I would love to.
DN: There’s a lot of experimentation in My Red Heaven and one of the things that punctuates the entire novel are the newsreels where we get the voice of journalism, essentially, from the German state telling us what’s going on through their lens as the novel progresses. But after Walter Benjamin dies, the experimentation feels like it increases and becomes less predictable. It feels like there’s some sense of “we know what we’re going to get in terms of the formal innovation,” and things start to tumble and unravel. We get new forms, new fonts, new use of white space, grayscale photographs, sentences written on top of each other, and it feels like whatever held together the first half of the book is no longer there and we’re slowly seeing something come apart. I was hoping we could talk about the photographs, in particular, at least, to begin with because they aren’t identified, we just get the photographs, we don’t know exactly what we’re looking at, and they have very strange mysterious captions that don’t illuminate in an informative way. They illuminate, in some other nonlogical way, what we’re looking at. We don’t know exactly, maybe like this exhibit, we don’t know exactly what we’re seeing and from when. I was hoping you could talk about the role of the photographs but also your interest in image text because you had a long-standing collaboration with Andi Olsen that has been an image text collaboration over a variety of books and also your book Hideous Beauties which had ten fictions, each based on a photograph painting, sketch, collage. This is an ongoing concern, this isn’t new that this appears in My Red Heaven but it feels like a very My-Red-Heaven-specific way you’ve employed it in this book. Tell us about it in general and specifically.
LO: Okay. These photographs, most of them were taken actually by a friend, an expat who’s named Michael Kroetch. They’re of these spaces called Lost Places in Berlin. Lost Places in Berlin are places that were locked down or abandoned at the end of World War II, usually on the last day of the Battle of Berlin or after the Wall fell. You gather these really haunted abandoned spaces that often still have bullet holes in the wall or parts where hand grenades went off soldiers’ boots, so on. We also had a friend who, long story short, had access to a lot of the bunkers. A lot of the bunkers in Berlin, when the allies came in and tried to blow them up, were so well-built that even shooting tank artillery at them wouldn’t get them to collapse. The allies locked them and walked away. What’s in them stayed exactly the same as the last day of the war. We gained access to a number of the bunkers and oh, man, there’s this one that’s a medical bunker, for instance, that treated the German soldiers during the Battle of Berlin and the stretchers are still there with the blood of the German soldiers on them, the doctors’ lab jackets are still there, the shelves of morphine, these incredibly haunted spaces. What I wanted to do was to use those photographs, not as the way photographs are usually used on a page to illustrate—I’m just not interested in illustration because words should be able to illustrate whatever you need to do—but rather to create juxtapositions or tensions. If you think about 1927, these photographs are often from places that were shut down in 1945 or 1989 and yet they create these really, in my mind, haunting tensions between, again, this 1927 present and futures that we know but that the characters wouldn’t know. Then these little phrasings that you’re talking about, these captions that allegedly identify them only complicate them further. A lot of these little captions are taken from earlier in the novel but completely out of context. They should, at least, deeply psychologically echo back and then definitely create a moment of some kind of confliction or some kind of static, ontological static as you’re looking at these things. I use the photographs to punctuate the prose toward the end of the novel, so the question, for me, formally again, was how do you represent a culture slowly coming apart at the seams, not only through story but through visualization? I wanted to have, just as what you’re saying—you’re such a great reader, David—to see the culture coming apart very materially on the page in a way that didn’t feel gimmicky but really felt essential to our understanding of the movement of the culture in the novel. That’s what was going on with photographs. At the largest level, I’m really interested in different kinds of syntax and grammar—visual syntax and grammar, linguistic syntax and grammar—and then these newsreels that you were referring to which are so wonderful. Everything in the newsreels were actually out of German newsreels and the slow fall into a fascistic mentality. At first, they’re just talking about things that Germans have done that have been wonderful, you start getting references to Aryan babies, you start getting references to “our economy is second to none,” and all of these sorts of things. But journalism is always skirting on the surface and a grammar of transparency. What I wanted to do is we moved into say, the last fourth of the book or so, was to completely undermine that sense of transparency.
DN: Also, we have invisibly—in the background of form again— an engagement with the image of the painting but you’re moving backwards towards the blackness instead of towards the heaven.
LO: Yeah. Again, Freundlich was such a utopian thinker so he just thought our eyes always moved up and I guess I’m, in many ways, opposite, my eyes always move down. [laughs]
DN: Yeah. I want to talk about that juxtaposition of everything being possible in Berlin of the 20s and America today in a sense and how everything being possible isn’t necessarily the best thing. But it made me think of these seemingly improbable things and some of them weren’t in your book. One of the things that went in my mind was that in 1936, when Hitler is hosting the Berlin Olympics, France is electing a Jewish socialist head of state. That seems like something out of a science fiction book but was true and it feels like, at the same time, while The Weimar Republic is really huge for the emancipation of women, is pushing gender norms in really interesting and innovative ways, there are breakthroughs and art and, in a way, it feels like Nazism is a response to this new unbridled experimentation and freedom. But we also see that again now. I don’t want to suggest like Obama represents something as innovative, as experimental, or as liberating but having a black president, followed right by our first black president, followed by Trump or even considering the various things that are now on the table as possibilities by candidates, which even eight years ago I don’t think would even be being discussed as possible, we’re having this intense possibility put up against this really profound terribleness that’s happening at the same time. I don’t know if I’m saying it well but I think about Freundlich who ends up being killed in a death camp. He said aspirationally, “The object as the antithesis to the individual will disappear, and with it the state of one person being an object for another.” He also sought to abolish boundaries between the world and the cosmos, between human beings, between mine and yours, between all the things that we see. Everything was on the table including him being exterminated simply because he was a Jew just as you can read My Red Heaven as being a cooperative utopia or a bloody violent place. I wanted to talk a little bit about the opposites which seemed inseparable because I feel like, particularly, the beginning with your epigraphs, you seem to engage with the sense of inseparability of the opposites. You have Ellen Hinsey who says, “Somewhere, someone still remembers. Somewhere else, someone forgets.” Then you have the Jenny Erpenbeck, “The forest provides wood for the axe that will chop it down.”
LO: We live right now—and this is another parallel with the 1920s—in the space of crazy extremes. A little bit of careful what you wish for, if everything is possible, then everything is possible. We’re in a catastrophic possibility space right now in so many ways. I think, both with the 1920s and 1930s and with our own space, we didn’t count or, at least, a lot of us didn’t count on a fundamentalist right-wing response to a kind of liberation and progressive thaw. You were talking about Obama and he was hardly an angel and there are lots of complications to his presidency but he was emblematic of something, he was emblematic of a kind of movement forward in consciousness that we thought would only lead to another forward movement in consciousness but in fact, led to a backlash that we’re seeing that is utterly incomprehensible, I think to a lot of us. A lot of the people who I’m friends with in Germany of my age, would have had parents who were Nazis. It’s been really interesting talking to them and understanding their relationship to that space and it’s still very, very close to people who felt that the world was out of control, the economy was incredibly unstable, the working people were being abused in all sorts of ways, the culture seemed to be coming apart at the seams in terms of trains not running on time, these kinds of things and you get this incredibly powerful father figure coming in saying, “I will take control of everything. Now, you have to give me something back. You have to give me back part of your freedom. You have to give me back part of your soul, but I can take control of things.” That response is overwhelming from a large part of the population listening to the folks who are the parents of my friend’s generation saying, “At first, things got better. At first we thought this guy, who we knew was lying a lot of the times, we knew was manipulating the government a lot of times, was creating a sense of order. Then there’s this moment where we realized it was too much and we couldn’t go back and that he could feed on this pit bullish paranoia and all the deep, deep fears that a culture has of invasion from the outside, of always wanting to be the last in the culture in, close the gates, keep everybody out,” those sorts of things. To me, it’s just extraordinary how many parallels there are at that level about what’s happening right now. I don’t mean to get up my soapbox here but I just think a lot of Americans aren’t seeing, on a daily basis, that things look so different than they did just like a month ago, two years ago.
DN: Right. I want to talk more about that and about being an artist in our time. But before we do, I want you to read a piece to set that up.
LO: Great. Okay. This is a journalist. He’s at home, it’s late at night, he’s working on a deadline. He needs to write a review of the new Hermann Hesse novel but he has a hard time doing that. He seems to be drifting, it’s unclear whether he’s mentally slipping a little bit or if actually, he’s shimmering between worlds.
“Entering the newspaper office frightens him. He can see his editor’s eyes altering when Kurt speaks up at meetings or maybe he has read one too many novels. He wants to get up from his desk and go to the cafe and meet a friend. Any friend preferably, a woman friend. A woman might understand better than a man what he is trying to say. To whom he can confess that he has finally read one too many novels.
Not Kurt would explain, Kurt types because he doesn’t like novels. He does, Kurt does more than anything. But each keeps proving something Kurt always intuited. Novels make precisely nothing different forever. He doesn’t want to think about it. He can’t stop thinking about it. You can appreciate the right article faith each embraces even the most faithless. Still, their rhythm, syntax, metaphorical alchemy, every sentence and act of awareness, their desperate expressions of possibility which are always desperate expressions of light possess the extraordinary power to change nobody.
Medicine, matters of state, automobiles, what color of shirt you put on this morning. These make things other than they were. But novels, imagine all the ones that have been published. Imagine all the humans who have read them, are reading them, will read them, yet stubbornly continue behaving just like humans. Imagine all the societies that ponder them, teach them, write about them, talk about them, reverently pass them down from generation to generation, pretend to care yet stubbornly continue behaving just like societies.
People carry on killing, brutalizing, bullying, cheating, swindling, stealing, lying, gambling, overeating, fretting, celebrating, selfishness, messiness, laziness, neurosis, arrogance, rudeness, despotism, greed, hypocrisy, impatience, vengefulness, manipulation, disloyalty, mercilessness, pessimism, childish dependence and their novels are.
Supposing they act as queries designed to bring about contemplation, commiseration, provocation, transformation when all they accomplish is to confirm that everything is made to be broken. And so consider the consequences of their presence in our lives. There is none.
I want that cup of coffee. There is none. I want novels that know they can’t do anything and yet try to do it anyway. There aren’t any. I want to ask my cafe friend is anyone still honestly interested in stories? She might respond that’s an easy one. Everyone and no one. The very idea of her reply is exhausting. Or she might ask me in return what do you mean by stories? She might point out we can’t even talk about the question because The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge exists, you idiot. And you’ve seen those excerpts from what Robert Musil is working on, those bits from Alfred Döblin’s montage thing.
Kurt types raising his head while typing. Kurt types raising his head while typing. Kurt types raising his head while typing. To see the minutes in which he is sitting are on fire. Typing to see the minutes in which he is sitting are on fire. Typing to see the minutes in which he is sitting are on fire because it is clear to him. What is clear to him, it is clear to him. Clear to Kurt severing. And it ends there.”
DN: We’ve been listening to Lance Olsen read from My Red Heaven. I wanted you to read this section about this anxiety about the uselessness of the novel and perhaps, the uselessness of art. I know this is an impossible question and I feel like the reading that you just gave also captures the impossibility of an answer to it but I’m going to ask you a question anyways. Because I wanted to ask about being an artist now during our societal crisis that we’re in or, at least, the culmination of—I don’t want to say that this came out of nowhere, this is, at least, from my vantage point, the culmination of hundreds of years of not taking care of the crisis that is the United States. But you yourself have said, “So-called experimental fiction teaches a fundamental political lesson over and over again, as much through its structural complications as through its thematics: that the text of the text, the text of our lives, and the text of the world can and should be other than they are.” To me, this suggests a hope, at least, and perhaps, it’s the kindred hope to Freundlich that art can make a difference. But given that we are artists in a time when families are being put in cages, we’ve been at war for 20 years, we’re a small handful of people, own more and more of the resources of the world, global climate collapse seems imminent, and yet unlike so many countries in the world right now, nobody’s on the streets. We see these mass mobilizations all over the world, Hong Kong, Bolivia, these immense protests happening for transformation and change and here, there’s just like tumbleweeds as we’re maybe not only in one of the most tenuous places in terms of what the future of democracy here is but also have one of the largest effects on the world as a whole depending on which way we go. I was thinking about Otto and Elise Hampel and their postcard project in the book, which I didn’t know was real until I looked it up, and at least, for a while, the outsize effect it had. I was hoping you could talk about how that went, what it was, and then talk more about where you fall on the spectrum between Severing, at least, in this chapter, a pessimist and Freundlich who had been an extreme optimist in the face of something terrible.
LO: The Hampels were a couple in Germany, not very well-educated, not very intellectually engaged, and yet what they did as the Nazis came to power was to begin to write these little postcards as acts of protest. They couldn’t change a lot but what they thought they could do was through each postcard placed on a park bench or in mailboxes around their neighborhood and vetting, bring to attention the fact that we—and they use this word—“need to resist,” “we need to resist the thing that our country has become.” All the people who received the postcards, instead of resisting, turned them immediately into the Gestapo. The Gestapo thought they were dealing with this huge band of subversives and it took them something like 18 months to figure out, “Oh, no, no it was just a couple who were doing all the postcards,” and arrested the couple and ended up beheading them, which was one other thing we don’t hear about a lot but that’s actually how the Gestapo did a lot of the executions in Berlin to make a point.
DN: It was a reverse guillotine also where they’re looking up at the blade as they’re getting beheaded.
LO: That’s right. The reason they were very calculated, everything was emblematic of something, if the Gestapo wanted to give you dignity, they would put you face down in the guillotine so that you wouldn’t see your future flying at you, but when they didn’t respect you, they put you on your back so that you were terrorized to the last second. Obviously, that’s emblematic of what we all do as artists, we all write our little postcards, leave them around, and hope somebody listens to us. I’m not only a writer, I’m also a teacher. I teach at the University of Utah. These things are just incredibly intricately bound in my mind, it’s like, “What is it that we’re really doing? Behind the things that we appear to be doing, what are we trying to do?” I think there’s a part of me that is so much the pessimist. I look back at history and I think, “What has any of these artistic movements done? What has any peace, what has any postcard ever been done except get turned into the Gestapo?” But then there’s this other thing like we all know ourselves, these moments that we have read books and have been transformed by them. For me, it goes back to my high school teacher, Joyce Garvin giving me The Metamorphosis and everything changed, my world changed. I saw everything differently because that book existed in the world. I think that’s what I try to do as a teacher and what I try to do as a writer is to create a space of what Freud would call the examined life, just thinking harder about where we are complicating the narratives we’ve been given, asking ourselves “Can we think our way out of this? If we can’t think our way out of this, can we just love each other a little bit harder as the world goes on fire around us?” I think creating a space of contemplation, I see a huge difference between entertainment and art, a lot of people blur those two things together, art should teach and entertain or something, but for me, entertainment is that thing that speeds up our perceptions and gets us to think as little as possible. It gives us spectacles by which we can neutralize our daily pain. I think art is just the opposite of that, it slows us down, it gets us to be curious, it gets us to work against the given and to create these little moments of change. The other thing is we may not change for our whole lives, we may change for five minutes, we may change for a week, we may change for a month, but that, in itself, I think is a wonderful and imperative process. Over time, perhaps, something good will come of it. I said earlier and I have a line here, I think it’s in My Red Heaven that’s spoken by Kafka, it says, “All endings are happy until they’re not.” That is also true and colors everything that I say. You mentioned climate change. We keep the narrative going that maybe we can change this but a lot of the scientists now are saying that we’ve already passed the point of no return. It’s not about changing, it’s about adapting to how we’re going to live as species now that we’ve destroyed the planet.
DN: This idea of slowing down perception and art versus entertainment, I want to transform that into maybe a recommendation coming from you to our listeners about other possible things to read. Because in your anti textbook, Architectures of Possibility, you talk about the idea of renewing the difficult imagination, of embracing and not shying away from an engagement with unconventional texts just because they require effort. Even your discussion of character talks about how having characters that resist characterization is really the way to get us to ask the important questions about who we are and why. You end that textbook with a list of what you call limit texts that are emblematic of innovative writing. It’s not supposed to be comprehensive, it’s just a nice robust place to begin for people who are looking for more. But whether it’s on the list or not, if people are listening to this conversation, are compelled by having just read My Red Heaven and want more, what are some books that might pop to mind to you that you’d want to point people to that maybe aren’t being sung enough?
LO: Yeah. Obviously, I would go back to some of the modernists, Joyce’s Ulysses, if you’re a writer, is itself a course on how to write. Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. There are so many good ones but much more contemporary. There are a couple I would really point out if we’re into this realm of the difficult imagination, into this realm of texts that challenge us and get us to think about things that are most deep to the way we shape our world, the language, the pronoun references, that sort of thing. Derrida always says, “I don’t listen to the question, I always listen to the question behind the question.” These are the texts that get us to ask the questions behind the questions. I would say there’s a magnificent hyper-medial work, it’s online, it’s free, you can just go over and look it up, it’s by a guy, a Canadian multimedia artist named David Clark, it’s called 88 Constellations for Wittgenstein. Magnificent. It got me to completely rethink even what we mean by beginning, middle, and end. It creates a work that has none of those. On the page, a transformative text, for me, in the last decade, or so, was Steve Tomasula’s VAS. It’s the most beautiful book. What’s so beautiful about this work is he goes like, “Some people say think outside the box and I say what box?” [laughs] It’s just a completely redesigned sense of what the novel is, its active metaphor has to do with genetics and the history of genetics, especially eugenics—ironically, in the United States, not in Germany—and how eugenics was a very powerful force in the 1930s and 40s in the US. But he takes that metaphor and brings it into the novel and says that the novel tries to be traditionally a eugenically pure form but that actually, when we study the novel, when we go back and look at the history of the novel, what we’re reading are exactly those moments of aberration in the DNA chain. I love, love, love, at a whole different level, David Markson’s works. The Last Novel, speaking of postcards, is almost like—it’s a collage novel—it’s written in these very, very short anecdotal sections. It’s a magnificent way to engage with paring down condensation, how much can be activated in 50-word little segments, I always give my students that. I think we have a mutual friend in Lidia Yuknavitch. Just pick up anything by Lidia Yuknavitch. She’s so politically engaged at the same time that she’s aesthetically engaged. She just came out with Verge.
DN: And it’s great.
LO: It’s magnificent. We worked on FC2 together for a number of years. She was on the board when I was the chair but we also came up together in this world. It’s just so wonderful because everything that she does is—and it’s something we haven’t talked about as much as maybe we should have here—so deeply felt. We’ve been talking to all highfalutin theoretical stuff but man, if it doesn’t break your heart a thousand times a page, I don’t know why we’re reading it.
DN: I’ll just say, since we didn’t talk about it enough, we talked about all the different ways you’ve been experimental in this book—and I know a lot of people think that word is forbidding or it means difficult—but the novel is heartbreaking. Part of my curiosity about the transitions, how you carry us from one to another, when you do so many things that traditionally would make it hard for the reader to reconnect, is that you succeed. It is like a magic trick in the sense that there’s all of this formal experimentation but none of it really is at the expense of being engaged with Berlin in the moment.
LO: I think if I’ve learned anything as a writer over the years, that’s what I want to have learned. I mentioned this earlier about fiction being empathy technology and it goes back to this larger question, I don’t care about this stuff that’s just spinning wheels and saying it’s all about that in the service of trying to understand because the most incredible thing ever that humans do is have the capacity to try to connect with other humans and understand what that means at the deepest level. I’m so not any of the people in My Red Heaven, I wanted to understand other people. For me as a writer, it’s all about trying to get out of oneself and trying to connect with other consciousnesses and understand them, that would be another answer to the question of Nietzsche, Van Gogh, or Anita Berber is just how do other humans work and how do they feel the world, how do they experience experience. That’s really what I go into every morning thinking about, all these formal things are incredibly fascinating to me. I couldn’t live without them but they’re all ways of getting into this deeper idea of humanity as a collage, humanity as a polyphonic set of voices.
DN: Thank you for being on the show today, Lance. It was really great.
LO: Thank you, David. It’s just a blast talking with you.
DN: We were talking today to Lance Olsen about his latest book from Dzanc Books, My Red Heaven. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
DN: Today’s program was recorded at the studios of KBOO, Volunteer-Powered, Non-Commercial, Listener-Sponsored, Full-Strength Community Radio from Portland, Oregon, found at kboo.fm. More of Lance Olsen’s work can be found at lanceolsen.com. Lance also adds the reading and discussion of excerpts of writing by Joyce, by Faulkner, by Woolf, and by Carole Maso to the bonus audio archive. This joins supplemental material by Miriam Toews, Garth Greenwell, Layli Long Soldier, Richard Powers, Cristina Rivera Garza, Ted Chiang, Tommy Pico, Brandon Shimoda, and others. All this can be found at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Finally, I’d like to thank [2:06:57] and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album [2:07:02] can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s Trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.