A Review of Skin Elegies by Lance Olsen
As Skin Elegies commences, a bold section heading tells you it’s the year 2072. Scattered letters, then word fragments, then whole words, dribble and slash across mostly blank pages, slowly gaining flow and momentum. Then, a few pages in, just as clarity begins to dawn, the narrative breaks off and tumbles several decades back in time, where we then warp back and forth within an interweaving collage of nine historical or imagined events, before concluding in 2072. Though initially disorienting, the music of this novel builds and builds.
Author Lance Olsen, with an oeuvre of fifteen novels, five short-story collections, and seven works of non-fiction, is widely recognized as a master innovator of the collage form. Olsen is not one to fall into a pattern and has experimented with an array of formal approaches in his novels of the last twenty years. He’s also collaborated numerous times with his artist wife Andi Olsen; one of their joint projects is the ongoing “multimodal installation” There’s No Place Like Time, which takes the form of a novel one walks through.
The mosaic of a collage novel demands more attention from the reader than a traditional linear structure. Virtually anything can go in the mix, constrained only by the chosen medium and the stories being told. Visual arts can be included in a book in the form of pictures or drawings; if online, audio and/or video can be incorporated, and artists from different disciplines can collaborate. In this age of blurred distinctions between fiction and whatever is not fiction, this is an ideal artistic vehicle for the future, and this novel is an excellent example of just such a vehicle.
Olsen’s prior novel, the masterful My Red Heaven, centers on events set on a single day in Berlin in 1927. Dozens of narrative strands weave through this day, many involving historical persons such as Walter Benjamin, Greta Garbo, and, in a chilling gesture to events looming only a few years in the future, Adolf Hitler and his inner circle. The novel is carried forward by “narraticules,” Olsen’s term for each unit of the overall story in the collage, with the interaction between characters, often unrecognized by them, passing the narrative baton forward. For example, the narraticule titled “white silence: frozen music” begins with Werner Heisenberg passing through Alexanderplatz, so lost in thought over birds’ nests representing quantum waves that he only notices he’s been pickpocketed when his wallet is no longer present in his pocket. The following section, “tasty bitch machine: whatever sex you wish,” is an impressionistic stream-of-consciousness trip taking place inside the thief’s mind. Then follows the section “mixed metaphor: friezes, frescoes, papa,” in which Vladimir Nabokov, who “may or may not be” passing through Alexanderplatz station on a train, puzzles through a story, looks out the window, and notices a man he does not know (Heisenberg) madly patting himself down in a futile attempt to locate said wallet. The story is propelled forward in a similar manner throughout the book. The feeling of discovery and interconnectedness is thrilling, with each piece narrated in a different voice.
Skin Elegies is a conceptual sibling to My Red Heaven, sharing similar cover artwork and equally broad themes, but it follows a different collage logic. Unlike My Red Heaven’s focus on a single day, Skin Elegies moves back and forth through its nine different story/timeframes, beginning and ending in a tenth future timeframe. These nine real or imagined historical events are set in space and time ranging from Berlin in May 1945 to Syria and Egypt in 2015 (no spoilers here—the back cover mentions them all). Each story is deconstructed and its pieces redistributed, though each timeframe retains its own temporal flow. A great deal of the pleasure of reading Skin Elegies is putting the clues together. The narraticules may consist of no more than a single sentence; they may extend over several paragraphs; they may be a right-indented poem; they may be words meandering loosely across the page. Each strand has a distinct style. Dated segment headings act as signposts that enable the reader to return to the flow of each story/timeframe.
The beauty of this novel’s style is that it allows themes to appear via juxtaposition—refugeeism, the nature of human consciousness, the end of life. The fragmented storytelling resonates in a way that moves the reader’s emotions in a constant flow of varying chords, the tensions raised in one story carrying over into the next, then back again. For example, by dropping in bits of the story of the January 1986 Challenger space shuttle launch into the text every so often, the end of which we know all too well, the feeling of impending doom looms over the entire narrative. In another story/timeframe, we know that John Lennon is going to get shot in front of the Dakota, and while we want to jump in and say NO!, the known story (told in impressionistic first person by his killer) playing out in parallel to, say, the earthquake and resulting tsunami in Fukushima, Japan in March 2011, makes these stories especially poignant.
There is no denying the gravity of the stories being told, but Olsen’s project here is not to drown us in pathos. Rather, in the final 2072 framing segments, he is cultivating the multivalent interlocking mycelial stories to make them burst forth into beautiful, mysterious mental mushrooms.
(Dzanc Books, November 2021)