Reviewed by Katrina Goudey
First, know that despite all appearances of being a collection of experimental fiction, this is secretly a how-to book. Like all great how-to literature, this collection is aptly titled, and is sure to raise the question, “How does one unfeel the dead?” Lance Olsen gently outlines part of the procedure for us in his stories, many of which are organized in numbered sections.
Step 1. Identify what kind of dead you are dealing with.
Know that you are always dealing with the dead. As Donald Barthelme states, “You may not be interested in absurdity, but absurdity is interested in you.”
Step 2. Act accordingly.
If you have identified your dead as actual ghosts, then cherish them. If you are haunted by your own feelings of inadequacy, use gasoline and matches. If you discover that you are the dead of your own life, hold hands. Being haunted by things that have never happened (or so you claim) can be dealt with by simply hanging up the phone. Things that you cannot prove the existence or nonexistence of include angels and neutrinos, and only one of these is like a spider. (Beware of those who wear khaki.) If you are haunted by multiple other selves, keep reading about them. If the dead appear in the form of a cacophony of voices or faces, there’s nothing you can do. If your dead is the failure of your promises, your reputation, or your art, you must become the dead of your own life.
Step 3. There is no way to unfeel the dead.
This leads us to the central problem of how-to literature: there is no how-to, as far as literature is concerned. There is no identifiable path to unfeeling, no matter how much Olsen’s characters may want it. One can disengage for a time, certainly, but television will eat you whole, several times. Or you can disown your self, unshape your life, identify the true cause of your unrest—because it isn’t your wife or your neighbor causing dis-ease, not at all. You may decide to burn your neighbor’s boat, or pull up his plastic flamingos, but the dead are still alive in that invisible everything—that tame, battened down, dead structure of society that dismembers us into separate parts; pantsuit for this occasion, paying bills on this date, blending in now, standing out now, all.
While Olsen’s voice can swing between crass and poetic, the contrast of these tones perfectly matches his point: how can one of mere flesh and bone navigate this nonsensical, and often fantastic, world? In his story “Cybermorphic,” this question is explored by juxtaposing the voice of a young poet with the voice of a famous poet. The young and restless narrator writes about “human sacrifices, cannibalism, vampires, and stuff,” while her boyfriend is largely inspired by amphetamines. In the midst of her seeming ramblings about life as an escort, she walks in on a poet-client who is not only rich and famous, but also dead, partly robotic, and glitching. Mouth foaming, the older poet demands answers:
“Where is the breakthrough book? Where the advance? Share with me the vanity of the unsolicited manuscript! Show me the madman bum of a publicist! Movie rights! Warranties! Indemnities! I am the twelve percent royalty! I am the first five-thousand copies! I am the retail and the wholesale, the overhead and the option clause!”
In bringing together the voices of the young poet and the dead poet, Olsen makes the story’s cry for help apparent: where is our integrity, where is our soul, if our art is a commerce? How can one inspire the young poet to speak with integrity and inspiration, to know they are something bigger and deeper than “every middle-aged man’s bad-little-girl wet dream” at $750 an hour? Surrounded by the sheer number of books published for profit at the coliseum-sized bookstore, the narrator remarks, “God. Books. Enough books to make you instantly anxious you’ll never read them all, no way, no matter how hard you try, so you might as well not.” Pressed on all sides like so many ghosts that wish to see poetry fail, the question then becomes, “how does one unfeel something so deadening?”
Step 4. Forge your own path to feel alive again.
For Lance Olsen, the only successful answer is in each other’s warm company, a feeling of triumph in living. A husband and wife fired from their jobs, evicted from their home, will camp in a neighbor’s house while they’re gone and escape through the basement window when they return. They will walk down the street, hand in hand, greeting the neighbors like any other day. When they leave the home, they leave together.
Lance Olsen’s collection, while incredibly experimental, is more emotionally mature and uplifting than one might expect from postmodern literature. Perhaps this is what is so experimental about How to Unfeel the Dead.
How to Unfeel the Dead: New and Selected Fictions, Publisher: Teksteditions, 2014, 198 pages, paperback, $23