Already Too Many Stories in the World

Already Too Many Stories in the World

Stephen-Paul Martin
Lance Olsen
Portland, OR: Chiasmus Press, 2005. 187 pp. $12.

FC2 author and ebr “Fictions Present” editor Lance Olsen, in his 2005 novel offers one alternative for print fiction in the era of big data: to suggest and depict “the vastness of time when it is not strictly confined to numerical sequence.”

Set in a multiplex theater in the Mall of America, Olsen’s 10:01 takes place in a very short interval of time, the ten-minute span of factoids and trailers preceding a movie. But time in 10:01 is spatialized, located not in the pace of a film unreeling or in the motion of a clock, but in the minds of many characters waiting in their theater seats. In any instant of time, an infinite number of events are happening. To capture them all in words would take an infinite number of pages. Olsen skillfully compresses this experience into a short novel, yet manages to suggest the vastness of time when it is not strictly confined to numerical sequence.

This expanded notion of time is apparent on the first page of the novel, where we are introduced to an aerobics instructor named Kate Frazee, who happens to be Franz Kafka’s great-great granddaughter. Kate doesn’t fully inhabit the present moment. Part of her is trapped in the past, in recurring nightmares based on the plots of Kafka’s stories. She is unaware that she is related to a famous writer, since her great grandfather was the result of an illicit affair and he never knew that Kafka was his biological father. Kate has never even read Kafka’s stories because she believes that “there are already too many stories in the world” (1). Yet in her sleep she is haunted by stories that surface from her unknown genetic past.

Olsen’s novel is filled with stories, many of them inside his characters’ heads. Most of these people are at the movies to watch their own movies, and 10:01 revolves around the ongoing tension between the cinematic time of frames moving in a linear, mechanistic sequence and the human time of subjective experience moving freely, in many different improvised patterns. But the word “freely” is perhaps too optimistic in describing a character like Kate Frazee, who suffers from an odd species of genetic determinism. In fact, most of the characters in 10:01 are victims of obsessions, fears, and preoccupations of one kind or another. For instance, the novel’s second character, Stuart Navidson (probably a relative of the filmmaker Will Navidson, the protagonist in Mark Danielewski’s novel from 2000 House of Leaves), is trapped in fearful contemplation of his Palm Pilot, where offensive and sinister messages like “Eat shit and die” keep appearing. The next character, a saleswoman at Forever 21 named Lara McLuhan, is nothing like her illustrious media-critic namesake and is instead caught in the consumer trap, taking “her role in what she conceives of as The Great Retail Drama with thin-lipped earnestness” (5). Later, we meet Cynthia Morgenstern, who “is almost positive she is gradually becoming transparent” and imagines that if Cary Grant “ran a hand through his beautiful hair…beautiful dreams would pour out” (134). She is so locked into a cinematic version of the world that she seems to have no life outside it: “When the theater within the theater is gone you get to return home. Sometimes this takes a minute. Sometimes this takes a lifetime” (134). Many of Olsen’s characters are controlled by outside influences that assault, inhabit or consume them. Their freedom to dream, to construct their own temporal realities, is restricted and shaped in ways they are powerless to resist and often not even aware of.

But this powerlessness is not the case with all of Olsen’s characters. As 10:01 develops - panning from one character to another, appropriating the process of cinematic construction by moving frame by frame - we meet people who are not quite so limited. For instance, one of the theater’s employees, Celan Solen (the author’s name in scrambled form), has little interest in film narratives because he knows they typically develop according to nine established formulas. He is more interested in “the how and why of telling…the mind in motion as it is disclosed by celluloid” (41). He knows that when we watch a movie “Life flies at us in bright splinters. We turn them into significance” (42). We are later given a glimpse of the kind of film - or rather, meta-film - Celan imagines himself making, based on the insight that “the form of film is really a philosophy of disruptive movement” (88). Celan is not just another aspiring director. He wants to make films that challenge viewers to think about what happens when life is transformed by an aesthetic medium.

Another mall employee, Vito Paluso, has taken Celan’s project a step further. He is already making his own video. He works as a security guard and is constructing his film from footage taken from the mall’s surveillance cameras, a strong example of someone refusing to be chained to the banality of his job and using it as a vehicle for his own aesthetic projects. Though we are told that Vito will never actually finish this project, the activity itself is leading him to perceive his environment in a highly imaginative way:

Vito Paluso imagines each brief shot in the experimental short he is making a heavy gray stone. His project will be to sew them all together into a suit of rocks, which he will wear everywhere he goes. Some people will say the suit makes walking a formidable task, but Vito Paluso believes it will also allow him to fully appreciate each step he takes. He plans to embroider it with delicate butterfly wings. (127)

Vito Paluso and Celan Solen are practicing a form of aesthetic resistance, refusing to let the ethos of U.S. consumer culture set the agenda for them. Like Lance Olsen himself, these characters see the Mall of America as raw material, primarily because it provides them with subject matter for their own creative actions.

Another character, a Unitarian minister from Africa named Leon Mopati (who “looks like a black Vincent van Gogh with both ears still intact”) generates a sharp critique of the mall and the alienation its agendas encourage: “Unending space crowded with an excess of sameness. Makes you feel lost even when you’re not” (53). Against this consumerism, Leon has generated a vivid interior space filled with verbal rhythms and phrasings that sound like Stephen Daedalus in a Wallace Stevens poem:

The day a motionless ocean you will cross. Again. Rowing through the minutes, one home to another. Morning fog suffused by peach sunshine. Coffee and apples. These are your angels walking arm-in-arm, faces white light splashed on broken columns. Picture this, but picture it taking place in another dimension. An antispace thought. I have spent my life asserting the possibility they are there. Here. Here, of course, and not here. Call it the dynamics of metaphor. (76)

Later in the novel, Leon directly contrasts the richness of his internal monologue with the banality of the mall and its theaters: “in this place lightmist is no angel’s breath but a clamor from morning to midnight. A filmic racket crazying the afternoon…Childish Americans with their eyes shut against the. World. All they want is more” (163).

As if in response to this noise and consumer craving, a terrorist attack apparently erupts at the end of the novel, narrated from nine different angles and one of them imported from Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Then suddenly, in the novel’s final frame, the attack seems to have disappeared - or perhaps it has taken its place among the other trailers flashing across the silver screen. In place of terrorist violence, Olsen offers us a coda, the summarizing perspective of Milo Magnani, one of the mall’s assistant managers who “loves watching trailers for disaster movies” but “loves watching his clients watch trailers for disaster movies even more” (182). Milo is a middle-aged man who remembers spending his eighth birthday in an ecstatic visit to the first enclosed, multi-level mall in the United States. His enthusiasm continues undiminished. He remains a human embodiment of America in the age of mechanical reproduction, with his American flag bowtie and his celebration of the mall as “a new kind of zone for human activity.” But now he is more of a high priest than a worshipper. He has learned to enter the thoughts of those who have “opened themselves up to the prospect of diversion” (183). He knows how to examine and exploit the fantasies of the people in the theater with him, and in the final pages of 10:01 Milo scans the theater with panoptic authority, watching the minds of his customers.

Media capitalists like Milo know that no amount of terrorism will ever displace the mall’s grip on the American public. And besides, for people like Milo, terrorism is just another topic for a movie, just another way to manipulate the hormonal community. Of course, not everyone falls victim to this manipulation in the same way and to the same degree. Olsen has shown us several characters who have not been fully absorbed into the consumer pattern. But even people like Celan Solen, Vito Paluso, and Leon Mopati are spending the afternoon in the theater, subjecting themselves to yet another invasive spectacle, serving perhaps as reminders of Frederic Jameson’s well-known assertion that even the most progressive artistic and intellectual efforts are inevitably caught up in the cultural logic of late capitalism, since their primary tools of opposition - irony and surrealist imagery - have already become tools of consumer manipulation, techniques frequently used to sell commodities, personalities, and lifestyles. In such a society, all resistance is doomed from the start, and even the most politically committed writing is powerless to change the increasingly technocratic trajectory of post-industrial capitalism.

Such dismal prospects are forcefully addressed in one of Lance Olsen’s earlier works, the futurist novel Time Famine (Permeable Press, 1996) which depicts the United States as a dysfunctional machine dominated by urban sprawl, traffic jams, and corporate logos. But Olsen’s approach to the characters in the Mall of America is not quite so nightmarish. Whereas in Time Famine the presiding metaphor is the cannibalistic tragedy of the Donner party, the process of over-consumption in the mall is depicted in more complex terms, through an aesthetic strategy that emphasizes the people in the theater and not the manipulative power of the mall or the movie. Indeed, the film these characters are preparing to watch never makes it into the novel. The cinematic spectacle has been replaced by the novel itself, directing our attention away from the screen, suggesting that the real subject of any movie is the people watching it, their thoughts and feelings, hopes and dreams, their strategies of perception. Though Olsen’s frame-by-frame approach to his characters might suggest that he is replicating the process of watching a film, the experience of reading 10:01 is not like watching the Hollywood movies typically shown in malls.

Instead, Olsen stops each frame and goes inside his characters, investigating their depths and complexities. Whereas visual media like film, TV, and advertising compel viewers to rush along the surface of a linear sequence of images, Olsen’s prose invites careful examination, a gradual, rigorous state of attention designed to produce critical intelligence rather than a commercial transaction. Even if many of the characters are psychologically trapped in one way or another, the multiple space of their juxtaposed and intersecting thoughts and feelings indicates that a crucial aesthetic transformation has taken place, a demonstration of what fiction at its subversive best can offer, a rehumanized model of time. A media capitalist like Milo Magnani may be delighted that so many people can be herded into controlled environments like the mall and the theater, where their behavior can be observed and mapped and shaped. But he too can be observed and shaped. He is, after all, just another character in Lance Olsen’s novel.

Works Cited

Olsen, Lance. 10:01. Portland, OR: Chiasmus Press, 2005.

—. Time Famine. San Fransisco: Permeable Press, 1996.