Lance Olsen is one of the foremost proponents of a literary movement known as Avant-Pop, which has proclaimed the death of postmodernism and calls for a gestalt approach to literature that rejects linear narrative in favor of a melding of words and image, paper and electronics, and fractal-branching text that requires the reader to become an active participant in the revelation of meaning rather than a passive recipient. It’s an approach that relies heavily on semiotics and abstraction, borrows liberally from William S. Burroughs’ theories of language as an agent of control, Rudy Rucker’s chaos theory, and the cyberpunk ethos of Philip K. Dick and Bruce Sterling, among others, and its heroes include Mark Leyner, Raymond Federman, Jonathan Lethem, and Kathy Acker.
It’s an interesting idea, but I’m not sure I can get fully on board with the Avant-Popsters themselves. I’ve read In Memoriam to Postmodernism: Essays on the Avant-Pop, co-edited by Olsen (and accessible in full through the Alt-X website, and I’m frankly skeptical of any group with so many manifestos in one place and whose primary references seem to be each other. There appears to be little evidence that Avant-Pop is the voice of post-postmodern literature beyond that the Avant-Popsters have declared themselves to be that voice after all, how can something as amorphous and mutable by definition as postmodernism be considered “dead”?
I will concede, however, that modern literature, particularly fiction, is in need of a serious shakeup. Olsen’s most recent collection of short fiction, Sewing Shut My Eyes, attempts such a shakeup it startles, it disturbs, and it commands your full attention but as a shovelful of dirt on the lifeless corpse of postmodernism, it’s decidedly less than convincing.
According to the back-cover copy, “Sewing Shut My Eyes is an avant-pop anti-spectacle nine darkly satiric out-takes of American tubing.” I have no idea what the hell that means wouldn’t an “anti-spectacle” be that which strives to be perfectly ordinary? but the book is in fact a collection of short stories, some straight text, others consisting of Olsen’s text integrated into grotesque DTP cut-and-paste collages by Olsen’s wife Andi that remind one of nothing so much as rubber-cemented band flyers. The stories have titles like “Cybermorphic Beat-Up Get-Down Subterranean Homesick Reality-Sandwich Blues” and “Kamikaze Motives of the Immaculate Deconstruction in the Data-Sucking Rust-Age of Insectile Hackers.” If this sounds like the ghosts of Dick and Burroughs are about to shoot it out in the atrium of MoMA while David Cronenberg films it, it’s meant to. Olsen’s book simply crackles with attitude. The problem here is that the stories often seem as if they were written to go with the titles. “Kamikaze Motives” proposes that all of the disturbing media events of the last twenty years have been engineered by an infestation of robotic cockroaches who are turning Earth into a sordid reality-entertainment channel for the amusement of the rest of the galaxy, a planet-sized E! Network. It’s an interesting premise but the execution is flimsy at best the hero, a Men-in-Black-type operative, discovers the plot by concluding that only robotic cockroaches could have produced the verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial. I understand Olsen’s outrage, but would the minutiae of the Simpson case really constitute entertainment for the rest of the universe? Or is it that Olsen had a title full of “Insectile Hackers” in dire need of “Kamikaze Motives”?
“X-Ray Dreams, 1963” is another piece that appears to get ahead of itself, in this case a series of vignettes that accompany several Andi Olsen collages of a stereotypical period family carrying on despite their depressingly cliched personal hells. Dad barbecues, but his head is a TV showing a man screaming the text is titled “Dad Grills, His Head A TV Set” and deals with the fact that Dad has fantastic, horrible dreams that undercut his ability to keep it together. “Mother Gagged in the Family Room” is a textbook excerpt describing the clitoris and penis, while the collage shows a June Cleaver type with one of those black “Censored” boxes over her mouth. “Uncle Billy in a Dress, Daydreaming” accompanies a photo of Ed Wood in a dress, while Olsen tells us that Uncle Billy dreams he’s beautiful. The strain of attempting to live up to the status quo established by middle American values and television produces repression and abnormality get it? If not, read this while listening to The Police’s Synchronicity and watching Twin Peaks over and over…
The effect of television on the personal and collective consciousness is a major theme here, which must be what “American tubing” means, but again, is this really such a radical subject? The first story,“Telegenesicide” gotta love those Avant-Pop neologisms another text/visuals piece, begins, “‘I am television,’ she said. ‘Come into my body.’‘’ While various human-TV hybrids float amid cut-out text of inane celebrity quotes and snatches of commentary by Jean Baudrillard, Olsen writes of a girl and her in utero brother, the latter flipping channels inside her mind as she is attacked by feral cats. The collection’s last and longest piece, “Strategies in the Overexposure of Well-lit Space,” follows a couch potato through the hallucinogenic world produced by endless channel-surfing with his new HDTV it’s actually not bad, but it hinges, again, on the idea that watching television is ultimately a kind of symbiosis between the organic and the electronic. I am television. Come into my body.
TV bad. Got it. I saw Videodrome too.
Sewing Shut My Eyes has its excellent moments. “Digital Matrix: Barbie: Lust” follows a well-drawn Cute Li’l Punk Chick and I am a stone fool for Cute Li’l Punk Chicks as she leaves her loser boyfriend and reinvents herself on the Internet. The ending is painfully predictable, but it’s a fascinating character sketch and the girl’s online exchanges, one of the few uses of actual dialogue in the collection, show that Olsen has a real ear for the way people type. In “How Itty ‘The Human’ Snibb Was More or Less Born Again” Olsen employs the Faulkneresque page-length sentence to terrific hyperkinetic effect as he elaborately details his protagonist’s journey from the cabin of an exploding airliner to the inevitable destination. And the title piece, another collaboration with Andi Olsen, is a dead-on indictment of the beauty culture, a confessional letter to Cindy Crawford from a deranged, self-mutilating fan among assorted grotesqueries and truly horrifying quotes from various supermodels. Fine pieces all, and the collection would have benefited from more of this pure writing than Olsen’s po-pomo posturing.
As a plain old book of short stories, Sewing Shut My Eyes has the same basic strengths and weaknesses as any other, and it should be content to be that, but as a document of the current state of cutting-edge fiction it falls on its face, stumbling while wearing its mirrorshades after dark. It truly is “an avant-pop anti-spectacle” that is, something perfectly ordinary.