Girl Imagined By Chance by Lance Olsen

[2 October 2002]

By Nigam Nuggehalli

Interview with Lance Olsen, Author of Girl Imagined by Chance
PopMatters: I notice that you have used settings and characters that bear a relationship to where you live and work. Did you feel comfortable incorporating autobiographical features in your story? Lance Olsen: My impulse in Girl was to trouble, not incorporate (or at least not incorporate in any sort of naïve way), the notion of autobiography—especially autobiography as it’s currently embodied in the memoir vogue. Memoir is a genre which all-too-often seems to believe that language is a clear pane of glass through which we see a glinting view of reality and personal history. What’s interesting to me is the gray space between fiction and nonfiction, how every act of fiction is in a sense involuntary memoir, but how every act of memoir is therefore necessarily involuntary fiction. To this extent, Girl for me is ultimately a critifictional parable about of the power of imagination, both in how the couple within its narrative invents a child that doesn’t actually exist (and by its not actually existing exists in wholly commanding ways) and in how the narrative itself refuses to exist surely within a single genre. PM: Can you discuss why you have used a unique writing style of narrating the entire story in short-form sentences without using any paragraphs? LO: My unnamed and unreliable narrator is slightly unhinged and I wanted to find a form that embodied that unhingedness on the page. In my mind, Girl is a book of consciousness, and the consciousness revealed is, well, hypertextual in nature in the sense of jumpy, restless, nonlinear, refusing (like, I hope, the book itself) to settle. At the same time, I wanted each short-form sentence to mimic or at least gesture toward the essence of a photograph in its glossy and deceptive clarity. PM: You often seem critical of the lack of emotive power in photography. Do you strongly believe that photographs are not capable of showing the true feelings of their subjects? LO: Photography in Girl functions as an emblem for all means for representation, including language itself. I didn’t so much want to critique representation in our age of reproduction as I did investigate it, remind myself of its sleights of hand, its problematic relationship to the world. So I suppose I wouldn’t so much say that Girl argues photographs aren’t capable of showing the true feelings of their subjects as I would that it asks how photographic conventions work, what “true feelings” means, and what the complex relationship is between photographer (read: painter, film maker, writer, etc.) and her or his material. PM: Your book has an astonishing amount of information on photography, photographers, parenthood, and many other subjects. Where and how did you do your research for this work? LO: The common ground that most of the central subjects (photography, parenthood, imagination, tourism, computer culture, etc.) in Girl share is the notion (sometimes biological, sometimes mechanical, sometimes digital) of reproduction. So my homework included reading and rereading a whole bunch of theory about that. Doing so, I particularly fell in love again with the extraordinary work of Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag. My wife (Andi Olsen) and I made a conscious decision years ago not to have children, feeling our species has pretty well got down that be-fruitful-and-multiply thing (much to the detriment of the planet), and so I interviewed an embarrassingly large number of friends and acquaintances about their experiences raising kids, and spent a good deal of time lurking on various kid-raising chat spaces, and became a fixture at the Family Planning website. My wife is an artist who works a lot with a camera and computer, so that’s where I went for my hands-on training. And we travel like mad because, well—for all the reasons mentioned in Girl and some that are not.
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Shooting a Deception

“Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a
good crop.”
—Ansel Adams

When Narcissus did a double take on seeing his reflection in the water, it was only the first step in the human quest to understand reflections. Photography emerged in its nascent form as crude symmetrical symbols of ourselves. In later years, it was to be elevated to an art form, upon reaching which exalted status, it became more vulnerable to intellectual inquiries. What is the nature of photography, venerable theorists asked? And how do different people interpret photographs in different contexts?

Lance Olsen’s Girl Imagined By Chance is, at its heart, rumination on the art of photography. A couple in the lonely Idaho countryside pretends they have a daughter to placate their relatives and peers. Each chapter is structured around a photograph purporting to be that of the make-believe daughter. There are 12 images and together they form a story on a roughly chronological line, tailgating the non-existent daughter’s journey from birth through her formative years.

Away from the intrusive world of colleagues and family (in particular, a garrulous grand mom), imagination takes flight and soars into unchartered territories. Thomas Hardy’s admonition, “Our impulses are too strong for our judgment sometimes,” is ignored. The couple is a creative lot, and it is only a small step for them to extent their imagination on paper to a more ambitious objective: creating a human being out of thin air, or more precisely, out of old photographs of Andy, the narrator’s wife (Olsen’s wife is also Andy, bringing an autobiographical flavor to the novel.) The deception at first is kind of exciting and, in a strange way, fulfilling. The couple researches the advent of motherhood and the trials of bringing up babies. They buy childproof shields for the plug points and the staircases. But gradually the deception wears thin. It is not that the make-believe parents are unsuccessful at fooling people, but that their very success exacerbates their guilt and makes them want to escape their virtual reality.

Like clothes on a metal clothesline atop a ramshackle house, the story is more interesting in the details than in the structure. The falsehood at the essence of the plot is not the driving engine of the novel’s narrative. Olsen does not go into the details except for some perfunctory online data on parenting, a description of children’s supplies, and making baby gurgles on the phone to hoodwink grandma. Beyond this, the novel comes to life only when Olsen uses the child’s putative photographs to segue into a soliloquy on the meaning of photography.

Photography may be a chemical process but it invites insights that are at least as interesting as the most challenging artistic expressions. That photographs are snap shots of a moment in time is a well known observation, but there are more nuances to explore. A snap sometimes presents everything in a given frame of reference, like the photo in a hospital room where the masked nurse and the blinds on the windows are both in focus, or it is prejudiced in its inquiry, like the photograph of a smiling girl in the forest where it is not entirely clear if the girl is smiling or is in a forest. The photograph’s obvious ambiguity, an oxymoron particularly beloved to photographers, is Olsen’s favorite and a recurring theme in the story. But Olsen also discusses other aspects, such as how photographs help sustain the image of filial love, genuine or otherwise; how people are transformed by the allure of a good photo-opportunity to superimpose photogenic images on themselves; how photographs are often the effect of the emotional state that people are in: when they are frightened, disoriented, excited, bored, depressed, stimulated, jobless, amused, or in love.

His interesting insights on photography are seasoned by a generous dose of Greek words: words such as peripeteia and dioptrics share space with a discussion of Greek philosophers in the likes of Cratylus and Zeno. Zeno, the philosopher who specialized in paradoxes, is recruited to provide one on photographs as well. Shoot an arrow into the air, and imagine its trajectory as a series of freeze frames. The arrow can be imagined as stopping at continuous but separate periods of time. Ergo, Olsen extrapolates, “life is a queue of lifeless stills,” a series of photographs.

Despite a thoroughly interesting discussion of photography, Olsen struggles to maintain our attention. The narration moves like a speeding car between different subject areas as diverse as a father’s love to sodium-saturated butter-flavored popcorn. Adding to this psychedelic approach is the placing of consecutively occurring phrases in no particular chronological order. The author’s childhood recollections of family outings keep interrupting his description of current events in secluded Idaho; Olsen’s past and present rarely sit well with each other.

A major distracting factor in Olsen’s work is his narrative, which is entirely in the form in the form of single sentence/phrase paragraphs. The phrases are not just the building blocks of the story; they are the story. The intent is deliberate: presenting narration as a montage of images to serve as a motif for the photo-centered theme of the story. But while Olsen cannot be faulted for his good intentions, the execution is sure to leave his readers tired and longing for an easier read. Olsen packs a choke-full of ideas and factoids in each phrase, and the most patient reader will be hard-pressed to maintain his attention at all times. Comprehensibility aside, the writing style also harms the “comfort factor” required of good fiction novels. Reading a novel written in one-sentence bits is not something you do in bed or eating a snack.

Girl Imagined by Chance is published by FC2, which prides itself on encouraging authors with non-conventional ideas and writing styles. The blurbs for its current titles are suggestive of this bent: 1998.6 by Mathew Robertson (video culture & web cams as nineties embodiments of meta fictional self-fascination,) Soul Resin by C.W. Cannon (Southern Gothic horror novel with a postmodern bent,) False Positive by Harold Jaffe (nationally known newspaper stories modified by the author to bring a maniacal subtext to their prosaic surfaces,) The Noctambulists and other Fictions by Peter Spielberg (life’s absurdity acts as a gateway to an even more confounding reality.) Avant-garde works like these sometimes deserve to be encouraged lest they are subsumed within the homogenous culture of big publishing houses.

However, I remain a sucker for a comforting read. Sadly, the voice of Olsen’s wry scholarship is lost in the rumble of his confusing prose.

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