[18 July 2005]
There is a lot to be said for ambition. There is perhaps no more necessary ingredient in the mind of a writer than a desire to make an impact with their work; to stand for something besides merely hollow careerism or unfettered commercialism; to be considered a man of ideas, and for those ideas to be meritorious. There are, however, few things in this world quite as disappointing as unfulfilled ambition, both in the mind of the writer and those of his frustrated readers. How can you know when your reach exceeds your grasp?
10:01 is an example of a good idea taken too far—or perhaps not far enough—a grand ambition spent poorly. Lance Olsen may be a perfectly capable writer under other conditions, but in this book his prose carries the awkward and uncertain feel of a man stumbling through a cloakroom in the dark, trying on every coat he finds in an attempt to find one that fits properly. In the meantime, his attempts at conveying the multiplicity of experience through the adoption of multiple narrative “voices” comes off as too clever by half.
It’s not hard to see the telltale signs of purloined prose: the tactile elasticity of Jamesean stream-of-consciousness, the matter-of-fact blur of Pynchon’s burlesque, the rush of air which accompanies Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s infinitely supple magic realism. Of course, there is every chance that Olsen intended for his swipes to be perceived as homage—anything else would be an insult to his and our intelligences—but in the context of this story it merely feels jarring and clever. The use of cutesy compound neologisms, a sure sign of an overstretched narrative voice, is especially grating: “silverwhite”, “machinegun”, “thighskin”.
The narrative action of 10:01 occurs in the space of approximately ten minutes, inside a movie theater at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. The “chapters” are mostly short paragraph-long sketches, brief cross-sections of the interior narration of each moviegoer. Of course, the audience represents an implausibly varied cross-section of American life, including bank robbers, geriatric war criminals, serial killers, extortionists, kinky math teachers, part-time porn stars, real movie stars, Central American immigrants . . . and, of course, the soul of Remedios the Beauty from the aforementioned Garcia-Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude flits by, as does a 300-year-old woman, space aliens, a vampire, and some extra-dimensional explorers. If all this sounds like a lot of work for any ten books, let alone less than 200 pages, well, the whole thing passes by in such a rush that you don’t know whether to scream or cry.
To his credit, Olsen realizes that the never-ending invention of his macro-narrative may just seem forced, so his last scene tries to fob off the whole structure of the book as the daydreams of another, heretofore-unseen character. Which would be great if it didn’t come off like so much writing workshop masturbation in the first place. It seems almost as if the ending was intended to be a capstone, a final statement on the intersubjectivity of experience, or the active relationship between the audience and art, but it seems to perhaps be a trite attempt at pulling all the loose strings together into one round bow.
Declaring theme is not the same as exploring theme. At numerous points throughout 10:01 Olsen drops bulky graduate student thesis statements in the guise of off-the-cuff musings. Here’s the writer winking knowingly at the reader:
“. . . [M]ontage isn’t a formalistic technique. Continuity determined by the symbolic association of ideas between shots rather than literal connections in time and space is a philosophical principle. Vito believes that life is nothing if not a series of dissolves, superimpositions, odd juxtapositions and unexpected cuts.” [Pages 17-18]
“She is drifting in the soothing amniotic awareness that everyone around her is part of a much larger project than he or she suspects. This is because the cosmos, Trudi trusts, only appears chaotic, but is in reality an orderly place marked by harmony, synchronicity and cooperation. All you have to do is look. All you have to do is pay attention.” [Page 21]
“She is interested in how these places concentrate our culture’s favorite socially acceptable addictions—seeing, eating, and buying—beneath one roof in a single, collective, complexly meshed instant.” [Page 28]
Imagine if Ulysses had began with a paragraph like this:
“Leopold Bloom wondered what it would be life if the sum total of the verisimilitude of life and living could be summed up metaphorically in one day, quite coincidentally shaped to provide allegorical parallels to Homer’s Odyssey.
The best books are written with an eye toward obfuscation. An understanding exists between the reader and the writer that there is something here to be found, to be teased out, to be developed in the psychic landscape that exists between the printed page and the reader’s mind. Olsen’s thesis rather literally lays out the course for an ambitious study in the multiplicity of the American experience that never comes close to congealing. By setting his goals in such concrete terms at the beginning of the book it is that much harder to escape the fact that the book itself amounts to nothing very much at all.
What we have in 10:01 is a series of character sketches designed to stretch implausibility, and a writer who possesses nothing near Pynchon’s ability to make the implausible come alive with frightening vivacity. Ultimately, however, there is no way to for even the most generous reader to substitute implication for elaboration, and although the structure of 10:01 may imply a masterstroke, the execution leaves a vast yawning gulf between anticipation and realization.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/1001-olsen/