Book Review

In Absolute Away, Lance Olsen develops three distinct “movements” to structure a novel that takes the reader from Nazi Germany, to Jackson Pollock’s death in 1956, and eventually into a multiverse where the protagonist dissolves into something fluid and intangible. This structural complexity creates a kaleidoscopic view of narrative and language. Discerning up from down will frustrate those readers needing control and realism. But by letting go and leaning into the uncertainties and mysteries, adventurous readers will find their own path to meaning and will create something unsettling that will linger in their imagination after the final page.

Opening the first movement with a quote by Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk, Olsen uses someone else to present a metaphor that helps readers center their attention on the reading process. The metaphorical image consists of moments in time and space being like sheets hanging on a line that the readers hop through. This clearly describes the structure of the first movement, which contains chunks of text, ranging from single sentences (of which there are thirty) to a section called “Skin Hovel” that is approximately seven pages—describing Hermann Gӧring with an experimental take on omniscience. There Olsen describes Gӧring’s IQ, height, how his cells rejoice, the smell of bitter almonds as cyanide stops his heart. Olsen hops forward six years, falls back to WWI, jumps to the end of the war, falls two years back to show when his first wife leaves. He primarily utilizes third person but occasionally switches to second. This isn’t one of Picasso’s cubists pieces, but instead Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, adding time to a still canvas. Olsen’s use of language stretches point of view to dramatize when Edie Metzger bites Gӧring’s lip—a small moment of rebellious Jewish violence against Nazi Germany.

The second movement spits, stutters, and splatters lines of em-dashed dialogue in the spirit of Joyce and Gaddis, spoken words flung against a canvas. Here the reader follows Edie (now called Edith) and her friend Ruthie, who is having an affair with the painter Jackson Pollock. Dialogue is presented in italics. The prose atomized into phrases and clauses. Paragraphs and sentences interrupt and cut off, lines overlap and gap—all of this technique forces the reader to slow down and focus. There’s intentional inconsistency in the point of view (again, think Duchamp). Olsen describes Pollock as a sad drunk who terrifies Edith, who desperately wants out of the car. In the pit of her stomach, she knows this isn’t going to end well. Again, the readers see older men frightening Edith. Jackson is drunk driving down a country road, yelling at her to “SIT! DOWN!” Her friend is calmly whispering words—but readers know it’s too late. All of this is going to end badly because it’s on the dust jacket. This is the show that everyone paid admission to see.

In real life Edith Metzger and Jackson Pollock die in that crash. But this is fiction, and in the final movement language loosens even more. Here Olsen created Eddie Metzger (male) who transforms to Eddy to Eádweard to Edda, Edward, Eduard, and so on. Olsen writes, “Maybe this says everything we need to know about what Homo sapiens are wired to do: move on, settle, become restless, and move on once more, misshapen versions of their pasts lugged over their shoulder like gunny sacks.” This book is a horror show of survival, celebrating resilience and will. The chaos of this final movement engages the reader and forces them to recognize “how the human brain is designed to seek patterns even when they don’t exist in order to create stories that make the universe make sense.” Certainly, that’s what Olsen is doing.

Linguistic signifiers are peeled off like old stickers, forcing the reader to examine the signified. The audience has been trained to read books as propositions that comment on reality—even fantasy has its own sense of reality based on genres and tropes. In the preface and introduction of Poetic Statement and Critical Dogma, Gerald Graff writes about reading poetry that is antipropositional—which is to say the poem doesn’t comment on reality. This is a sharp contrast to propositional poetry that refers to the world like a descriptive statement. Graff presents William Gass’s Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife as an antipropositional prose text—described as “pure words (or pure concepts).” For the most part, Absolute Away severs the tie between fiction and reality to create something of pure concept. But as the reader approaches the ending, the text becomes more and more recognizable with cultural references, rewarding the reader with some clarity at the closing, rewarding the reader with a bit of commentary that recontextualizes the whole project in a new light—one worth rereading.

About the Reviewer

Jacob Singer has published in popular and academic outlets like Brooklyn Rail, Orbit: A Journal of American Literature and Rain Taxi.