I had been bored with novels when I picked up Skin Elegies last year. The reasons for my boredom aren’t that original and have been written well elsewhere: Be it “traditional” or “experimental,” The Novel has become a conservatory art, and very few novelists lately find their own form, opting instead for a well crafted pose (or "brand," if we want to use the terminology of the market). Whatever the reason for the staleness, you couldn’t pay me enough to read the 300-page, 20-chapter novels—truly a mockery of the term—being cranked out every Tuesday by the New York assembly-line publishers. Nor am I particularly interested in experimental art-novels that are too in love with themselves, imitating a Wes Anderson approach to aesthetics, to care about the broader culture, beyond the authors’ narrow political or aesthetic sensibilities. Lately, for that reason, I’ve been reading mostly poetry and lyric essays, genres where fresher forms exist, along with a kind of collage thinking that is more attractive to me than the focused sort of thought demanded by stale forms of novels.
But the novel frustrates me: every time I think it is dead, that it has no more to say, someone comes along and rocks one, and my love of the thing is rekindled. Although the abyss of all the unimaginative ones always, eventually, returns me to a state of quiet despair over the lack of fresh forms in American literature, I continue reading, because I am chasing that feeling of finding something novel, in the adjectival sense of the word: something truly new.
Enter Lance Olsen. He’s one of those writers who has been recommended to me several times over the years (one’s friends usually know what one needs…). Finally, I got around to reading him with Skin Elegies. The book is, quite simply, what I want in a literary work: it finds its own form. As the narrative sequences come together in a sort of chapterless strand that nearly mimics the asynchronous constantness of a social media feed, the episodes of violence and death grow more and more fragmented as the reader learns that the de-selving that happens in the minds of each of the dying characters is actually happening within quantum computers to which two Americans, refugees in 2072 from our increasingly repressive country, have chosen to upload their minds.
Although a strangely large proportion of the characters of the book are teachers—one who dies in the 1999 Columbine high school massacre that kicked off a twenty-five-year-and-counting run of regular school shootings in the U.S.; one who dies after the Fukushima reactor meltdown in 2011; a professor who chooses suicide in a Swiss clinic on September 11, 2001; and Ryana, the character whom we meet as a little girl on 9/11 and who, eventually, throws the switch on the technology that uploads the American refugees’ minds to the computers—the best characters are those from outside of academia. The crew of the space shuttle Challenger, in particular, are beautifully imagined (”behind Christa McAuliffe’s helmet…”), as is Mark David Chapman, whose complaints in the hours leading up to killing John Lennon, as imagined by Olsen, would fit right in as current leftist discourse on Twitter (I say this, uncomfortably, as a leftist who once spent a lot of time complaining similarly on Twitter). A young North African refugee attempts to cross the Mediterranean and is left to die by the people his family had trusted to safely transport him. On a mock “podcast” called Random Access Memory (a little too easy), a host named “Ry” interviews a member of Lee Kleinrock’s team from UCLA, who in 1969 sent the first message—”L-O,” the first two letters of LOGIN—over a network from one computer to another. The earliest of the narrative sequences finds two high-ranking Nazis navigating the final days of World War II and the Battle of Berlin.
There is a sort of apocalyptic aesthetic to Skin Elegies. Each of its episodes was the end of the world, at least fo the characters involved. And the ending (which is also the beginning) takes place in a 2072 that seems to extend the most dangerous parts of our current culture to wild extremes, even as the narratives come together in a moving bit of disembodied grief for the bodies the refugees have left behind, affirming beautifully the meaning of the human consciousness housed in the human body.
If this all sounds high-concept, it is. If it sounds experimental, it definitely is. But this is not experiment-qua-experiment. Olsen’s experiments are playing in extremes of soul, of what it is that forms—and un-forms—a self. In slowing down moments of death and violence, giving them the space of a book, Olsen shows tremendous respect and dignity toward a process, the unwinding of consciousness, that novelists rarely have the courage to examine.
I’m remembering a fragment I wrote in my notebook from a late-career interview with Yoko Ono that I once read. Speaking about Andy Warhol, she said: “[He] played with the mind of people rather than with the visual effect of the work. I like that. That’s the value of his work. In that sense, he’s a conceptual artist.” I feel similarly about Olsen’s work. I’ve since read several more of his novels, and they usually expand my thinking in some unexpected or profound way.
Like most conceptual artists, Olsen’s weakness is that he can now and then be tedious. For all the artfulness of Ryana’s arc through Skin Elegies—from watching, as many of us did, the second plane crash into the second of the World Trade Center towers, to developing the technology that makes the book possible, and hosting the Random Access Memory “podcast”—Olsen inexplicably gives 13 pages near the end of the book to a tedious academic monologue Ryana delivers from the Brain Emulation Studies Department at Cairo University. It’s the sort of thing that he avoids for most of the book, deftly combining fragments and keeping the reader delightfully off balance. In the middle of this tedium, Ryana references Nick Bostrom, “who wrote nearly seventy years ago…”, and this is good because Skin Elegies owes a philosophical debt to Bostrom’s work. But at the end of Ryana’s speech, just before she throws the switch on the Whole Brain Emulations that will receive the American refugees’ consciousnesses, she expresses a feeling that has been on my mind a lot lately as I have been reading and thinking about artificial intelligence and machine learning: “Here we are again, ladies and gentlemen, at the threshold of the unimaginable.”
And perhaps this is something else I’m looking for in literary art: the courage to imagine the unimaginable. Ryana says this in a profoundly ambitious sense. She is about to debut a new, and world-changing, technology, and in that sense she is as tragic as any monomaniacal industrialist or utopian. But considered differently, I find another valence of my desire for new forms. I want more novels that dare to imagine the unimaginable. The unwinding of consciousness. The way a consciousness might behave when it is turned into 1s and 0s, for instance. Regardless, it feels as though humanity is on a precipice, and I think we need more literary artists imagining different ways of being and thinking, different ways of being human, because what it means to be human has changed drastically, and will continue to change at an accelerating pace, and the forms of our art desperately need to provide us something beyond the fear of dystopia or the hope for utopia, to make a home within this world, however long we have left to inhabit it.