CUTBANK REVIEWS: "How to Unfeel the Dead" by Lance Olsen

Review by Claire Venery

How to Unfeel the Dead by Lance Olsen is an assemblage of new and selected fictions that are expressive, emotional, and entertaining. The volume is split into five different sections from different books Olsen has written.

My Dates with Franz (1993) opens with “Two Children Menaced by a Nightingale,” a lyrical tale filled with meticulous color and detail. With post-apocalyptic undertones, multiple points of view, and vivid descriptions, Olsen couldn’t have picked a better story to introduce the reader to his haunting and memorable style.

The same details reappear throughout Olsen’s stories, like little breadcrumbs the reader can pick up along the way. There is something satisfying in recognizing a character from one story to the next. In “Watch and Ward,” the narrator is an English professor who meddles with his neighbors’ lawns, gutters, and houses with the best of intentions, but his actions have severe consequences. Later, in “Moving,” Murphy is also an English teacher who, after losing his job, clears gutters for money. “Small But Significant Invasions” mirrors “Moving” in tone. Both contain a couple that care deeply about each other, and each ends with the couple leaving their home hand and hand. The reader cannot help but feel like they know these couples. They feel like old friends.

As seen in the third section from Sewing Shut My Eyes (2000), Olsen’s tales often contain fantastical elements inserted into modern-day moments. “Cybermorphic Beat-Up Get-Down Subterranean Homesick Reality-Sandwich Blues” and “Strategies in the Over-Exposure of Well-Lit Space” do not disappoint. These stories are both a little bizarre in content, and the lines between reality and fantasy blur, where a poet is actually a robot and the infamous Zodiac Killer makes an appearance. It is a whirlwind of activity, and by the end, the reader no longer knows what is real and what is not.

No event or person in history is out of reach for Olsen. He mentions Wittgenstein, Donald Barthelme, Hegel, Bataille, Czeslaw, John Cage, and Alexander Pope, among many more prominent figures. However, perhaps the most notable historical character appears in “16 Jackies” from Olsen's Hideous Beauties (2003). The protagonist of “16 Jackies” is none other than Jackie Kennedy, and the story follows how she deals with the aftermath of her husband’s assassination. Jackie recalls “coming awake in [her] nightgown in the middle of the night in [her] room at the Whitehouse, and how [she] just stood there watching [herself] cleaving, coming apart like amoebae do under the microscope.” This tale once again calls upon the reader to accept the impossible. Perhaps, in this piece, Olsen is commenting on how grief can split a person into different versions of themselves.

Olsen’s description remains excellent throughout, especially in “The Doll,” where the narrator describes the day as a “frisky blue Sunday afternoon.” The word “frisky” implies the characters’ sexual activities before Olsen reveals what has just occurred in their apartment. This story describes two characters in an unhealthy relationship who begin removing their toes and eating them for dinner. Gradually, this activity morphs into cutting off all their body parts until only their heads are left. Olsen could be using shock value in these gruesome actions to represent what happens when a person gives too much of themselves away in a relationship.

In “Where Does the Kissing End?” Olsen finally has reality fall upon his characters, where fantasy can no longer be sustained. The main character is a young girl who has just heard the tale of a princess kissing a frog and how the act turns him into her prince. The girl is enamored by the story and takes it upon herself to kiss every frog she can find. As each kiss fails, she realizes her mistake. Upon kissing her last frog, she reflects, “you retract your tongue and wait and stoop and fan your fingers open and set the frog among the weeds and watch him watch with his dead gold eyes watching and wait till you realize only gradually that the world has not changes one mite because the frog is still the frog and you are still yourself and the sky is still blue and your heart is still your heart.”

The fifth and final section of How to Unfeel the Dead showcases eight new fiction pieces from the years 2004–13. At this point the writing becomes experimental, both in structure and content. The first three pieces are the most obscure. “Art Lecture” is less of a story and more of a snapshot of historical moments. The second story is called “Status Updates” and is composed of a steady stream of sentences with a different character in each one. The story begins and ends with ellipses, suggesting the never-ending flow of information being posted day in and day out.  Here Olsen comments on the mindless and endless drone of social media outlets of today.

Although Olsen’s writing grows and changes throughout the years, he is consistent in his unique descriptions, stark character voices, and distinct word choices. “Maybe” and “über” are uttered by many characters and he never misses an opportunity to describe the “blue sky” in his multitudes of stories. Lance Olsen is clever, articulate, funny, and thought provoking, and his short stories are nuggets of wisdom that should not go unread.

About the Author:
Lance Olsen’s more than twenty books of and about experimental fiction include the novels Theories of Forgetting (2014), Calendar of Regrets (2010), Head in Flames (2009), Nietzsche’s Kisses (2006), and Girl Imagined by Chance (2002), as well as the anti-textbook Architectures of Possibility: After Innovative Writing (2012) and critifictional meditation [[there.]] (2014). His short story, essays, and reviews have appeared in hundreds of journals and anthologies. A Guggenheim, Berlin prize, N.E.A., and Pushcart recipient and Fulbright Scholar, he teaches innovative narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah.

About the Reviewer:
Claire Venery is an undergraduate majoring in English at the University of Montana.