I began thinking. Well, so do all of us once birth occurs and we come to sudden, indeed traumatic realisation that the entire environment we inhabit has suddenly changed, that such a thing as an environment exists, and this sort of urgent and discomforting thing inside us (which we will later learn is called a mind) has a purpose, which is to process, What is going on here? However, lacking those words or any other words or that something like a word even exists; faced with all that we do the instinctive thing and – we cry and shout and beg it all to stop. Things were so nice just a moment or two ago.
Now I’ve cheated slightly for the above wasn’t my first thought after closing the cover of Lance Olsen’s latest novel My Red Heaven. What I truly love about Olsen’s work and what propelled me back to the keyboard to write again (after months of disease, heart surgery and on-going recovery) is that his writing makes me think about the damndest things. For instance this: If you wake up in a strange city at either the edge of dawn or end of evening, if you don’t have a compass, how can you tell, in that moment, which it is? One side of the horizon is gleaming, the other gloaming, I grant you that street traffic would provide a clue, but really you’ve just got to wait a while to find out what you should be doing next. Is this a time for tea and eggs, or cocktails and steak? The difference is crucial, or will be if you’re of a mindset that cares about the opinions of room service waiters.
The Beatles’ A Day in the Life
Now that thought is much closer to the heart of My Red Heaven. Its closest artistic parallel is The Beatles’ A Day in the Life except moved and greatly expanded, from London 1967 to Berlin on a specific day in 1927. For the most part, it is composed of short chapters, each describing what a person was up to during a moment of that day. Some are celebrity famous – Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich – some are well-known within intellectual circles – Hannah Arendt, Walter Gropius – and some fictional. Some are only identified by their first name, at least temporarily (q.v.). Some of the chapters are clearly linked; Person A does something observed by Person B who in turn rubs shoulders with C; while others (Hitler’s chocolate marzipan addicted cameo appearance for instance) stand alone. As well, there are a handful of short chapters scattered throughout consisting of newsreel headlines, complete with jaunty fonts, as the Weimar Republic announces its reconstruction of a successful Germany after the War! Hurrah for Germany!
Em, wait a second. Weimar didn’t work out so well, did it? Well no not particularly, not unless you’re a really, really big fan of the musical Cabaret. But this is the point Olsen seems to be making and the point that led me to thinking about sunrises and sunsets: you don’t know that you’re living in an ‘era’ of country, of expression, or of self until you’re out of it.
Seemingly random events
This furthermore validates the format of My Red Heaven. It pushes forward the idea that eras are formed by a combination of seemingly random events. As, the final sections of the novel show, where the characters effectively take a curtain call by the full reveal of their names and fates, this day in 1927 might see them at the dawn of their careers or near the end. Everything is but a sliding doors moment away from being something else and your sliding door may not even have you walking through it.
One scene in the novel sums up its entire through-line. Rosa Luxemburg, Marxist philosopher, is murdered by a gang of proto-Fascist German thugs who don’t approve of that sort of thing, and she immediately reincarnates as a butterfly. Ohhhh. The butterfly is then blown off the hull of one of the great air ships. Huhhhhh? Down she floats until she lands on a soft green lawn. Aaaaaahhhh. Where she is immediately crushed by the boot of another character. Owwwww. With her last thought being one of wondering what she will be next. Hmmmmmm.
“The most accessible of Lance Olsen’s works of literature”
My Red Heaven is the most accessible of Lance Olsen’s works of literature. His writing is as brilliant as ever, from dialogue to choice of just enough items to describe to bring a reader a sense of mise en scène without bogging down the story in excess. His ability to live and speak as multitudes with distinct minds and voices is astonishing. The only two modern novelists I’d put in the same league regards the last point are E.L. Doctorow and Don DeLillo. The only times he has occasionally stumbled, in my opinion, are when he has let the tricks and flicks (i.e. over-tinkering with fonts and line tilts) overwhelm the writing and the story. It’s like stage lighting; the best lighting design is usually the one you won’t notice.
It is still clearly early days in 2020 with months to go and many books to read … or at least we can hope so. And yet, having previous at this sort of thing, I’ll be shocked if I read a better novel this year. God knows in my return to reviewing I couldn’t have asked for better.
Be seeing you.
Lance Olsen (Dzanc Books 2020, Quality Paperback) 262 pages, $16.95 cover price