An Interview with Lance Olsen

Anyone who has read my FlashPøint reviews of Lance Olsen's novels Time Famine (Permeable Press/Cambrian Publications, 1996) and Freaknest (Wordcraft of Oregon, 2001) knows how much I enjoy his exuberant narrative prose. Those novels, together with Tonguing the Zeitgeist (Permeable Press/Cambrian Publications, 1994), form a loose trilogy which may be called science fiction or SF (which also stands for "speculative fiction" and a number of other riffs on "S" and "F" played by SF writers who wish not to be "ghettoized" with good old-fashioned space opera and the like). Olsen's trilogy, notwithstanding at least one rocket to the moon, plays mostly with the SF sub-genre of dystopian satire typified by Huxley's Brave New World. But most of his work ranges elsewhere in the fantastic from "magic realism" to the "critifiction" exemplied by his recent novel, Girl Imagined by Chance (FC2, 2002), to a species of imaginative text all his and Andi Olsen's own, exemplified by the modestly named "text-image collages" of Sewing Shut My Eyes (FC2, 2000) and the brand-new Hideous Beauties (Eraserhead Press, 2003). (More about these "collages" in the interview that follows.) In addition to fiction Olsen has also published a great deal of criticism, including Ellipse of Uncertainty: An Introduction to Postmodern Fantasy (Greenwood Press, 1987), Circus of the Mind in Motion: Postmodernism and the Comic Vision (Wayne State University Press, 1990), William Gibson (The Borgo Press/Starmont House, 1992) (the first critical study of the superstar of cyberpunk), and Lolita: A Janus Text (Twayne Publishers, 1995) on Vladimir Nabokov's dystopian satire of another sort, as well as Rebel Yell: A Short Guide to Fiction Writing (Cambrian Publications, 1998). Olsen's most recent novel, Girl Imagined by Chance , is a marked departure from SF. In Girl a couple in the wilds of Idaho make up a pregnancy and then a daughter to please a distant, dying grandmother. But the imaginary daughter takes on a life of her own, not in fantasy but in the ways the couple's lives must change to keep the lie from shattering all their other relationships. At the center of their invention are old Kodaks of the wife as a baby, enhanced and shown to family and friends. The lie not only dislocates existing relationships, it shifts the couple into new, more intimate ways of relating to the larger, increasingly stranger society they have taken for granted outside their woods. Lance Olsen is a New Jersey boy who grew up in Venezuela and now lives with Andi Olsen in ... the wilds of Idaho. He has taught in several places -- run the creative writing program at the University of Idaho -- loves teaching but has freed himself of academia -- and is currently one of the directors of the well-known avant-press, FC2.

                                                                           -- JR Foley

FLASHPØINT: Have you abandoned SF for the, shall we say, "foreseeable future," or are you experiencing what many other SF writers have over the years -- a claustrophic need to break away -- if only for a little R&R in other genres? A tanned-and-rested-return to SF somewhere on the schedule?

OLSEN:  I think of myself less as a speculative-fiction (let alone a science-fiction) writer than I do simply as one interested in strange and surprising work that can and does take lots of different forms -- cyberpunk, post-cyberpunk, avant-garde, transgressive, hypermedial, avant-pop, etc. -- but that in some way both resists the blandness of the literary mainstream (the narratological equivalent of Britney Spears' music, let's say) while trying to capture the complex, conflicted, disorienting sense many of us feel inhabiting these first few seconds of this fast new century.

In other words, as long as it wakes me up in the midst of my dreaming, I like to write it. But I'm afraid a lot of what passes as salable fiction in any genre these days does the opposite of waking us up: most in fact is compensatory in nature, designed to make us comfortable and not ask too many questions. Most, that is, is bent on telling us what we already know about who we are and where we are, and I find that less than heady, engaging stuff.

A lot of PR campaigns for novels over the last decade or so have stressed a given work of fiction's redemptive quality, which seems a code word for art that makes us feel good rather than think. My vision, I'm afraid, has never been redemptive. I'm the kind of guy who believes breathing in the end just doesn't work.

FLASHPØINT: It sounds like you mean more than just making the reader wake up and think.

OLSEN:  I just mean life doesn't strike me as especially redemptive in nature, so why should fiction? At the end of the day, mister blue-eyed death is waiting for us all, and on the road to meet him I suspect we can at best only hope for the tiniest redemptions, the kind that last for the space of a car commercial. So the Redemption with New-Agey Nuts that seems to be the flavor of the decade in fiction doesn't appeal to me in the least. I'm most interested in fiction that tries to confront and re-present what it feels like to be alive in these pomo or post-pomo or whatever they are times. And what it feels to be alive now is anything but upbeat and stable and feel-finey.

I'm sure a good deal of my vision is attributable to my coming to consciousness during the late fifties in a jungle compound in Venezuela, where my dad was helping set up oil refineries, and where I was pretty much on my own in what struck me as a severely surreal world comprised of snakes in the washing machine, iguanas on the windowpanes, no one my age to play with, and no one except my parents to communicate with in my native language. Consequently, I had to invent my own possibility spaces to keep myself entertained.

I wouldn't be surprised if that's why I found existentialist tenets so congenial to my frame of mind when I initially ran across them incarnated as Sartre, Camus, and Kafka in high school, and ditto with some of the key notions of postmodernism (anything is possible, every world a construct, language essentially unstable) when I ran across them in Derrida, Baudrillard, and Barthes as a young graduate student. Theirs didn't seem so much eccentric, scary notions to me as vibrant ones that affirmed what I thought had always been the case.

Back to your question about SF and vacations for a moment. While it's true I spent the second half of the nineties involved in composing what I think of as a speculative-fiction anti-trilogy (Tonguing the Zeitgeist, Time Famine, and Freaknest), it's equally true that I explored magical realist conventions in my first novel, Live from Earth [(Ballantine Books)], in 1991; slipstream ones and those associated with academic satire in my third, Burnt [(Wordcraft of Oregon)], in 1994; critifictional ones in my most recent novel, Girl Imagined by Chance; and all of the above and more in my short stories.

In each case, what I tried to do is find a form that best expresses my current obsessions, and I found an experimental mode of speculative fiction most helpful for expressing the ones that swarmed me in the second half of the nineties: the increasing commodification of the arts, media-ization of human consciousness, the movement of technologies from the outside our bodies to inside, environmental catastrophe, and so forth. What's especially wonderful about speculative fiction, at least for me, is how it functions less as a crystal-ball prognostication into tomorrow than as a warped-mirror metaphorization of today. It defamiliarizes who we are and where we are and when we are so that we can view those things from angles we perhaps hadn't thought about before.

That said, SF does of course ask us by its very settings to think about what the future will look like if we're not careful and what it will look like if we are. It therefore becomes a literary thought-experiment. But at some profound level, as Samuel R. Delany pointed out, SF ultimately functions as a reminder as well about how unknowable the future will always be. In part, it's about how any attempt to imagine next week will ultimately fail.

With Girl Imagined by Chance, other obsessions came to supplant (or perhaps simply complement) those I had been investigating in my anti-trilogy, and so I went in search of an appealing way of articulating them. In terms of thematics, I was increasingly interested in the notion of our culture being one less of production than of reproduction -- both in the biological sense of overpopulation (our species has got that be-fruitful-and-multiply thing pegged, much to the detriment of our planet), and in the Baudrillardian sense of simulation (in our highly commodified, technological society, the notion of "reality" seems downright quaint). It was a short step from there to the core narrative, about a couple who in an unguarded moment invents a make-believe child to appease their friends and family, and the core metaphor: photography -- i.e., the essential art of reproduction.

In terms of form, I was increasingly interested in the notion of critifiction -- a mode that hovers between fiction and fact; a mode that in my mind is somehow profoundly concerned with the very nature of authenticity and, by implication, of reproduction.

Which is probably one of the longest ways imaginable of saying no, I've neither embraced SF nor turned my back on it. I fully expect to return to it if down the narratological road it will help me express what I feel I need to express.

FLASHPØINT:  Let me explore the nature of critifiction a bit. Several times in Girl Imagined the narrator, contemplating a photograph, remarks on the everyday transparency of a photo, i.e., that the observer tends naively to look through the photograph, oblivious of the art or simply of the photo's physical and compositional limits, and imagines what he "looks at" as real. So let me ask the naive, possibly rude question "through the photograph:" given the similarity between your Jersey and Idaho background and the narrator's (including his wife's name, Andi), to what extent is the story "autobiographical," to what extent not at all? (I'll add the disclaimer that I'm not trying to pry, because gossip is not what I'm after. I think any perceptive reader unfamiliar with your other work would read the cover bio and your dedication and wonder the same. I even suspect you invite the wondering as an additional element in your critifictional play with the reader. But it would be interesting to hear how clear and definite you'd like to make these elements-in-play.)

OLSEN: One of the principles that governs Girl, at least in my mind, is that of "hovering" -- a certain refusal, in other words, to settle that occurs at various strata in the text. Obviously there's that critifictional hovering between a certain theoretical imagination and a certain creative one, between nonfiction and fiction, between fiction and poetry. There is also the hovering at the stratum of plot concerning the invented girl's reality. Given the narrator's slightly unhinged consciousness, it's not surprising that his prose also exhibits a kind of hovering, a jitteriness, a failure to stick with any idea or feeling for more than a few heartbeats, thereby giving rise to what I think of as an aesthetics of uncertainty.

Behind that aesthetics floats Wittgenstein's ghost. What I've always loved about him is how, toward the end of his life, he became more and more possessed with trying to say what we might be able to know about the world with anything like conviction. The more possessed he became, however, the less he could be sure about. Something analogous seems true to me about any photograph: the more you study and think about one, the less you know about it. What do you really know about what's going on in it? Who took it? When it was taken? What is its relationship to "reality"? How much has been staged? How much is "authentic"?

One form of hovering that engaged me a great deal was the sort you bring up in your question: where does autobiography end and fiction begin? It's a real and a really difficult question for each of us to answer. I'm particularly intrigued by how much our memories of ourselves, our pasts, those events we think of when we set out to construct who we are carry a deeply fictive charge, and how we compensate for our lives being a series of distinct photographic moments in a sea of forgetfulness by generating narrative links, by turning discrete shots into filmic narrative.

This in part is what fascinates me about the recent ubiquitous popularity of the memoir. There's something desperate about people loving that genre, some acute need for them to turn largely absent past into wholly present story, flickery half-memory (the best any of us will ever be able to conjure) into full truth. I'm speaking in wild generalities here, of course, and of course there are myriad exceptions (David Shields' and Geoff Dyer's wonderfully self-conscious work comes to mind in this regard, as do W. B. Sebald's stellar critifictional hybrids like The Rings of Saturn), but by and large memoir strikes me as an extraordinarily naïve, gullible genre, and for that reason often an extraordinarily tedious one. I'm here! I'm here! I'm here! the memoir's sentences shout over and over again, but, you see, I'm not really sure that's the case at all.

In Girl, I set out to trouble memoir's potential naiveté by composing a text that seems clearly autobiographical on the surface, clearly memoiresque, about a couple who create a clearly fake autobiography. So the photos in the book are actually of my wife Andi and me, but always manipulated by our computer into something less or more or at least different than the "original." Many photos are deliberately staged. All are deliberately fiddled with. Almost all of the most obvious details in the story are autobiographical (I grew up in Venezuela and New Jersey; I currently live in Idaho; Andi and I don't have kids; we travel a lot; etc.), but many of the seemingly obvious details that appear to be absolutely autobiographical are in fact wholly made-up.

What I hope to accomplish by engaging in such an intellectually mischievous enterprise is to bring to the fore a contemplation about a number of the novel's key themes: where reality stops and imagination commences, for instance; the limits of memory and self; the undoing of simplistic readings of photography and hence the kind of simplistic "photography" we call "memoir."

FLASHPØINT:  Explain, please, critifiction. My impression is Raymond Federman coined the term, but I have not myself read his essays on the subject.

OLSEN:   This sounds deeply geeky, but when I was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin in the mid-seventies a friend and I for fun would sometimes go into the library on Friday evenings, pull a journal or book off the just-arrived shelf at random, and read out loud from it to each other in a study room. One evening in 1976, I happened to choose the latest issue of New Literary History, which contained what I remember as a terrifically exciting essay by Federman called "Imagination as Plagiarism," which was reprinted in 1993 as "Critifiction: Imagination as Plagiarism" in Federman's must-read collection, Critifiction: Postmodern Essays.

Federman's essay focuses primarily on the Barthesian idea that all texts are, to some degree, pla(y)giarized; that is, all texts are, either consciously or unconsciously, the nexus at which a number of other texts (none of them original) come together and clash in interesting ways. Federman only really coins the word critifiction in passing there, and never defines it beyond saying, again in passing, "the discourse that follows is critical as well as fictitious." Actually, the discourse that follows -- a theoretical treatise, as I say, on intertextuality -- is quite a bit more critical than it is fictitious. And yet that term stayed with me ever since, and its possibilities have worked on and in me. The result is that one of the things I wanted to do by writing Girl was to use the notion of critifiction to explore that hovering I just spoke of, that space between genres that creates, by its very existence, the option of something fresh and appealing and, by its narratologically amphibious nature, challenging.

Because of my own educational background, which stressed the critical as well as the creative imagination, one of the in-between spaces that's always fascinated me is exactly this: the one that reveals the fictive impulse behind any piece of criticism and the critical impulse behind any piece of fiction, thereby troubling and complexifying that initially easy binary distinction. If in his essay Federman emphasizes the critical, I suppose in Girl I emphasize the fictional, but in both cases the troubling and complexifying are there, and I adore them—because, I suppose, for me they speak about how the world works.

To that extent, I suppose one could talk about Girl as a kind of love song to Federman, a kind of response (almost three decades late) to his call, and so it meant tons to me that he wrote an introduction of sorts to it and allowed me to post it on my website.

FLASHPØINT: I'll come back to Girl. But I'm curious how you relate critifiction (if at all) to your SF "anti-trilogy," especially the central novel, Time Famine, which in part re-imagines, from a projected twenty-first century retrospective (!) the 1846-47 experience of the Donner Party.

OLSEN: I don't think I really relate it at all. From my perspective, I'm doing something very different in Time Famine from what I'm doing in Girl. If Tonguing the Zeitgeist investigated the merging of the technological with the organic by means of a plot concerning a rock'n'roll wannabe who is literally made over, from his gender up, by a corporation interested in making a profit off the consequence, then Time Famine carried on that investigation by examining what happens when said technology moves from outside (on our skin, say) to inside (into our brains, say, by means of nanotechnology) at the whim of executives who can then tell us what we should desire while making us feel like we're the ones doing the desiring.

Time Famine, then, is ultimately a novel about how our memory (there's that word again) and consciousness are shaped by corporations in the same way our bodies are—both under our misapprehension that we're acting out of free will, out of a need to be unique. I worried -- I worry -- that if you tell a group of people they are wholly free, that they can do anything they want to do, that group's first impulse will be to imitate each other. Another term for this tendency is called late-stage capitalism.

If you grew up in New Jersey during the sixties and early seventies, by the way, chances are you never heard about the Donner Party. That was certainly true in my case. So when I moved out west in 1990, and first learned about this group of pioneers that got bogged down in the Sierra Nevada for a winter and were forced to resort to cannibalism to survive, I became instantly intrigued. At heart, their story struck me as a sort of American version of Conrad's journey into the heart of darkness. If, when the first heavy snows commenced falling, the Donner Party had left their things behind and made a push over the summit on foot, all of them would have survived. But no. They wouldn't go one without their stuff.

FLASHPØINT: To shift the subject a moment from "fiction" to "reality," would you talk a little about resigning your professorship at the University of Idaho?

OLSEN: I left the University of Idaho and full-time teaching in the spring of 2001 for three fairly specific reasons.

First, speaking of late-stage capitalism, I was progressively more disappointed in the "entrepreneurial spirit" that had arisen in higher education across the country and overseas -- you know, buying into that deeply American bottom-line impulse that has begun transforming the rich historical paradigm of what liberal university life could and should be into the intellectual and pedagogical equivalent of a fast-food franchise where students are "consumers" and professors the chefs cooking them up the greasy pseudo-intellectual fries.

Second, I was increasingly disappointed, given my own aesthetic orientation, in the University of Idaho creative writing program's aspiration to look a lot like most of the other three hundred and fifty or so run-of-the-mill creative writing programs in the country. We're at a crossroads in the U.S. where such programs have a chance to become something remarkably interesting, hypermedial, and innovative, or just composition programs in drag. U.I., unfortunately, has chosen the latter wardrobe.

Finally, it was simply time for me to focus primarily on my own writing for a while; I'd been teaching at universities for more than twenty years, and it felt good and right beginning to imagine other worlds, other ways of living.

The outcome of all this was that I was feeling a little more like a goldfish at a knitting convention every day, and all good goldfish know when it's time to swim on.

But my days at the University of Idaho, many of them really wonderful and fulfilling, seem like a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. I haven't kept in touch with anyone up there, nor they with me. I suspect they're still less than festive with respect to my leaving -- at least they were last time we communicated, when the program director banned me from reading at the university -- and I'm sure they think it's all with good reason, since I jumped ship when the ship was taking on water at night in stormy seas.

I enjoy the energy of students and the possibility space of the classroom too much, however, to leave them wholly behind. So I take on a few guest-lecture and visiting-writer gigs each year, and thoroughly love the intensity and richness of those short, concentrated, non-bureaucratic experiences. It's loads of fun, not to mention intellectually and ethically important, introducing students to contemporary fiction and alternative approaches to writing it, and teaching them to use said fiction as a tool to help them reflect.

FLASHPØINT: "Alternative approaches to writing fiction" is a good segue back. Would you talk a little about your new short-story collection, Hideous Beauties, and your novel-in-progress? The stories in HB, some of them anyway, strike me as experiments pointing to Girl Imagined By Chance. I recognized your "hovering" technique. Here it seems "in development" while in Girl it's not only fully developed but charged with a complex of analysis and emotion. The unifying thread is the gallery of paintings; each story riffs on a painting. But for me the really fascinating stories are the ones that don't riff on someone else's paintings, they are the paintings, or pictures, or graphics. Obviously I mean the first and the last, "Hanged Angel" and "Hideous Beauties" itself. You and Andi work well together. The fascination, especially in "Hanged Angel," is partly in the material photos of mutilated dead. I think one's first and third reflex is to repel the images; but the narrative text compels a second, fourth, sixth look. The text creates not so much a meaning as a context for viewing, witnessing, for contemplating the uncontemplatable.

OLSEN: Hideous Beauties is a compilation in which each of ten fictions is based on a photograph, painting, sketch, collage, or assemblage by one of my favorite artists -- Paul Delvaux, Hans Bellmer, Joel-Peter Witkin, and so on. Andi, who's also an artist, and I collaborated on two new computer-generated text-image collages based on her project-in-process, Freakshow. I've always wanted to do something like this—explore the intersection of visual and verbal language—and have often found it wildly helpful when the fire's momentarily gone out of the creative engine to put a piece of art in front of me and begin to engage with it through prose. As you say, I suspect there was a conversation going on between Girl and the pieces in Hideous Beauties, that some paint on the palette from one found its way into the other. One of the stories in the latter, the one based on the Da Vinci sketch, was actually written in the early eighties, and was I believe the first time I tried to think about the relationship of the two modes of art, and, until your question, hadn't really thought about that move somehow prefiguring what grew into Girl more than fifteen years later.

The conscious spark for this collection occurred when a writer friend, Greg Herriges, and I visited the Chicago Art Institute the year before last. We didn't have much time there, since we had another appointment in forty-five minutes, so we decided, in a move we thought Breton might appreciate, to choose right or left at each intersection we encountered quickly and arbitrarily, thereby letting chance guide us. We soon found ourselves in front of Delvaux's rich, eerie "Village of the Mermaids" in the surrealist room. Greg challenged us both on the spot to write a story based on it, and off we went. I had so much fun writing my version, I figured I'd try to arrange a whole book around the idea. In a sense, I suspect, Hideous Beauties is linked to Girl conceptually by its interest in contemplating one art through the medium of another.

Currently, I'm working on a novel about Fritz's last mad day called Nietzsche's Kisses. I fell in love with Nietzsche's work very early on in my life. I suppose this was in part because it harmonizes so well with postmodern thought, in part because Nietzsche was one of the first -- and still one of the most successful -- writers of critifiction, combining as he did in single works radical philosophical skepticism with lyric, aphorism, narrative fiction, and visionary rant.

One afternoon shortly after I finished Girl, I was wandering through my house and happened to pass the bookshelf in the living room. My eye fell on the famous Walter Kaufmann anthology of Nietzsche's writing. I hadn't read him, except in the form of a very few short excerpts I sometimes taught, in more than a dozen years. I picked it up, opened it on a whim, and sampled a little to see if it still held up -- and fell in love with Fritz all over again. I set about rereading all his major work, then the major biographies, and then, last spring, Andi and I embarked a roadtrip through Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, visiting the necklace of significant sites that comprised his life. The more I learned, the more the novel began to show itself.

I could go on and on about what we discovered, but probably shouldn't at this early date in the book's composition, since that would of course be tempting fate. Phillip Roth once said a writer can't do anything right for the first fifty pages when starting a new novel and can't do anything wrong for the last fifty. Well, suffice it to say I haven't entered the last fifty pages yet, but so far it's been a great ride—one of the most enjoyable I've ever taken, in fact.

FLASHPØINT: Postmodernism pervades American culture, but it's no longer the new kid on the block. Avant Pop (although around since the early or mid-sixties) was named and theorized (by Ron Sukenick and Larry McCaffery) about ten years ago; its primary product, Black Ice Books, is no longer an FC2 imprint; and the term never gained the currency, which, say, cyberpunk did for a while. So much, much has been said about PoMo and A&P, by you and by others: is there anything either new or freshly pertinent to be said with respect to What's Happenin' Now -- in America in particular or in the world in general?

OLSEN: For some reason, the older I get the more suspicious I become of literary aerial views and theorized labels, mostly because, as Charcot once said, theory is good but doesn't prevent things from happening.

I bet, though, one could still talk fruitfully about the most fascinating intellectual dominant being postmodernism -- i.e., a mode of radical skepticism that challenges all we once took for granted about language and experience. If that's so, one would probably have to talk about it less as a discrete historical period than as a certain sort of consciousness that has occurred locally throughout history (one thinks of everyone from Fritz and Laurence Sterne back to Rabelais and even Heraclitus), but which has come to the fore since sometime around the middle of the twentieth century, and has been deeply linked since then to technologies like television and the computer.

If that's the case, of course, then cultural impulses like the Avant Pop and cyberpunk are simply subsets of postmodernism, the former emphasizing a certain familiarity and ambivalence with pop culture, the latter a certain familiarity and ambivalence with cybernetics.

If we're talking at a less abstract level, though, about What's Happenin' Now, I see two distinct and distinctly remarkable movements in fiction. First, there's the fiction coming out of New York. If we use that as our litmus test for wassup, then we'd have to say the general state of the art is glum and gray. Like McDonald's, Manhattan is dedicated to thinking of its customers in the least flattering terms. "By god," say the head honchos beneath the eerie glow of the golden arches, "if our customers want fat, carbs, sugar, and change back from their fiver, then that's what we're going to give them." It's the same in Manhattan, only with intellectual fluff and Oprahtic fuzzy feelings.

Clearly that isn't to say Manhattan doesn't publish some incredible work, but it is to say examples of it are surprisingly few and far between, and even less publicized.

As I mentioned earlier, the flavor of the decade, so far as New York is concerned, seems to me to be Redemptive with Nuts—i.e., feel-good stuff, comforting stuff, slightly new-agey triumph-of-the-spirit stuff. If you like musicals, you'll love The New York Times best-seller list. Everything will work out in the end, the books on it say. Goodness triumphs over evil. There is nothing new under the Ecclesiastes. Tomorrow will be better than today. Don't worry; be happy. Be sad for a little while, obviously, but then be happy. Characters are plump people. Plot is pleasant arc. Language is plain transparence. The body is boring, politics passé, gender stable, realism real, the page a predictable arrangement of paragraphs descending. Go to sleep.

If, however, we're talking about fiction coming from independent presses across the country -- the micro-breweries and indie labels of the publishing world—then the general state of the art is diverse, exciting, vibrant. Last fall I was appointed Chair of the Board of Directors at Fiction Collective Two, and was both honored and daunted by joining one of the most distinguished publishers of innovative fiction in the country. I've been thrilled by many of the manuscripts I've seen produced outside the mainstream, and can guarantee you'll almost never go very wrong picking up something brought out by such independent presses as Coffee House, Dalkey Archive, Graywolf, City Lights, and, most recently, Eraserhead.

On my website, Café Zeitgeist, I keep a personal list of recent fiction favorites as well as a forum called "Textual Harassment" where people may meet virtually to discuss interesting fringe works. Both are good resources, I hope, for readers looking for books The New York Times doesn't like to talk about.

But a few quick dynamite under-the-Manhattan-radar recommendations, in case folks are interested: Laird Hunt's The Impossibly, which reads as if Barthelme were channeling Robbe-Grillet, Beckett, Ben Marcus, and reruns of Get Smart; Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves, an extraordinary book which takes more formal risks than any novel published in the last decade while never sacrificing narrative drive; Joe Wenderoth's Letters to Wendy's, a hilarious critifictional critique of the United States of Shopping that takes the form of a series of letters written by an increasingly unhinged narrator to what he perceives as the sexy flesh-and-blood icon of the fastfood franchise; and hypertext author Shelley Jackson's first hardcopy fever-dream short-story collection, The Melancholy of Anatomy, which explores the idea of biological monstrosity in ways you've never seen explored before.

FLASHPØINT: I've been rereading the three pieces ("Telegenesicide," "X-Ray Dreams," "Sewing Shut My Eyes"), as well as those in Hideous Beauties, you and Andi call (for lack of better term) computer-generated collages. To say the least they are unique. I haven't run across anything else like them. They seem to come out of nowhere, howling (in both senses), act out, and vanish. That's all, folks, for beginning, middle, and end. They're really not narrative, although they incorporate narratives. They're funny but also quite disturbing. So the obvious question: what plans do you and Andi have to do more or do more with these "collages."

OLSEN: One of the things I've noticed with lots of multimedia art is how the artist responsible for it is usually either primarily a word person or primarily an image person. Accordingly, much multimedia art produced either has great language associated with it, but weak visuals, or vice versa. Or, worse, the person responsible for creating it is simply tech-savvy, but wholly lacking in artistic vision, the result often being a little like giving a talented construction worker a set of pastels.

I suppose with Andi and me it was just a matter of a time before we started trying to figure out how to wed our complementary strengths into one aesthetic mode, and in the early nineties we came up with the idea for collages that in certain ways think back through those great graphic novels from the eighties like The Watchmen,through the alternative comix from the sixties, and into the surrealist collage novels from the twenties. Initially, I developed pretty strong surrealist narrative lines, then Andi illustrated those lines as Max Ernst might by cutting up and collaging together other people's images. Before long, though, we both became increasingly interested in the possibilities generated by the presence of the computer and programs like Adobe PhotoShop, and with what might happen if we abandoned the notion of conventional illustrated narrative in favor of something that could only occur in the ambiguous, suggestive, lyrical zone that exists when words and images kiss. So Andi began to create a given number of panels -- seven, say -- comprised of computer-generated collaged visuals, without any narrative in mind. She then gave me the panels, which I arranged in an order that appealed to me. I came up with words, phrases, quotes, and other bits of language that somehow seemed appropriate to each panel, gave everything back to Andi, and she then wed text and visuals. Only after that would we come together and edit each panel. During the process, delightfully surprising thematics and synchronicities would emerge.

It's an extraordinarily pleasurable undertaking, and, yes, one we definitely plan to continue.

We've also collaborated many times before in many other ways. Andi, for instance, is currently working on her Freakshow project, about which I'm deeply thrilled. In it, she plans to invent a whole world of teratoids -- you know, mermaids, hermaphrodites, conjoined twins, et alia. Some will appear in the form of assemblages, others in the form of our computer-generated collages. In addition, Andi will create rooms for them, religions for them, scrapbooks, diaries, favorite videos, photo albums, and so forth. I'll help with language matters. At the end of the day, she will have created a richly textured secondary universe that shadows our own.

She has completed several rooms already, more than half a dozen freaks, some of which you can see on her website, but clearly this is a life work, and I'm terribly excited to be a very small part of it.

At its essence is the hole-in-the-heart understanding that shapes so much of what she and I do: freaks are just like us, only more so.