DREAMLIVES OF DEBRIS by Lance Olsen (Dzanc, 2017).
Lance Olsen radically reshapes the myth of the Minotaur in his brilliantly conceived novel Dreamlives of Debris (Dzanc Books, 2017). Reworking the myth, he transforms it, widens and deepens it as we read along, the act of reading itself becoming movement within a labyrinth.
The Minotaur tells us her name: “I call myself Debris.” Like Ishmael, she’s self-named. Her appearance deviates from ancient tradition: she’s short and light, and she carries a doll named Catastrophe. Pasiphaë, Debris’s mother, calls her “My Little Duration.” Her father calls her Minotaur. Debris is bound by both space and time within the labyrinth. Victims are sent to her in accordance with the killing calendar. Though a monster, she is likeable after her own fashion, and her isolation is portrayed with great poignancy. How dreadfully alone she is. It is no mean feat to convince the reader that empathy is the proper human response. She kills, but her killing is also part of her sentence, her cruel origin as a misbegotten product of lust and deception.
“Sometimes I can’t locate the walls,” Debris says. “Maybe I should mention this. Maybe I already have. Maybe everything is everything and then I am shuffling forward, hands outstretched in the grainy charcoal air, inhaling mold, must, fungus, sulfur, red angels, damp dirt, wet rock, waiting for the gritty chafe ushering me onto the far shore.” The labyrinth is no clever garden: it is rooted, suggesting what is dark and deviously constructed underground. Debris, in her dream-like confessionals, appears wretchedly imprisoned within the earth.
A labyrinth is dark, and in darkness sound becomes sensuously preeminent. Debris’s voice encompasses other voices, and together these suggest a chorus that answers, that directs and confounds us. Dreamlives of Debris’s narrative doesn’t proceed horizontally, instead radiating outward from some dark central purpose. Story becomes stories. Here Borges asserts that “time is a river which sweeps me along,” and Sir Arthur Evans, famed archaeologist who discovered the ancient palace of Knossos on Crete, notes the ‘enamel sky a singular blue, the air cool, invigorating …” Which is perfect for starting out, the ideal weather for a quest to begin. These other voices contribute to our understanding of the myth as a “rhizomatic architecture” and help us picture the “meandering pathways and blind alleys of the human mind.” All is bound to and within the labyrinth.
Dreamlives of Debris radiates from there. Ancient Crete is placed beside the modern 20th century world of critics and correspondents. Brigette Reimen, a German writer of the former DDR, sends to Susan Sontag a letter about the difficulty of writing in English while suffering breast cancer. Reiman wants only to finish a novel called Franziska Linkerland. Reiman would die in 1973, her unfinished novel published a year later. If language is a labyrinth, then a foreign language a labyrinth within a labyrinth, cancer another labyrinth, where fear, pain, exhaustion, isolation, sorrow, and death intertwine.
Debris is a storyteller, labyrinthine myth her chosen form. Recounting a story about Daedalus, she shares how Perdix, his apprentice, sees a fish spine on the beach, which inspires him to notch a metal strip and thereby create the first saw. Daedalus notices this brilliant innovation with considerable envy. Later, standing on a cliff overlooking the Aegean, Daedalus pushes Perdix into the sea to drown. That’s one story. The sea is the connecting tissue. Near the novel’s end, Debris shares how Daedalus and his son Icarus flew above the turbulent waters. Daedulus warns Debris: “Remember: don’t fly too low lest your wings touch waves, nor too high lest the sun melt the wax binding…” It’s yet another story radiating outward from some shifting point at the heart of the labyrinth. Eventually myth touches upon all things, gathers up catastrophes, accidental and otherwise.
I. A. Richards once asserted that “a book is a machine to think with.” Lance Olsen’s Dreamlives of Debris is a machine to think with, one that transports the reader by extraordinary means, a book that challenges received notions about what constitutes story and storytelling, a book that takes readers into and out of its labyrinth.
Jon Cone presently lives in Iowa. His poetry collection COLD HOUSE will be published this fall by Espresso-Chapbooks of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He can be followed on Twitter @JonCone.