Dreamlives of Debris by Lance Olsen

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Dreamlives of Debris is six inches squared, each page consisting of small poems or “songs,” blocks of text buffered by white space. Within those blocks is a chorus whose singers include Daedalus, Borges, Mandelbrot (the mathematician who developed fractals), and Stuxnet (an American-Israeli cyberweapon that buried itself in the software codes of an Iranian nuclear centrifuges). Olsen is working with a theme here, repeating himself with variation in order to progress through his own maze.

The story centers on a young girl named Debris. She is the monster lost in this labyrinth; her nose is actually “two purple-crimson slits winging up from the middle of a wide mouth jaggy with teeth.” Although it consists of many voices, the text always returns to Debris, in prose that is sometimes direct and controlled, other times stream-like and fragmented. Throughout the novel, Debris struggles to grow despite her anguish from her existence within the labyrinth. We begin to think like her, to feel like her.

Dreamlives isn’t a singular dream but a collection of a castaway’s inner thoughts. Shunning the momentum that comes from traditional plot and character development, Lance Olsen—an author known for innovative, genre-trespassing narratives—challenges the reader to make sense of the book’s internal reality. The design of the text blurs the boundaries between reader and protagonist. With its fragments that don’t necessarily match up, Dreamlives forces readers to crash into walls and dead ends.


Let us say my skin —



— my skin is so thin you can see lavender flatworms quivering beneath it

Crashes notwithstanding, Olsen moves readers forward. Enjambments and repetitions serve as connective tissue through the literary maze. They become the maze’s path. If language creates the labyrinth, then Olsen’s poetic tropes are like Ariadne’s spool of yarn, helping the reader to navigate the maze. As with a jigsaw puzzle, each piece only takes on meaning in relation to its surroundings. This raises another challenge about the book—its dispensing with pagination. We are supposed to become lost. Do we readily accept this? Or do we take out a pencil and start marking pages, creating our own spool?

Dreamlives is also inspired by rhizomes—those nodal structures developed by many plants and mushrooms. In critical theory, rhizomatic structures are associated with Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. Labyrinthine and rhizomatic texts are similar in the sense that they are both nonlinear, and rhizomatic structures underpin the structure of an encyclopedia. That’s why encyclopedic narratives—most often associated with “doorstoppers” like Infinite Jest, but including Dreamlives—function like an encyclopedia, transcending linearity by breaking away from traditional use of space and time. Olsen reinforces the encyclopedic nature of his book with references to mythology, mathematics, computer science, contemporary politics, and philosophy.

Dreamlives ends with the image of the white twine tied around a large stone. It seems that Debris has made it to the center of the labyrinth. With that, she snips the twine with teeth, reminding us of her animal like nature, before playing with it like a new toy—as if she is nothing more than a frisky kitten. The myth of the labyrinth has always been tied to the nature of creativity, and this is a strikingly optimistic moment: Debris at play, childlike, imaginative, happy.

Jacob Singer is the Small Press Releases Editor for Entropy and is looking for books to include in upcoming lists. His writing has appeared in Rain TaxiAmerican Book Review, and the Quarterly Conversation. He can be found @jacobcsinger.

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