Head in Flames
by Lance Olson
Reviewed by John Domini
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seem the uses of Western Civ! Surely, in the raucous and polyglot new millennium, the husks of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment need "slashes of verve" and "aesthetic savageries." Savagery would seem, at first glance, the aesthetic at work in Lance Olsen's exciting new novel, Head in Flames. A chapterless, relentless narrative, Head unfolds in three alternating typefaces, with no entry longer than a few lines, and many a single barbed word or phrase. Each typeface streams a different consciousness: those of two men intent on spilling blood and another trundling obliviously to his murder. The text offers next to nothing by way of scene setting, and while there's character development, it can be tricky, hidden behind the narrators' posturing.
Besides, these are characters reined in by the facts. The business about slash and savagery comes from the most famous of the three interior monologists, Vincent Van Gogh. The great Impressionist has a turbulent turn of mind on the day we visit: that July day in 1890 when he shot himself in a cornfield, then staggered to his boarding house to die. Yet the other two personae are on track for worse. One is Van Gogh's filmmaker descendent, Theo, riding his bike through Amsterdam on a November morning in 2004 while the third narrator, Mohammed Bouyeri, waits outside the Dutchman's studio, in one pocket a 9mm Glock and in the other a serrated blade.
The murder and beheading at the end of Theo's commute, combined with Vincent's eventual passing, deliver a tripartite climax with prickly satisfaction to rival that of any conventional novel. In fact, Olsen's entire construct delivers, its imagination exploding through its constraints. I've rarely experienced so deep a chill in reading that sets such a formal challenge.
Olsen has worked with similar constraints before, as in Nietzsche's Kisses (FC2, 2006), which takes place on the philosopher's last night, and Anxious Pleasures: A Novel after Kafka (Counterpoint, 2007), which provides group therapy for the family of Gregor Samsa after their breadwinner turns into a bug. Before then, Olsen tended to American subjects, toying for instance with cyberpunk, but his brisk European sojourns have opened his sensibility to new power -- he's never done anything so hard-hitting as Head in Flames.
The worst blows, to be sure, are those of Mohammed Bouyeri. From the first, he's in a place where "words don't count," where all that matters is "the weight inside your fist inside your pocket." Bouyeri's transformation into holy warrior holds no great surprises, but Olsen leaves glimmering details in his narrative claw marks. We learn the ethnic slur preferred by the Dutch, a monkey's name, "Makak"; we witness a new version of that lose-lose conflict, a strapped immigrant father versus a son born to the promise of a new land. Yet while Bouyeri's reflections generate sympathy, they don't soft-pedal his viciousness -- in particular, his faith-based misogyny.
What prompts the murder is one of Theo's films in particular, an outcry against the brutalization of Muslim women. To create it, the 21st-century Van Gogh worked with a Somali-born woman who served in the Dutch parliament, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Ali remains one of the foremost spokespersons against Wahhabi Islam, but here the potential heroine is encountered only at a remove, via Theo's memories.
The filmmaker is hardly a saint, a failure as a husband and a frequenter of Amsterdam's red light district. Theo knows himself, however -- "I'm the village idiot" -- and with his acerbic wit and his affection toward his son, he'd be the central consciousness of an ordinary novel. Olsen's sentences often feature marvelous verbs, and the best occur in Theo's passages, such as the man's "belly wubbling in glee" under a whore's ministrations. Then too, Theo provides the most horrifying stuff in the text -- and I don't mean his murder. Worse is his recollection of Ali's recollection of how she was "made pure" as a six-year-old: tied down by fundamentalist aunts and worked over by a butcher's scissors.
Given such material, and the persistent reminders that European tolerance may have invited in a "Trojan horse" of "De-Enlightenment," when "by 2015" more than fifty percent of the continent's population will be Muslim -- given Olsen's insistence on the culture clash that most defines the present -- what's crazy old Vincent doing in there? What's 1890 got to do with it? Yet the painter gives us the book's title, a device he rigged up for night work, a candelabra worn as a hat. Then too, when it came to women Vincent had terrible problems, rooted in his religious training. The most notorious case got bloody.
Such subtle connections underscore how Olsen isn't, in fact, about savagery. Rather, for all his ambition, he's subtle; he teases out the link between the tortured artist, driven to self-slaughter by an "experiment in writing our own lives" outside God's will, and the deluded murderer, who acts in hopes that God will revisit his own degraded "soul in this ragged sheet made of skin." This is no small accomplishment. Head in Flames has set a new standard for the social consciousness of postmodern narrative.