When I was in high school, I read William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury; actually, I ended up reading it twice. If you've not read it, the book is the story of one particularly screwed-up family, the Compsons, and is divided into four sections. It's the first section that's relevant to this review; it's told from the viewpoint of Benjy, a retarded man, and what makes it interesting is the fact that Benjy has no understanding of linear time. Thus, one sentence could describe events that take place in 1898, while the next sentence might leap ahead 30 years, and there are few if any markers to tell them apart. Conjoined with the use of first-person stream of consciousness, it's enough to piss off the Pope. Even now, I think of that book as one of the low points of my readerly experiences, despite my admiration for Faulkner's boundless skill with language and literary technique.
In reading Nietzsche's Kisses, by University of Idaho professor Lance Olsen, I experienced much the same reaction. Ostensibly describing the mental perambulations and reminiscences of Friedrich Nietzsche as he lay dying in his sickbed on a hot August night in 1900, the novel is a veritable stockpile of experimental approaches and literary pyrotechnics that end up convincing the reader more of Olsen's skill as a writer than offering a glimpse into Nietzsche's skull. And Olsen's ability is undeniable. He demonstrates a ferociously keen penchant for creating arresting images on the page, and taken as a whole, the narrative makes a type of sense, in that when I was finished reading, I had a fairly good idea of where I'd been and how I arrived there.
Still, it's the journey that counts, and this journey feels like it was made more of than it had to be. One of the biggest issues was the constant point-of-view shifts; the chapters are alternately told in first-, second- and third-person, and Olsen doesn't always stick with Nietzsche himself. In fact, after skipping merrily across the 50-plus years of Fritz's life, Olsen takes the reader into his sister Lisbeth's head during a visit with Hitler nearly 35 years after Nietzsche's death. After a certain point, readers may find themselves thinking, as I did, "OK, he's not well, he's self-obsessed, I get it already." While the subject matter may not call for subtlety, something experimental fiction isn't suited for anyway, neither does it call for all-out tossing of narrative convention. After the first few chapters, it seemed like the approach was overwhelming the subject matter.
Although I hate to complain about facility with language, which Olsen has in spades, it's that same facility that turned out to be another downfall of the book. Olsen can craft the most fantastic images to describe mundane events, but he rarely stops at one or two when he can jam in five or six, until the glitter and boom of Olsen's firework writing overpowers poor Fritz, mad and wandering through mind and time in his garret. You can have too much of a good thing, and Olsen proves it conclusively with his latest effort.
If, however, you're the kind of person who digs on the avant-garde for its own sake, or linguistic mastery is more important than a cohesive throughline, then Nietzsche's Kisses is a must-read. In fact, even though the overall arc of this book feels like an ambitious miss to this reader, I am unable to just dismiss it. Sometimes the misses are more instructive than the hits, and Olsen's skill and ambition keep Olsen's story afloat far better and far longer than it should.
Lance Olsen will read from Nietzsche's Kisses on March 30 at 7:30 p.m. at the Log Cabin Literary Center, 801 S. Capitol Blvd., 331-8000, www.logcablit.org.
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