Imagine, Iphi said, how that scene doesn’t happen once. How it is happening right now, but also a thousand years ago and next week and next year and forty billion years after that.
Forever and ever without end.
—Calendar of Regrets, January
In November 1901, at the mental hospital where he worked, Dr. Alois Alzheimer met a patient on his rounds named Auguste D., though she seldom remembered her name as such. Auguste D. was 51 years old, and she would become the first patient diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. In his interviews with Auguste D., Alzheimer uncovered a displaced psyche:
Auguste D.: “I have, so to speak, lost myself.”
Alzheimer: “Where are you?”
Auguste D.: “Here and everywhere—here and now—you mustn’t take offense.”
[Alzheimer: The Life of a Physician & The Career of a Disease, Maurer and Maurer]
Here is a woman who doesn’t know who she is in relation to the world, someone who has simultaneously lost herself and found herself everywhere, has become both corporeal rust and particulate dust.
We [read: society, read: artists] regard Auguste D.’s mental state with relative terror. She’s relegated to the realm of old, crazy people sequestered to wards that smell like vomit and bleach, folks who no longer matter. She’s the poster child for the hospitalized and sanitized. A symbol of deterioration and loss.
In his new book, Calendar of Regrets, Lance Olsen is speaking the language of forgetting. He seems to ask, just what about any life—or any death—is different from Auguste D.’s sense-displacement? Don’t let me confuse you. Calendar of Regrets is not about Alzheimer’s disease, though Auguste D. would have been the perfect addition to Olsen’s wild cast of characters.
Calendar of Regrets is flanked by the mind-meanderings of the painter Hieronymus Bosch in the hours after he’s been (ostensibly) poisoned and leaks into the 1986 attack on Dan Rather in which his assailant asked, “Kenneth, What’s the Frequency?” This book steps inside the heads of mythological figures, radical Christian terrorists, a pirate radio station host broadcasting from the Salton Sea, a vacationing family hijacked by a pretty girl with a bomb in her bag, a backpacker in southeast Asia, a teacher who has lost herself amidst the chatter of teenagers, a time-space traveler, a man born as a notebook, a body made up of borrowed organs, a fallen angel whose presence folds time into a loop for two little boys.
In the big-picture narrative, Olsen’s characters have been temporarily—temporally—displaced, all lost, “here and everywhere—here and now,” and they’re connected chapter to chapter (and month to month on a 12-month calendar) by thought-events across space and time. One chapter ends and the next story picks up its sentence fragment to begin anew, and then the stories fold back on themselves until we end up back where we started. Sometimes the connections between stories are tenuous, but I’m willing to follow because, after all, isn’t that how memory works?
In the book’s first chapter, as he lies prostrate on the floor looking up at his half-painted canvasses, Hieronymus Bosch ruminates,
Sail nowhere save among the continents of your own soul, and, when your body at long last gives up its war upon you, sloughs away, returning you to infancy, the final hinged panel of the polyptych called yourself having been reached and rushed beyond, leave the useless remains behind on the wicked midden heap it is.
The inherent problem with Bosch’s edict is that, in Olsen’s world, none of its characters can locate their souls. They’re all floating above their own bodies, all hacked apart and re-rendered into Frankensteins of the mind. Take Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s daughter, caught between the dueling stories of her existence. In one story is sacrifice to Artemis on the altar of her supposed marriage to Achilles. In another, the last-minute divine substitution of a deer. In Olsen’s hands, every possibility in between from a murdered pet cheetah to disappointing, sloppy sex with Achilles.
Echoes reverberate with cross-references and sounds and names. Characters related by blood, through experience, by action. Regrets: a man walks away from his wife, leaving her to die the death they planned together. Possible futures and likely pasts, miscommunications, mirrors, bodies colliding in space, speechless bodies, sick bodies, dead bodies.
All of it radiates from the center of the book where a carnival barker explains the intestines of The Man with Borrowed Organs as a Calendar of Regrets, “the place in the human anatomy…where the testicles write their tales in runic-like scars.” When the writing on the intestines is exposed to air (when a body is cut open and examined), all the stories diffuse into nothing. Notwithstanding the lack of feminine identity here (and my vague unease with some of Olsen’s female characters in general), I’m completely sold on the narrative of body-as-memory device, uncoded DNA memory, history locked up in flesh and bone. You could almost rewrite Aristotle’s “for the activity of the mind is life” to read “for the activity of the mind is body.”
And maybe Olsen would agree that we’re all in the same boat sailing toward unselfhood on bodies that have no choice but to forget. The inner lives of most of the characters in this book are distinct and distinctly questioning, as are their beautifully told stories, but as one of Calendar’s epigraphs reads, “Once upon a time I was someone then that stopped” (Laird Hunt), each narrative does a balancing act along the threshold world of being-and-not.
I hate that we’re all forgetting ad infinitum, but Calendar of Regrets makes me believe that we’re concurrently remembering, too, even when the continuum of memory is inexorably tinged with regret. In the end, Hieronymus Bosch searches his body for proof that “Bosch is still Bosch,” and in this corporeal-memory, situated inside the hive of human regret, he finds that “[t]his is why God created a charity named forgetting.”