Calamity and Space in Erica Olsen's Debut Story Collection

Representation of the American West in popular culture has often been identified by a certain economy of means. John Wayne’s taciturn masculinity is echoed by the wordless romance between two cowboys in Brokeback Mountain; Doris Day’s Calamity Jane speaks in monosyllables and has trouble articulating her feelings, even in Hollywood song. Feelings, in general, are secret, implied, under the surface, displaced onto the natural beauty of the country itself or at least onto the physical bodies of characters, towns, counties. Names, in general, are overdetermined, suggestive, romantic: Death Valley, Kodachrome Basin, Recapture Reservoir. The latter place lends its name to a new collection of stories by Four Corners area writer Erica Olsen. These stories of the West are full of silence, of pauses to allow the physical presence of the countryside to speak the unspoken. Often in this case, that unspoken meaning displays an acute and incisive awareness of the very tradition of its existence, and a playful willingness to reshape its traditional uses. Characters themselves either consciously or unconsciously romanticize silence or vastness. They understand it, or wonder why they do not. “The Curation of Silence,” one of the collection’s most memorable pieces,  reads like a pithy summation of the entire aesthetic mechanism of the genre, and the story itself turns out to describe the practice literally: the collection of historical silences in old jars, scraping them carefully off potsherds, preserving them in Tupperware with labels. Moab, Utah, 1782. Crested Butte, 1851. Places, names, the spaces between them.

Within these spaces, Olsen’s characters return their focus to concerns of the body and of sexuality.  Olsen has figured out what exists at the core of the sexual power of the taciturn cowboy, and she deploys it repeatedly and effectively. These are sexy stories that are never explicit, knowing exactly which details are necessary for their effect and describing no more. In “Persuasion,” a gruff and distant park ranger meets the girl in charge of the bookmobile that drives through his remote corner of Utah. Their conversations revolve entirely around the ranger’s reluctance to borrow a copy of Persuasion by Jane Austen. Olsen relates the story through her precise and measured description of specific details: how the ranger notices certain things about the fabric of the girl’s skirt, how willing she is to talk to him, how the slightest of smiles or the ease of a joke By the time he finally consents to borrow the book, something entirely other has transpired between the two of them. It does not need to be explicitly stated. This sort of implication is Olsen’s greatest strength here, and it makes her stories uniformly compelling.

Recapture’s repeated game of silence, vastness, and minuteness is complemented by Olsen’s repeated description of the lives of academics and other people invested in the preservation of Western heritage – professors, research assistants, law enforcement, park rangers. The history of the region, the cliff dwellings, the Anasazi and the Basketweavers ripples through these stories and inserts a melancholy backdrop. While all of the United States is colonized land, the West bears its scars closer to the surface, where artifacts pop up in remote caves when it rains and major historical sites appear suddenly at turns in mountain trails. The interaction between modern people and ancient artifacts – baskets, bowls, fragments of pottery – is a major device in the book, and it allows Olsen to emphasize the bloody history of the region and its subtle consequences.

Sometimes, like with the sherds in “The Curation of Silence,” these artifacts are cataloged, treated as mere objects, or are invested with exchange value only. But most affecting are the moments where that monetary/historical value is revealed to mask or distort something deeply personal within the characters themselves. Olsen’s reticence and discretion with exposition and background information amplify this effect. In “Driveaway,” a man hard up for money enlists a friend to help him dig up an ancient burial and sell the artifacts they find. Coincidentally, the friend is the brother of the man’s ex-wife, and when they stop at her house to pick up shovels and her teenage son who will help with the digging, the ex-couple exchange a few words. Out at the burial site, they strike pay dirt: several intact baskets and a mummified infant wrapped in a miraculously-preserved blanket. It’s worth a lot of money, but our protagonist is not overjoyed – he holds the mummified baby and refuses to give up the blanket. The other two men take it from him forcefully. The narrator finally confesses:

 Could I have done something different, and if so, what? In almost any    situation, that’s always been my question. Everyone had said it was an accident. Even Lynne said so. But I was the one watching the baby. And later, whenever I thought about it – the couch, the cushions, the small, lifeless body – the thought that went through my mind was, how    could anybody be sure?

 At the end of the story, the man does not ride back to California with his co-conspirators. The entire lead-up, the short conversation with the ex-wife, the very presence of the teenage son, is completely re-contextualized by the above three sentences.  The protagonist’s horrifying personal past, in turn, causes (or at least enables) him to reflect on the parallel horrifying past of the entire countryside: “We killed the Indians,” he says earlier on, “and now we’re desecrating their graves.”

In the end, everything comes back to this countryside; it frames and sets up all the events in the book. But the land itself is also framed, also placed in context by an important and poignant observation: the wilds of the plains and the Rockies are disappearing. Not only are increased tourism rates wearing out mountain trails, burying artifacts and causing erosion and pollution, the idea of the West itself, of unspoiled wilderness, is  under threat from encroaching commercial interests. Olsen frames her whole collection through this lens by placing the book’s second-shortest and most unconventional story, “Grand Canyon II,” first. Its title is literal: the Grand Canyon has become too eroded, too endangered, to remain a tourist location. It needs to be fenced off and allowed to recuperate. But this is an economically and culturally untenable situation for the state of Nevada, and by extension, for the entire idea of the West itself. The story veers into science fiction: the canyon is scanned, contoured, and printed in 3D a hundred miles from the original in the desert. Certain compromises are made: dimensions shrunk, the illusion of  depth exaggerated. But the story’s protagonist still can’t tell the difference, is still in awe of nature’s majesty even though the instance of it in front of her is a simulacrum.

It is implied that the majesty of the West is in danger of becoming a simulation of itself, over-glossed, overviewed, commodified. But is is also suggested that this majesty has always been mythical, that there was always a part of it that existed mostly in peoples’ minds and in travel guides. Ultimately, Recapture is about this mythical West, its complex narratives, and the ways in which they subtly color the daily lives of everyone who comes in contact with it. It is a huge story, and Olsen tells it well.

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One comment

  1. ゴローズ タタキ

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