You, Imagined

Identifying with the liars in Lance Olsen's new novel.


by Lance Olsen (Fiction Collective Two, $13.95)

I SUPPOSE I WAS in the fourth or fifth grade when I realized that the distinction between good books and great ones is that the truly great ones occupy me. The great books, the great characters, affect me the way new best friends do; I pick up their speech patterns and use their phrases, their peculiar words. The great books have characters so perfectly drawn that I can practically see them, and what I cannot clearly visualize, I piece together; I look for them on street corners and on city buses. Suddenly the protagonist's father cuts in line in front of me at the grocery store. "Yes, that's him," I think to myself. "I'm almost positive." In this way, great books invade me.

As an 11-year-old, the books that affected me this way were simple. They were plainly stated stories of girls more or less like me: Anne of Green Gables, that sort of thing. But as an adult, I have found that the books that occupy my life most immediately and thoroughly are those that seem purloined directly from dreams. They are imagination spilt onto paper. They are classified as experimental, avant-pop, alternative, "other." They are, for example, Lance Olsen's Girl Imagined by Chance.

Written in the second person ("You do not hold back on the mayonnaise. You slather it on as wet cement on a brick") in strange, short, staccato paragraphs, Girl is as plain as it is poetic, as oblique as it is direct. In the book, a young, professional couple—or, as it were, you and your wife Andi—flee the concrete sprawl of suburban New Jersey on a whim and end up in rural Idaho. In an equally spur-of-the-moment attempt to appease an aging grandmother who wishes for nothing but your swift return, a pregnancy is invented, and when the lie is left unchecked, a child. Pretty soon you need evidence, some kind of proof.

Your accomplice, Andi, is a photographer who makes great use of the drastic lifestyle change to find her voice, her creative eye. She cuts, pastes, and collages to create fictional pictures of her pregnancy and the child. You send these pictures back East to the concrete sprawl. Soon everyone you know, your family and even your old friends, the ones you don't even like, the ones whose dinner parties you are not missing, are implicated in the lie. Crude black-and-white renderings of these photographs preface each chapter so that the reader sees what the aging, appeased grandmother and your almost-forgotten "friends" see. This is how Olsen pushes the story along. As the lie develops, so do the photographs, so does Andi's visual voice, so does the plot, and so do you.

SOMEHOW, NEITHER the untruth, the visual element, the unusual point of view, nor any of Olsen's other lyrical and narratives idiosyncrasies come off as a gimmick. Olsen's wry, sensitive story feels overwhelmingly true. It's not like you—the real you—actually believe that Olsen is talking about you when you read, "You keep changing dreams," but you are as close to that person as you can possibly be, given the printed material between the two of you. There is understanding there. The real you understands the necessary scurry from suburbia, the huge impulsive white lie, the well-intended white liars. After all, you are a modern-age misfit, too, aren't you?

As the story progresses, as Andi focuses her sight, you support her, you research the phony pregnancy, you paint the new guest room, you telecommute, and when you become too distant for even that association with your native New Jersey, you impulsively quit. You are unemployed. You are an unemployed liar in rural Idaho. Your thoughts, while mostly centered on the isolationist world you have created, are erratic and unorganized, but you—the real you—feel them without seam. Do you see? You, both of you, have strong contextual ties to the crossroads of certain technological, artistic, and social phenomena: You ruminate on Radiohead, the origin of town names, childhood memories, modern technology, gestation periods, photography terms. You are always gathering knowledge. You are using it to make a better you. You are increasingly aware of your propensity to change, and, in fact, you cannot resist it.

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