view_column Twenty Digressions Toward the Californication of History

by Lance Olsen

Published in Issue No. 109 ~ June, 2006
  1. Back in Nam, I was one of those guys they called the Tunnel Rats – the ones small
    and thin enough to shinny down the camouflaged holes in the Cu Chi jungle and
    crawl on their bellies through the marshy-hot burrows twisting in near faultless
    darkness in a seventy-five-mile-long maze, rattle and pop of automatic fire above
    them, millipedes skittering over their arms.

    One June morning in 1970, I took a deep breath, clicked off the safety on my .45,
    and dropped down to find smack in front of me this ungodly

    No. Wait.

    Or was that the History Channel?

  2. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the Red Hot Chili Peppers about
    Californication: Space may be the final frontier/ But it’s made in a Hollywood

  3. What I mean to say is that, despite frequent claims to the contrary, innovative
    fiction is neither necessarily ahistorical nor dehistoricized. Rather, it continually
    questions our culture’s suppositions about what constitutes historical knowledge,
    embracing the counter-intuitive recognition that texts are simultaneously self-conscious
    linguistic and formal systems shut off from the world and active participants
    in larger sociopolitical contexts.

  4. Once upon a time, Linda Hutcheon about postmodern fiction: It knows it cannot
    escape implication in the economic (late capitalist) and ideological (liberal
    humanist) dominants of the time. There is no outside. All it can do is question
    from within. It can only problematize what Barthes has called the “given” or “what
    goes without saying” in our culture. History, the individual self, the relation
    of language to its referents and of texts to other texts–these are some of the
    notions which, at various moments, have appeared as “natural” or unproblematically
    common-sensical. And these are what get interrogated (xiii).

  5. In the good old days, of course, we had heard all this stuff before. That’s
    no longer the case. Take memoir. Someone somewhere (let us assume it was John
    Barth) once made or should have made the illuminating distinction between Boring
    Writing, on the one hand, and Boring Writing, on the other. The first adjective
    refers to compositions that are unselfconscious, predictable, tiresome, dull,
    formulaic; the second to compositions that bore: excavate, perturb, trouble, crawl
    on their bellies through twisting textual and experiential burrows precisely like
    I didn’t in Vietnam. Much memoir falls within the first class, believing or wanting
    to appear to believe that the genre is something other than it is–namely, truthful,
    accurate, insightful, self-aware. But memoir, a form of consoling narcissitic
    historical writing, finds its being, as do all forms of historical writing, as
    a subcategory of fiction–a special-case subcategory, yet a subcategory nonetheless.
    Although there are remarkable exceptions (David Shields, Shelley Jackson, W. G.
    Sebald), the memoir usually seems to want to demand for itself a privileged status
    with regard to evidence, personhood, and past. That is to say, it tends to behave
    as if it were oblivious of the theoretical implications and complications extant
    in its own genetic construction–how, for example, as Hayden White hypothesized
    in his examination of nineteenth-century historiography, the version of the past
    one chooses depends as much if not more so on moral and aesthetic values (and,
    I should add, the accidents called memory and sociopolitical circumstance) as
    it does on such notions as “fact” and “truth.” That’s why the memoirist often
    reminds me of the television journalist leaning into blustery rain on a gray beach,
    hair whipping, jacket a giant mad blue bat flapping around him, Hurricane Katrina
    bearing down, shouting at the top of his lungs into his microphone: Boy, it sure
    is windy out here.

  6. David Mitchell about the memoir’s spirit: The act of memory is an act of ghostwriting

  7. I am thinking of the ten stories in Guy Davenport’s Da Vinci’s Bicycle
    exploring the lives of Erza Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Richard Nixon, among others–all
    inventors of a sort out of step with their times, all when seen through Davenport’s
    sensibility more excuses for the flash of stunning language and structural suggestive
    indirectness than Freudian character and Freytagian plot.

  8. Or R. M. Berry’s Leonardo’s Horse, which engineers a double helix plotline,
    one about the tag end of the Leonardo’s botched life, and one about R–, an historian
    stuck in an L.A. traffic jam caused by an AIDS demonstration. R–’s master-project,
    a study of Leonardo, has, like so many of Leonardo’s undertakings, come to nothing,
    replaced by the novel he is writing on the subject, the one we are reading, that
    investigates history as unknowable fiction, fiction as unknowable history, the
    chronicles we must tell ourselves both as individuals and cultures to keep on
    keeping on.

  9. Formerly. Previously. Time was. Time out of mind. Earlier. Hitherto. Heretofore.
    Yesterday. In the days of yore. I was born in 1632, in the city of York, of a
    good family. Where now? Who now? When now? In the beginning. In the beginning,
    sometimes I used to leave messages in the street. I want to say I may have seen
    my son die this morning.

  10. Dr. David Mitchell’s magnificent third novel, Cloud Atlas, comprised
    of eleven novella-length segments. Each of the first five tells a different story
    that breaks off at a pivotal point (once in mid-sentence). The sixth is self-contained.
    The first five are then continued and resolved, although in reverse order, so
    the book concludes inside the tale with which it began. Varying radically in tone,
    pacing, and content, each segment nonetheless dovetails in surprising ways with
    the others, revealing numerous harmonies, echoes, variations, metafictional winks.
    The initial one takes the form of a Melvillean journal by a devout American notary
    documenting his adventures in the South Pacific in the 1850s. Next comes a collection
    of letters by a young conniving British composer serving as amanuensis for a curmudgeonly
    has-been in Belgium in the 1930s. The third is a kitschy thriller about a journalist
    investigating a murderous conspiracy involving an unsafe nuclear plant in California
    in the 1970s. The fourth, about a vanity-press publisher locked away in a nursing
    home against his will in present-day England, is a Nabokovian send-up of pseudo-literary
    memoirs. The fifth jumps forward into a sterile Orwellian future, adopting the
    conventions of a slave narrative concerning a Korean clone’s insurgency against
    the ruling “corpocracy” which, in the final tale, collapses centuries later into
    an anarchic eco-nightmare described over a campfire by a tribal elder in a patois
    reminiscent in equal parts of A Clock Orange and Huck Finn. The only constant
    throughout is a Nietzschean will to power at the individual and cultural strata.
    In the end, Cloud Atlas thereby becomes a narrative about the willful act
    of narration, the ability of storytelling to shape our sense of identity and history,
    about how pastness is composed and decomposed, by whom, and for what purposes.

  11. I am thinking of my new novel, Nietzsche’s Kisses, about Fritz’s last
    insane night on earth in August 1900, how the book endeavors to find its form
    in the philosopher’s cleaving consciousness as he endeavors to recollect his history
    on his deathbed. The novel’s structure mimics a backbroke Zarathustra in that
    there are four musical movements. Each is made up of three sub-sections: one told
    in first person, one in second, one in third. The first-person sub-sections mimic
    Nietzsche’s real-time attempts at thought when thought is no longer possible;
    the second-person one’s his rambling fever dreams; the third-person his flagging
    stabs at narrativizing a life that has become as much hallucination as information.
    What drew me to him was Nietzsche’s vigorously contrarian mind, the brutally brilliant
    way he had of boring into a culture’s suppositions to test them, navigate the
    tunnels of social assumption to their minotaur moments. While I set out to learn
    what it felt like as that mind slowly unspooled, I actually discovered how historical
    fiction is an exercise in connecting imaginary time dots, a re-viewing of what
    may never have been, a revealing of the narrativity involved in creating the only
    sort of yesterday any of us can create: a staticky simulation.

  12. What I mean to say is that postmodern historical fiction announces pastness
    as a story continually being rethought, re-visioned, rewritten.

  13. That one can only write a past that wasn’t the past, much the same way that
    one can only write fictive presents that are constantly only about their absences.

  14. That the objective of mimetic fiction is failing to write about the present,
    again and again.

  15. That in as much as science fiction represents a sub-category of the
    alternate-universe narrative, it represents a subcategory of the alternate-history.

  16. That in SF the future serves, not as future, but as an extended metaphor for
    the present. The past has much the same function in postmodern historical fiction.

  17. What SF teaches us, not what the future will be like, but how the future will
    permanently remain unknowable. Historical fiction executes a similar function
    with respect to history and memory.

  18. That the choices we make as writers among forms of historical representation
    gesture toward the choices we make as humans among forms of possible futures.
    That is, historical fiction teaches us how different the world has been and by
    implication how different the world can be. It serves as a reminding that authoring
    yesterday rhymes with authoring tomorrow.

  19. Both authorings entail a process of exclusion. The line between now and then
    is an artificial one. All historians, all writers, are historical beings, yet
    many forget to historicize themselves, forget how history shapes their crafting
    of history.

  20. The Discovery Channel. The Hollywood basement. The postmodern page, where
    everything is always-already something else.


  • Berry, R. M. Leonardo’s Horse. Normal, IL: FC2, 1997.
  • Davenport, Guy. Da Vinci’s Bicycle. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1979.
  • Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York:
    Routledge, 1988.
  • Mitchell, David. Ghostwritten. New York: Vintage, 1999.
  • ——————-. Cloud Atlas. New York: Random House, 2004.
  • Red Hot Chili Peppers – “Californication“. Released June 1999.
  • White, Hayden. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe.
    Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1975.

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Lance Olsen is the author of 17 books of and about innovative fiction, including, most recently, the novel Nietsche's Kisses and the hyperfiction 10:01. His short stories and, essays, reviews, and poetry have appeared in a wide variety of journals and anthologies, and he currently serves as chair of the board of directors at fiction Collective Two.