Book Review: A Brilliantly Phantasmagorical “Calendar of Regrets”

A novel of echoes, reflections (sometimes inverted), and criss-crossing lines, Lance Olsen’s Calendar of Regrets locates nodes of intersection, spotlights the forgotten, and magnifies the unnoticed.

Calendar of Regrets by Lance Olsen. Fiction Collective, 456 pages, $22.

By Vincent Czyz

Lance Olsen’s Calendar of Regrets had me from the opening scene: a vividly imagined and breathtakingly original evocation of Hieronymus Bosch—you know, the 15th- century Dutchman who painted those horrifying, mesmerizing, surreal panoramas of Hell, the Last Judgment, and other equally uplifting subjects. Written in perhaps 10 distinct voices, each admirably mastered by Olsen, Calendar interweaves 12 narrative strands corresponding to the months of the year. It is a novel of travel and staying put, memory and forgetting, time and the ill-fated, and, yes, of regret.

“[M]ovement,” Bosch opines, “is nothing more than a forgetting, foreign landscapes forms of amnesia, journeying a process of unstudying. One must learn to say put in order to see. Become a place. A precise address. Lot’s wife, that salty pillar.” The painter’s assertion might seem sage, but it’s counterbalanced by the observation of an American novelist who disappears somewhere in Burma and muses on “How travel is an exercise in imagining the unimaginable. How every journey has a secret destination of which the traveler is always unaware.” Bosch is outright contradicted by a mother of two who’s been anchored most of her life to a New Jersey suburb and is infatuated with the “exhilaration that you are somewhere special, somewhere very far away from those gingerbread houses and cookouts in River Edge. It comes to you that you have used up so much of your life in one place when there are so many places to experience. It’s so easy to let one day resemble another.”

An angel in search of death, stranded on Earth because she has purposely torn a wing, perhaps holds the key to understanding the dichotomies intimated here; heaven, whence she has fallen, is a static place: there “every verb is a noun,” while on Earth “everything became a verb . . . a curio, a curiosity, a carnival.” (And let us recall the root of carnival is carne—flesh). Her perspective is backed up rather subtly by the nurse of Agamemnon’s legendary daughter Iphigenia, who whispers, “The universe loves to happen.”

Ship of Fools, Hieronymus Bosch

The idea is reinforced rather spectacularly by the novel’s sideshow chapters, which feature The Man with Borrowed Organs, an ingenious invention of Olsen’s. Each of the body parts comes with a tale of origin—a way of illustrating that every object is also an event, a story waiting to be told, that every thing is a climax of verbs. In addition to being narratives of a sort, the loaned-out organs also house narratives. The intestines, for example, “marks the place in the human anatomy . . . where the testicles write their tales in runic-like scars. [. . .] Sadly the scars evaporate upon contact with air, while remaining invisible to x-ray, computer tomography, and similar methods of medical imaging. So what they say must, lamentably, always remain a riddle.” In this scheme Bosch has entered heaven prematurely. Reviling his body (as only the most fanatical Christians can), he has entombed himself in a single room, lives among objects and nouns, and reduced himself to as few verbs as possible: eat, sleep, breathe, paint.

The internal monologue of a Midwestern school teacher gives us a glimpse into memory, another of Olsen’s preoccupations: “I can remember the year we [she and a high school friend] were best buddies more vividly than what I did yesterday . . . there was a certain density to our high-school years, wasn’t there, a certain extension in time and space, you could say, with which last Thursday can’t begin to compare, it feels as if we’ve been half asleep for most of our lives, everything gray and gritty, while back then, before this librarian or that internist, we really were awake . . .”

It would seem we are doomed to forget, and that everything we might hope to remember is on its hapless way to oblivion if it hasn’t already achieved nonexistence—except that in this novel things persist, they resurface, they are salvaged even if in some other form (can Iphigenia really be utterly lost to us if we are still reading Homer?). Our stranded angel, podcasts from a Salton Sea pirate station, obscure crimes, randomly mailed VCR cassettes made by our lonely school teacher, and the journal of the American novelist in Burma are all out there still; like souls in Hindu philosophy they are still circulating, still being recycled.

The various scenes, which randomly skip centuries and years like a flat stone zipping over the surface of a pond, are connected by a reiterated name (Aleyt, the name of Bosch’s wife, is also the name of a school mate in another chapter), by a common event (a crime mentioned on the Salton Sea podcast is elaborated upon by the psychotic who committed it), or a character who spans more than one scene. Another delicate bridge between scenes is constructed of the sentence fragment that concludes one chapter only to become the starting point of another (alluded to in this detail of the psychotic’s delusion: “You call it The Big Bang. We call it The Catastrophe. You see it as a beginning. We see it as an ending.”)

Novelist Lance Olsen — Our guide to the illuminated manuscript of existence.

No discussion of Olsen’s “gigantic closet composed of smaller ones,” these narratives within narratives, can ignore the tragedy that arcs through the book virtually from beginning to end. Good intentions, political correctness, intelligence, moral probity, innocence—none of these attributes protects anyone from nightmarish suffering or death. The stunningly reimagined sacrifice of Iphigenia, the grisly handiwork of two Christian suicide bombers, a family roasted alive (two actually), and a kidnapping are among the horrors we encounter.

The point being, perhaps, there are no guarantees, and that is the toll exacted by this universe: its wonders and beauties are counterweighted by the thousand shocks flesh is heir to, just as memory is offset by forgetting, just as the transparent skin of The Man with Borrowed Organs, which is slightly too small and makes bending his arms and legs impossible, “edifies on a continuous basis about how each of us is imprisoned within himself while at the same time open to public scrutiny of the most severe kind.” In other words the swords in Calendar are forged after the same pattern as those of the cosmos itself: they are all double-edged.

While the book has its flaws—it can feel disjointed at times, some of the threads are so loose you may have trouble remembering where you first came across them, characters don’t stick around long enough to fully gestate in the reader—it’s an ambitious work that, judged sentence for sentence or on its sheer inventiveness, far outstrips better-publicized works, such as Nicole Krauss’s 2010 National Book Award finalist.

A novel of echoes, reflections (sometimes inverted), and criss-crossing lines, Calendar of Regrets locates nodes of intersection, spotlights the forgotten, and magnifies the unnoticed until we find that there in the first scene, Bosch was on the money: “Look closely: everything is webbed with everything, existence an illuminated manuscript you walk through.”

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