The Brain-Melting Microcosm of Stephen-Paul Martin's "The Ace of Lightning"

Originally posted on The Freeform Review.

There’s a story I’m sure we all know. Or, at least, we’ve heard of it. The one about the sandwich that started World War One. A man tries to kill the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. He fails and, naturally, goes to placate himself with a sandwich. The Archduke’s motorcade happens to get lost and pass by that particular sandwich shop. One coincidence and two gunshots later, the world is plunged into war. Regardless of whether it actually happened that way, it’s a good story, isn’t it?

Stories are a powerful thing. They’re capable of shaping our truth. Consider history: it is the sum of the stories we’re taught are most true. Sure, there’s objective truths, but what parts do we remember? What stories do we choose to tell?

The guiding concept behind The Ace of Lightning is a relatively digestible one. It’s a series of short stories intertwined by reference and relationship to Gavrilo Princip, the man behind the sandwich that murdered Franz Ferdinand. However, the execution of this idea is a profound complication of storytelling, truth, and history. Of these three wise subjects, Stephen-Paul Martin is a master. Whatever preconceived notion you have of this book, throw it away. Throw it away right now. 

Stephen-Paul Martin is a prolific writer, to put it succinctly. The Ace of Lightning is only the most recent of nearly twenty other books, including The Gothic Twilight, which was nominated for the National Critics Circle Fiction Award in 1993. He was a co-editor for Central Park, an internationally acclaimed journal of the arts & social commentary, for 16 years, and his writings have appeared in over 200 periodicals over the past 30 years, in several different languages. Currently, he is a professor at San Diego State University.

To explain at least one element of the primordial soup of The Ace of Lightning, let me remind you of a little genre called historiographic metafiction. As returning readers may recall, I wrote an introduction to it elsewhere. Historiographic metafiction describes works of self-referential postmodern literature that experiment with the narrative of history, acknowledging that the written record is not only flawed, but deliciously malleable. I’ll admit, my appreciation of Martin’s epic may be a tinge biased: World War One is one of my favorite subjects. (I’m actually working on a book about it myself). The Ace of Lightning, in some respects, acts as an exploration of all that was missed, questioned, or overlooked by its recorded history.

The narrative pencils in some of the lost moments in the life and times of Mr. Princip. The first story in the collection, “The Real Enemy”, details a conversation that may or may not have occurred between Princip and Danilo Ilic, another of the Black Hand, on the morning of the assassination. The last story, “Sandwiches”, bookends the work with another conversation in Princip’s life, this time at the fateful post-failure sandwich shop, with a woman he didn’t quite sleep with.

But wait, there’s so much more to it. Beyond Gavrilo Princip is a colorful cast of characters, sometimes recurring in other names and bodies and places, embroiled in plots of bizarre coincidences, sci-fi fantasies, and the truly inexplicable. Their stories and his mingle indiscriminately. “Writing Things Down” takes us through a chance meeting at a bustling marketplace between Princip and the Archduke three days before the assassination. They are photographed and the narrative absolutely dissolves.

The moment waits, as if it can’t figure out how to be the next moment, how to be more than a snapshot of itself, a photograph in a studio dark room slowly revealing a fragment of time, a bordered black and white space without sound and motion, later printed and published in a book, which turns up in a thrift shop thousands of miles away, having been translated several times and then gone out of print. It’s covered with dust and you get it for almost nothing. You’re eager to read a book that you’ve been trying to find for years.

When the dizzying image begins to coalesce into a concrete reality again, we are with a woman named Linda and experience a concert by the enigmatic band, “Assassination Sandwich”. In a similar vein, “Extraordinary Subjective States” begins as a description of Princip and Trifko’s insane fits of laughter while sheltering in a barn from the rain during a treacherous gun run across the Bosnian border (something the real life Princip mentioned during his trial). Over the course of a few paragraphs and a time-traveling cellphone, this transitions into Susan from San Diego going on a date with one man, co-opting his house after his disappearance, sleeping with another man from another story, and receiving a package from an inter-dimensional traveler.

This book does not f**k around.

Some of the stories have little to do with Princip’s lifetime at all, though his presence finds a way to creep into every narrative. “Twilight Zone Episode” is a home invasion by a political murderess that turns out to be a title-invoking closed loop of events. “Therapy” is about dead dogs, a glowing brain, and ghost sightings. In “Because of The Wall”, a reality-disrupting wall appears in Central Park. And “More Dangerous” documents a murder prevented by a Steely Dan mixtape (that actually comes up earlier in a completely different story). As you can see, it’s a veritable cornucopia of subject matter.

“Possibly Everything” is perhaps the most technically intriguing of these narratives. It is a single, grammatically correct sentence spanning the length of 15 pages. A paranoid speaker touches on everything from the JFK assassination to Young Bosnia to the theory of conspiracy theories to second-hand accounts of sex on a blanket at a concert. This is only the second story in the book, but its final lines leave us with this perfect primer for the rest:

I need to prepare myself, think about what to say in advance, the details I might need to invent, coming up with a story so compelling that even the most hard-boiled cops would want to keep listening, letting themselves be seduced by a verbal picture, a labyrinth of words they might never emerge from.

Color me seduced. 

Certain signifiers continually crop up throughout these stories, interconnecting them with sign posts indicative of ground perhaps tread before. Among these are blackbirds, the middle finger, a morphing painting of a Dutch landscape, and wax sandwiches with an assassin’s face printed on one side and their victim on the other. If I may propose a more digestible format for understanding just how intensely convoluted this web of mythic symbols is, here is a slightly bonkers chart I’ve concocted of this interconnectivity. By no means is it conclusive in regards to listing all the recurring motifs, but I hope that it at the very least is a better visualization.



Every time one of these symbols pops up in the text, there’s this excitement to it that leaves you feeling both irreverently clever and totally humbled with awe. Martin’s writing is weaves a tight narrative with no room for error or escape. It’s quick. It’s sharp. It doesn’t wait for you to catch up to it. It’s dizzying with the constriction of air and, much like in erotic asphyxiation, you’re turned on and you want more.

Flitting endlessly from the microcosm to the macrocosm, The Ace of Lightning questions the validity of storytelling. Constantly, the book is establishing truths, then irreverently breaking them. It shows us one version of events, then traipses behind the curtain and shows us the other. Its characters do this, its history does this, its story does this. Martin asks what is more important: the objective truth, or how satisfying the lie is?

I couldn't tell you how many times I have repeated that story of the sandwich that killed dear Ferdinand, presenting it as factual truth. All anecdotes are evidence. All evidence is perspective. And some things, my friends, are absolutely incomprehensible. This book? It revels in what lies between. 


Exploring Lance Olsen's Labyrinth With Dreamlives of Debris

Originally posted on The Freeform Review.

Over the past few years, literature at large has experienced a resurgence in stories reworking mythology. Particularly when it comes to Greek myth, such work tends to fall into one of a few categories: lush fantastical romancitizations, action-packed teen-marketed adventures, or modern variations of the same old classics. Consider The Song of Achilles, or the entire Percy Jackson series, for recent examples.

Dreamlives of Debris, however, is none of those things.

Published just earlier this year, Dreamlives of Debris is the latest of author Lance Olsen’s 13 novels. Olsen has received multiple awards for his work, including a Pushcart and the Berlin Prize. His novel Tonguing the Zeitgeist was a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award. Olsen has been called "the father of innovative literature" and was formerly the Writer-in-Residence of Idaho. Currently, he teaches experimental narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah, though he has taught all around the world. I recently had the honor of interviewing him. The intellect and creativity of the man is awespiring, and that really shines in Dreamlives.

It’s difficult to pin down in any brevity what Dreamlives is about. At the most basic level of explanation, it is a retelling of the Minotaur myth as narrated by Debris, a representation of the minotaur herself. Olsen seems to purposefully obscure the exact nature of Debris. She is described equally as literally monstrous and in more human terms, as in the foreword by Lidia Yuknavitch, where she is “a beautiful, disfigured little girl”. Debris behaves, though seemingly not of her own volition, as a conduit for all the debris of history, manifested as a multitude of voices interrupting and overwhelming her thoughts and speech.

These voices she calls “screamings” speak both to her and through her in an orchestrated cacophony of stimuli and information, a representation of our own postmodern state of data overload. Olsen crafts an insane spiral of recursion. Every connection feels like a discovery. The references are infinitely vast and perform as a web, playing masterfully off one another and the core fiction of the narrative. They vary from to Sir Arthur Evans and Saint Thomas Aquinas, to Michel Foucault and Denis Diderot, to Stuxnet and Julian Assange. I attempted to track my discoveries and build a map of Olsen’s masterfully cartographed architecture, but I could spend years studying only this book and still not grasp on all the references in it. I did manage to scrounge a few up from their sources. “Journey-From-Ass-To-Soul Song,” for example, quotes an article about a Berlin nightclub. “Professor Anne P. Chapin Song,” I suspect is taken from Professor Chapin's piece on Minoan frescoes in The Oxford Handbook of the Bronze Age: Aegean. One that particularly stood out to me was the “I Love You Song”, a reference to the ILOVEYOU computer virus that spread in the early 2000s. The first mention describes the spread of the literal virus as a consequence of human sentimentality, “because millions of people one day innocently opened our email attachment labeled I love you”. A subsequent entry conflates the computer virus to the advent of the AIDS virus into a global pandemic, painting the image of its inception as “one evening a muscular black teen in Kinshasa innocently [slipping] a forkful of infected chimpanzee meat between his lips”. It’s powerful stuff. I do not encourage any reader of this book to take upon themselves the task of dissection unless they are as obsessive as I or Olsen. I'm certain this degree of obsession is what Olsen was criticizing with Deamlives’ commentary on the overwhelming state of information.

On a far less philosophical note, seeing Slavoj Zizek get some airtime gave me a laugh. I’m fairly certain the included fragment of commentary on Kubrick’s The Shining was pulled directly from The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, one of my favorite films and one that I would say is about as bizarrely metaphysical as Dreamlives is. However, I cannot say if my assessment is correct, as Olsen has himself admitted that some of the quotations are pure invention. I discovered this myself while researching the book. With the intentional blending of truths and half-truths across the web of history, Dreamlives traipses along the concept of historiographic metafiction. If you’d like to read a little more about that, check out my article about the history of the genre.

There are really two sides to this narrative. There is Debris and her voices, but then there is also the web of mythic heroes — dare I call them heroes? — of the Minotaur myth and its related web of stories. Theseus, Deadalus, Pasiphae, Apis the Healer, Lady Tiresias, Araidne, and many others are all given life and character full of human complexities through Debris’ exposition and their own interruptions of her narration. Debris says at one point that, “what I am telling you, I want to say, is a love story”. In a way, it is. Dreamlives beautifully explores the ugly complications of all the different forms of love. It does not shy from the painful realities typically overlooked by myths in their original tellings. Jealous Deadalus “claps Perdix between the shoulder blades affectionately, then not,” killing him for fear of his pupil's fame overshadowing his own. Debris' mother, Pasiphae, facilitates the rape of her monstrous daughter by Apis the Healer, Debris saying of this that it is “about how deeply family members can care for one another”. And, depending on which narrative thread you believe, Ariadne is either sexually used by Theseus or comes upon “Dionysus on his knees, fingers grabbing under Theseus”, both resulting in her death. These otherwise mythic characters are transmuted into reality out of concept by the unflinching exhibition of their human darkness. 

Perhaps the most curious quality of the book as a whole is its structure. Dreamlives in itself is a labyrinth, featuring no page numbers by which one can orient themselves. Pages are arranged with only a single “:::: Voice” speaking, or multiple all at once. No two pages look truly alike, though the visual coherency flows beautifully. Occasionally within the landscape, a purposeful moment of formatting insanity will present itself. “Catastrophe Chorus”, for a dramatic example, features disjointed phrases scattered physically across the page, as though all the text save for a few select words has been censored out. The liquid architecture of the text speaks to the physicality of the labyrinth, as  “sometimes the walls become a whirlwind of hands or dying alphabets”. It is a lyrical, philosophical experiment in construction that echoes the fluidity of the language and the narrative itself. 

Dreamlives of Debris is an exercise in literature, intent to engage all parts of your thinking. It is impossible to read this book with any lethargy. Exploration is encouraged by the very form of it, opening up limitless possibilities of interpretations spiraling around the concepts of truth, data, and infinite relationships. I encourage readers seeking to engage deeply with the metaphysics of their reading and get lost in this labyrinth.

Currently, Olsen is working on a new book, an interconnected web of short stories about Berlin and its people in the unusual, ephemeral period between the close of WWI and the fall of the Weimar Republic. You can keep up with him on his website.