Skin Elegies

Reviewed by Honor Chotkowski

Skin Elegies by Lance Olsen, Dzanc Books, Ann Arbor, MI, 248 pages, $16.95

A riveting exploration that coils preeminent events to humanity’s consequent future, Lance Olsen’s Skin Elegies illustrates uncoincidental links between the past that have ushered and altered life itself.

Curiously independent yet still linked one another, the nine stories within Skin Elegies represent their respective pasts while communicating with the other stories in an innovative and imaginative way. The story of May 1945 seamlessly harmonizes with August 1974, and April 1999 relates to June 2015.

Olsen conveys his complex and thought-provoking narrative through an aesthetically unique format. Traditional prose poetry and poetic layouts are transformed in Skin Elegies to illustrate the captivating reliance that each story has with the others. Much like the events within the novel, readers can expect to be surprised and intrigued with every turn of the page.

Each of the respective stories within Skin Elegies is individually characterized through distinctive visual and written mannerisms, specified time periods, and varying conflicts. Although each story has a representative character or characters, each of the nine stories simultaneously become a character of their own. Olsen utilizes ten different points of views throughout the novel, experimenting and exemplifying the way history unfolds in congruence with other histories.

The lingering essence that overarches across the entirety of Skin Elegies is concerned with the way humanity conceptualize the concept of time in relation to memory, and how thoroughly our memories can distort the past, remaking it in light of subsequent pasts.

Olsen ties these stories together in a way that suggests that they cannot survive together. Within the novel is a story about the Fukushima disaster, one that focuses on the day the internet was activated, a narrative recounting and detailing the last hours of the Battle of Berlin, a story about John Lennon’s murder, one regarding an assisted suicide, the devastation of the Columbine massacre, a story of a woman who was killed by a domestic abuser, the journey of a Syrian boy travelling to and arriving in Berlin, the tragedy of the challenger disaster, and a story about a reality that has yet to occur: the future.

These stories and their respective pasts are hardly coincidental. While some of them are ridden with absolute devastation and tragedy, others represent the birth of a new future, a reimagined world. Olsen orchestrates the stories of Skin Elegies with great care and deliberateness, each becoming more meaningful when contextualized by the others. In some circumstances, tragedies follow tragedy, and good follows good, but in others, tragic events are still remembered, but improved upon. Conversely, readers will also grapple with realities in which good and productive histories are sometimes less resonant than the most tragic and harmful pasts.

This novel is comprised of a combination of poetic styles and formats that are both complex and captivating. Olsen’s illustrative formatting is far more than artistic- it is symbiotic to the stories.  The stories are not only identifiable by their content and style, but they are clearly characterized by their dates as well; all working together seamlessly as if the novel was comprised by dialogue between characters.

While the future is often reminiscent of the past, the past is oftentimes less reminiscent of the future. Olsen, however, challenges this notion in a way that coils the stories together; coils the past and future in a circular, infinite, and interchangeable way.

“10: June: 2015:

‘The day I turned nine was the day I saw the building next to mine turn into a tall flower of soot. I saw a hand lying in the street. I saw grownups running with towels to their faces, going down and getting up again and keep running.

I saw people cringing behind burning cars.’

20: April: 1999:

‘I was there.

I’m sure of it.’”

Readers who embark on the fascinating journey this novel has to offer will leave enchanted by the way Olsen illustrated the troubled questions humanity faces while trying to conceptualize the value and influence of the past. Moreover, how memories of the past can be influenced by the future.