a literary review
Exhibit curators select and arrange objects, specimens, images, and documents to facilitate a productive encounter between the object and the visitor. An effective exhibit should give reign to the visitor’s imagination, should create a direct link to an authentic past, a sense of immediacy and intimacy.
Both in content and in form, an intimate and authentic present is the very experience Erica Olsen evokes in her debut short story collection, Recapture. True to its name, Recapture grasps after lost loves, fading histories, and shifting landscapes to bring us an expertly curated series of human exhibits in an expansive, outdoor museum.
Exhibit one: a geological clone of the Grand Canyon is conceived after disasters ravage the original.
Exhibit two: a found camper marvels at a pristine gas station bathroom.
Exhibit three: at a trade stop, an archeologist bargains for a black and white olla.
And so on. A drifter discovers a mummified baby during a burial site raid. Former lovers return an Anasazi bowl to a ruin in San Juan County. In succession, these encounters arouse dissonant impressions.
In “Adventure Highway,” Swanson, a middle-aged academic, shuns a manicured park destination in favor of a more remote hike. However, his desire to escape society is quickly transformed into a love for material objects when he faces a night in the wilderness without supplies. Both this story and the aforementioned opener, “Grand Canyon II,” arm the reader against the pervasive nostalgia that threatens to overtake many of the individual characters in the collection. Swanson explains that Utah, “the geologic opera that used to make…his soul feel as big and light as a balloon, wasn’t working for him this time. He looked at nature, and he felt nothing. Maybe it happened to everyone.” Ironically, in “Grand Canyon II”, the narrator is deeply affected by the geological copy of the Grand Canyon so much that it arouses memories of the past. “Did you think I wouldn’t be taken in?” the narrator asks.
Olsen’s characters are contemporaries of the American West. They are archeologists, conservators, adventurers and fortune seekers living in a land where potsherds and ruins are commonplace. Olsen’s prose interrogates the complexity of this proximity in pieces like “Utah Wildmall Rangers”, where new advances in technology including, self-maintaining trails, weather control, and touchable pixel viewshields, enable the simulated wilderness to protect the real. But it is precisely these safeguards that begin to diminish the landscape.
“The Discovery of Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park” offers a subversive response: “Let’s destroy this park, you and I; let’s uncap the walls, unpreserve and re-ruin it”. In this dazzling and heavily-footnoted, sentence-long proposition, Olsen excavates an undercurrent in the book, which is best named by the title of another story in the collection, “Reverse Archeology.” The tension between the desire to undo and the necessity of preservation propels the work forward, causing the reader to forget that the reading experience is also a fabrication. The precise language and seductive voices so closely simulate the real that we too are taken in.
Olsen’s central characters are often isolated emotionally or by profession—a woman sorting shards in glass viewing room, a ranger, or a men and women recently out of rocky relationships. These characters find themselves alone with artifacts of history or artifacts of their own histories—maps, shards, photos, memories. These real and imagined artifacts become the basis for recapturing the past or understanding the current moment.
In “Bristlecone” a woman follows the man she has been living with on a trip to Bryce Canyon. After the complications of having sex, failing at conversation, and knowing he will likely take a new job and move away without her, the woman applies herself to the park signage and the views. Here, Olsen’s precise language illuminates: “She suspected that certain things in her life had gone wrong because of something as simple as not knowing the names of trees.” These subtle impressions are situated throughout the collection. Naming frequently creates intimacy. And though Olsen is comfortable with a wide lens, she consistently moves closer and closer to her objects using voice and image. The silky whisper in “The Curation of Silence”, promises “jars mysteriously drained, with traces of granular residue clinging to the sides”, and within them time and memory, as if it were possible to house these things like artifacts, as if here, we might observe them anew, distilled through glass.
Olsen’s collection evokes numerous questions, but the answers never seem to fully surface. The collection never consistently justifies or explains one position toward history. Perhaps the narrator of “The Keepers,” best summarizes this relationship in the following confession: “I’m a conservator. My specialty is paper. I clean, deacidify, repair—but never restore, in the sense that restoration may give a misleading impression that a paper artifact is like new. Everything I do must be reversible. Everything is the age that it is”. Though the desire to undo is prevalent, there are few if any true reversals in this collection. Instead, characters, spaces, landscapes, and artifacts continue to move forward in time, constantly eroding, illuminating, accumulating, and slipping further into history.
“Using Museum Collections in Exhibits” in NPS Museum Handbook, Part III (2001) accessed September 25, 2012. http://www.nps.gov/museum/publications/MHIII/mh3ch7.pdf