Andrew C. Gottlieb Reviews Recapture & Other Stories by Erica Olsen
Recapture & Other Stories is a compact volume that compares the real and the replica, memory and the object, preservation and isolation, all amid the geology and geography of the Southwestern desert of the United States. In publishing this first collection of short fiction from writer Erica Olsen (whose “Driveaway” was a finalist in the 2011 Terrain.org Fiction Contest), Torrey House Press has produced a gem, a small collection of stories that is a pleasure to read and consider.
What stands out first is the confidence of Olsen’s writing, whether via the well-fleshed voices of her characters or the thoughtful, intelligent prose that makes up the description: Olsen has worked these stories so that—for the most part—the reader will find a seamless, rewarding experience as they enter the desert worlds of Utah or Colorado, California or New Mexico. The other interesting facet to this collection is the mix of realistic fiction and metafiction. Olsen can craft a realistic tale along the lines of a Richard Ford or Tom McGuane with their fugitives, loners, and outlaws, but she’s adept, too, at the imagination and creation of a Donald Barthelme world, a Jose Saramago tale, a place of the future, a fantastic story that in its invention reflects on reality to reveal to the reader something critical we might not access via realism.
The opening story, “Grand Canyon II” (a piece of flash fiction barely two pages in length), may be the epitome of Olsen’s work. The narrator—living in a world that has a seen both an earthquake and a toxic mining disaster leaving the popular national park off-limits—has been working to build a five-mile long replica Grand Canyon and visitor center. “It’s a geological clone made possible by the recent advances in rapid prototyping with which we have all become familiar.” It’s a comforting voice, a tour-guide style revealing to the reader a future they’re obliged to accept. “In an office in Los Angeles, I worked on the editorial team, checking contours, textures, Munsell color specifications. I proofread the Coconino sandstone.” This is a clever author who’s turned the beauty of the desert landscape into a text, a manuscript able to be created, read, and proofread.
But all is not well in the replica park of the future, as one might expect. Though “these compromises were found acceptable by most visitors,” the story revisits the narrator’s first trip to the original canyon via brief flashback, and we see a literal snapshot, the only meeting of the Norwegian and Korean grandparents, the narrator’s speculation that, “In me there must have been, already, the promise of unsuitable boyfriends.” The past is not perfect at all. We experience what Olsen is trying to get at: the place of replica in our lives, the way in which the created unreal so often fills a void in place of the actual fact of our existence. Even her narrator is taken in, though she tells us at the end, “At the edge of this vast and unimaginable copy, I remember tent-shade and fire-warmth. I reach for absent hands.”
This is the warning that exists throughout the collection: no matter how difficult the reality of life, humans face a different complexity in trying to survive through plastic, through an alternate, created reality. The ways in which we may choose to supplement our lives: movies, theme-parks, road trips, photographs. The list of alternate realities is long. Facebook: the website that lets us represent ourselves and our lives online with and to our “friends,” many of whom are people we’re likely not to have met in person. This is fiction that Edward Abbey would approve and celebrate, the man who demanded we park our cars, hike for miles, and bleed a little before we could or would actually experience the physical, wild world around us.
Olsen’s fiction is reminiscent of, and perhaps the next generation of writing down from, Walker Percy’s essay “The Loss of the Creature”—the essay that also took the Grand Canyon as one of its subjects. Percy showed us the layers that exist between humans and the reality they purport to see or experience, from their preconceived notions to the photographs they so quickly take, the attempt to capture reality in a black box rather than stand and experience it in living color with all the other physical sensations it may manifest. One can imagine Percy shelving Olsen’s book, shaking his head at Facebook pages or internet tours of the Grand Canyon.
There are a lot of interesting and colorful personalities here, and the realistic fiction involves trading-post proprietors, park rangers, and bookmobile managers, as well as hikers, campers, and other vagrant types. In the story “Reverse Archeology,” Paul and his former girlfriend, our narrator, return to a former hiking site to put back an Anasazi artifact, a bowl, to the site from which they’d previously taken it. It’s a creative plot, and one that adds to the world Olsen’s writing creates. The difficulty that our narrator confronts is how challenging—or impossible—it is to resurrect or replace a former world. The site she remembers has changed drastically, and her relationship with Paul will likely not revive, even if Paul is already planning their next trip. She tells us, “As I head back down the canyon, then up onto the ridge, I feel things loosening. Nothing stays the same. All this preservation is overrated, in my opinion.”
This isn’t a perfect collection. Here or there an ending feels abrupt. The protagonist of the story “Persuasion” seems strangely determined not to learn or take opportunities presented, leaving the story feeling a tad forced or stunted. But I recall Amy Bloom once saying—to paraphrase—that any good short story collection has a couple of gems, about eight good stories, and a couple of duds. Any weaknesses here are made up for by the philosophical and thoughtful world Olsen is crafting in a smart variety of plots and styles. There is a uniformity of world presented by an artist at work. And it happens to focus on the Southwestern desert, on the failed attempt of humans to live via false realities, to try to preserve the past as if that might improve the future. It’s a very human flaw. Olsen writes, “It’s ugly and sullied and beautiful, the real. There’s conservation, there’s preservation. Does any of it matter? We don’t want much, just paradise.”