girl imagined by chance : introduction

raymond federman
© 2002


Photography is true—fiction is a lie.

Or is it the reverse?

Photography lies and fiction tells the truth.

In this remarkable novel—remarkably deceptive in its complexity—Lance Olsen juxtaposes photography and fiction—juxtaposes the truth and the lie.

The truth of photography denounces the lie of fiction.

Or is it the reverse?

The lie of photography ascertains the truth of fiction.

This is a story about a lie.

Lie is perhaps too strong a word.

Decision is perhaps a better word.

The unnamed narrator, You, and his lovely photographer wife, Andrea, have decided that they do not want children.

Children are noisy, messy, egomaniacal, cruel, combative, recalcitrant, naive, needy, histrionic, uninformed, opinionated, untruthful, insecure, moody, amoral, and physically and emotionally destructive.

But grandma back East in New Jersey wants grandchildren.

So You and Andrea invent (imagine) a child (a girl) and prove her existence with photographs.

Fake photographs showing Andrea pregnant—Andrea giving birth to Genia (that's the name You and Andrea decide for the girl because the girl will be very photogenic)—the infant girl being held by the arm of the mother (only the arm is seen in that photo)—the little four or five years old Genia dressed as a bunny—and so on—until the final photographs become smudged and erased themselves making the rest of the story unreadable (invisible).

These photographs undermine the fictional representation and expose the vulnerability of the narrative.

Or is it the reverse?

The fiction denounces the unreality of the photographs.

The photographs (and the mini-essay about photography that runs through the novel—with quotations from Diane Arbus, Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, and others) undermine the narrative in a double attestation of the logic of the action and the effect it has on reality.

But there is more here than just the lie about the imagined child.

This is a profound novel about finding one's place in the world.

From one sentence to the next (the narrative is made mostly of one-liners that digress from one another) one travels from Idaho to Katmandu to Venezuela to Ukraine to St-Petersburg, and so many other exotic places in the world, in search of the right place.

Or rather in search of the right aggregate of words to describe the unreality of reality—because it feels like there is always somewhere else to go.

In the process past present future gather into one sentence as one becomes aware of a certain liquid pulse of anticipation in one's decisions and one's actions.

This is a very intelligent, touching, sensitive novel.

And there is more.

One day you are you, supposedly, and one day you are not.

So moving was as easy as changing your mind, or changing your mind was as easy as moving.

A novel then about making decisions.

About being here and everywhere at the same time—in the past the present and the future at the same time.

Being in the world, in other words—in the unreality of the real world.

Reading this novel is also having to make decisions about where, when, and who.

Remembering how Beckett's Unnamable put it at the beginning of his own narrative: Where now? Who now? When now?

One realizes how Lance Olsen had learned from the great master, and how innovative his novel is.

But there is more in this deceptive novel that juxtaposes photographs with words.

Reading a photo comes down to choices.

Reading this novel comes down to choices too.

Do we trust the narrator's words?

Or do we trust the photographs?

The point being, there is no context to privilege one reading over another.

Grandma trusts the photos (and so do the friends back East in New Jersey who learn that Andrea is pregnant) otherwise she would not send generous gifts of money for the child who does not really exist.

A photograph is a secret about a secret, the more it tells you the less you know.

Then the story of a lie then—depending on who you want to believe.

A novel that masquerades as an album of photographs.

Or an album of photographs that pretends to be a novel.

It's like when you pat a dog and discover he is dead.

You can never be sure of anything because things are not what they appear to be—but they are.

Appear may perhaps be too strong a word.

This is a profound serious playful novel about decision making.

A moving story (a love story) about a lie—a beautiful lie.

Here the unreal is exactly like the real, only more sincere.

And so the only thing remaining of her (little absent Genia) is a certain fullness to the air.

Call that poetry!