Charlie Quimby's Reviews > Recapture

Recapture by Erica  Olsen
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Nov 10, 12

Read in November, 2012

Erica Olsen's RECAPTURE & Other Stories is more than a collection of "other stories;" it's a curation of artifacts around themes of loss, searching and memory. The motif of return keeps returning.

Relationships—if they can be found in these stories—are broken, in the process of breaking or being partially assembled from the materials found on site.

Some of the pieces run barely a page or two; one is more than half footnotes. The fragments don't cohere to make a single object, but like lipid-coated pot sherds, baskets, granaries and stacked stones, they provide clues for us to extract truths about our vanished selves.

In "The Curation of Silence," Olsen takes this notion to its extreme. She imagines a discipline that studies captured silences, but the empty vessels hold the most meaning for the collector:
To collect was not only to preserve, but also to alter through the addition of new meanings—just as the books on my shelf were becoming an autobiography of myself that would also be dispersed someday—meanings which were individual, personal and destined to fade away without a trace.

With her background as an archivist and a museum technician in the Four Corners area of the southwest, Olsen knows what this landscape can tell us. Americans typically don't have to live daily with thousand-year structures or billion-year geology. We can make our own ruins, thank you, and build over them with something new and reassuring.

But out here the big spaces and silences force us to confront our conceits of individuality and national exceptionalism. Unlike the forest-dwellers, we can't help but see how time and nature always win out.

Out here, we ready ourselves to become the next Anasazi.

In the title story that concludes the book, a character has headed east to find the original location of an ancient cliff dwelling that was "saved" early in the last century and carted to California, where it was reassembled and then devolved into a personal folly, a movie set, a theme park and a century-old re-ruin. Her assignment is to figure out how to return it because it's now an obstruction to development.

Despite their provenance, the stones have no interest to anyone in Utah, where minor ruins are "a dime a dozen."

Not long before, she'd journeyed to Norway to trace her family history.
She'd brought a handful of photos of houses with her on the trip, snapshots sent from Norway to America between the 1920s and the 1940s. On the back of one was written: vårt hus! Our house! But whose? They'd written it with such confidence, such an absence of information for Kelsey. They knew who they were. No one remembered them now. [...] It was a very house-conscious place, Norway."

Yes, as documentation crumbles and memories become indistinct, the past erodes and the physical world itself teeters on abstraction.

In the opening story, the Grand Canyon, after a disaster, now is accessible to the public only as a replica. In another, park workers try to manage the visitor's wilderness experience through high technology, while they watch a lot of Netflix in their spare time. They are like mall cops, consoling themselves that "the simulated protects the real."

And who is to say a fake Grand Canyon is any less real than our precious photos and the memories they evoke?

Real nature still intrudes on these illusions of it, though.

A hiker heads out into the back country without adequate preparation but is saved by dumb luck and technology. He's able to find a Maverick convenience store to warm up in but can't find love.

An unattached archaeologist returns to find his singlewide incinerated.
He did a survey. There was the incinerated and the merely charred. The fake wood and the real wood. Made in USA, made in China. His decisions of conscience, his consolations, the ways he punished himself, the museum of his life.

Olsen's characters discover themselves in barren places, putting together shattered pieces, with little hope of restoring the original patterns. Or they work in dioramas and theme ruins that seem "sterile and well-kept... like they sent a cleaning crew to vacuum the sites at night."

But these stories are not as depressing as they might sound. Olsen captures a west that is difficult to see from an armchair and presents a view that can be disturbing up close for those who think the world is supposed to be filled for them.

We are not the first to search. We all live on scoured ground. Maintaining this consciousness can be an act of courage and hope, she seems to say, as we amass reserves against a certain winter.
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