I don't much like the John Olson who is the subject of the new "Creative Bio-Autobiography" The Nothing That Is. The book details a few days in the life of Olson as he tools around Seattle and travels to Missoula to do a poetry reading at an art gallery. He is a bitter man, privileged and obsessed with how everything used to be better, and his sense of hyperbole has exploded to epidemic proportions. He says, for instance, "Microsoft changed everything. What Katrina did to New Orleans, Microsoft did to Seattle: kicked the soul right out of it."
Olson loathes his upstairs neighbors for the simple fact that they walk around above his head, and he constructs a list of petty grievances about them that he checks and rechecks with the fastidiousness of a mortally aggrieved party; they, after all, are interrupting John Olson's Precious Writing Time. Sometimes he hates with the dull ache of the stereotypical self-satisfied Seattle liberal: SUVs, George W. Bush, and conspicuous consumption are on Olson's shit list, but not for any original or interesting reason.
This is a very different John Olson than the one you've read before, the brilliant, occasionally frustrating poet (and Stranger Genius Award winner for literature) who is known and loved by absolutely everyone in Seattle's diverse (and often soap-operatic) poetry community. On reading The Nothing That Is, the reader is led to wonder: Has Olson been hiding a boorish dolt inside of himself all this time?
And then you realize: The Nothing That Is is a dense journal of those baseline, almost subconscious thoughts that everyone hosts, buzzing, at the lizard-skinned base of their brains as they walk down the street and go about their days. It's the self that wonders, petulantly, when it will be fed even as it listens to a friend pour her heart out about a recent, traumatic miscarriage. The next meal, the next fuck, the next shit is the most important thing in the universe to this part of the brain.
This is a private self that you never want to reveal to the world, a petty, nasty monster, and Olson allows it to hold court for 157 pages. It's an act of literary bravery on his part, and a worthwhile one. Olson knows that this slavering beast is the keeper of the fountain of genius, and parts of The Nothing That Is shine with the kind of inspired genius that can only bubble up from somewhere dark. "Words are coins," he writes in a burst of sudden wisdom. "Loose change. Each coin has an obverse and a reverse side." Brains are like that, too.