The Millions

The Mind Is an Impediment: The Millions Interviews Anelise Chen

Anelise Chen and I first met at a bar in New Haven, Connecticut, where we’d each worked. “You were getting marrow ‘to go,’” she wrote, “which I thought was the craziest thing.”

Chen’s careful observation of the absurd ripples throughout her debut novel, So Many Olympic Exertions (Kaya Press, 2017). The narrator, Athena Chen, is a Ph.D. candidate ostensibly at work on a dissertation concerning Olympic athletes, but she spends much of the novel sliding into unfunded, perpetual-ABD status. Athena is a feverishly avoidant narrator: She’ll almost acknowledge her own emotions, only to redirect with an obsessive digression into Andre Agassi’s childhood or Diana Nyad’s long-distance swims. Athena begins to describe herself as though she’s one of her research subjects: “She can’t fake it anymore. She’ll have to do something or do nothing and keep going forward blindly.”

Currently a finalist for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, Anelise Chen has written for The New York Times, Gawker, Vice, Bomb, The New Republic, and The Paris Review Daily. She teaches creative writing at Columbia University. We spoke over the phone.

The Millions: So Many Olympic Exertions is a novel of distraction and dissociation. Athena is preoccupied with her own body, but she’s also studying other people’s bodies. How do you craft a voice that navigates these tensions?

That was really hard. I didn’t realize the disconnect between being so in my head and having

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