Pain Studies,...asks a great deal of its readers ... We learn almost nothing about Olstein’s family, her job or where she lives; there is scant dialogue and no plot. But nor is the book structured, as nonfiction often is, by a theory or an argument or even an attempt to convey a body of knowledge. It is a curious collage of original, lyrical, abrupt, fragmented and sometimes obscure reflections on pain (Olstein suffers from chronic migraines), written in a stream-of-consciousness style and punctuated by poems, lists and quotations ... Olstein succeeds marvelously when directly reflecting on her own pain and her attempts to treat it. An accomplished poet, she often uses language beautifully and inventively. But the book feels more like notes than a finished draft. She cites a dizzying array of authors and historical figures in rapid succession ... Yet most of the sources are touched upon so briefly that it is not clear what function they serve ... Are private and public associations with pain enough of a conceit for a book, or would a more successful form for her material be an inspired long poem, which she could surely write?
Instead of settling for the idea that her pain is indescribable, she lays down shimmering prose that subtly unhinges the reader, conveying what it’s like to see the world from a migraine’s point-of-view. Pain Studies is, as a result—and this is just for starters—a fascinating look at what can happen when you attempt to pour pain into language ... Pain Studies is all the more powerful because its content is echoed by its form. It builds in fragments and bursts of prose. Its colors are vivid and brilliant. And if it’s difficult to sum up, that is because it faces in many different directions. Moreover, the book is acutely influenced by the pain Olstein writes through and around ... A profound, challenging work, Pain Studies works on the reader like poetry, revealing what Olstein calls radical malleability: language’s, ours. It is truly a dazzling addition to the literature on pain.
If you think poets shouldn’t dabble in nonfiction, Lisa Olstein’s Pain Studies will do nothing to convince you otherwise. The book has moments so contrived that the reader might wryly observe the title as apropos ... When the author leans on her poetic skill, the outcome is beautiful, captivating prose that bleeds and thrums ... But when she waxes more philosophical, the reader is left baffled at best and groaning at worst ... When Olstein stops taking herself so seriously, she makes insightful (and incisive) observations about what we mean when we talk about pain ... Eyebrow-raising choices aside, however, the book is incredibly creative in its style, seamlessly suturing together poetry, journal entries, and discourse analysis. Olstein’s strength as a poet imbues her prose, too, even when it manifests in lists ... The poems included in Pain Studies are vivid and enthralling. And Olstein’s portraits of how others respond to her pain are compelling and relatable. But could this unconventional meditation have benefited from ditching the obscure references and morose gravitas? A resounding yes.