By Brian Evenson
Coffee House Press, 2012
By Brian Evenson
. . . we see through a glass, darkly . . .
First Corinthians 13:12
The characters in Brian Evenson’s dark stories don’t wake up one morning to find they have metamorphosed into a bug. They do, however, share with Kafka’s Gregor Samsa situations that are both inexplicable and implacable. Their stories begin like this: “In retrospect, it was easy for her to see it had been a mistake to have sex with a mime,” or like this: “I have been ordered to write an honest accounting of how I became a Midwestern Jesus and the subsequent disastrous events thereby accruing. . . .” They take place in dream states: “Night after night, Kraus dreamt of a woman with a normal leg and a baby leg.” Characters ponder the awkward “Intricacies of Post-Shooting Etiquette,” or ask themselves “How do you know the moment when you cease to be human?” In one way or another, Evenson’s characters all share the dilemma of the professor in “Mudder Tongue” whose words increasingly have no relationship to his thoughts: “There came a certain point, in his speech, in his confrontation with others, in his smattering with the world, that Hecker realized something was wrong.”
What is wrong, horribly (or absurdly) wrong in story after story, is that characters either embrace webs of lies (like the grim worshipers of barbed-wire in “Contagion” or the abusive church leaders in Father of Lies) or they live violently (or absurdly) outside the seductive constraints of civilizing language. Either course leaves the characters (and in a somewhat different sense, readers) face to face with absurdity.
The stories in Evenson’s first book, Altmann’s Tongue, fully deserve the book’s epigraph—Julia Kristeva’s insistence on writing that is “more and more incisive, precise, eschewing seduction in favor of cruelty. . . .” Antoinine Artaud wrote in this vein, as did Thomas Bernhard, both of whom Evenson cites as favorites. Echoes of Beckett’s and Kafka’s existential absurdities can be heard in Evenson’s work as well. Like their European predecessors, Evenson’s characters interact along the border between what seems to be legible and coherent and what appears to be neither.
In Dark Property, for instance, handsomely designed by Quemadura, readers enter a state of incomplete and uncertain apprehension somewhat reminiscent of a young child’s. Early in the novel we read that “The boy fremented as he ran. She could not determine any sense in it.” The woman’s gradual, approximating comprehension of the scene (two men are killing the boy to eat him) is a study in painstaking phenomenology:
The approaching figure continued its approach, arm raised and waving. It became male, large and well-fleshed. He stopped at a slight remove, subjected her to an errant scrutiny with one eye. A bulged other eye seemed to peer nowhere. He slung down from his back a large, darkstained burlap sack, laid it at his feet. . . .
Smiling, he turned his face upward and the sun angled into the crevasion in which was hid his good eye: pale, pellucid. She hitched the pack higher onto her boneworn shoulders. Her hands brushed the hair away from her own eyes, spread it off squin across her forehead.
The sack at his feet grew rageous, roiled around itself an aura of dust. He coughed. Turned his face away. His boots afflicted the sack until it quivered, fell still. His boots forbore.
Like the woman, readers experience only fragments of a world that must be interpreted and reinterpreted and that yield tentative meaning at best. To create that experience, Evenson employs dozens of neologisms and otherwise obscure words: crevasion, off squin, sprent, runcated, stammel, benimous, flectubile, greave, spartled, corneous, flittern, flench, ribbard, and so on. The words make sense, more or less, in the context of their sentences; some of them, like frement, “to roar,” are historical but obsolete. They remind readers that we see through the glass of language darkly, confront us with a slippery epistemological condition in which the clear, coherent world of habitual thought threatens to collapse.
To augment this unsettling condition, Evenson employs other devices as well. Each chapter of Dark Property, for instance, is preceded by a quotation in German. The first, which might translate as “The sentence . . . causes us to sway over an abyss,” is attributed to Heidegger and presages the linguistic horror at the heart of the book. The other quotations have no attribution, although a German-speaking reader with access to the German philosophical tradition will recognize Hegel, Hamann, Nietzsche, and finally Heidegger again: “Every living being, including the human . . . is surrounded and pressed and shot through by chaos.” The quotations add a fascinating philosophical context; in the end, however, they function mainly to keep readers at a distance. And should a reader get too serious about philosophical illumination, one of the epigraphs turns out to be from the contemporary German industrial rock group “Einstürzende Neubauten”: “She turns around and leaves.” The absurdity of profundity manifest. Or vice versa.
The physical dark property of the novel is the body of a woman carried in a bounty hunter’s sack. Metaphorically, after Nietzsche’s “supposing truth to be a woman,” the novel’s dark property is truth. The bounty hunter claims that “’Truth cannot be imparted . . . It must be inflicted.’” On its title page Dark Property is designated “An Affliction.” Excoriating its readers with the violence perpetrated by absolute truth claims (it was a patriarch who sent the bounty hunter after the woman), the novel afflicts them with an abhorrence of affliction.
The truth confronting the detective of sorts in Last Days who is forced to investigate a murder (or is it a robbery?) inside the Brotherhood of Mutilation must be inflicted as well. He receives information about the hierarchical institution only as he himself loses digits and limbs to ritual amputation in order to rise in status:
“Show me the body.”
Borchert shook his head. “I can’t allow you to see the body. At the very least you’d have to lose a few more toes.”
“This is absurd.”
“Be that as it may, Mr. Kline.”
With the secrets of its mutilated hierarchy (perhaps all hierarchies require self-mutilation) and its hard-boiled investigator, Last Days evokes the generic detective novel only to refuse the resolution the genre demands. Who did it? Not only do we not learn the answer to this standard question, we’re left not even knowing for sure what “it” was. What we do come to know is the investigator’s state of mind: “How do you know the moment when you cease to be human? Is it the moment when you decide to carry a head before you by its hair, extended before you like a lantern, as if you are Diogenes in search of one just man?” That, of course, has been the true subject of inquiry throughout.
The stories in Windeye, Evenson’s new collection, repeatedly address archeological and teleological questions. “Knowledge,” for instance, is a description of “precisely why I have still not written my detective novel.” Mysteries work within a set of assumptions that all crimes are scrutable and that clues will lead inevitably to the criminal. Attempts to solve the case presented in this story, however, require the investigator to make assumptions about the nature of reality that “end up derailing the genre.” In Windeye’s “The Moldau Affair,” to cite a second example, a detective finds it impossible to break out of the logical circles imposed by the circumstances: “Yet, how to know if the logic I think I am following is not in itself its own trap, a distortion of reality prone to do me more harm than good—just as Stratton’s logic was a trap for him?” The detective assumes his report will do more good than harm. Readers are left to question his optimism.
As they seek meaning through language that inevitably distorts the world even as it constructs its meaning, Evenson’s characters lose limbs and eyes and ears and heads and identities. Windeye’s “Legion,” for example, features a robot who tells a complicated story about a man who falls between two trains and wakes to find himself unharmed: “Or so he thought. Unharmed was almost the correct word, but wasn’t quite right, was a word possessed of one letter too many, an extra h.” In the title story of Fugue States, it’s a case of what happens after lost identity that interests the author: “I had, Bentham claimed, fallen into a sort of fugue state, in which the world moved past me more and more rapidly, a kind of blur englobing me at every instant. . . . Yes, admittedly, during this period he had no clear idea of his own name.” Having lost his name and other words as well, Bentham is bereft of tools to make the world comprehensible. But because comprehension is achieved only with forgetful habit and lies, he is no more damned without language than he was with it.
In Evenson’s novel The Open Curtain, a young Rudd Theurer experiences a break between what he thought to be true and what he now perceives to be true. Letters to and from his dead father reveal, perhaps, an illegitimate half-brother. His mother tightens her lips and claims the opposite: “It’s simple truth. . . . We know the truth. There’s no reason to speak of this again.” Not surprisingly, given his mother’s Mormon preference for “truth” over reality, Rudd begins to “have an odd relation to words.” He reads an old story in the 1903 New York Times about William Hooper Young, a grandson of Brigham Young who was on trial for a ritual murder. The newspaper account, supplemented by symbolic signs and penalties Theurer experiences in the Mormon temple ritual, works in him corrosively, structures and de-structures his identity until he commits ritual murders of his own. When Theurer cuts Mormon/Masonic temple symbols into the bodies of his victims, he reifies violent metaphors with which his religion has made sense of the world.
If reifying metaphors is dangerous, so is the making of metaphors. In the story “Contagion” from the book of that name, characters fatefully construct metaphors from a barbed-wire fence. The fence is a given, simply there, and the men who ride it are just doing their jobs: “They were to travel due South, checking fenceline for $2/day to territory’s extreme, and then to cross over and observe conditions beyond.” Their written notes are a straightforward litany of the various types of barbed wire until they encounter a deadly contagion, when the notations begin to stray to more subjective considerations.
Half-rotted posts, top and middle strands of coldweather undulate wire. . . . Bottom strand: single-wire set with spur-wheels: large sheet metal, 14 sharpened points, locked in place with sheet metal tabs.
All the time I am eyeing Grenniger, trying to determine if he is afflicted. But the contagion only latterly gives up its traits and there is no means to forsee it. One has it or one does not, and once one has it, one is already dead.
Are we already dead?
Past the fence’s end the riders find a town dominated by a religious sect whose leader locks one rider in a room to write oracular notes about the barbed wire that has become the sect’s object of worship. When he runs out of paper he writes on the walls, encircling himself with sentences that resemble a long, enclosing strand of barbed wire.
As a tool in the real world, barbed wire controls, separates, and imposes order. In light of that fact and in response to the incomprehensible and frightening contagion, the town’s panicked populace has transformed the wire until the fact of the wire becomes the coercive truth of the new religion: “You shall know the fence and the fence shall make you free.” This is precisely the process of truthmaking Nietzsche wrote about so devastatingly: “What is truth? a mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms . . . only insofar as man forgets himself as . . . an artistically creative subject does he live with some calm, security, and consistency.” Evenson’s work insists on this. We are the artistically creative authors of the truths we live by. We must then, if we are honest, live more tentatively in relation to the security and consistency we achieve through language. The effect of this conclusion, at least for me, at least most of the time, is bracing.
It is not bracing for everyone.
Evenson grew up Mormon in Provo, Utah and was an undergraduate at Brigham Young University. After graduate school he returned to teach in BYU’s English department, hired in part because Knopf had accepted his manuscript for Altmann’s Tongue. Evenson soon came under attack by religious leaders for the violence that is the subject of the book. At the time, I too was teaching at BYU, having left a tenured position in Vanderbilt’s Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages to return to the university that had given me my first taste of the life of the mind. I had become co-president of the BYU Chapter of the American Association of University Professors, concerned by growing limitations on academic freedom at the private Mormon university. The controversy over Evenson’s work grew public and I stepped in to explain to BYU President Rex Lee, former Solicitor General of the United States, that the character in the book’s title story was Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, who took the name Altmann when he fled his Nazi past. Altmann’s Tongue, I argued, explores language and the violence that attends fascist truth claims. As little moved by my literary arguments as by the ones for academic freedom, Lee and others kept up the pressure and Evenson finally decided to leave BYU and the Mormon religion as well. The university’s sense of mission and Evenson’s sense of mission were “quite divergent,” explained BYU’s public relations officer. That was more true than he could imagine. By demonstrating religion’s patent and sometimes lethal absurdities, Evenson’s work consistently calls into question communities that worship truths that began as metaphors.
Brigham Young University is the setting of Evenson’s new novel Immobility, post-“Kollaps” BYU, that is, and community is the target: “In the true movement of community what is at stake is never humanity, but always the end of humanity” (Jean-Luc Nancy). Mormon theology asserts the opposite. The names and dates and family connections assembled by Mormon genealogists and protected in granite vaults are the prime and everlasting proof of their claim.
Immobility takes place after the riots and the bright blast, after a few men reportedly “banded together acting ‘rationally’ instead of ‘like animals’ . . . attempting to found a new society, attempting to start over. Not having learned better, he thought grimly, the first time.” The “he” has a name, he remembers, awakening to consciousness after having been frozen for decades in a vault underneath what was once a campus: Josef Horkai. And he has a context, intimated by a speaker he hears while waking up: “’How are we feeling?’” We. How are we feeling? Who are we? Why are we together? The answers to these questions are the substance of novel.
By some freak of the atomic blast, Horkai is not only immune to the radioactive atmosphere but able to regenerate limbs and even life. When the non-immune people need something outside their bunker, they revive him. Now they ask him to travel to a canyon east of what once was Salt Lake City to bring back a frozen cylinder stored by enemies in a vault cut into the mountain.
Having been drugged and frozen, Horkai struggles with his memory: “The problem, he began to realize, wasn’t just trying to assemble the little he thought he knew into a narrative—it came in determining which of the memories were real, which were things he’d dreamed or imagined.” What he knows comes largely from assertions made by Rasmus, the leader of the people in the bunker. Rasmus tells Horkai he is suffering from a degenerative disease that will eventually paralyze him. To slow the degeneration, he says, they have kept Horkai frozen and now that he is awake will administer periodic injections into his spine. Horkai feels intense pain when injected and raises a question: “’If I’m really paralyzed from the waist down, why did I feel that in my legs?’ Rasmus just held his gaze. ‘You didn’t,’ he claimed at last. ‘You just think you did.’”
When Horkai hesitates to undertake the mission, Rasmus points out the alternatives:
“Either you can lend us a hand for a few days or we can put you back in storage. But if you don’t help us, the chances are good there won’t be anyone left to get you out of storage later on. We’re the ones who can keep you alive, and we’re the ones trying to find your cure. Do you want to risk losing us?”
Us. That’s the problem. It is also the solution to the problem. That’s the problem.
Near the end of their mission, Horkai and the two clones who carry him trip a wire that starts a recording:
’Welcome, brothers! . . . We are here for you. We are here to protect you. . . . God has chosen us to stand attendant to you and to guide you in once again founding civilization.’
“’So is it a message or a trap?’” Horkai asks. By this time a reader knows enough about community to answer the question: all messages are traps. Language is a trap. Horkai knows this as well. Welcomed into the vault by a man who calls him brother and explains that God has sent him to aid in the task of preserving “the history of the human race, a record of births and deaths for hundreds and hundreds of years,” he has to decide whether to stay with men he considers religious fanatics to “participate in the reinstitution of the human race. Something he wasn’t exactly sure was a good idea.” His other option is to steal the cylinder and return to the people who say they are trying to cure him.
At this juncture there are several plot surprises waiting for readers of Evenson’s fine novel. I’ll make just two further points. The first has to do with Horkai’s thought that perhaps reinstituting the human race isn’t a good idea. He reflects on human history: “We say no to torture, and then we find a reason to torture in the name of democracy. . . . We say no to eight million dead in camps, and then we do it again, twelve million dead in gulags. Humans are poison. Perhaps it would be better if we did not exist at all.” Immobility is dedicated to the profoundly pessimistic Norwegian Peter Wessel Zapffe and to Thomas Ligotti, whose The Conspiracy Against the Human Race carries on the argument that human consciousness is an unmitigated disaster. The Kollaps is proof of that, as are the coercive communities that compete for Horkai’s membership. Nonetheless, Horkai keeps moving: “he wanted to know something about who he was, gain some knowledge that he suspected they might have. Was he committed to some sort of cause? No. Was he opposed to Rasmus and his community? No, not really. Did he side with them? No.”
The second point is that there is an alternative to community. Horkai collapses and wakes again to the words “’How are we feeling?’” The man who has rescued him means “we” in a less coercive sense and in fact has strategies to combat community. Horkai asks who he is and he answers with a question: “’Do names really matter? . . . I don’t mean to be rude,’ said the stranger. ‘It’s just that’s where we went wrong. . . . Back in the Garden of Eden when Adam named first his wife and then the animals. When we started thinking about names rather than the things they were supposed to designate.’” Horkai says he’ll have to call the man something and he relents and gives him a word, “Rykte,” to use. The man explains that it is not a name but that it means name in one language and nothing in the one they are speaking: “’Now you have something to call me, but I still don’t have a name.’” That attempt to just be rather than to name what inevitably will become good or evil (Rykte claims it is “’better not to let society develop at all, to leave each person on their own, alone, shivering, and afraid in the dark’”) finally isn’t enough for Horkai. He makes a decision. The novel and his consciousness approach a fateful end.
But isn’t the final joke on Brian Evenson himself? Isn’t a writer the ultimate creature of language? Doesn’t language speak him even more thoroughly than it speaks me and Josef Horkai and Kline and the barbed-wire worshipers and Rudd Theurer and the woman in the bag? It does. Of course it does. We know that because Evenson (after Herder, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida and so many others) has so skillfully pointed it out, spelled it out, plotted it out. Brian Evenson writes profoundly about the prisonhouse of language precisely because he has made that place his home.
Scott Abbott’s books include Ponavljanja (Repetitions: Travels in a Novel(ist)’s Landscape) and Vampiri + Razumni recnik(Vampires + A Reasonable Dictionary), both with Zarko Radakovic, published in Belgrade. Translations include Peter Handke’s A Journey to the Rivers or Justice for Serbia and Handke’s play “Voyage by Dugout, the Play of the Film of the War.” His current research project, with historian Lyn Bennett, is “Barbed and Dangerous: Creating the Meaning of Barbed Wire.”His blog, “The Goalie’s Anxiety,” can be found at http://goaliesanxiety.blogspot.com/.