These Disunited States
By Brian Evenson
Slate recently broadcast a discussion of Cheever’s “The Swimmer” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” two admittedly great, but over-familiar, over-analyzed, over-anthologized short stories. While the discussion was innocuous enough, what mainly came to my mind while listening was how many short stories get overshadowed by the few usual suspects. Perhaps Slate, like most anthologies of classic short stories, just needs to broaden their scope. And they certainly wouldn’t err in choosing any of the stories in Brian Evenson’s newest collection of short stories.
Fugue State is brimming with disaffected wanderers, paranoids, megalomaniacs, amnesiacs, frightened children, nameless ciphers, and, in one story, cannibals. In these strange stories, Evenson expertly navigates through the mind’s dark interstices, the gnarling strands of the troubled consciousness. These are stories about childhood terrors and fragmented families, about mental breakdowns and post-apocalyptic upheavals, about dissolution, devolution, and paralysis. These are disturbing stories where dissociative states are the norm, and where, as one of Evenson’s troubled characters reflects, “Anything can happen: anything. Or nothing. Who can say? The world is monstrous, is made that way, and in the end consumes us all.”
Terror through the eyes of the young is especially harrowing, and Evenson commandingly quarries the rich material of childhood fears. Children often live comfortably in the borderland between reality and fantasy, and their perceptions of things can be that much more evocative. Alison Gopnik recently spoke about her book The Philosophical Baby at Seed Magazine and challenged popular ideas of how children understand and interpret reality. She criticizes Piaget and Freud who
thought that the reason children produced so much fantastic, unreal play was that they couldn’t tell the difference between imagination and reality. But a lot of the more recent work in children’s theory of mind has shown quite the contrary. Children have a very good idea of how to distinguish between fantasies and realities. It’s just they are equally interested in exploring both. The picture we used to have of children was that they spent all of this time doing pretend play because they had these very limited minds, but in fact what we’ve now discovered is that children have more powerful learning abilities than we do as adults. A lot of their characteristic traits, like their pretend play, are signs of how powerful their imaginative abilities are.
Such exploration of the thin membrane between fantasy and reality is one of Fugue State’s obsessions, and Evenson digs deeply into the ways that children negotiate fear, above all fear of the unknown. A terrible sense of both awe and foreboding suffuse his stories in which children try to make sense of strange things.
So, short story anthologists, instead of choosing Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” yet again, how about selecting an equally harrowing story like Evenson’s “Younger,” a beautiful rendering of a woman trying to make sense of a mysterious “incident” that happened in her formative years. When she was young, she and her sister were left in their house alone by their father who told them not to open the door under any circumstances, and, once the timer he’d set up went off, go to school. The trouble was that after the timer rang, someone or some thing knocked on the door. The woman describes the interim between when the father left and the knocking on the door as a period when time slowed down, and when “anything could happen, anything at all.” When the knocking comes, the younger sister tries “not to look at the curtain-covered window beside the door, [tries] not to see the shadow of whatever was on the other side, but see[s] enough to know that, whatever it was, it was big, and seeing too, when the knocking started again, the door shivering in its frame.”
Evenson adroitly depicts the terror the woman felt as a child, her insistence on an alternative interpretation of the events. His depiction of her internal struggle as an adult, the emotional scars, the feeling of being trapped, the yawning disparities between her and her older sister’s feeling about the “incident” is nothing short of masterful. This story is as suspenseful as it is about a woman whose self-actualization is in suspension:
But for the younger sister there was less of her from there on out. Part of her was still there wearing shoes on her hands and a rubber band in her mouth and was somewhere, sides bloody, looking for her pack. And part of her was still there, motionless, trapped in the house, waiting for the door to shiver in its frame. She was still, years later, trying to figure out how to get those parts of her. And what was left of her she could hardly manage to do anything with at all.
|Learning that both of her parents went off the deep end after the “incident” (one chose suicide, the other was institutionalized) helps to underscore the strangeness and terror the young girl felt, and still feels as a troubled adult. And this feeling is a foretaste of Fugue State’s primary obsessions and preoccupations – terror, anxiety, and madness.
Another signal of these disturbing feelings in Fugue State is Evenson’s almost rhythmic use of the word “dread.” The book itself is a literary fugue with dread as its recurring theme, the single compositional device that’s been elaborated and interwoven throughout its pages. There is the “dread of meetings” in “Mudder Tongue.” The collection’s short comic story is titled “Dread.” And the company in “Wander” is “filled…with dread” after finding “strange figures: human in size and shape, but with their limbs and bodies odd and misshapen, as if the shadows of monsters had been torn from them to become immobile and fixed.”
This dread hovers over almost every single story in Fugue State including “The Accounting,” a tale of a man commissioned to barter goods for food with Christian fundamentalist enclaves in the “midwestern states.” The events take place after “the rupture,” an undefined, but definitely cataclysmic event involving “engines of devastation” that has somehow forced the inhabitants of the United States toward pre-industrialized living conditions. It’s a crater-pocked land of “systematically uprooted” roads, of “devastated” cities, “crippled, pestilent” prairies, of roaming packs of swollen-bellied people who “were thin, arms and legs slightly more than pale sticks.” But this is merely the backdrop for a wonderfully told tale of how a man unwittingly produces “miracles,” where his confusions are taken as esoteric teachings. It’s an inventive reflection on how cults are formed and can also be read as a cautionary tale and perhaps even as a primer against the force of manipulative eloquence, charisma, and brute strength. Evenson’s command, as he employs the tropes of oral storytelling to add texture to the story, has an inspiring ease of execution. Whenever the story leaps too quickly ahead, the narrator says things like, “I am outstripping myself,” and apologizes for his “digressions.”
The Midwestern Jesus’ digression-filled narration is followed by “Desire with Digressions,” where we meet another panicked wanderer, who, after an impassioned conversation with his lover, steals a car and roams for “days in orbit…afraid to go back and afraid to get too far away from her.” Once again, Evenson’s descriptions are superbly wrought. For instance, a tavern is described as “a dim place, lit by little more than the evening light streaming through a single window. It seemed nearly as cold inside as outside, the wind whistling through the walls. There was a small bar, nothing behind it but two bottles of cheap scotch and a weathered keg of beer.” Evenson’s style has an breeziness that propels the narrative, and pushes the reader forward. And like flotsam, the narrator floats wherever life’s waves toss him. As the story progresses, he’s lassoed into some strange mission and here we’re treated to more of Evenson’s masterful compound sentences. Here he describes the men trudging through snow:
And so, just a little more. A slow tramp up into the mountains, the snow no longer slush but deep and powdery now, sticky, and the two of us tramping forward, he pushing a path through the snow and I following, the going slower as the sun slipped lower in the sky.
Until at last, past exhaustion, he seemed to glimpse what he was looking for, and we made for it.
After his companion dies, the wanderer thinks:
There is, in every event, whether lived or told, always a hole or a gap, often more than one. If we allow ourselves to get caught in it, we find it opening onto a void that, once we have slipped into it, we can never escape. The void here—only one of several in what, from the wandering of love, my life had become—was this notion of some vague treasure awaiting me, something waiting to be taken, if only I could figure out what it was.
While the narrator in “Desire with Digressions” struggles to free himself of the gravitational pull of his own ambivalent regard for his lover, the narrator in “Dread” also seeks to free himself from something, this time a haunting phrase from Samuel Beckett’s novel Molloy. And like one of Beckett’s ciphers, he too is almost smothered by some absurd obsession. But, as this phrase is described as “toll[ing] once, briefly, a distant bell,” it is perhaps Edgar Allan Poe whose spirit hovers over these dark waters. Once again, we have a haunted character that falls “asleep with a vague but growing sense of dread.” Zak Sally’s creepy drawings are planted above every title in Fugue State like an engraving on a headstone, their rough-hewn execution a resonant counterpoint to Evenson’s surgically precise prose, and here in “Dread” they are a study in stark contrasts, where panels devolve, where weighty graphic sequences interact with and morph the story’s content.
We have another kind of accounting in “The Third Factor,” in which we find someone reporting to an “administration” that has employed him to monitor the movements of a man who subsequently commits suicide. Later, he’s given a similar assignment where he must note “anything unusual.” We never learn the reasons for this seemingly meaningless task. The narrator’s dispassionate accounting unnervingly evokes Melville’s Bartleby. After observing his first subject shoot himself in the stomach, he responds:
As my supervisor and I had developed no code for this behavior, I wasted valuable time rendering in longhand what I had seen. For the first time, I used more than a page, a fact which filled me with not inconsiderable distress. Once the event was recorded, it took me some time to decide what to do. In the end, thinking I might compromise my position were I to intervene directly, I called anonymously for an ambulance from a yellow box enthicketed deep within the park. By the time this ambulance arrived, the subject had bled to death.
If not for the depth of the descriptions, the reader might think the narrator suffered from Asperger syndrome.
Linked to Fugue State’s themes of uncertainty, instability, and wandering, is the overarching sense of a divided self. In “A Pursuit,” the narrator wonders: “And as I sit here parlant tout seul, I wonder if I really am speaking only to myself or if I am speaking to the ghost of someone who has been or will be in the seat beside…. And perhaps, too, the self who speaks and the self who drives are not the same, and I myself serve as my own ghost.” Similarly, the narrator in “Mudder Tongue” is losing his ability to say what he means. After suffering a nervous breakdown and lying in a hospital bed, the man in “Dread” wants to see his reflection while dreading “what [he] would actually see.” When he finally stands before a mirror he reflects, “What frightened me was not how the man thrown back so little resembled me, but how he so greatly did…And here we still are, staring each other down, haggard and grim, bodies aching, each of us hoping the other will be the first to go.” In “Girls in Tents” the oldest girl, rubbing her sister’s back to soothe her, feels “distant not only from her sister’s back but from her own hand, as if she were watching someone else pet an animal.” And in “Invisible Box,” a disturbed, vengeful woman roams the streets, and thinks, (and here Evenson’s authoritative cumulative sentences are at their best):
It was useless, she knew, to look for him so late, but there she was, walking, half-dressed, walking, and now the same thing seemed to be happening every night, almost without her knowing it, that strange moment when her thinking split into either side of her head and she seemed to fall into the gap between, and by the time she had managed to clamber out, she was out alone on the streets…
The schizophrenic dislocations continue. The father in “Life Without Father” “had not been exactly himself since the mother’s disappearance. He had been, at best approximately himself and, at worst, not himself at all.” The murderer in “Alfons Kuylers” feels for a moment that he was “living too many lives at once, as if [he] were breathing for many men.” In “The Third Factor,” the narrator, recording his own movements in a notebook recounts: “I remember the act of notating certain days…but no longer recall the movements themselves: even as I was writing them, it was as if I were recording not my own movements but the movements of someone else.” And Arnaud, looking into a pool of water in “Fugue State,” does “not recognize the reflection that quivered along its surface.”
Fugue State suggests that flux and uncertainty may be what lie underneath all relationships, that fragmentation and dislocation is what defines our post-industrial society, that identity is ever-malleable, that it is a kind of dream, a nightmare really, that we cannot substantially control. It creates a sense that societal dissolution is inevitable, that the apocalypse will not bring redemption but instead reduce humanity to its core selfish and violent urges.
But as frightening as these stories are, Evenson can also be very funny. In “Mudder Tongue,” one of Evenson’s masterpieces, after his daughter decides to set him up with some dates, a father considers what he would put in a personals ad: “SWM, well past his prime, losing his ability to speak, looks for special companionship that goes beyond words?” And Evenson breaks form and shows his range with “Ninety Over Ninety,” a satirical tour-de-force with entertainment-driven publishing houses as its target. Kossweiller, the hero of the story, is the literary editor at Entwinkle House, home to such second-rate celebrity tell-alls as The Secret Lives of Housewives and Darned but Not Forgotten. Ultimately, he conceives a half-baked plan to turn out a mystery novel under the pen-name Bjorn Verenson (one of Evenson’s pseudonyms). Such winking playfulness is a welcome relief from the manifestations of dread and terror that hold sway in the stories.
“Invisible Box” is perhaps the most frightening story in the collection. It begins: “In retrospect, it was easy for her to see it had been a mistake to have sex with a mime.” With its intimations of grease paint and an eerie silence, this introduction is creepy enough, and while he certainly mines the mime’s discomfiting mystery and melancholic theater, Evenson doesn’t stop there. Here’s the narrator, on stage, as it were, with the mime:
She watched as, straddling her, he carefully felt out an invisible box around them. He kept making gestures to remind her about the box, feeling it out again, steadying her as she approached one imaginary edge, running his flattened palms along the box’s ceiling just before penetrating her.
And then, after coming, she “watched him lift the imaginary box off of them, get up and get dressed, then lift the box back in place, over her. She drifted off feeling it was there around her, edges softly gleaming, holding her in.” And later, lying in bed, she felt “the box, rising up around her. She closed her eyes and tried to sleep but kept seeing the box, its edges burning in flashes on the insides of her eyelids.” It is a truly suffocating story that rather mercilessly imposes itself on the reader.
Evenson’s Fugue State is as filled with exquisite language as it is meticulously arranged; his sentences swirl and surround you in their incredible complexity and their emotional layers. They often terrify, in a visceral but also in a deeply psychological way. You can easily lose yourself reading these stories and end up feeling like Sindt in Evenson’s story “In the Greenhouse,” who, in his desperation to solve the mystery of Craven (a famed writer who seemingly has multiple selves in the story) and to rid himself of the power of Craven’s words, reflects,
The words would…continue to spin about, continue to batter the insides of his head even after he had left the house. Better…to see the actual words, to read what was there on paper, to allow the words to set and solidify and thus sink lower in his head and be forgotten. The imaginative process can ruin a good head…and must be brought to a halt before it is too late. The actual was the only way to stop the whirligig of the possible.
Reading Fugue State you might just get dizzy from Evenson’s worrying whirligig of the possible and fall into your own dissociative state. And while you could easily say that these are gripping stories, it would be much more accurate to say that these stories put you in a headlock while giving you complexities to puzzle over, then knock you to the ground, and hold you there until, unconscious, you drift into some never ending nightmare.
John Madera is a writer living in New York City. He’s a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His work has appeared in elimae, ArtVoice, Underground Voices, Little White Poetry Journal #7, and forthcoming at� Opium Magazine and Publishing Genius Press. He reviews for Bookslut, The Diagram, The Quarterly Conversation, 3:AM Magazine, New Pages, Open Letters Monthly, The Rumpus, and Word Riot. You may also find him at hitherandthithering waters, My Pet Earworm, and editing The Chapbook Review. He sings and plays guitar for Mother Flux.