Evenson, Brian (2009), Last Days, Underland Press
Writers like Brian Evenson are a rare breed. As I’ve already noted in my review of his novel The Open Curtain, his writing draws both on the strengths of genre fiction, which include a certain reduction of means and a suspenseful story that draws the reader in, the kind of book that blurbs on the jacket will label “addictive”, and on the strengths of literary fiction, which include a high precision of style and an economical but powerful use of tropes and symbols. In Last Days, his latest novel, he manages to do the exact same thing and the resulting book is a completely satisfying, if gruesome and amazingly bloody read. In what I have, so far, been able to read (other reviews forthcoming), Evenson seems to specialize in different varieties of what is commonly labeled ‘horror’, but his work is so complex and theoretically aware that it works just as well as a book of quote regular literature unquote. Also, as several excellent reviews by individual bloggers from the Franco-belgian Fric Frac Club collective have shown, Evenson’s work is wide open to readings employing, for example, Deleuzian philosophy. This is not necessarily a good thing since the kind of writing that can easily be read with theoretical tools, well used in academical contexts, frequently has its detractors. However, while certainly highly aware of how the genres he uses are structured and how they function, Evenson doesn’t burden his work with extraneous, ‘clever’ information. He doesn’t write for academia or for a fringe group of elite readers. Although Evenson’s books are published by smaller presses, like Victoria Blake’s Underland Press, Earthling Publications, Coffeehouse Press or FC2, an imprint of the University of Alabama Press, his writing isn’t any more ‘niche’ than any other novel of the genre.
Last Days hasn’t been written or even been published in one piece before. It consists of two parts of almost equal length, the first of which, “The Brotherhood of Mutilation”, was published in 2003, in a limited edition of 315 copies. It wasn’t until years later that Evenson decided to continue the story of that small but trenchant and brilliant novella, and wrote another novella, this one called “Last Days”. Now, in 2009, it was finally published, together with its predecessor, as one novel. And what a novel it is, a perplexing ride that can leave you breathless, a book about bodies and spaces, about religion, doubt and a detective you’d better not mess with. That detective is called Kline. “The Brotherhood of Mutilation” is about Kline’s introduction to a sect which practices the voluntary amputation of limbs and the more limbs you’ve amputated, the higher you are in the hierarchy of the sect. Ideally, this amputation is being done without any anesthesia. The pain is integral here, as well as the extent to which the amputation disables you in your everyday task. You can’t have your arm amputated at the shoulder and claim to have amputated seven limbs: five fingers, one hand, one arm. You have to cut off the fingers one by one in order for it to count. In the same spirit, amputating toes isn’t regarded as highly as amputating fingers, because losing a finger is much more of a handicap in your everyday life.
At the same time, there is, in the mutilates’ microcosm, in a bloody denial of the functionality of the body (which also implies a blind and strictly normative concept of a perfectly functioning body, one of many exclusionary tactics pursued by the brotherhood), a strangely functionalist thinking involved. Cleavers, knives and scalpels are almost glorified and occupy a central place in their rituals. Function is transferred from the body and split two ways. Part of it is now given over to machines. The aforementioned cutlery is one aspect of this. Gun prostheses are another. The other part is handed over to an immaterial power structure. The curious power structure in the compound, where the man who has the least means of moving is the most powerful, is another. I called it curious but it’s more: it’s a sign of the modern age where power is not enforced by brutes with nightsticks and bullets, where power is that which we accept as we behave according to its exigencies. German blogger, musician and novelist Daniel Kulla wrote a song (Der Tausch) the refrain of which, loosely translated, starts like this: “nobody needs to force you / if you join in of your own accord”. If we make excuses for our sloppy thinking, we give in. If we don’t fight because we’re too comfy here, we give in. That list could go on for ages. Brian Evenson presents us with a whole compound full of people who have followed that logic to its extreme: the power structure they subscribed to leads to them lobbing off parts of their own bodies, of their own accord. None of them is forced to do it and the longer Kline stays among them, the more likely he is to succumb to their power structures himself.
But let’s return to Kline: prior to Last Day‘s events, he had a harrowing encounter with a “so-called gentleman”, who hacked off his hand with a cleaver. Kline then turned on a nearby oven, cauterized his hand himself, turned around and, calmly, shot his attacker in the eye. In a previous review I mentioned how interconnected the hard-boiled detective genre and the western are, and an incident such as this one suggests a very similar connection. But Kline isn’t looking for a fight and when the fight comes looking for him, he isn’t really equipped to win it. In contrast to many noir detectives such as Philip Marlowe, Kline isn’t likely, either, to be verbally abusive, snarky or clever. For someone who must have had quite a heady life, Kline, the character, is remarkably blank. This is important because in subsequent events different groups of people, among them the brotherhood, start to project hopes and ideas onto him.
In accordance with the brotherhood’s strict but unusual application of logic, Kline is widely admired in the brotherhood for cauterizing his wound himself. It’s both painful and dangerous to one’s long-term health to do so, risking inflammations and other problems, which is all the more reason for members of the brotherhood to adore someone’s undertaking of such an act. However, Kline’s amputation of his hand couldn’t actually be more at odds with the brotherhood’s beliefs: he was attacked in order to literally diminish him, to take away a part of his body, to make him less capable, as well as making him, simply, less. The pain he suffers isn’t positive in any way, instead, it’s intended to be almost punitive. Kline’s self-inflicted pain is similarly goal-oriented, meant to buy him time, to prepare himself to stall his opponent in order to be able to shoot him afterward. The brotherhood reads his motivations in a slightly different way, mostly because they assume that all amputees, on some fundamental level, share their beliefs. They appear to believe that there is something metaphysical that is inherent in the very act of mutilation.
As the novel sets in, Kline is called, or rather: abducted, to the premises of that strange brotherhood in order to clear up a murder. The plot is full of absurdities, dead-ends and similar noir staples, including a large array of colorful characters, who tend to speak in a short, humorous manner, their dialogue frequently reminiscent of Marx Brothers movies. The horrific nature of the brotherhood’s customs and the often very funny dialogue of some of its members makes for fascinating reading. In “The Brotherhood of Mutilation” Evenson combines basically three kinds of registers. Horror, humor and a kind of paranoia and claustrophobia. When nobody talks, the whole narrative sinks into a gloomy mire as Kline attempts to understand what happens to him, who these people are, and who committed the murder. The moment he enters the compound of the brotherhood, he has trouble leaving it again. He’s shut in with all these zealots and his situation appears to be increasingly desperate. As the novella comes to a close, the tension mounts to an almost unbearable degree until the reader is almost relieved at the end, horrific though it may be. That tension is twofold. One the one hand, Evenson’s plot is forceful and as we see Kline stumbling through the maze of irrational madness, we start to share his desperation. Questions are answered in riddles, and every action is transformed into a kind of indirectness, that makes it almost impossible to solve the crime.
This indirectness, not just in “The Brotherhood of Mutilation”, but also in “Last Days”, is significant. I mentioned Kafka as a point of reference, for many reasons. One of them is that Kafka’s “Kleine Fabel”, that marvelous tiny aphoristic story, seems like a perfect description of the situation that Kline repeatedly finds himself in in Last Days. The other is that the hierarchies of the brotherhood and its customs create an environment that is reminiscent of a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, Kline, the man who had his arm cut off and still shot his opponent in the eye, is reduced to a pawn, jostled here and there, lost among a community whose logic he barely comprehends. Yes, to a large extent, this is about religion, also, clearly, about Mormonism in particular, but Evenson’s scope is larger.
And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee…And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off and cast it from thee…
This is interesting. In religious contexts, acts like the brotherhood’s are frequently viewed as sacrifices, but sacrifices have a goal, while these particular ‘sacrifices’ are not for anything. At best they purify the soul of him who loses a limb. Mutilation, paradoxically, is regarded as an edifying experience. The more pain and discomfort you have inflicted upon yourself, the more highly regarded you are. In the novel, this is grotesque and even horrifying. In real life, this is far more common. There is an ongoing war of most of the major Christian churches upon the body, in favor of the soul. Asceticism, renunciation, abstinence, celibacy are still regarded as laudable goals by most churches, and even by regular, non-religious people. A very similar parallel structure can be seen in the eschatological thinking of the Pauls, another brotherhood of mutilates, which references different eschatological concepts in actual religions. And were I to do a more thorough and more detailed reading, I would find all kinds of other religious references. No detail in Evenson’s book feels extraneous, to the extent that I was tempted to make a table of all the body parts curt off and find out how they are arranged within the book. But the religious references are more than games, and more than swipes at the quirks and madness of actual religions.
I think there’s a very different point there in respect to religions, and the constant indirection is part of it all. For one thing, there’s precious little successful communication between people who are not part of the same community. The first part of the book finds Kline trying to read his environment which is saturated with signs and which rings with the sibylline pronouncements uttered by the man who summoned him. The second part, again, finds people speaking, but also people listening to Kline speak, hanging on his every word, but Kline cannot make himself understood even to them. I think the situation that I have called Kafkaesque earlier, demonstrates the problem that religions and other communities who use logic just like everyone else, but use it with so strongly different premises that we may find ourselves unable to communicate with them at all. Especially if we read them as alien and grotesque, and I would suggest that Kline’s encounter with the Brotherhood, at least in part, can and should be read as an overreaction by someone fundamentally alienated by what he regards as Other.
In a book that deals so much with indirection, Evenson himself achieves a miracle doing the same. Everything in his plot has a false or double bottom, everything works on several levels at once. Just as the bloody mess of the brotherhood directly mirrors actual religious practice, so do other aspects of the book, such as its use of space: most of the book takes place in rooms or compounds, whether in a hospital or elsewhere. After a while, Kline starts searching rooms and environments for signs of difference, since many elements start to repeat themselves. He is, geographically, de-centered, drops from the world into a sequence of spaces constructed by certain kinds of thinking. These are spaces that, more and more, become his spaces, as the outside world is increasingly dangerous to and suspicious of him.
Here’s where the Kafka reference is important again. While The Open Curtain was mostly about a culture and its religion, I would suggest that ‘religion’, could be but a trope in Last Days. The world doesn’t become more rational, more sane once Kline leaves one of the two brotherhoods which have set their eyes on him. While their specific kind of religiosity is shown to be at odds with people in the ‘real world’, the basic structure of their thought isn’t. Especially since it’s possible, after all, to completely exchange the religious reading of the two sects with a political reading, which could focus on a contrast between a more collectivized, communistic ideology and a pseudo-individualistic ideology like capitalism. That, however, is a whole new can of worms that I’m not prepared to open just now.
I haven’t talked much of the second half of the book, because I don’t want to give too much away. “The Brotherhood of Mutilation” is much more dense, more focused upon its issues and the calamity that waits in the wings. “Last Days” bears all the weight of not just being a good book on its own, but of tying its own story and “The Brotherhood of Mutilation” into a single novel, so naturally, it’s different. Not worse, certainly, and the whole of Last Days is a marvelous achievement by a writer who’s currently producing awfully many good books. Brian Evenson’s writing isn’t prohibitive, it doesn’t crowd out those who lack the time or money (having enough leisure to read thoroughly and attentively is, indeed, a financial issue, to an extent) to pay the books as much attention as they would need to or bring an elevated enough reading horizon to that reading. His books can be disturbing, both on a visceral and on an intellectual level, but then that’s what he’s paid to do, it’s a distinction of the genre he works in. It’s both a joy and a challenge to read Evenson’s books, and they are all highly recommended.