Brian Evenson: The Warren

Evenon, Brian (2016), The Warren, Tor
ISBN 978-0-7653-9315-9

warrenThe Warren is a short book – and one of the best books I read all year. In it, Evenson condenses a science fiction story about what it means to be a person, what it means to be alive, what it means to remember, into about 100 pages where not a single word is wasted. This is, in some ways, the antithesis to The Martian, a book which I expressed some misgivings towards in my review – the writing is that of“hard sci-fi,” but imbued with a strong sense of the stakes inherent in the topics broached. Physicality and the limits thereof are often used in fiction as toys, tropes employed by able-bodied writers whose imagination doesn’t stretch far enough to understand how physicality ties into language, memory and culture. Brian Evenson’s novel(la?) is almost painfully precise about the abyss of the body. Not to mention that Evenson is also an absurdly good writer. The writing is always sharp and manages to keep the reader moving forward, but Evenson is a genuinely good writer, line by line. His elegant and poetic writing is never obtrusive, but you can open this book to any page and find sentences that you’d like to show people: this is how you write! This is the first science fiction book by Evenson I’ve read but he’s written several and he’s clearly comfortable in the idioms of the genre, comfortable enough to burrow into them, and question many of its assumptions. It shares similarities with many sci-fi novels published recently, but easily outstrips them all. Evenson’s work that I have read often deals with religion and fanaticism, and without making it explicit, The Warren is certainly informed by that kind of thinking, by questions of truth and knowledge, and of the things we cannot speak about or don’t. This is the second time I find such a gem published as a slim Tor paperback, and all my complaints about design aside (read my review here), I am very impressed by whoever holds the editorial reigns here. You should buy this book, read this book, and then buy more copies of this book as a present for people in your life. This is almost certainly the best science fiction you’ll read all year and one of the best books, period, you’ll come across.

As I said before, I’ve read a couple of books by Evenson (review here and here), and interviewed him on Bookbabble, but I truly was not prepared for The Warren. Evenson’s work deals, I’d say, with the way communities control truth and certainty, at least in the books I have read, and he’s extraordinarily good at writing violence as something more than a transgressive action. There is a palpable connection of violence to the community around the violent event, and violent action is produced by less visible violence in the theology of the community, political and religious. I have always admited Evenson as a writer, but The Warren seems to be a high point even for him. The whole book is written in an interior voice, mastering it like few writers have since Kafka, from whom Evenson borrows some of the structure of the novella. Like we can’t all be Hemingway – we also can’t all be Kafka. In the hands of a lesser writer, that can get dull and formulaic fast – needing action and challenges to liven up the monologue. Not so here. While things happen, and twists are plotted, it is the interior voice that is the truly exciting part of the book. I cannot tell you “what happens” because discovering what Evenson has in store for his reader is part of the process. There are similarities between this book and The Girl with All the Gifts, a novel by comics scribe M.R. Carey. But Carey’s novel takes a unique point of view without being interested in what this means to language, self and contructions of reality. Instead, he quickly abstracts a few narrative parameters from his set-up and proceeds to unfold an extremely conservative zombie novel which gets more boring with every passing page. The early Deleuzian suggestions go by the wayside really quickly, and while he comes up with good ideas later on, as well, he treats them with the same intellectual incuriosity. Evenson’s interest, by contrast, is in the set-up. A person wakes up, tries to understand their environment, tries to understand their situation. The events of the book are not there for the events’ sake alone. Everything that happens sharpens the protagonist’s sense of their own situation, furthers their understanding, develops their sense of reality.

Despite its brevity, Evenson’s book contains multitudes. On some levels, it is a (blasphemous, I suppose) discourse on Creation, and in the purpose imbued in the natural world through Creation. It also offers, certainly, a gloss on various ideas of selfhood, and on the way we construct the world with set assumptions about who we are and who Others are. It is hard not to see in many of the book’s twists and turns an engagement with Levinas, who, in texts like Noms Propres, suggests that even in solitude, we encounter an Other. Leaning on a reading of Proust, Levinas unfolds before us the idea of a true alterity which is an absence, a reflection of a self, a strangeness of encounters with a mysterious Other. Not to mention Levinas’ ethics of the Other, the way that encountering another person creates an ethical situation in which we are not free. There are two kinds of encounters in Evenson’s novel(la) and he carefully shifts and adapts them as the book goes on. I can easily imagine a science fiction novel written from the point of view of another character in the book, enountered by Evenson’s protagonist, and that route is the easier one to take – exploration, not understanding, interrogation, not self-examination. Again, I apologize for being nebulous about the book’s plot and characters but it is such a rush, such a delight to have the book unfold as it does without knowing what’s coming that I cannot possibly take that away from you. Apart from Levinas, and maybe a Deleuzian sense of becoming, there’s also an engagement with theories of the body as found in the work of Butler and particularly Donna Haraway. How do we create our bodies, how does technology interact with our sense of self and how do we negotiate thinking and understanding with these augmented or remastered, altered physical realities. What does it mean to be complete and how much of what we consider selfhood is intricately connected to what we consider an intact physical form? Who speaks when we speak and to what degree can we separate our body from the tools we use?

Evenson’s discipline in telling this story is quite astonishing, There is no fat on the bones here – the story is all muscle fiber. There are no long expositions, no indulgent explanations of history and technology. Evenson explains things here and there, but only exactly as much as he has to for his readers not to get lost. And despite this, the intellectual and narrative density, the book is also emotionally powerful, almost exhausting, really. I sometimes complain about science fiction books. THIS is why I read science fiction. This is why I read books.

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John Wray: Lowboy

Wray, John, (2010), Lowboy, Picador
ISBN 978-0-312-42933-1

It’s astonishing, really, how far popular fiction steeped in philosophy or theory has come. Modernist and postmodernist fiction, despite the levity and ease that the latter brought to that kind of writing, was still explicitly (and difficultly) theoretic. Writers like Robert Coover or Donald Barthelme have, to this day, written for a certain kind of audience, a select group of readers, not small in numbers but far from representing the mainstream of popular literary fiction. Although there are young writers like the amazing Colson Whitehead, who continue writing these slightly difficult, openly brainy kinds of books, many of our younger writers have managed to create books which are sneakily smart, which tell an engaging tale that works both on a theoretical level as well as on a level concerned with the complexities of ‘normal’ storytelling. Among the writers in this vein are Lorrie Moore, whose so-so most recent novel, A Gate at the Stairs (review forthcoming) is part moving coming of age-tale, part intellectual exercise, obsessed with naming, meaning, and reality and Brian Evenson, who writes harrowing tales of horror, fueled by a fine philosophical mind, fed on a diet of French philosophy. Another writer is the prodigious John Wray. Lowboy, published in 2009, is his third novel, after The Right Hand of Sleep (2001) and Canaan’s Tongue (2005). Wray is a consistently astonishing writer, and Lowboy is an incredibly good book. It’s a lot of things, but first and foremost, it’s a compelling, great read, and a smart one at that. Trust me. Read it.

Like Evenson, Wray manages to write, his literary and philosophical concerns aside, a completely convincing genre novel. This is harder to do than you’d imagine, but Wray pulls it off with aplomb. Lowboy is a mystery novel, employing many tropes and tools of the genre, and it’s an addictively readable mystery at that. From the first to the last page, the reader hurries through the book following the hints Wray has scattered throughout, exploring the dark landscapes below and above NY City. That Lowboy does work like an excellent thriller or mystery is all the more interesting, since Wray has sidelined the detective in his book, more than that: he has given him a bit part, made him second to the narrative and theoretical structure of the book. Without this move, Lowboy wouldn’t be half the great novel that it actually is. In his classic study of postmodern fiction, McHale has pointed to the detective mystery as the genre that best embodies the modernist paradigm. Modernism, according to McHale, is about finding out about the world, the one, real, indivisible world. The literary techniques that are applied to achieve that goal may vary but the goal never changes. There are problematic issues attached to that, especially if we look at fringes and peripheral phenomena. Wray tells his story through his protagonist, and robs the detective of the power to read and explain the world. Things have to be explained to him although the whole story, ultimately, is beyond him, and beyond a simple explanation, actually.

This is important, because Lowboy‘s protagonist Will Heller, nicknamed Lowboy, is an outsider, fringe, part of the periphery: he is mad. No, really, he is a paranoid schizophrenic, and as we enter the book he has just made his escape from the Bellavista Clinic (a thinly veiled reference to Bellevue, I guess) and roams the streets of NY. Or rather: he enters the intricate, labyrinthine underground world of the New York subway system. Even with his perception endangered, he can find his way through NY with ease, and a determination that makes him some kind of Theseus. In fact, this isn’t that odd a reference. Although this Theseus doesn’t need Ariadne’s help, his zeal and resolve are similarly fueled by the wish to save other lives, though in this case, it’s the whole world that Will attempts to save from fiery destruction. In Will’s odd head, the dire global warming warnings have engendered a belief in the imminent destruction of the world by fire that can only be stopped if Will (bear with me) is cooled down, which to achieve he needs to get laid. This may sound like an adventurous story a desperate teenager tries to tell a gullible girl he wants to bed, but Will completely and utterly believes it. In fact, at no point in the whole novel does Wray condescend to his protagonist, he’s utterly serious about Will’s problems and concerns, which is rare.

Mental illness is often subject to readings that celebrate the margin as different, using its symptoms as cute or terrifying images, in order to achieve something akin to an ‘atrocity tale’: connecting with normal people in the mainstream by using the margin as contrast. Wray doesn’t do that, and much of the power and drive of the book is due to Will’s genuine anguish. Sometimes Wray doesn’t offer explanations, which contributes to the mystery and tension in the novel, and even Lateef Ali, Lowboy‘s detective, is sometimes blindsided by the mentally ill people he pursues. Impressively, the mystery that surrounds Will and those like him in the book, is never really resolved, cleared up. This is not about understanding madness. Indeed, Wray appears to harbor no wish to relate Will’s thoughts and ratio in a way that makes perfect sense to his readers, who do not share Will’s predicament, and so the clinical view is completely absent from the book, although psychiatrists do make an appearance in Lowboy. Yet their explanations create as much fog as they clarify issues, and in a twist in the very last sentence of the book, John Wray makes, unambiguously, clear that Lowboy is a literary work of art, that it does not attempt to speak about people afflicted with Will’s illness. As we know from Foucault, this is a central problem: mental illness is rarely allowed to speak itself, and if it is, its speech is licensed, framed, ‘allowed’. For a writer not afflicted with the illness in question, this can be a kind of trap.

John Wray offers a few solutions. Among these is his refusal to explain Will, to make his readers empathize with him at all costs. Another is the serious, earnest nature of his portrayal of Will’s perception. Although Lowboy creates an exaggerated image of the mind-set of many teenage virgins, and of the hyperbole that teenagers are often prone to display whenever they are feeling particular put-upon and desperate, exaggeration never turns to caricature. Will’s desperation is palpable and real, and his reading of the world is different from mine or yours, but Wray doesn’t linger on the specific issue of the difference, he doesn’t spend much time with Will’s symptoms as symptoms. The seriousness (despite the fact that Lowboy is actually a hilarious book, to be honest) provides an interesting link to another genre that Wray sets his book in, apart from the mystery aspect. It’s a coming-of age tale in a way. Many reviewers have correctly cited J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye as point of reference. This is appropriate inasmuch as the anger and directness of Salinger’s protagonist, and his disdain for the “phoneys” does have many parallels to Will’s behavior in Lowboy. But Will is like the light, open version of Caulfield. There is no hate, no real disdain in him, he’s wondering, trying to cope, and understand. One of Wray’s remarkable achievements is that he managed to use a difficult character in a way that is not the least exploitative, I think, that makes use of his unique situation without pathologizing him. There are many schizophrenic characters in fiction and many more who are otherwise mentally ill. Will doesn’t resemble them as much as he does the unmarked boys from modern (normative) coming of age novels.

I have, accidentally, been reading a few of those lately, from great works, like Padgett Powell’s Edisto, to dire ones, like Joe Dunthorne’s Submarine, or Sue Townsend’s series of horrible books. The worse the book, the stronger the tendency to use irony and sarcasm, to distance oneself from the story through clever tricks and ruses. Clever puns and a knowing air, these can work when you’re as extraordinarily talented as the young Martin Amis who managed to pull this kind of writing off in The Rachel Papers (read my review here), but there’s a dishonesty, really, to the whole enterprise, and looking at its center you’ll find, more often than not, an unoriginal philistine mind cloaking itself in cleverness. In the bad (but well-praised) books, this is invariably the case. And what’s worse, they are horribly normative in the worst way. Iterating white male narratives, reproducing cute images of repressive myths, these books are really quite damaging to public discourse. The cleverness and irony makes it just less bearable. Caulfield is an exception, because of his directness.

Another exception, and focus of one of the best coming of age novels ever written, is the protagonist of Henry Roth’s magisterial Call It Sleep. Roth’s David Schearl (though he’s quite a bit younger than the usual characters of these books) is bewildered by the world around him, and as he uncovers the world beyond his apartment, he discovers language anew, and the world, and Truth, are revealed to him in a set of complex epiphanies, though his head can’t grasp them. This poetic and religious understanding of his environment, which unfolds in the pages of Roth’s incredible novel, is close to how madness may be described by some. There is dirt, and sex, and intrigue, but Schearl stumbles through all this without having to resort to cheap asides and ironies. Reading Lowboy, Roth’s book was the first I thought about. While the gravitas and the scale of the two novels are very different, they share a concern (also questions of cultural heritage, by the way) about how the world is read by someone who is not part of the in-crowd, whose sexuality may be differently bracketed (With Roth there’s also of course the later books to consider), someone who cannot rely on convention to make sense of it all.

This is crucial. What separates Will from ‘normal’ people is not madness, it’s that his perception of the world is fresh. Philosophers like Nelson Goodman have shown how much even the very act of seeing is translated to us via conventions. Much of Will’s oddness, when he changes into a two-dimensional world, for example, or when signs around him come alive, this is not strictly speaking mental illness. Wray has captured a fragility in narrating the everyday, by using a character at the margins, who is able to see the world the way he does because the normative narrative has pushed him so far aside that he doesn’t even develop double consciousness. Those whom we regard as sick and disabled we shelve, we box them, as/like objects. And still we punish them. So while they do not get to partake of the narrative of power, they suffer its consequences. The ease with which we as a society inflict punishment upon those whom we regard as disabled is astonishing, the forcefulness with which we ensure that the conventional reading of how limbs and minds are supposed to work is the only reading available and deviations are shelved, boxed and punished, is frightening. The cascade of story and images in Lowboy implies a cognizance of this fact, of the enormousness of this kind of oppressive structure.

Will is dangerous to himself and others, this we learn early in the book. Or is he? Lowboy captures eloquently the fine line that separates truth from normative fiction. There is a careful ambiguity to the question of how (and if) Will is as dangerous as Lateef Ali and the others think he is. Although the larger structures of state and society are not explicitly invoked, Wray scatters obvious references throughout. The fact that Lateef Ali was born Rufus Lamarck White (there are five essays begging to be written just about that name and its meanings in relationship to the novel and its contexts, political and cultural) is one such plain, but unforced reference, another is “Skull and Bones”, Will’s nickname for the wardens who pursue him through the underground, which can’t help but recall the Yale society that goes by the same name. Not only that one. Conspiracy theories, not just Sutton’s silly one, are at heart reductive, reactionary celebrations of the status quo, even when they appear to question it (cf. for example Daniel Kulla’s fine book-length essay on the topic), and as such, the nickname and the job of the two wardens in hot pursuit of Will are a perfect fit. Between Ali and the wardens, Will navigates between realistic and cliché representations of reality. The fact that he doesn’t depend upon convention and consensus to understand the world, means that he can move from a realistic world into a symbolic world of representations, where people are proxies for ideas and structures.

There’s more to the novel than that. Personally, I felt a strong connection between this book and Saul Bellow’s slanderous (but brilliant) Humboldt’s Gift, also, the use of semiotics in the book warrants many close inspections. Lowboy manages to take on a difficult kind of protagonist without falling into various traps. This book is not about understanding Will (and those like him), it continues to put off final explanations. It’s an incredibly rich book, and a review as short as this cannot possibly do it justice, but in closing, it’s important to not overstate the ideas, because, incredibly, despite all this, Lowboy is a great, suspenseful, quick read, that works on a direct, engaging level. Wray’s prose is careful, elegant and insanely precise, but also very unobtrusive. It’s hard to imagine anyone not liking this book. By rights it should be a bestseller and the object of university seminars both. This is a moving, great read. Don’t miss out on it.

Snapplebabble (w/Brian Evenson)

The latest bookbabble is up, with star guest Brian Evenson. Also attending: me, stammering, as usual, then there’s Lord Donny, of course, and L.A. woman a.k.a. Renée the wonderful, as well as Björn, Swede extraordinaire. Additionally, we were lucky enough to have Francois Monti grace us with his thoughtful presence again, formerly at tabula rasa, now maître at the Fric Frac Club. Nobody offered me a drink. Here is the direct link and here’s Donny’s summary

The group is pleased to have Brian Evenson, award-winning literary/horror author of Altmann’s Tongue, Last Days and The Open Curtain, among many others. We discuss the man and his work in this interview, covering genres, literature, his work as the Chair of the Literary Arts Program at Brown University, translation works, ebooks and prodigious reading input.

Talking the talks. Brian Evenson.

While I’m still hoping for Brian Evenson‘s appearance on bookbabble (we’ve invited him), here are two great interviews with the man. One on the excellent blog Bartleby les yeux ouverts (click here to get to the interview), which talks about issues like translation and deals specifically with The Open Curtain (he also responded to the Fric-Frac Club Questionnaire here). In the other interview you can even hear him, it’s his appearance on the Bat Segundo show. Here’s the link and here are the subjects discussed:

Knowing when a story concept has legs, ideas that never come to anything, the origins of “A Pursuit,” The Open Curtain, maintaining surprise, text sources vs. personal experience, writing fiction moments that hit two simultaneous emotions, grisly moments and descriptive detail, the reader’s imagination, revision and rhythm, not showing work to people, the surprise of audience responses, Bjorn Verenson, certain similarities with characters in “Ninety Over Ninety” and publishing people, Morgan Entreiken, determining the precise moment in which a story ends, open endings and critical theory, story concepts as building blocks for novels, similarities between “An Accounting” and Last Days, conversations between stories, bureaucratic language, investigating religious communities, solitary figures being pursued by men vs. the recurrent theme of community, expanding on conclusions from Ryan Call’s Collagist essay, literalisms and tributes to pulp, challenging the assumptions of “human,” translating, Antoine Volodine, how a line from The Savage Detectives inspired a short story, dwelling upon consciousness, intertextual aspects, absurdity and violence, characters who plunge into dark chambers to experience horror, being the dungeonmaster at 12, knowing the environment, Evenson’s concern for numbers and scales, Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, postmodernism and theft, and the satisfaction of genre literature.

Brian Evenson: Last Days

Evenson, Brian (2009), Last Days, Underland Press
ISBN 978-0-9802260-0-3

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.

The religious references are obvious. The quote that precedes the novel is from :

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.

Hidden: Brian Evenson’s “The Open Curtain”

Evenson, Brian (2006), The Open Curtain, Coffee House Press
ISBN-10 1-56689-188-4
ISBN 13 978-1-56689-188-2

In fact it is impossible to comprehend the actions of the murderous Lafferty brothers, or any other Mormon Fundamentalist, without first making a serious effort to plumb their theological beliefs, and that requires some understanding of LDS history, along with an understanding of the complex and highly fluid teachings of the religion’s remarkable founder, Joseph Smith. The life of Smith and the history of his church may be considered from myriad perspectives, of course . And therein lies the basis for the Mormon leadership’s profound unhappiness with my book.

(A Response from Jon Kracauer to his critics)

This book is hard to describe without spoiling it for the reader. It’s a tightly wound tale of horror, although not in the sense of the recent wave of splatter movies. Its brand of horror is akin to the brand of horror in Doris Lessing’s terrifying The Fifth Child. There are murders in the book, dismemberments, stabs, cuts, and strangulations, yet the novel is far from grisly. The blood is decorative, ritual. There are numerous rituals in the novel, rituals, however, which are an integral part of the horror. There is, in the middle of the novel, at the point where events really take a steep downward turn for the protagonists, a strange marriage ceremony. Strange to me, but apparently a faithful depiction of a Mormon wedding ceremony. It bears remarkable similarities to Salman Rushdie’s masterfully dense novel of partitions, marriages and Pakistan, Shame. In Rushdie’s novel, it was a delightful, tender, erotic episode where two people find each other not only despite rituals, but find ways to use them for their own ends. In a way, in The Open Curtain, a similar episode is described, and this time, too, the ritual is put to individual use, or as one of the characters puts it “we pulled a fast one on God”. Evenson, a former Mormon, presents us these rituals with painstaking –and ultimately frightening- accuracy. It is important since Mormonism provides the backbone of the story.

The story is basically based on two historical events. One is the murders by the Lafferty brothers, Ron and Dan, who killed their brother Allen’s wife and child in order to purify them. The victim, Brenda Lafferty, was thought to support Ron’s wife in her decision to leave him when he insisted upon marrying multiple women. Mormonism’s ties to violence are notorious, mostly connected to the so-called blood doctrine. Here’s wiki’s neat summary:

In Mormonism, blood atonement is the controversial concept that there are certain sins to which the atonement of Jesus does not apply, and that before a Mormon who has committed these sins can achieve the highest degree of salvation, he or she must personally atone for the sin by “hav[ing] their blood spilt upon the ground, that the smoke thereof might ascend to heaven as an offering for their sins”. Blood atonement was to be voluntary by the sinner, but was contemplated as being mandatory in a theoretical theocracy (see Theodemocracy) planned for the Utah Territory; it was to be carried out with love and compassion for the sinner, not out of vengeance.

In 2003, Jon Kracauer published a non-fictional account of the Lafferty story, Under the Banners of Heaven, which included a fascinating account of the aforementioned violent history and spawned indignation and changes in certain rituals. The book is also one of the pre-texts of Evenson’s tense coil of a horror novel. The actual incident that spawned the novel, according to the author, is William Hooper Young’s murder of Anna Pulitzer. The great thing is that the New York Times has digitalized a huge part of their archives. As the protagonist digs through the articles, we have the opportunity to do the same. This is from the September 20, 1902 article:

Capt. Titus, Chief of the Detective Bureau, announced at 10:30 o’clock last night that Mrs. Anna Pulitzer was murdered by William Hooper Young, a grandson of Brigham Young, the famous Mormon leader. The murder, said the chief detective, was committed in the apartment of Young’s father, at 103 West Fifty-eighth Street.

The Open Curtain takes a troubled teenager, Rudd Theurer, from a Mormon community, who digs up the case of William Hooper Young for a school project and at the same time discovers he has a half brother, Lael. From this situation Evenson spins a tale of violence, religion, deceit and madness. Rudd comes from a troubled family although we are never filled in as to what constitutes that trouble. His dead father towers over the first half of the book, as he is the one who connects all the strands of the story. The plot ingredients here would make for a fat, long, complicated novel, psychological in a convoluted way. And this is just the beginning. The novel becomes more and more complex as it progresses at a prodigious speed. It starts with memory of a murder and progresses to actual murder, as the events unravel. Murder, he wrote? Make no mistake, this is not a mystery: there are no surprises for the reader, who soon gathers how the novel is going to end. The Open Curtain is a terrifying novel, precisely because we know what is going to happen.

One of the central tropes of this novel is doubt. Doubting the evidence of yr own eyes, doubting God, yourself. Names become pratfalls: Lael, a male name often assigned to girls, meaning “belonging to God”, is often mispronounced as Lyle, the main difference being the first syllable that changes from being pronounced lay to being pronounced lie. Things like thus abound, most significantly the main character, Rudd, whose name derives from the Old English meaning “ruddy-skinned”, in other words: red-skinned. This provides a link to one of the most frequently cited instances of Blood Atonement, the 1887 Mountain Meadows Massacre, undertaken by a group of Mormons disguised as “redskins”, i.e. Native Americans. Instrumental in that slaughter was John D. Lee, whose manifesto is frequently cited by Rudd, who finds that his father had added copious annotations to it. This is just a mild hint of the complexities in The Open Curtain.

Mainly, however, it is about spiritual awakening, religious experience, a concern throughout the book. “God”, as one of the characters pronounces, “has drawn a curtain between myself and heaven and there is no parting it.” This is straight in the middle, ironically, since this novel is about breaking open boundaries, ripping open curtains, having madness fuck your old tired separations. In a way this novel is about strong religious experience, but the further open the curtains are, the darker the room becomes, until the concluding third of the novel, a masterpiece of describing a darkness within a soul or a mind. This novel is about the power of religion, even in those who do not think themselves religious. Religious upbringing or knowledge of intimate religious ideology can be enough to propel your forward on a path into the night. There are no farmhouses near that path and no possibility to rest once one embarks upon it. The dread the reader feels upon watching the characters hurtle down that path stems from Evenson’s mastery in drawing characters and setting situations and moods. Except for the teacher a character I felt slipped from his control, everybody is fleshed out and real to the extent necessary. So are the moods. There is humor, banter, as well as dread, irritation and fear, in the necessary doses. Because, above all, it is an accomplishment in that it does not waste a word. It is first and foremost a thriller and it succeeds within its own genre, a rare feat for literary forays into genre.

It is a superbly well crafted thriller, which is not weighed down by pretension. It has a serious side to it as well, showing what can happen if the violent elements in our culture suddenly surface and create a huge swirling vortex of madness. I will close with a remark from Evenson’s afterword:

A few years after the Lafferty murders, the Mormon temple endowment ceremony was changed in significant ways. The most significant changes to my mind involved the deletion of the “penalties,” a portion of the ceremony in which each temple participant mimed out stylized ways of being killed if they were to reveal temple secrets. Many temple-going Mormons saw this as a positive step: I tend rather to see it as a further repression of Mormonism’s relation to violence. Changing the ceremony hasn’t changed Mormonism’s underlying violence; it has only hidden it.

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