One of the most unsettling but rewarding reading experiences I’ve ever had was with Brian Evenson’s novel Last Days. In his book, a detective named Mr. Kline is coerced into solving a murder that occurred on the compound of a religious cult that, as the back cover copy says, “...takes literally the New Testament idea that you should cut off your hand if it offends you”. Explaining the details of what follows would ruin the experience of the descent you will enjoy as you read it. You will find yourself compelled to follow Kline as he tumbles deeper into the madness that he seems incapable of extracting himself from.
Beyond the physical horror described by Evenson, the thing that I think disturbed me most lies in the desire his characters have for you to understand their motives. Throughout Last Days, and much of Evenson’s other stories, his characters, while doing unspeakable things, want you to acknowledge why they are doing them. You find yourself implicated by listening to what they tell you. Like Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, they are not asking forgiveness exactly—they want you to understand. It’s this combination of amoral rawness, calm disengagement, and insanity that makes Evenson’s writing so compelling.
Evenson’s characters move through circumstance rather than place. His cannibals, prophets, and ex-husbands roam unspecific but still familiar landscapes. Objects, rooms, and cities function as a backdrop for the fates of his characters to play out in. But the psychological and emotional horror of Evenson’s work are rounded off by his humor. As in the work of Samuel Beckett the pathos is often tempered with a good joke.
Apocalypse is another reoccurring theme in Evenson’s stories. Whether pre, post or during the end of things as we know it, he uses it as a stage to reveal the darker instincts of human nature. His offering for the Hypothetical Library is in keeping with that theme.
In his hypothetical novel Immobility, Evenson introduces us to Horkai, a former “fixer” of things, released into a dying world, broken and wandering in a haze. Like Klien in Last Days, and his character Arnaud from the story Fugue State, confusion and disarray confound his every movement. It’s this state of fogginess that resonates with the reader. On some level you identify with Evenson’s characters—moving through the world and somehow sensing that you don’t quite understand what it is you’re supposed to do.
Unfortunately we’ll never find out how Horkai fares, because his full story doesn’t exist. It’s like he was never thawed from suspended animation, or that the injections administered by a “friend” are keeping him from full coherence.
IMMOBILITY—The hypothetical flap copy
Before the Kollaps, Detective Josef Horkai was the one they called in whenever an investigation hit a wall, the guy who barreled his way into a room full of hostages and barreled back out with nobody dead but the man holding the gun. He’s still pretty certain that he’s the best, even if now there are very few other people still alive to compete with, even if the rules of the game have completely changed.
Only problem is he’s been exposed to something that’s slowly killing him. His hair has fallen out, his teeth are all but gone, his legs are already all but useless, and he can feel the feeling slowly seeping out of his fingers. Which is why they’ve kept him frozen, held in suspended animation until they figure out what’s wrong with him. Only as it turns out it’s not all the way suspended. He can feel time oozing slowly past, has a vague sense of the world going on without him. How many years have gone by? How many decades?
And then suddenly someone claiming to be a friend thaws him out, tells him he’s needed. Something crucial has been stolen—though with the pain in his head its hard for him to keep straight what and why. He’s got to get it back or something bad—what was it again?—is going to happen. And he’s got to get it back so they can freeze him again before his own time runs out.
Is he dreaming? Or is he really awake, paralyzed from the waist down, being carried around on the back of an “assistant” who he never remembers meeting before? Why do the injections mean to help him seem to be making things worse? And why does he increasingly feel like he’s being asked not to solve a crime but to commit one?
The promotional quote—Jeff VanderMeer
“Immobility is a shock to the system. It makes you wonder why you ever read any other noir. The style is brilliant, becoming strangely less concrete the more we find out, as if the words are somehow disintegrating with the character. The inversion by novel’s end, the so-called twist, is perhaps the most perfect and natural I’ve ever read—so good that no matter how hard you try to figure it out ahead of time, you’ll fail. Immobility confirms Evenson’s ability to colonize your brain much like the best visionaries, from J.G. Ballard on down.”
Jeff VanderMeer—Author of Finch
Brian Evenson has written several works of fiction including the books Altmann’s Tongue, The Din of Celestial Birds, Prophets and Brothers, Father of Lies, Contagion and Other Stories, Dark Property: An Affliction, The Wavering Knife, for which he was awarded IHG Award for best story collection, and The Open Curtain. His most recent novel Last Days won the American Library Association’s award for Best Horror Novel of 2009, and along with the story collection Fugue State, was on Time Out New York’s list of top books of 2009.
Evenson has worked as a translator of several French writers including Christian Gailly, Jean Frémon, Claro, Jacques Jouet, Eric Chevillard, Antoine Volodine, and his own work has been translated into French, Spanish, Italian, Japanese and Slovenian. He is the director of Brown University’s Literary Arts Program, and is also the recipient of an O. Henry Prize and an NEA fellowship.
For a more complete guide of Evenson’s work please visit http://www.brianevenson.com.
His work is best enjoyed at night while laying in bed before you go to sleep. Trust me.
Next week: Gabrielle Bell