Heres a little essay I wrote a couple of years ago to preface an Evenson book.
Paul Di Filippo
For several years now, I have been a fierce admirer of the bracingly harsh work of Brian Evenson, from the publication of his short-story collection, The Din of Celestial Birds (1997), into the appearance of his first novel, Father of Lies (1998), and onward through his latter two collections, Contagion (2000) and Altmann's Tongue (originally 1994, but expanded 2002). (Regretably, I have yet to encounter his newest novel, Dark Property, from 2002.) In Evenson's work, I have discovered and reveled in an uncompromising, chastising, yet somehow uplifting bleakness of vision, arrayed in a prose that is icily meticulous and vividly cinematic. I have come to categorize Evenson as a flinty, keen-eyed writer who finds humanity a sink of odd depravities and psychological weaknesses, and who does not have much truck with the lighter side of existence. And while many of his fictions involve surprises and feints, misdirections and climactic revelations, in general he struck me as a writer who laid out all his cards on the table from the opening salvo of each story.
Naturally, then, I was totally unprepared for the astonishing work you are about to read, The Brotherhood of Mutilation. (Although, in retrospect, a certain off-kilter story in Altmann's Tongue titled "Job Eats Them Raw, with the Dogs: An Undoing" should have hinted at an ongoing expansion of Evenson's range and voice.
In his latest work, Evenson does a number of unwonted things that reveal a new side to his art, aspects of his powers heretofore untapped. It would not be correct to say he's a completely different writer from what he was--that outcome would be neither desirable nor likely--but I think it's fair to claim that he's moved into territory that has not seen the tread of his bootprints before now.
The first thing a reader familiar with Evenson's previous work will notice is that his usual richness of mimetic detail has been pared away to the bare minimum. Gone are the manifold and acutely described cities, interiors and landscapes. In their place is a barebones milieu the very generic-ness of which is an important factor in the power and success of the tale. A couple of rooms, the inside of an automobile, a stretch of lawn, all limned with a minimum of adjectives, yet implacably real nonetheless: out of such spare components is a whole world conjured. The starkness of the settings serves admirably to enforce all our attention on the characters and their actions, and removes the tale into the realm of the eternal. Does it take place in the future? In 1960's America? In 1950's Eastern Europe? While subtle clues do point to a contemporary milieu, the events of the story are given universality by the nonspecificity.
As for the characters, they exhibit a similar broadness of portraiture and consequent openness of valence: shrouded archetypes who yet breathe. No childhood memories intrude, no distinctions of vocation or status divert us from their essential qualities. First comes the protagonist, Kline, whose current condition is informed by one crucial moment in time. The core of his being was exposed in a single instant, and he is living with the consequences, both mental and physical, of this revelation, in a kind of suspended mortal afterlife. We know him deeply, if not widely. Next comes the buffoonish yet dangerous pairing of Ramse and Gous. Serving simultaneously as clowns and menaces, they are like psychopomps leading Kline through the strange alternate life he's fallen into. Finally we encounter Borchert, the presiding deity of Kline's bardo interval. Malign, or simply cruel to be kind in the manner of a harsh Zen master intent on producing epiphanies, we cannot say.
These four characters form a dramatic quartet which is positively Beckett-like, revolving around each other in strange orbits. Eventually, the dyad of Kline-Borchert assumes paramount importance, and the lineaments of the play become even more pared-away--in mimicry of the literal parings-away of the Brotherhood of Mutilation--until they quiver like taut naked tendons.
Yet throughout this suspenseful, primal tale, whose most shocking scenes induce Grand Guignol reactions, there runs an element new or newly proportioned in Evenson's work, and that's the blackest of comic attitudes. The strip show which Kline watches is a case in point. The presentation of it might have come direct from animator Bill Plympton, known for his morpological absurdities, or perhaps from an episode of Itchy and Scratchy, the cartoon-within-a-cartoon in The Simpsons. This leavening of humor makes all the difference in the reader's acceptance of Kline's shattering odyssey and in the willingness to accompany him. Even in the depths of hell, Evenson seems to be proclaiming, the famous "grin with the bubble of blood at the corner" will still stand us in good stead.
I am reminded of two works above all others by Evenson's new masterpiece. The older is G. K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), a labyrinthine tale of duplicity and innocence and culpability, with a similarly mind-blowing climax. The second is J. L. Borges's short story "Death and the Compass." Like Borges, Evenson demonstrates that murder is both endlessly simple and endlessly recomplicated.
"Reality is a desperate and evasive creature," Borchert informs Kline at one point. Thus it takes a writer of Evenson's magnitude to trap the beast, which even then writhes like Proteus in its cage.