Sample Book Reviews
Between Two Deaths
Keith Leslie Johnson
Coffee House Press
208 pages; paper, $14.95
Brian Evenson’s latest collection begins, a bit deceptively, on a note of restraint. Gone are the Grand Guignol touches we’ve come to expect, the dismemberments, the live dissections and disfigurings. This absence in itself produces an unsettling effect, like waiting for a dissonant chord to resolve to tonic. The space of that suspension is Evenson’s wheelhouse. At the risk of sounding somewhat precious, I’m tempted to say that the collection as a whole is fugally structured. The first, say, six or so stories—the “exposition” of the fugue—announce the themes which will be taken up, inverted, nuanced, and expanded throughout: domestic anxiety, anomie, (religious) psychosis, (emotional) violence. Indeed, Evenson is essentially our poet laureate of violence, and here shows he can write deftly on the subject, as well as graphically. The violence of divorce, for example—a violence far more profound and devastating, I think, than that of thumbscrews or other engines of torture—is movingly explored in “Girls in Tents.” The ubiquity of divorce has at once rendered its fallout banal and archetypal, and Evenson exploits both aspects: divorce on the one hand as boring, a non-event, an absence, and divorce on the other hand as a kind of primordial sundering, a trauma that keeps happening.
Repetition, of course, is the essence of fugue, but as Søren Kierkegaard pointed out so many years ago, “The only repetition [is] the impossibility of a repetition.” What remains, then, is the compulsion to revisit the past and repeat its traumas in a futile attempt to remedy them; the people Evenson writes about are thus trapped in compulsive patterns—fugue states—which, while admitting of slight variations, offer little in the way of hope, of escape, of transcendence. And yet, maybe this is the first, great inversion or “counter-subject” of Evenson’s fugue collection: only those without hope, only the failures, qualify for transcendence. Transcendence only really becomes transcendent when it is an objective impossibility. This was maybe the central spiritual theme of Thomas Bernhard, with whom Evenson is frequently compared. I know that Evenson is a great admirer of Bernhard, but this is the first time I’ve really sensed a proximity beyond style. There are little Bernhardian tics—like pausing in the middle of a sentence to italicize some word that will acquire an uncanny significance (as when a character utters the very Bernhardian word “correction”)—that Evenson has mastered. Such stylistic gestures are artfully deployed. But more than ever, I can sense a metaphysical affinity between the two writers (though both might well wrinkle their noses as the word metaphysical). At any rate, it is a welcome development in Evenson’s career, which has seen him improve consistently from book to book.
Citing affinities and drawing comparisons is a mug’s game, by and large, one which critics indulge in out of laziness and vanity (I’m no exception, I’m afraid). But Evenson’s work rewards literary sleuthing more than most. “A Pursuit,” for example, about a paranoid ex-husband fleeing one or more of his ex-wives after some undisclosed (but apparently violent) confrontation, is an effectively creepy and ambiguous psychological tale. (Note the indefinite article in the title.) “There seemed a figure in the driver’s seat,” the narrator informs us of his pursuer, “or if not a figure perhaps only a raised headrest.” The pun on “figure”—figure as “person” and figure as “rhetorical effect”—becomes more readily audible when we hear it in the key D(ürrenmatt). The Swiss writer of philosophical thrillers and romans policiers is not as frequently acknowledged an influence as Bernhard, but his contribution is definitive and registered in cerebral puns and amusing alpine details here and there. We could air a litany of other spectral contributors—Alain Robbe-Grillet, Leonardo Sciascia, Cornell Woolrich, Jorge Luis Borges, Heinrich von Kleist, the Samuel Beckett of the first trilogy, and so on—but the point I would want to make is that even if the territory is theirs, the map is Evenson’s. While I’m on the subject of contributors to the collection, I should mention that one of the stories, “Dread,” is illustrated by graphic novelist Zak Sally. While this particular collaboration is under-realized in my opinion (the sketchy images lack the sophistication and mannered intensity of the prose), it is easy to imagine how well Evenson’s texts could work in a visual medium. I hope we can look forward to further experimentation in this vein.
"Evenson is essentially our poet laureate of violence."
I said at the outset that the collection begins with deceptive restraint. But those who come to Evenson expecting suppurations, ribboned flesh, and the like will not be disappointed. “An Accounting,” a story from the opening section of the fugue-collection, “Wander,” a story from the middle section, and “Adjudicator,” from the final section, return us to the violent, post-apocalyptic world of religious fantasia found in previously published works like the superb Dark Property (2002). “Wander” is, in its own funny way, a retelling of Beowulf. Its chieftain is not Hrothgar but Hroar, and let’s just say those three consonants are not all he’s missing. Humorous touches like this have never been absent in Evenson’s work, but have often been downplayed by those who like his fiction con carne. As I said a moment ago, Fugue State delivers on that score, but what I think will be a great surprise to readers are stories like “Ninety Over Ninety,” which have their macabre elements to be sure, but trade more explicitly in gag comedy. It is a breezy, dialogue-driven satire of the publishing industry and the perversity of office politics. It even features a pseudonymous author named (wait for it) Bjorn Verenson. The subsequent story, “Invisible Box,” takes a darker turn, but sounds rather like a sketch concept in summary: it is about the wholly plausible horror of sex with a mime.
These cadenzas deepen an already estimable collection of stories that isn’t content simply to play to Evenson’s strengths in psychological horror and detective procedural. There are fine examples of these to be had, though—“The Third Factor” is an especially well-wrought surveillance story reminiscent of Bernhard’s Frost (1963) or Paul Auster’s Ghosts (1986)—and there is no shortage of unreliable, unraveling narrators. The palpable pleasure of these stories is being thrust, lock-step, from absurdity to absurdity until reality itself is denatured to accommodate absurdity absolutely. Like Robert Walser, Evenson can write fluently in the blank prose of the factotum stories in which characters are compelled to realize some obscure truth about life. The moment of such realization is always inarticulate, inexpressible, perhaps even maddening. More than a musical metaphor, then, Fugue State in the end is an existential designation, what Jacques Lacan called being “between two deaths,” a condition after one’s symbolic death and before biological death. There is a lucidity in that place of arrest, but monstrousness as well. Reason is fled, language collapsed, and there is naught left but to wait out the long dreamless night. Even in that darkness, though, the faintest human ember glows. “Everything slides into nothingness and collapse, and for several years we all live like animals or worse, and then slowly,” the narrator of the final story tells us, “we find our footing again.”
BIO: Keith Leslie Johnson’s recent and forthcoming articles can be found in Modernist Cultures, the Journal of the Kafka Society of America, and Twentieth-Century Literature, among others. He is an assistant professor of English and humanities at Augusta State University.