Parallel Deterioration: On Brian Evenson’s “Song for the Unraveling of the World”
By Nathan Scott McNamaraJune 14, 2019
Song for the Unraveling of the World by Brian Evenson
Enclosed spaces — inescapable houses, blocked caves, dead ships floating in outer space — recur throughout Evenson’s fiction, and they amplify the unnerving experience of being stuck with a subjective mind. “It’s only a house,” one of Evenson’s characters says to himself after stumbling back upon the dilapidated mansion he was running from. “Only an ordinary house. Nothing to worry about.” Evenson’s characters are driven into spaces where situational deterioration and psychological deterioration are usually the same thing.
Evenson resigned from his English faculty position at Brigham Young University 25 years ago, over controversy regarding his debut short story collection, Altmann’s Tongue. “We don’t want this kind of stuff coming out of this institution,” a university spokesman said. “We are not talking about literature in general. We’re talking about extreme, brutal, sadistic, and violent depictions of violence.” Officials in the university and church made their directions to Evenson clear: stop writing this stuff, or lose the academic gig and risk excommunication. Evenson left.
Evenson is certainly not for the faint of heart. His novel Last Days, for example, features a dark religious sect that venerates amputation. The violent characters limp and stumble through the novel, vengefully reaching for holiness, dragging themselves forward and leaving parts behind. But in Evenson’s writing, the greatest terror comes less from the violence as it does from the instability of simply living, of following even a prescribed or predetermined path, and it still leads into the maw of hell. Consider the opening story, a piece of flash fiction featuring a religious event and a young girl who has physically lost her face. Evenson writes, “There was hair in front and hair in the back — only saying which was the front and which was the back was impossible.” Like the aftermath of a botched exorcism, the story presents religious aspiration as more demonic than righteous and dreams as what morph into nightmares.
On the level of language, too, Evenson injects the slightly off-key, otherworldly, and desperate nature of religious fundamentalism. “I do steal all sorts of things from the authority of religious discourse,” Evenson said in a New Yorker profile, “and from the somewhat stilted way of speaking in religious terms that belongs to the religion I grew up in.” Evenson’s language, with its sense of travel from another place, time, and ideology sounds both recognizable and not; consequently, his sentences buzz. Evenson’s language often reads as if it’s been translated and that, in transit, it’s been partially body-snatched. “I was not myself by that time,” one narrator says after a weeks-long fiasco with a creature in a cave, “though in telling this I believe I have learned how to pretend to be myself again.”
Esbjorn, Tilton, Rurik, Klim — Evenson’s frequent use of Norse names is another technique of hitting the Anglophone ear in an uncanny manner. The names are both recognizable and mysterious, stuffed with articulable vowel and consonant combinations while also being names not commonly used in the English-speaking world. In the story “Lather of Flies,” a character named Lahr smiles after saying the name “Serno”: “Such an improbable name,” he says. “The kind of name found only in movies or books. Shouldn’t that have given the game away?”
While this new collection does not feature Evenson interrogating religious discourse as much as in some previous books, it still uses faith as one in a set of layered prisons. In that spirit, these new stories feature a great deal of skin swapping and peeling. In “Leaking Out,” for example, the narrator wakes to a man beside him in an armchair. “Something was wrong with his skin: it hung strangely on him, too loose in the fingers and elbows, too tight in other places. There was something wrong too with his face, as if the skin didn't quite align with the bones beneath.” In “The Second Door,” a creature from the dangerous outside world replaces one of the two characters stuck inside a house. “It had killed my sister and taken her shape, her manners, her gestures, her whole being,” Evenson writes, “but something had slipped and it could not take her speech.” She makes an inhuman sound of grinding metal — like an incessant horrid car crash.
A character’s body is another microcosm in Evenson’s fiction of the traps they find themselves in. In a story like “Smear,” for example, the astronaut protagonist wakes unexpectedly, still more than a lifetime away from his destination, while in spaceship storage. He asks the vessel if it has any music or TV for distraction. “[N]o, it couldn’t,” Evenson writes. “He was never meant to be awake — nobody was ever meant to be awake on the vessel.” Like a set of Russian dolls — the galaxy, the ship, the suit, the body, the mind — each trap simply opens up to another of the same. Time passes; the astronaut notices his body growing thin. “Are you sure I’m being fed enough to survive?” the astronaut asks. “Technically speaking,” the vessel responds, “you are being fed enough to survive.”
Evenson is like Franz Kafka meets Stephen King — Kafka because of the visceral and vulnerable way the mind flounders to make sense of crisis, the way reality slips, and the gut lyricism of rendering horror; King because, for all his concerns with the flailing mind, Evenson is also a fast-paced literary horror writer. A missing daughter, a murderous alien family that pretends to be human, a post-apocalyptic community struggling to survive mutant creatures — this is the sort of horror material Evenson selects from. But Evenson takes those horror tropes and strips them of their skin, revealing the quaking mind underneath.
In the title story, Drago blunders through his house, then through the neighborhood, then through the city, searching for his lost daughter. He finally calls his ex-wife from an old pay phone:
“Give her back! she said. “Bring her home right now.”
“You don’t have her?” he asked.
“What?” she said, startled.
“Dani,” he said. “You didn't take her?”
His ex-wife releases a high, keening wail. “What kind of sick game are you playing with me now? What have you done with my daughter?”
Among others, Evenson follows in the Edgar Allan Poe tradition of the macabre detective story — obsessive pursuits of missing things and people, detailed analyses of the circumstances of the crime — but the title story bends and bows under the collapsing pressure of the investigator’s mind. It’s less that he transforms from a protective father to a dangerous goon than that he was both the entire time, both wrestling against each other through every lurching step through the dilapidated city. “Please,” Drago’s ex-wife says, “Please. For my sake. Even if you killed her Drago, tell me. I need to know.”
In an interview at Skylight Books, Evenson is asked if he finds reality especially slippery these days. “I feel like it's always been a little slippery,” he responds,
and I feel like we have a tendency to try to think of the world as certain, as something we can hold on to, and really that's just not actually the case. The world is always a little bit slippery and strange and what we think of as real is something that's always contingent.
Take Haupt in “Born Stillborn,” a man who receives visits from his therapist in the middle of the night. Is it real? Evenson writes, “Their nighttime sessions felt, when he was honest with himself, just as real as his daytime sessions felt. Maybe even more real.” Again, Evenson lingers over the sound of language, hovering over phrases, names, and words. During a daytime session, Haupt asks: “Are you a twin?” Caught off guard, his therapist replies, “I … had a twin. He was born stillborn.” Haupt grips on to the phrase, poring over what it might mean. “Why not just say, He was stillborn? How was born stillborn different from simply stillborn? What had the day therapist been trying to tell him?” A great deal of the unhesitating drive in Evenson’s fiction is the relentlessness of paranoia, and the way a bad idea can expand. “The world is a strange place,” Haupt thinks to himself, “almost unbearably so. And yet, it is the only place I have. And I’m not even entirely sure I have it.”
In 2015, Evenson moved from his faculty position at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, to the School of Critical Studies at the California Institute of the Arts in Santa Clarita. Los Angeles, or at least some parallel version of it, is new to some of these Evenson stories; there are three surreal tales in which film productions turn appallingly obsessive. The already mentioned “Lather of Flies” is about a movie aficionado’s chase after a director’s rare film. Something like Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray meets David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, the story is fixated and paranoid. It features Los Angeles in a way that feels more like a dream, more like a nightmare, than real, and the story has a paralyzing sense of inevitable demise. Evenson writes of the film fan breaking into buildings in pursuit of the movie that may not exist: “That same sense that no matter what he said or did things would proceed inexorably, as they were meant to proceed. As if he had said the right thing, done the right thing. If right was the correct word.”
Dark, strange, and violent, Evenson’s work is also often funny. In a story called “Glasses,” an old woman gets off a train in a small dusty town. “The only place to eat was the back counter of the drugstore,” Evenson writes, “which only served milk, apple juice, and saran-wrapped tuna sandwiches, all taken from a square fridge.” At the drugstore, the owner tries to sell the woman “biofocals” instead of the “bifocals” she asks for, and having had a grandmother who said “heliocopter” instead of “helicopter,” she assumes they’re the same thing. In a manner reminiscent of the 1988 John Carpenter movie They Live, the glasses actually reveal the pulsing menace beneath the surface of things. “What’s wrong with them?” her husband asks her. “And with that,” Evenson writes, “he was plucked out of the air, simply gone, without a sound.”
Or in the story “The Tower,” a dying community seeks salvation from Hrafndis, the compatriot they abandoned to torturous death. Hrafndis came back inhuman and, immediately upon returning, ripped off a man’s arm in a single terrible motion. For reasons such as this, they need her. The narrator describes his compatriots persuading him to try to get her help:
I was the only one, person or straggler, to enter the tower and come out alive. Didn’t that prove I was chosen?
“No,” I said. “It doesn’t.”
“Lucky then,” they said, the others, the ones that were us but weren’t me.
“Lucky is enough. Lucky is all we have.”
In Song for the Unraveling of the World, Evenson renders the world as a place of infinite and paralyzing delusion. In the title story, Drago imagines that once a year passes after his kidnapping, everything would be fine. He anticipates that he and his ex-wife “could have a serious talk and both of them could work out a new custody arrangement that would give them equal parenting time with their little girl.” Evenson writes, “Even if he had killed his daughter, it was hard to see that it was his fault […] Was he, now, even the same person? Probably even a lie detector would declare him innocent.” In an Evenson story, a house isn’t inescapable because of its lack of doors and windows; it’s inescapable because it was built by an impressionable mind.
Nathan Scott McNamara also contributes at Literary Hub, Poetry Foundation, The Atlantic, the Washington Post, The Millions, Electric Literature, and more. Follow him at @nathansmcnamara, or read more at nathanscottmcnamara.com.
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