AUGUST 5, 2019
IN THE BEGINNING of Brian Evenson’s story “A Disappearance,” which appears midway through his newest collection, Song for the Unraveling of the World, the narrator, or rather, a narrator, companionably beckons us into the tale. “In late November,” the narrator tells us, “three weeks after his wife disappeared, Gerard sold their city apartment and moved to a small isolated house in the countryside.” Then this narrator goes on to describe how
[t]ogether they had come over time to hate life in the suburbs […] They would take one last trip to the seashore, for old times’ sake, and then they would sell their apartment and move. Was [Gerard] to be blamed, he wanted to know, now that she was gone, for having proceeded individually as they had always meant to proceed together?
A tingle of something comes over the reader — off-kilter vibrations through narrative ether. “No, I said,” Evenson writes, “by all means no. I wasn’t blaming him for anything.”
That subtle shift from “he” to “I,” from apparent third person to glaring first person, is insidious, sure, but it’s also gear-grinding — the opposite of subtle, really. Gerard isn’t the third person limited here, but another character telling his own story in third person limited to yet another, distinct first-person narrator, who is in turn narrating Gerard’s recounted story and in due course his own, to us, the reader. The reader has to take a moment, casting about to discern where she stands in a narrative scheme she thought she knew. This setup might sound over-layered, but in Evenson’s world, it’s all part of the plan.
“But of course, privately, I was blaming him,” this newly minted first-person narrator goes on to explain. “How could I not?”
From here, the point of view in “A Disappearance” remains more or less consistent.
Fates are sealed, betrayals laid bare. The narrator reveals himself, in the tradition of Poe or Maupassant, to be pathologically untrustworthy, with a sinister agenda. Characters behave in accountably unaccountable Evenson-ian ways — beginning urgent, gnostic letter exchanges they spontaneously abandon; living for almost a year in the half-unpacked chaos of a recent move-in. And as the narrator’s reality crumbles — or rather the narrator’s proposed veneer of what we thought was reality — we keep coming back to that he-to-I shift. We wonder, what had been its purpose?
What might it have done — still be doing — within us?
As a writer, Evenson has always been preoccupied with mapping far-flung, often horrifying phenomenological conditions in his characters and by extension the reader: scrutinizing the filter through which we perceive. Indeed, there’s a nauseating immediacy to the way we experience the events of an Evenson story, only the thinnest of membranes separating what we and the characters see; that that membrane is also frequently warped, shadowed, or spattered with blood is what separates Evenson himself from the stark realism of, say, John Williams or, on the other end of the spectrum, the dedicated fabulism of Horacio Quiroga or Borges. Evenson’s terrain is somewhere between these two points, where the exactitude of realism advances upon but is ultimately subsumed by the amorphousness of the dissociative and the fantastic.
In “Fugue State,” a story from Evenson’s 2009 collection of the same name, about an amnesia plague afflicting an unnamed city, the central character Arnaud (the echo of French author Georges Arnaud is no accident) attempts to piece together the world he inhabited before the plague. “There was a series of days he could not remember,” Evenson writes,
how many days he was never certain, days in which, he temporarily deduced, he must have lain comatose and bleeding from the eyes on the floor of a kitchen, next to a woman he assumed, but no longer was certain, must be his wife. And all the days before those, which he could not remember either. By the time he managed to open his eyes and felt as though the world around him were moving at a rate his senses could comfortably apprehend, the woman, whoever she was, was dead. Thus his first memory, quickly coming apart, was of lying next to her, staring at her gaunt face, at the lips constricted back to show the tips of her canines.
Here, Evenson’s fictional world comes to the reader in jagged, half-glimpsed fragments: “a series of days,” “days in which,” “And all the days before those.” The passage’s temporal indeterminacy is further underscored by those aggressively interruptive clauses of Evenson’s — “he temporarily deduced,” “but was no longer certain,” “whoever she was,” “coming apart quickly” — obscuring any kind of continuum of perception on the reader’s part. She sees what Arnaud sees through fractured glass, darkly, and comes to feel his vacant panic.
While in Evenson’s 2006 novel The Open Curtain, about a disturbed teen who becomes obsessed with the ancient Mormon rite of “blood atonement,” we get similar sense-impressions from the protagonist, Rudd, who slowly starts to come apart at the seams as his violent preoccupations deepen. “There were times, during the evening,” Evenson writes,
when he became conscious and saw his mother regarding him strangely, her penciled eyebrows arched, waiting as if expecting something from him or waiting for the answer to a question. Strange minute drawings of disembodied human hands began to appear in the margins of his schoolbooks […] In his pockets and in the folds of his clothing were scraps of paper with words scribbled on them in a script that he couldn’t read. In his drawer there appeared a burnished rudimentary brass pipe hardly longer than his thumb. There was an aching in his head almost all the time, his life was slipping away from him and what was left was blurred on the ages and fading, and the image of the coffin opening was always with him: the brief flash of his father’s collapsing face.
Here, we get the same violent coming into awareness (“he became conscious”), the same parade of unanswered questions (“waiting as if expecting something from him”) and the same dissociated intimation that the character, and also the reader, has in some twilight state of being been party to unsavory doings (“drawings,” “scraps,” the “burnished pipe”).
In “A Disappearance,” something remarkably similar occurs, although here on an almost molecular level. By employing that subtle, yet jarring shift from “he” to “I,” scrambling then reconstituting the reader’s notions of who might or might not be narrating the story and why, Evenson has managed to do something very cool indeed: he makes narrative unreliability itself a phenomenological experience. The reader can’t un-see what means to stay hidden but simply can’t help bubbling up in the end.
The unreliability of perception and its deleterious effects on human experience is all over Song for the Unraveling of the World, probably the closest thing it has to a theme. Toward the beginning of “Leaking Out,” one of the collection’s strongest and, in my opinion, the scariest goddamned story Evenson has ever written (and that’s saying a lot), Lars, a drifter who wanders into a seemingly abandoned house to take shelter for the night takes stock of his surroundings. “He waited for his eyes to adjust,” Evenson writes. “Even after a few minutes had passed all he saw were odd thin gray stripes floating in the air around him. Eventually, he divined these to be the joins between boards nailed over the windows, letting the slightest hint of light leak in.” Still later, after waking up from a deep sleep with pointedly “none of the disorientation that comes from waking in a strange place,” Lars observes:
The stripes […] And immediately he began to see them, the lines of grey that marked the windows. There were none near him — the wall he had been touching must have been an interior wall, he must have taken a wrong turn somewhere. How had he gotten so turned around?
In many ways, this is Evenson at his most intense and discomfiting. By turning a laser focus on the otherwise banal details of the interior of an abandoned house, Evenson makes our skin rise and crawl with the intimation that all, although outwardly normal, is certainly not. Why else are we paying attention so closely? This augurs bad enough for Lars, never mind what happens later, when after finding “the remnants of a great cloud of blood” above the fireplace mantel, he wakes yet again to encounter a man in the armchair across from him whose skin “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.”
That the man with the strange skin and perhaps the house itself are symbiotic Lovecraftian entities who mean Lars ill won’t surprise a reader even passingly familiar with Evenson’s fiction. Yet given that Evenson has always been a writer preoccupied with signaling and subverting genre expectations, this designation also serves as a category marker for a handful of the wide-ranging stories in Unraveling: Lovecraftian supernatural horror, in which ill-defined, uncanny creatures make delectable snacks of the people who wander unluckily into their midst. Along with “Leaking Out,” the strongest of these stories, “The Glistening World,” another excellent, mind-bending offering about a woman who follows a man in a gold suit with “only a smoothness where a face might be” toward a psychedelic omen of her deliverance from near-death, “Glasses” and “Line of Sight” also stand as worthy companion pieces that, while never aping Lovecraft mindlessly, meld his grotesque otherworldliness with Evenson’s phenomenological intensity in order to push the boundaries of so-called “cosmic horror” ever further.
Yet another type of story in Unraveling complements these offerings. It’s one we’ve seen Evenson riffing on and sharpening across his career, not only in his previous story collections, but also his novels Immobility and Dark Property, as well as his hard-genre work under the pseudonym B. K. Evenson. Namely, the existential science fiction tale. “Sisters,” “Lord of the Vats,” and “Smear” all occupy this quirky terrain, many of which find Evenson’s characters floundering anxiously inside experimental vessels floating in the vacuum of deep space. Or, in the case of “Sisters,” one of Unraveling’s funnier stories, taking their origins from the reaches of deep space itself, on malevolent reconnaissance, here, on Earth. “Lord of the Vats,” a hybrid of the mythos and aesthetic of the Alien franchise (un-coincidentally Evenson, writing under the name B. K. Evenson, is also the author of 2008’s movie tie-in novel, Aliens: No Exit) and the work of Gene Wolfe and Alain Robbe-Grillet is the best of this bunch and charts the efforts of a disoriented astronaut named Villads and a Hal-like supercomputer called “The Vorag” to determine the reason Villads and his fellow crewmembers were forcibly extracted from hyper-sleep “seventy-one years, five months, and thirteen days” distant from their “arrival” at a cosmic destination Evenson declines to name. Villads is the only surviving crewmember aboard the ship, all of them having been “mutilated in some way, all severely damaged cranially,” their remains frozen solid within the ship’s hollow like the floating cadavers we encounter at the beginning of 1997’s pulp space opera, Event Horizon. Something, of course, must be on the ship with them, but Villads hasn’t managed to glimpse it — not yet. In spite of the elaborateness of the story’s setup, there’s something primordially sinuous and effective about the narrative mechanism on display in “Lord of the Vats”: Will Villads meet or not meet with the creature? And if he does, will he survive? Such lean dramatic stakes play a role, too, in augmenting Evenson’s phenomenological explorations, lending them a bold framework against which to unfold. At the end of “Lord of the Vats,” again, we have Villads abruptly coming into consciousness of his circumstances. “A noise had woken him,” Evenson writes. “What was it? Not an alarm. No, that had been earlier, the other time. But a repeated tone, coming from the computer […] Life form alert, it said on the screen.”
This same kind of exquisite dread, uncovered exhaustively moment by moment, permeates yet a third category of story in Unraveling where Evenson’s talents reliably shine. “Room Tone,” “Born Stillborn,” “Shirts and Skins,” “A Disappearance,” and the collection’s titular story, among others, all traffic in the conventions of the psychological terror tale of which Evenson has become a forward-thinking practitioner in the last several decades, beginning with his debut collection, Altmann’s Tongue, and progressing with heightening shrillness to 2016’s A Collapse of Horses. Hearkening back to the stories of Poe, M. R. James, and Shirley Jackson, and looking contemporaneously to those of Samantha Hunt, Matt Bell, and Helen Oyeyemi, Evenson’s signature take on this kind of story approaches, at its best, the late-Romantic concept of “The Sublime,” in which humanity cowers ecstatic in the face of unknowable forces both without and within.
Nowhere in the collection is this better brought off than in the stories “Born Stillborn” and “Room Tone.” In the former, a disturbed man’s therapist, or some ghostly simulacrum of that therapist, appears in his room late at night, plunging him into arcane and suggestive riddles such as, “How is an apple like a banana?” and leading him into a homicidally recursive consideration of what is to be done with the “the night therapist” as these appearances persist. “An apple wasn’t like a banana, [Haupt] thought. His night therapist was wrong,” Evenson writes,
They both had skin, but with an apple you could eat the skin, and with a banana you couldn’t. You could peel a banana easily with your fingers; an apple you couldn’t. To peel an apple of its skin, you needed a knife. A person was more like an apple than a banana.
In the latter story, “Room Tone,” a burgeoning film auteur shoots a climactic murder scene in a rented house only to be interrupted, at the very end of his shoot, by the house’s new owner, who barges in unannounced. Though the filmmaker declares the film all but finished, one aspect of it won’t sit right. “It might have ended there…” Evenson writes,
until [Filip] started editing the sound […] It was mostly fine, but in all the chaos of that last day, in the jerky start and the awkward final moments, he hadn’t managed to do the very simple thing of recording the room tone […] there was no good sustained silence. Or rather, there was sustained silence, but it was all from moments when the curtains were open and they didn’t mesh with that more muffled feeling of having the curtains closed while the murder was happening.
As much driven by his obsession with obtaining the ideal “room tone” as he is by his conviction that there is, in fact, an ideal “room tone” to begin with, Filip endeavors an increasingly comical and terrifying series of B&E’s to secure what he wants for his movie, with results that begin to mirror the gruesome content of the film itself. “And so, standing there in his bloody socks,” Evenson writes, “[Filip] turned on the recorder. It would be the thing that made the movie, he felt. The awful weight of that silence, the way it smelled of blood. It would be not only good enough but perfect, and only he would know why it was so.” Here, we see Evenson’s narrative phenomenology taken to its logical extreme. Perception, in Filip’s mind, supersedes all, morality and finally self-preservation.
All of which isn’t to say that Unraveling doesn’t come without its handful of missteps. The stories “The Tower” and “The Hole” aspire to heights of Kafkaesque abstraction that neither the prose nor the story itself are able to make their way down from, and the bizarrely appointed “Trigger Warnings” reads like an MFA-program disquisition on the dangers of political sensitivity. But all of this is well and good, especially when one considers what it’s like to grapple one’s way through any of Evenson’s impressive and widely varied collections. The mind may jerk and protest some as the stories shift genre and tone in the process. But there’s pleasure in this — dissonant and disturbing. Perceiving how is half the fun.