OCTOBER 8, 2019
FEW WRITERS WEAPONIZE a reader’s trust like Brian Evenson. To engage with his brand of “epistemological horror,” as he has described it, is to feel the disturbing pleasure of finding yourself stranded — in worlds less stable, minds less bearable, and uncertainties less resolvable than you’ve been led to expect. His books have a way of bothering you long after you’ve put them down, and a way of making most other fiction seem remarkably safe.
Evenson’s newest collection of short stories, Song for the Unraveling of the World, once again drops readers into a series of unpredictable realities, written in a deadpan style which renders even familiar genres sparser and stranger. In “Born Stillborn,” a patient’s therapist (or is it the therapist’s twin?) begins making mysterious visits in the middle of the night. In “Line of Sight,” a film director senses something imperceptibly wrong with his latest movie. My favorite of the collection, “The Second Door,” defamiliarizes a standard sci-fi setting — a space station is described from the point of view of an orphan who only has his older sister for guidance. He begins to distrust her when the sound of clattering metal replaces her voice. Taken together, the stories probe the tension between unreliable narrators and an unreliable world, amplifying our own uneasiness about what we may or may not know.
Evenson is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and three O. Henry Prizes. His novel Last Days (2009) won the American Library Association’s award for Best Horror Novel, and his novel The Open Curtain (2006) was a finalist for an Edgar Award and an International Horror Guild Award. Over email, he was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about environmental collapse, the work of Lydia Davis, and the advantages of the novella form.
ANDREW BLEVINS: You’ve described yourself as someone who likes to work at the boundary between horror and other modes of writing and storytelling. You’re interested in “those moments where reality seems to crumble and fall away,” as you’ve phrased it. Our era — the Anthropocene, late capitalism, whatever you’d like to call this period of climate crisis and mass extinction — seems to be defined by a sense of precarity and dread. Do you feel that horror is uniquely suited for this moment? Do you see connections between the effects you aim for and larger senses of crisis or collapse?
BRIAN EVENSON: When I was a growing up in the 1970s, there was a sense of things coming to an end, a strong sense that there was something unsustainable about the way we were living and that it had to change if we were going to stay alive even for another generation. I remember the 1973 and 1979 oil crises, the lines of people waiting for gas, the sense that something was just plain wrong. I think my parents — two of a very small number of Democrats living in Utah — were acutely conscious of this and talked about it in front of me and passed it along. The movies I remember best from the time (most of which were horror or had a connection to horror) often took up the idea of nuclear annihilation, apocalypse, or environmental collapse — the sense that things were going to fall apart. Movies like Soylent Green (1973), A Boy and His Dog (1975), Day of the Animals (1977), and Damnation Alley (1977) all gave me nightmares and made me acutely conscious of the idea that life as I knew it could collapse at any moment.
And then Reagan came along in 1980 and it was like everybody forgot. No more energy crisis, no more problems, a new age of prosperity: everything was very willfully pushed under the rug.
This has made me feel all of my life like there was something that was really happening but that would not be fully acknowledged until too late. When the crash came in 2008, it seemed, culturally speaking, almost like a return of the repressed for me. The talk about climate change and the rising interest in preventing it doesn’t exactly reassure me, but it does make me think I was right to be worried after all. It’s nice when the culture manages to catch up with your anxiety and paranoia — though perhaps “nice” isn’t exactly the right word.
So yes, my own interest in horror is intimately connected to that sense of impending apocalypse I felt when I was young, and I do think feeling like I’ve always been living in a world that may not be what others are saying it is has been crucial to my sense of my own fiction. I do address that sense of collapse or ruin pretty directly in at least some of my earlier fiction — my novel Immobility takes place in a ruined near-future Utah, and a character within it makes the argument that probably it would be best for humanity to die out. Stories like “The Adjudicator” and “An Accounting” take it on as well.
But in Song for the Unraveling of the World, I think there are more personal destructions taking place: the inability to find your daughter, for instance, coupled with the nagging sensation that you might have done something to her, or the shattering of relationships, whether of love or of kinship. A piece like “The Tower” is about the aftermath of environmental collapse rather than the collapse itself: a distant or not-so-distant future when people are struggling to survive. Four stories in the collection take place off Earth entirely.
There’s a certain mood that holds these stories together, whatever they’re doing individually with genre, that builds an overall effect despite the fact that they’re all coming from different places generically. I think that the interest in that mood is something profoundly rooted in me and goes back to what I felt growing up. It’s also true that I think of horror as more of a mood than a genre, and that’s the glue for me: the thing that allows me to cross all sorts of boundaries and barriers, hopefully productively, and still feel like I have a book at the end.
The epigraph to this new collection is a quote by the critic David Winters: “The world itself withdraws like a tide, uncovering a widening gap which consciousness unfolds to fill…” It comes from an essay analyzing Lydia Davis’s novel The End of the Story. Why did you choose that epigraph?
I chose that quote for two reasons. For one, it seemed to describe a particular aspect of what I’m trying to do. Second, I feel a strong connection and affinity to Davis’s work and to The End of the Story in particular, which I’ve taught several times and which I think is beautifully written. But it’s also the kind of book that almost nobody would associate with my work at all, since the subject matter is so different. I’d argue, though, that there’s something about the care with which the narrative in the book is put together that is precisely what I aspire to. In addition, we’re both involved in a very real sort of philosophical investigation, though perhaps coming at it from slightly different tangents (though influenced by Blanchot in both cases). A great deal that Winters (who I think is a brilliant critic) says about Davis in that essay are things that I find my own work to have an affinity with. That essay as a whole, with a few slight modifications, could serve as an effective commentary on my work.
I often do that with epigraphs: offer up a bit of something that serves as a lens for my work, but if you look at the source, it ends up suggesting a more complex relation.
Your characters are often animated by abstract ideas — even plagued by them, sometimes to the point of insanity. Questions about knowledge, consciousness, and the fuzziness of categories (for instance the category “human”) come up repeatedly. Why do you think fiction is well suited for this sort of exploration?
Jesse Ball once said to me something like, “The word ‘Coca-Cola’ doesn’t exist in my fiction — no character would ever say it or even know what it was if someone did say it.” I like the idea of that. I tend to believe that you can do a lot with a world that has a certain amount of abstraction to it or that has a specificity which doesn’t rely strongly on the shorthand of products and production we’re entangled with on a day-to-day basis — things that we so much take for granted that we’ve stopped thinking about them.
I think there’s a lot of fiction nowadays that has fallen in love with trying to depict, often with a great deal of accuracy and pleasure, American millennial life as it is right now in a way that forefronts not only ideas but politics, positions, and relations to the internet. It seems like a very particular, even peculiar, take on the mimetic enterprise: within it is still a real belief that fiction can represent reality, can represent “how things really are,” even if it’s now “real” ideas. Even when it’s a zombie story, it’s still about the dynamics of late neoliberal capitalism — it’s at once critical of them and, more than it realizes, buys into them.
I don’t believe that fiction really represents contemporary reality and its ideas all that well — there are other art forms that do it better. But it’s an excellent place for exploring complex philosophical questions in an embodied way: to think about epistemological and ontological questions, to think about the way the mind functions. I think of the story as a kind of laboratory for alternative experience: a means of living through possible situations and lives in a way that is intensive and affective for the reader but also operates at a remove. I think fiction can be experiential, and in that sense it’s something that can bring about a profound change in the person reading it.
I think the novella in particular is extremely well suited for this sort of embodied philosophical investigation — there’s something about the length of that form, the fact that it can be read in one sitting, the fact that it can have the rigor of a short story without the bagginess that you often get in novels, and also the reach and depth you get in novels that you don’t often get in stories, that makes it, for me, an ideal form.
In terms of representing contemporary life, which other art forms do you think do it better than fiction or the novella?
I think long-form television potentially does a better job, though of course most of it doesn’t live up to its potential. It has an ability to capture things about contemporary life with an efficiency and totality that fiction doesn’t have. But it has almost no real ability to represent mental states in an efficient way, except by analogy. Fiction, on the other hand, can handle the depiction of interior states with a great deal of elegance.
Last Days and The Open Curtain can each be read as a linked set of novellas (Last Days as a pair, The Open Curtain as a trilogy). In both books, the characters reach points of such intensity that the narrative seems to collapse in anticipation of what’s about to happen. Then a new section will begin, with a different set of concerns and even a different tone and sensibility. What drew you to that structure?
With The Open Curtain, I went into the writing with the idea that I would teach myself to write a longer novel by simply writing three novellas and putting them together. I was thinking of each part of the book as its own distinct creature, as having its own arc and completeness. That worked great when I was writing the first two parts, but then I got to the third part and realized, “Oh, this needs both to work on its own and somehow bring everything together.” It took me almost four years to figure out how to do that final part, and I wrote something like a thousand pages to get there.
Bakhtin talks about the novel as being a sort of baggy monster that can include everything. But I think that most of my work in terms of novels has worked against that — I like a more rapacious and sleeker monster. I’m interested in intensity and affect, and in what Deleuze and Guattari call the disjunctive synthesis, in things that hold together delicately but in a way that never relieves tension. So, something like The Open Curtain builds and builds for the first part and then ends in a moment of tension; then the second part does the same thing, ending in an even more intense and unresolved way; then the third part brings together both of those things but in ways that intensify the tension rather than resolving it.
Last Days was a little different in conception. I wrote the first part first and published it as a chapbook called The Brotherhood of Mutilation. Then, over time, I began to think that there was more that I wanted to say and wrote the second part, publishing the two together as Last Days. There’s a deliberate shift between the two parts based largely on the main character’s changing relationship to the brotherhood and to himself. I’m in the middle of writing a sequel to it, called Phantom Limb, which shifts it even further.
Are there any examples of novellas that have been influential for you, or that strike this balance you’re aiming for?
So many. I love James Purdy’s 63: Dream Palace, for instance. There’s also César Aira’s An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat, Dambudzo Marechera’s The House of Hunger, Peter Handke’s The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, and on and on. They all strike that balance in a different way, which to me seems the point. Even something more traditional, like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, strikes me as having a highly developed philosophical impulse that functions more effectively and more visibly than it does in Conrad’s longer novels.
Since we began this correspondence, the great fantasy and sci-fi writer Gene Wolfe passed away, at the age of 87. You’ve mentioned Wolfe as an important influence; your novella The Warren is also dedicated to him. What has his work meant to you? Do you have any particular recommendations for readers who might only now be coming to him?
Gene Wolfe was a writer I first read in my early teens. I liked his Book of the New Sun tetralogy a lot, but I don’t think I fully understood it — but I understood it was unique and that it was doing something for me that very few other books were doing. I returned to Wolfe a few decades later because of a student’s interest in his The Fifth Head of Cerberus and realized that Wolfe (along with the very different J. G. Ballard) had had a deep subterranean impact on me as a developing writer, almost without my knowing. I feel like I’ve learned a tremendous amount from him since, as I’ve systematically gone through and read all of his work. The Warren couldn’t have been written without his work, but a great deal of other moments in my stories are also in conversation with moments and gestures in his. That continues to be true: I have a long story coming out in the next McSweeney’s which owes a great deal to Wolfe as well as to the artwork of Jeffrey Alan Love. I suspect it’ll continue to be true with a lot of what I write, particularly the work that has a relationship to science fiction or science fantasy.
I think the best place to start with Wolfe is the novella The Fifth Head of Cerberus, which is the first novella in the book of the same name. The Book of the New Sun is a somewhat different series of books, but to my mind it’s Wolfe at his very best. After that, I think his stories, particularly the long ones, are very good. The quite odd “Tracking Song” is something you can find online at Lightspeed magazine for free and is something I like very much. But pretty much everything in his work has something to recommend it. I’m very sorry to see him go.
You’re working on a sequel to Last Days. Are you working on anything else right now? Short-term, long-term — what’s next?
I’m writing a few stories, slowly building toward a new collection, though I don’t have enough of them yet to have a clear sense of the shape. A story coming out in McSweeney’s (“To Breathe the Air”) and another just out in Conjunctions (“In Dreams”) probably give some sense of where I seem to be heading and what I’m interested in at the moment. I’ve got another novel I’d like to write once I’m done with Phantom Limb, the Last Days sequel. Other than that, I’m in the early stages of collaborating with a graphic novelist on a project and am hoping that’ll come together.