Saturday, March 7, 2009

Paragon and Paradox: Brian Evenson's "Last Days"

Brian Evenson writes with a scalpel, paints with a fine camel-hair brush, composes novels like haikus. 

Brian's words and sentences and images and plots are paragons -- Greek parakonan, to sharpen -- of the writer's craft, so precisely honed that his readers put their fingers at risk.

Like his earlier work, Brian's new novel Last Days (Underland Press, February 2009), has a dangerous edge; and here too the danger is oddly comforting, the sharpness as welcome as the rasp of the Scotch brought to protagonist Kline by multiple-amputee Gous: "Kline screwed the cap off the bottle and drank. It was good Scotch, or at least good enough. He took another mouthful then pushed the bottle over to Gous, who, using his forearms like chopsticks, managed to get it to his mouth." 

Kline wakes up from the whiskey to a horrific revelation, but like all detectives who populate stories of this sort, he doggedly follows clues and combats evil until he solves (or kills or burns down) the crime.

So, if the crime is solved, the prose perfect, the Brotherhood of Mutilation cut off, where's the paradox?

It's on page 46.

There, after Kline is ushered ritualistically ("What is wanted? . . . Having been faithful in all things, we come to see he who is even more faithful than we") into the presence of Borchert, whose multiple amputations qualify him as second in the brotherhood's hierarchy: "He was missing an arm and a leg, his robe cut away and left open at shoulder and hip to reveal the planed surfaces, hardly stumps at all. The other arm and leg were intact, though the hand was missing all but two of its fingers, the foot all but the big toe. Both ears, too, had been cut off, leaving only a hole and a shiny patch of flesh on either side of the head. One eyelid was open, revealing a piercing eye, the other closed but deflated, the eye under it clearly absent," Borchert wants to see Kline's amputation, the hand severed and "self-cauterized" before Kline shot the "gentleman with the cleaver" through the eye. 

And here the paradox: "Kline went closer. He held his missing hand out; Borchert took it deftly between his remaining fingers and thumb and pulled it forward until it was only inches from his face, his eyes dilating."

His eyes?

Is Brian human after all? He wouldn't be the first writer to lose control. Tolstoy famously has the sun rise twice on the same day in War and Peace. And Peter Handke, describing Van Morrison's song "Coney Island" 

(. . . Heading towards coney island/I look at the side of your face)

in his "Essay on the Successful Day," transposes Coney Island from Ireland to Brooklyn. It happens.

Brian's one-eyed man's eyes dilate. It's a mistake. Or perhaps it's a mistake Brian meant to make. Not a mistake at all. If it's the latter, then what is meant? Are there indications it might be meant?

The conversation continues until Borchert, who threatens to have Kline killed "for the good of the faith" unless Kline does what he asks, requires him to amputate one of his fingers with a cleaver, after which Borchert presses his new fingertip down onto a hot burner: "The flesh hissed, the blood hissing too, the air quickly filling with a smell that seemed to Kline like the smell of his own burning flesh. Now, he thought, it is time for Borchert to pick up the gun and shoot me through the eye. When Borchert took his finger away, Kline could still hear it hissing a little. And then Borchert turned to face him, his face wreathed in ecstasy, his eyes dilated wide."

Again, both of the one-eyed man's eyes dilate. This time it's in the context of Kline's ongoing identification with the person whose eye is exacted for an offense, as the biblical injunction that acts as the book's epigraph requires. When he kills, he kills himself. When he burns, he himself catches fire: "His shoes and legs and shirt were aflame. He tried to beat himself out. . . ."

He tried to beat himself out. He cut off Borchert's finger and became the man he shot. The detective who solves the crime becomes the crime.



You can trust this writer, especially when he makes mistakes.