Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Brian Evenson's Dark Property

On May 1, Open Letters Monthly will publish an essay of mine called "Affliction Fiction." In it I review Brian Evenson's two new books in the context of the rest of his work.

As the essay developed, I cut pieces and added other pieces. A few of the cut sections here:

I watch eagerly for new books and stories by Brian Evenson. He’s got a wicked sense of humor, on display recently in the stories “Bon Scott: The Choir Years” and “Niue.” Imagine the awkwardness that ensues after AC/DC singer Bon Scott is found singing surreptitiously with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, or the comic possibilities in a story named after a tiny Pacific island nation that opens with this question: “And how is it that the brooding Johnny Hellspider, long having restricted his posts to two-word comments such as “You rock!” or “Satan lives!”, has suddenly become so loquacious?”
Evenson’s quickly expanding body of work has a darker side as well. When “The Brotherhood of Mutilation” arrived in the mail, for instance, the chapbook lay on my shelf unread. It requires a certain resolve and a reasonably stable state of mind to read Evenson’s more unsettling texts; and something about the title and the cover illustration destabilized my resolve. A few years later, I had no such trouble with Evenson’s Baby Leg, despite a white linen cover marked by blood-red prints from the author’s own hands. By that time I had also read and enjoyed “The Brotherhood of Mutilation,” expanded between handsome noir covers as the novel Last Days (winner of the American Library Association’s award for Best Horror Novel of 2009).
Given my sometimes conflicted relationship with these books, I’m left to wonder about my fascination with what I have come to think of as Evenson’s “dark property” (the title of one of his best and most disturbing books). The reasons I read and return to these books are multiple; but they generally have to do with questions of who I am as a creature of language. Brian Evenson’s work explores and plays with and sometimes eviscerates that creature.
. . .

Lest the notions I have perpetrated here about Evenson’s grim epistemology discourage prospective readers, I should note again that he is a superb humorist. “The Prophets” is an excellent example, a story surprisingly relevant today as Tea Party readers return to texts by Mormon Cleon Skousen and ideas advocated by Eisenhower’s Secretary of Agriculture and later Mormon prophet Ezra Taft Benson. The story is told by a Mormon named Verl who decides his Church has abandoned Ezra Taft Benson’s teachings and fallen prey to liberal ideas that threaten the whole country:
The way it was laid out to me, Ezra Taft was the last real President of the Church worth his salt. All the ones since him were liberals, people who the Lord had inflicted upon the Church for its wickedness. Ezra Taft, though, he was a good John Bircher who saw with a clear eye the importance of our Founding Fathers’ Constitution, not to mention the evils of the Federal Government. He saw like it was in broad daylight the conspiracy of the New World Order, and to top it off he supported gardening and self-sufficiency.”
So what to do? Verl drives to Idaho, steals a backhoe and digs up Benson’s corpse. Back in Utah, he tries to revivify the dead prophet, first with cosmetics and then with electricity. Insistent on the religiously constructed world he prefers to reality, Verl reads the subsequent disastrous events as meaning exactly what he wants them to mean and remains hilariously triumphant even as the physical laws of the universe run their relentless course.

Finally, a somewhat embarrassing personal revelation. I see myself as a sharp-eyed literary critic. I discovered the source for the Freemasonic conversations in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain and I was the first to notice that Rilke’s ten Duino Elegies hinge on an “ineffable site” preceded by 423 lines and followed by 423 lines. So when I realized that a one-eyed character in Evenson’s Last Days gazes at Kline’s missing hand with “eyes dilating,” I figured out I was on to something important. My musings on that singular/plural paradox can be found here (http://goaliesanxiety.blogspot.com/2009/03/paragon-and-paradox-brian-evensons-last.html ). 

More recently, rereading Evenson’s short-story collection The Wavering Knife, I stumbled on a mistake in “Moran’s Mexico: A Refutation, by C. Stelzmann” and began to congratulate myself again. “The only reference to a so-called Rodriguez in my grandfather’s original,” C. Stelzmann writes, “comes underneath a photograph entitled Tortilla bereiteren.” Aha! I thought. This should read Tortillabereiterin—the “in” means woman. I made a note in the margin, ready to send on the correction for the author’s next edition. Then I turned back to the story.

C. Stelzmann is the grandson of the author of a travel book about Mexico that has been appropriated by its translator Moran, a man C. Stelzmann calls a postmodernesco and whose intertextual “translations” he decries. By the second page, a reader discovers that the grandson’s refutation of Moran has been translated from the original German by a translator present in copious footnotes that systematically undermine the claims and abilities and even the sanity of C. Stelzmann. For instance: “C. Stelzmann, who seems to have no knowledge of animal husbandry, does not realize the animal photographed is a cow, a female, and thus not likely to search for a wife”. Even as I chuckled at what unfolds as a literary-critical parody, I still plied my critic’s tools, counting up the degrees of linguistic remove from the original Mexico: 1) A. Stelzmann’s account, 2) Moran’s “translation,” 3) C. Stelzmann’s refutation, 4) the translator’s text and notes, 5) my notes on the mistakes in the German. Number five brought me up short. C. Stelzmann and the translator are both laughable characters, all too certain of their certainties. And so am I. Evenson has sprung the trap.

Brian Evenson, Director of Brown University’s Literary Arts Program, has produced a remarkable body of work over the course of fifteen years. There are novels and separately published novellas: Father of Lies (Four Walls Eight Windows, 1998), Dark Property (Black Square Editions, 2002), The Brotherhood of Mutilation (Earthling, 2003), The Open Curtain (Coffee House Press, 2006), Last Days (Underland Press, 2009), Baby Leg (Tyrant Books, 2010), and Immobility (Tor Books, 2012). There are three science fiction novels published under the name B. K. Evenson: Aliens: No Exit (Dark Horse Books, 2008), Dead Space: Martyr (Tor, 2010), and Dead Space: Catalyst (forthcoming from Tor, July 2012). There are books of short fiction: Altmann’s Tongue (Knopf, 1994; reprinted with the addition of an O. Henry-winning story by Bison Books, 2004), The Din of Celestial Birds (Wordcraft of Oregon, 1997), Prophets and Brothers (Rodent Press, 1997), Contagion (Wordcraft of Oregon, 2000), The Wavering Knife (Fiction Collective 2, 2004), Fugue State (Coffee House Press, 2009), and Windeye (Coffee House Press, 2012). There are translations: Rafael Cadenas’ The Space of Silence (with Trenton Hickman, Pyx Press, 1995), Jacques Dupin’s Giacometti: Three Essays (with John Ashbery, Black Square Editions, 2003), Jacques Jouet’s Mountain ® (Dalkey Archive Press, 2004), Cristian Gailly’s Red Haze (with David Beus, Bison Books, 2005), Claro’s Electric Flesh (Soft Skull Press, 2006), Jules Romains’ Donogoo Tonka (FORuM Project, 2009), and Manuela Draeger's In the Time of the Blue Ball (Dorothy Project, 2011). And there are introductions to books, essays, and even a literary-critical book, Understanding Robert Coover (University of South Carolina Press, 2003). Evenson’s work has been translated into French, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, and Slovenian.

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