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'Fugue State' by Brian Evenson

Gothic stories that stab at the reader with a meta-fictional knife.

July 26, 2009|Ross Simonini | Simonini is interviews editor at The Believer.

Brian Evenson is the Donald Barthelme of psychological horror. Over a career of four novels and five story collections, he has birthed a distinctive, postmodern style for exploring his favorite macabre topics -- amputation, post-apocalyptic landscapes, doppelgangers, "creatures of darkness" and religious bloodshed. Yet the grimmest turns in Evenson's writing have always been connected to a singularly modern obsession with language

In his new collection, "Fugue State," Evenson's stories most often serve as detective-style investigations into the horror of everyday speech. His characters cling to sentences, phrases and words with the intensity that usually accompanies unrequited love. "Dread," an illustrated story, chronicles how a man's obsession with the phrase "He no longer resembled me" portends a fate of self-mutilation. (Later, the character looks into the mirror and thinks, "What frightened me was not how the man thrown back so little resembled me, but how he so greatly did.") In "Mudder Tongue," a man's loss of control over his speech (thinking one word, "fishing," but involuntarily saying another, "gravy") leads him first to a darkly comic situation of almost speaking in tongues, then to placing a shotgun in his mouth. The book's title story seems to be constructed as an unfurling of the term "fugue state," the same psychiatric disorder that inspired David Lynch's 1997 film, "Lost Highway."

In their least successful moments, these stories approach wordplay cloaked in vague plots, but Evenson's language is usually evocative enough to fuel even the most simple of conflicts, such as the abstract pursuits that appear throughout his books. He especially shines when working with the medieval-speak of fantasy literature (particularly, Mervyn Peake's "Gormenghast Trilogy") and the heavy-fisted syntax of biblical language. His novels "Father of Lies" and "Dark Property" are both his most scripture-like and, not coincidentally, his most devastating. In "Fugue State," his story "An Accounting" describes a revolver-toting, self-proclaimed messiah who seems unable to escape the words "He Smiteth." Eventually, he decides "it would have been better to designate said revolver as their messiah, instead of myself."

It is because of Evenson's unabashed, Flannery O'Connor-like exploration of religious violence that he was forced to leave the Mormon Church and a position at Brigham Young University (a subject he doesn't shy away from on his website). Most discussions of Evenson's work make much of his past and his religion's blood-stained history -- a theme that he takes on directly in his thus-far masterpiece, "The Open Curtain" -- but equally compelling is his move after Mormonism. Nowadays, Evenson can be seen as a sort of presiding figure of experimental literature, succeeding Robert Coover as director of the literary arts (read: not "writing") program at Brown University, easily one of the most vibrant communities for nontraditional fiction.

Furthermore, Evenson's writing seems to grow increasingly possessed by the pulp traditions, a trend that he shares with Michael Chabon. With each book, he seems less interested in penetrating the evil side of religion and more compelled by the allegories of genre fiction. Next fall, "Aliens: No Exit," a graphic novel in the "Aliens" franchise, will appear under the name B.K. Evenson. Under another pseudonym, Bjorn Verenson (who makes a brief appearance in "Fugue State"), he is writing a series that deconstructs the conventions of crime fiction.

With this perspective of horror-as-genre, Evenson distills our fascination with the gothic and how fear can be used as a lens for perceiving life. "Fugue State's" opening story approaches this idea with a basic setup: Two young girls play innocently until a simple knock on the door, nothing more, alters the situation from one of simplicity to one of forking imaginative possibilities. For one girl, this "incident" injects terror into the way she engages with every aspect of her life. The other girl hardly remembers it. Likewise, one of the book's many lone-wolf protagonists comes to a similarly amorphous situation, and with Evenson's meta-writer voice peeking through, thinks: "There is, in every event, whether lived or told, always a hole or a gap, often more than one. If we allow ourselves to get caught in it, we find it opening into a void that, once we have slipped into it, we can never escape." Clearly, Evenson has seen the hole, has opted for the void and has no intention of escape.

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