I have been an admirer of Brian Evenson’s prose ever since I drooled over the stories in his first collection, Altmann’s Tongue—one of the top influences in forming my literary aesthetic, and one of the most crucial collections to come out in the last twenty years. His new collection,Windeye, just out from Coffee House Press, continues the same dark, titillating work I first fell in love with.
In very economical ways, and in a very short space, Evenson creates great rifts of uncertainty for his characters and for the reader. In “Angel of Death,” the narrator, wandering a desolate landscape with a group of eight others, is given the task of writing down the names of those who die along the way. But even this concrete task is complicated—made slippery—by larger forces just underneath the tangible world:
The difficulty comes in knowing what is real and what is not. There is no agreement on this. What I am nearly sure is real are bursts and jolts and the smell of singed hair, but others recall none of these effects, recall other things entirely. And how we came to slip from one dim world and its dim deeds to the place where we are now, none of us are in any position to say. And why we are together, this too I do not know.
What I admire most about Evenson is his ability to arrest me in an extreme state of vulnerability. Whether the narrative is in first- or third-person, it never intrudes to provide concrete orientation. I am as lost, as consumed by disorientation, as the characters. In a cinematic sense, it's as if there is no widescreen shot, no panoramic lens, with which to get a sense of any outside environment. I'm pulled into in this great, unresolved tension that becomes the general atmosphere in which the events of the stories take place. Which is horrifying. And delightfully so.
There is also great physicality in Evenson’s vivid descriptions. His landscapes, while mostly spare, contain specificities of texture that make them come alive. Great attention is paid to the scratches and marks of violence upon bodies. These exquisite details are made all the more terrifying for being the only details to really trust.
If you happen to be in New York, I recommend experiencing Evenson firsthand. He’ll be reading with Dylan Hicks and Ben Lerner at the KGB Bar this Sunday, May 20, and at The Center for Fiction on Monday, May 21. I can assure you: horror might await the characters in these stories, but what's even more delightful is the horror that awaits the reader.