I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The writer on his new short story collection, creating realistic characters that don’t always change, and how fatherhood has impacted his relationship to language.
After being introduced to Brian Evenson’s work by poet Katy Mongeau, I quickly consumed several of his books, though it felt like they, rather, had consumed me: First, The Open Curtain, in which a teenage boy finds himself entangled with a newly discovered half-brother and the century-old murder case involving the grandson of Brigham Young; and then, Last Days, about an amputee cult who captures an unwitting messiah. Evenson’s latest story collection, Song for the Unraveling of the World (Coffee House Press), contains twenty-two short stories of unexplained abduction, otherworldly murder, and monsterish things that slip in and out of skins.
Not quite horror, not quite science fiction, these stories exist somewhere else, somewhere more elliptical. Though compressed and concise, resolutely un-purple, Evenson’s language still bubbles with unnerving effects, like inscrutable ingredients in a soup you’re about to be force-fed. A willful excommunicant of the Mormon church, Evenson has written dozens of books and won many awards. He was chair of Brown University’s Literary Arts program and currently teaches writing and critical studies courses at CalArts. We spoke over the phone, he from his home patio in California.
Rob GoyanesIn his book The Weird and the Eerie, Mark Fisher pointed out that the standard translation of Freud’s unheimlich is a bit off. Instead of “uncanny,” Fisher wrote that “unhomely” is better. I think this resonates strongly with your stories. Homes often feature as settings, or perhaps we can say “unhomes.” Why is this?
Brian Evenson I don’t know why this is. I had a pretty good home life growing up. It may be that the stability let me think about the alternative in real ways. I grew up in the Mormon culture of Utah, and my parents were both super liberal Democrats. There was always a sense that I didn’t fit into that broader culture in some way. In my stories, there’s often a house that should be safe or secure, but it has something strange about it.
RG There’s usually an architectural detail that’s just a little off that triggers the plot.
BEI love those little details. In a story of mine called “Windeye,” there’s an extra window outside of the house that doesn’t exist on the inside. My mom’s an architect, which is probably really telling. We used to go on family vacations where she would take us around neighborhood streets. She would take photographs of little architectural details and talk about them. There’s probably a really Freudian reason for why I’m interested in houses.
RG The first story in the collection, “No Matter Which Way We Turn,” reminded me of this time when I was a kid: I woke up in the middle of the night, already sitting straight up in bed, looking out the window at this bright light that was receding, and immediately fell back asleep. The next morning there was a hard sphere above the first knuckle of my pinky finger. It moved around when I touched it. I was convinced I’d received an alien implant. I’m curious what personal experiences informed the details or the narratives in Song.
BE That story was originally written for a website called People Holding where they gave writers photographs and asked them to write a story in response. They gave me a photo of a bunch of evangelical Christians who were touching this girl and seemed to be baptizing her, but she was facing away. I think they expected me to write a story commenting on religion, but that picture provoked something quite different. I’m often looking for those things that can serve as a catalyst to really accelerate the story for me. With “Leaking Out”—that really came from deep fears I have. I grew up pretty phobic. So sometimes I’m drawing pretty directly on my own experience, especially if we’re talking about fear of the dark or fear of heights.
RG The story “Born Stillborn” is about a man whose therapist, or maybe the therapist’s double, starts to show up in his bedroom at night. A lot of your work includes a riff on the home invasion. And the invaders usually don’t make a violent entry; they just sort of appear in the room. What may be most unsettling are the victim’s reactions—how they’re usually just calmly confused or slightly startled. I’m curious how you arrived at that particular affect in your characters.
BE That’s something that’s been with me since my first book. Altmann’s Tongue includes a number of stories in which the characters don’t seem to be responding in the way you would expect someone to respond. Initially my idea was that the reader then would have to fill in the response, or try to understand why the characters are responding this way. There’s a kind of eeriness to that. When I had a book published in Japan, one of the people introducing me argued that my book is all about etiquette. There’s this weird thing where the characters seem to be waiting to decide how they should respond to situations. And often they’re just not responding in the way that you think they would. But I see it more as a delayed response, or they’re just waiting for cues. That’s something that happens a lot more than we would think, right? Sometimes we respond very strongly to things, but especially in extreme situations there’s a moment where you just don’t know what to think or do. Either you pull yourself out of it or you don’t. And these are characters who usually don’t manage to pull themselves out of it.
RG We usually only think of fight and flight, but there’s also freeze, the third hyperarousal reaction.
In your 2012 BOMB interview, you said you listened to Merzbow, Tim Hecker, and Sunn O))) while writing. What were you listening to while writing Song?
BEI listen to a lot of music when I write, and it really varies a lot from book to book. I do this irritating thing where, if I’m working on a story, I keep listening to the same artist, sometimes even the same song, until I’m done. Partly because it becomes a kind of white noise and occupies a certain part of my mind. That’s probably the reason I like noise music as much as I do—it allows things to come out in the writing. But with this one, it really did vary a lot from story to story. There’s a band called Samsara Blues Experiment, which is a German band with this psychedelic metal thing going on, who I was listening to. I was also listening to David Bowie a lot since he had recently died.
RG The story “Sisters” opens with the line: “We had just moved in, hadn’t even done anything to our neighbors yet…” There’s such a foreboding, creepy violence to this sentence. And yet, syntactically, it’s so straightforward and unrevealing. Let’s talk a little bit about how you arrived at your aesthetic position sentence-wise.
BE I’ve always liked that kind of clear, crisp, declarative sentence. I grew up under the spell of minimalism, and I think a lot of the work that was being done by writers like Carver and people who were published in The Quarterly (myself, Gary Lutz, Diane Williams, Christine Schutt, Ben Marcus, etc.) was really important to me, especially as I was developing as a writer. I’m also constantly thinking: “What can I get away with in terms of doing the most I possibly can with as little as possible?” What I like about a sentence like that is that it immediately tells you something about the characters and tells you that the character is speaking to you as if you’re in the same world as they are, even though you’re not. That whole story has a weird speed to it.
RG You use repetition, in terms of wording and syntax, to create an unsettling effect. What other devices do you consciously employ to produce this?
BE Most of my work in revision is about sound and rhythm, trying to figure out what is going to really serve the story. I’m working with those things to try to manipulate the reader. A lot of my work uses a process of “denarration”, by which I mean it presents something, narrates it as if it’s real, then it takes it away. A lot of things are qualified or taken away or compromised, or you’re told something and then it’s removed. That is a big part of the unsettling effect, of destabilizing the story’s world.
RG Your characters are usually ambiguous or obscured to the reader rather than coherent individuals with spelled-out histories. You seem more interested in characters as a collection of body parts and bleak coincidences. What does the term “character development” mean to your work?
BE I do think there’s some character development in my work. But I also think character development is overrated and really has very little to do with how people actually are in life. So much fiction has this idea: there’s a character, they confront something, they change, and then they’re different people. If you’re around humans for long enough, you realize that that’s the exception rather than the rule. It so rarely happens that people actually change in a meaningful way. I’ve always been a little skeptical of character development, but then what do you do with fiction? My sense is that maybe it’s about conveying mental states and changing the reader. That, to me, is more important than conveying some kind of change in a character in a world that doesn’t look like our world.
RGEven though your characters are more abbreviated, more obscure, readers often describe a feeling of becoming one with your characters while reading your work. When I was reading The Open Curtain I felt a sort of psychosis that mirrored the main character’s. How do your personal mental and emotional states correspond to the stories you’re working on, if they do?
BE I see fiction as intensive. You’re engaging in this secondary or tertiary order of experience, but you can still experience a real intensity, real affect. It puts you into the position of these characters in a way that allows you to think about how you view yourself. Years ago, I wrote a story called “The Munich Window.” It’s about an incredibly awful person, and it was really hard to write. Over time though, I’ve become so focused on the specifics of the language that there is a kind of protection for me. I don’t really feel like my mental states are necessarily influenced by the stories. They end up being this world I can explore. People are often surprised when they meet me because I look more like Santa Claus than someone who’s suffering and tormented. But I do want to explore those states very deeply, the way in which the mind can go wrong, people’s neuroses and psychoses.
RG How do you perceive the roles of men and women as characters in your work? Is sex and gender expression just sort of happenstance, or is there something more systematic at play?
BE Many of my stories are a critique of patriarchy, but they’re a critique from the inside. They have a lot of male characters that are somewhat awful. As attitudes have adjusted and changed, it’s something I’ve started to think more about. I do have a lot of male characters: sometimes that’s incidental; sometimes it’s because there’s a kind of active critique; sometimes it’s that I don’t feel that I know a female subject position well enough to speak about it with any authority.
RGYour work seems to take this epistemological position that reality itself is actively withholding something from wanting observers. Would you say that’s accurate?
BE Yes, but I don’t know that I necessarily see it as personifying reality so much as the fact that the granularity of our perception is just not very good. We often mis-see things or interpret things in weird ways. It gets tricky when we act like we really know reality most of the time. It’s that kind of contrast between taking in life somewhat tentatively as opposed to thinking you know how things really are.
RG It’s more about the gulf between perception and reality.
BE There are obviously stories in which the characters are in situations where things are withheld from them. But as often as not, a lot of my fiction is about this gulf.
RG What theorists and philosophers would you say are lurking in the stories in Song?
BE I always go back to Deleuze and Guattari. Eugene Thacker is probably connected to what I’m doing at this point. Michael Marder has a book called Dust that came out with Object Lessons, which I like a lot. Frédéric Neyrat’s Atopias is a book I identify with. Catherine Malabou, who did work on brain plasticity that I think is very interesting.
RG Let’s talk about the piece “Trigger Warnings.” It’s a list of triggers in quotes: “Caution: severed head,” “Caution: psychiatrists,” “Caution: self-fellating smurfs.” It’s a significant break in the collection. The fourth wall comes down completely. You even get a dig in at Jonathan Franzen. What triggered you to write this piece?
BE I was asked to do something for a magazine, and they wanted something very short, fiction that had a kind of essayistic feel to it. I’d been thinking about trigger warnings. I wanted to see what I could do in that space. Both universities I’ve worked at recently—at least the departments I’d been in—have been completely opposed to the idea of trigger warnings. They just don’t think they should be given. The thinking was, if you need a trigger warning, then that’s an indication that there’s something that’s unresolved that needs to be addressed rather than avoided. I was seeing the rise of trigger warnings and started thinking about what might be relevant in my work. It ends up being a parodic piece in some ways.
RG A lot of your work is very apolitical, but that piece feels politicized.
BE There’s so much in my work that people would maybe want trigger warnings for. But none of those things are the things that are mentioned in that list, I don’t think.
RG What disturbs or scares you the most about the real world today?
BE For me right now, ecological collapse is the most frightening thing. When I was a kid growing up, I remember the gas lines and the energy crisis. I really felt like we were at a tipping point. And then the ’80s and Reagan came along, and everyone just seemed to forget about it. So for years, I’ve felt as if, in the back of my mind, things are awful, and we’re ignoring it, and it’s going to get really bad. And only in the last few years has the perception of the larger world caught up with and surpassed my anxieties. I feel like that’s the scariest thing we’re facing. I don’t know if we’re going to come out of it in one piece or not. Especially since I have children, I have a lot of anxiety about that and have for years.
RG There’s a beautiful dedication to your son at the start of Song. It says, “For Max, but later. Only once you’re as tall as your lemon tree in stockinged feet.” It’s an acknowledgement of the weirdness, the violence, the perversity that’s present in the stories, but also the fact that they’re written out of love. Has having children changed your writing in any philosophical or formal sense?
BEI was coming into my own as a writer when my daughters were young. If you’re a parent, then there’s usually a certain amount of empathy that you have to have. You learn so much about language and human behavior from being around young kids. My son Max is six now, and the kinds of things he does with language are just amazing, and very weird sometimes. Seeing how he processes the world is something that’s just fascinating to me. The backstory about that epigraph is that we had a cat that my wife had for about seventeen years; he was quite an old cat. The cat died, and we asked Max what he wanted as a pet, and he said, “a lemon tree.” We ended up with this lemon tree that he sees as a pet. I generally have a pretty optimistic outlook. But it’s a kind of optimism on top of a sense that we’re probably doomed. It’s a weird position to have. I think it also makes you really pay more attention to small details in the day-to-day.
RG And why, in the epigraph, stockinged feat?
BEI think it probably had something to do with something he was saying about how tall he actually was now that he had shoes on. If I asked my wife, she might remember why. It’s one of those things that’s very particular, the right thing for the moment, that I just let fade with time.
RG It’s like the punctum of the sentence. It really stuck out to me.
BE It may be that as much as anything—just what it does to the sentence. It may have been that he was just wearing socks when I was looking at him that day. I’m not sure.
Rob Goyanes is a writer, editor, and musician from Miami, Florida. His fiction has been published by RUINS Press, Contemporary Art Stavanger, and Asocial Media. Goyanes’ nonfiction has appeared in Art in America, e-flux journal, Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. He lives in New York.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee