Over the course of several months, Tobias Carroll and R. Stephen Shodin discussed the work of Brian Evenson. It’s not really a surprise why; Evenson occupies a particular sweet spot between the visceral and the intellectual. He seems equally at home discussing literary theory as he is writing a novel about mutilation-based cults; he’s a writer, editor, translator, and educator whose work is often brutally compelling. His work has the ability to spring to life after laying dormant in a reader’s subconscious for months. And, as one of the participants in this discussion noted, “I think the idea that the discussion of a cult literary figure could languish unfinished and gradually achieve sentience, then begin to drive its participants to madness is a pretty Evensonian concept…”
Tobias Carroll: Looking back on it, it might be time to retroactively declare 2012 The Year of Brian Evenson. The first half of last year saw the release of two new books from him: the collection Windeye, and the novel Immobility.
I’d like to start out our discussion with a look at Immobility. In a lot of ways, this might be Evenson’s most accessible novel: I could hand this off to someone with an interest in post-apocalyptic science fiction without necessarily checking to see if they share an interest in any of Evenson’s other fixations. And yet you’ve got plenty of those themes and images here: shifts in identity; the omnipresence of the Mormon Church, which has influenced not only the landscape but also — seemingly — the inner workings of whatever remains of society. And yet it’s not quite as visceral as something like Last Days, which also, to an extent, felt like Evenson welding certain themes to a fairly traditional genre narrative.
What did you think of Immobility? And, given the fact that the past year and change has seen the release of one new novel, one new collection, and the reissue of 2000’s Contagion, what would be your ideal book to introduce Brian Evenson’s work to a reader unfamiliar with it?
I totally agree with you with regard to how accessible Immobility is. I don’t mean that to sound as though the book is simple though. A lot of what I like about Evenson is his ability to weave a great deal of emotional complexity and existential disquiet into seemingly traditional genre narratives. In fact, I found myself thinking that [Immobility protagonist] Josef Horkai is just as interesting and complex as say, Gregor Samsa. I’d be surprised if that wasn’t at least somewhat intentional. There’s a quiet terror built into Immobility that I don’t really want to expound upon because I think folks should discover that on their own. Do you think it’s crazy for me to draw parallels between Evenson and Kafka?
I really enjoyed the book. The more time I’ve had away from it, the more some of the themes have come into focus for me, chiefly repetition and routine. We all have habits, rituals, routines, etc. I think that’s part of being a human being. We need rituals to construct some kind of order out of the chaos of living. Often we do things repeatedly without even thinking about it. This book made me think about that kind of thing a lot. Lately I’ve been questioning my own routines more than usual. I totally blame Evenson.
As for introducing folks to Evenson, well that’s a tough one for me. Immobility is probably a great place to start, but I don’t know if it’s the right thing to do to someone. What I mean is that I see a book like Immobility in much the same light as say, Helmet’s album Aftertaste. In my opinion Aftertaste is probably Helmet’s most accessible record and the production (by Dave Sardy) is fucking ridiculously good. The problem is that I don’t think Aftertaste is really indicative of what that band is all about. I think a listener really needs to hear Strap It On first, to really appreciate that band’s journey and scope of artistic achievement. I feel the same way about Evenson. While I think Immobility is a terrific book, I’d be inclined to recommend Last Days first because it’s so visceral and polarizing. If you can hang with Last Days, you can hang with the others. In fact, Last Days was my first exposure to Evenson, thanks to you. Do you usually recommend it to Evenson first timers?
TC: I have to say, I wasn’t expecting to see a Helmet comparison show up in a discussion of Brian Evenson, but now that you’ve made it, it makes an odd sort of sense. I’m half-tempted to start declaring Evenson, and some of the writers who have claimed him as an influence (Blake Butler, Matt Bell, Aaron Burch, etc.), as being of the school of Amphetamine Reptile Lit. #amreplit might be the best hashtag ever.
For all that Immobility has an abundance of violence, it’s really more psychological in its violence than anything — and I say that about a book that features one of the most measured scenes of throat-cutting that I’ve ever encountered. I’d also agree with you on Last Days being more representative of Evenson’s larger body of work: there’s a visceral quality, a tendency to make the skin crawl, that it has in abundance. It’s definitely my default “intro to Evenson” book (though I also think the collection Contagion could serve in that capacity.) Though with Immobility — I suspect that if I met someone whose tastes veered heavily on the science-fictional side of things, that might be my pick as an entry into Evenson’s books. Depends on the reader, I suppose.
I don’t think the Evenson/Kafka parallels are at all out of line. Which, I suppose, segues us nicely into another question: what do you make of the relationship between Evenson’s novels and stories?
RSS: Yeah, I suppose most people aren’t expecting that, but I enjoy drawing comparisons between different art forms, especially literature and music since those are the art forms I’m most passionate and knowledgeable about. I really love your idea of Amphetamine Reptile Lit. I really wish that was a real thing. That would be awesome.
Cool. Yes, Immobility has some heavy psychological violence going on. Evenson’s tone reminds me of some of Philip K. Dick’s stuff a bit. It’s not quite as paranoid and freaked out, but as I was reading I thought that if these two guys got a chance to hang out that they’d have a good time talking to one another.
His short stories are pretty great, but I really enjoy his novels more. To me he’s like a long distance runner. I feel like the longer he goes, the better he is. Kafka on the other hand, is really terrific in short bursts, but some of his novels drag a bit. Don’t get me wrong, Kafka is one of my all-time favorites, but when you compare a novel like Amerika to the short story “The Metamorphosis,” you can really see where his strengths were. Likewise, I think the novels Last Days and Immobility are so much heavier and more powerful than say, the short story “Dapplegrim.” I don’t mean to say that his short stories aren’t good. They are, and people should read them. They are well worth anyone’s time, but I think Evenson is more powerful over the long haul. I’m curious to know what you think, especially given that much of your own writing has been more on the short story/novella side of things.
TC: A couple of months ago, I was reading The Art of Cruelty, in which the critic Maggie Nelson touches on the use of violence in Evenson’s fiction. She makes the case that — I’m summarizing here — some of his short fiction addresses questions of violence in unexpected ways. She’s critical of the areas when he doesn’t — when he seems to fall back on certain tropes rather than transcend them. I’m not sure if I entirely agree with her critique, but there’s a lot to mull over there.With respect to the stories/novels question, I don’t know if I know for sure. The structural headfuck at the end of The Open Curtain is only possible because of the accumulation of what’s come before it. Had he tried to do something similar in a 30-page story, I don’t think it would be nearly as powerful (or as unsettling). But, for me, the best of his short stories — if I might borrow the title of a Dahlia Seed song — punch and get out. The title story of Windeye comes to mind, though it’s far from alone in Evenson’s body of work.That said, I do think that some of his shorter work can feel overly simplistic: bad things happen to clearly-doomed people. Longer lengths do seem to make Evenson’s work get progressively weirder and more complex; neither of these are things I can take issue with.Any closing thoughts?
RSS: That’s an interesting and worthwhile critique. I’d really like to read that. I agree with your assessment that the best of his short stories punch and get out, but I gravitate to that sort of vibe in a short story anyway. I like to think of short stories in the same way as a really good punk song. I’m talking about short bursts of brilliance: two minutes, tops. Anything more than that and, according to my own aesthetic, it just gets silly. When Evenson is on, like the story “Windeye,” he’s among my favorites, but I still hold that for me anyway, his longer pieces hold my interest with greater force and his ability to withhold the payoff for so long is something I really love.As for closing thoughts, all I want to know right now is when his next book is coming out.