When I consider authors that have inspired me over the years, there is perhaps no fingerprint more pronounced than that of Brian Evenson’s. It was, after all, upon seeing Evenson read “The Polygamy of Language,” that brought me upon the path that I’m on today as a writer, precisely, a writer of fiction. Evenson’s work showed me, in a way I had not encountered previously, that narrative could grapple with metaphysics and language, and it was as if the chair had been lifted and I was hovering inches off the floor. It was a definitive “AHA” moment and that chance encounter altered the trajectory of my life. It’s seventeen years later, and I still find myself with that old tinge of excitement when I get a new book by Brian Evenson; When The Cupboard Pamphlet asked me if I wanted to read Evenson’s latest, Reports, I was happy to oblige.
Reports offers a very different side of Evenson as it gives the reader a kind of direct access to the author; I say kind of here because nothing with Evenson is direct. Though the book is perhaps as close to creative nonfiction as he’s ever published, there is always an opaque screen to it that requires the reader to step in and out and interpret whether or not the reports are fictional. This is not to say that this book should be read as one or the other, or even that the function of the book is to address the nature of these two genres.
A pocket-sized book of about sixty pages Reports is a series of short pieces on a variety of subjects such as chairs, diets, brunch, and breaks. Though the there is a definitive Evensonian voice to all the writing, there are moments of candor that are rarely occur in his other work. For example, in “a REPORT on a diet” we are given an anecdote that seems very rooted in his reality. Evenson writes:
K. and I are in the middle of a diet which balances food in a deft way and increases our metabolism so as to make us lose ridiculous amounts of weight quickly, as if by witchcraft. The diet also deprives the brain of sugar, which makes us feel like we are losing our minds. Since we have done this diet before, we know that we are not losing our minds. […] I know, too, that the buzzing sensation I feel in my arms and hands at all moments will also pass. K. does not feel this sensation, never has […] she at first doubted that I felt what I claimed to feel.
In this section, the word that rings most honestly to me is “ridiculous,” as Evenson’s fiction doesn’t typically have such a familiar tone to it. There is usually an academic distance to his word choice that might preclude such a word from appearing in a narrative line that wasn’t part of a character’s dialog. However, when the report arrives at its final destination, we find Evenson explaining to K. that the buzzing feels like his body is filled with bees searching for sugar; he writes, “But how I can explain the bees to K. in a way that she accepts, I do not know. And so instead in the dark I claim that there’s a tingling sensation in my arms, though this is not quite right. […] Even in though it is dark I do not close my eyes, for I am afraid of what the bees will do to me once I fall asleep.” Here, we see how Evenson transitions away from a story grounded in reality, into that familiar open ending of his that we know so well—a world filled with the dark and fraying at the seams.
Though known primarily as a “literary horror” author, a term I put in quotes because I don’t quite agree with its demarcation from literature, Evenson’s work is often humorous, even if this humor comes through in a minor note. Reports has these moments as well. Perhaps my favorite report is “a REPORT on BRUNCH” wherein Evenson reflects on the problematic nature of the phenomenon known as brunch, writing that there is breakfast and there is lunch, an argument I have made many times myself. The report begins:
Neither K. Nor I could be described as fans of “brunch.” We do not, however, actively dislike brunch. Sometimes we can even be said to “enjoy” brunch.
Though these first few sentences aim to prove a kind of neutrality toward brunch, we can see by Evenson’s use of quotations, that he neither does he recognize brunch as a legitimate meal, nor does he really enjoy attending brunch. True, Evenson soon sheds the quotations around brunch later in the section and even puts lunch in quotations on a couple occasions, but this does not undo the subversion of brunch in the beginning of the story. Brunch, in this report, will forever be in doubt.
In other reports, such as in “a REPORT on being FOLLOWED,” Evenson’s humor comes across in a way which readers will find more reminiscent of his earlier work, as it based in a paranoid observation, in this case the protagonist finds himself confused as to whether he is being followed, or is following someone, or is part of a duo that is being followed. This kind of slippage destabilizes the narrative and the effect is both funny and strange.
Evenson’s moments of levity, are to me, the most honest moments in his fiction. Despite being a master of writing deeply disturbing stories, Evenson himself is not a dark and brooding character. His stories are disturbing because they confront complex philosophical and metaphysic quandaries, problems that we all face but find ourselves struggling to describe.
I find myself dissecting Evenson’s work, underlining and circling phrases and actions more frequently than do I with other writers. Largely it’s because of his precision. I’m looking early to establish those moves that he makes so effortlessly in his writing so that I may better understand his approach and even sometimes to make sense of a story that is so abstract that I must read it a few times to completely comprehend its intention. In looking at my notes on Reports, I see that my notes decrease with each page as it dawned on me that this project is quite different from those works that have come before it. Sure, there are still moments where I find myself giddy with delight as I trace through a particular move he makes with his work, but I found that sometimes a report on food is just a report on food, and it’s this back and forth that really propels this book and makes it special.
Reports is a light read for an Evenson book, but nonetheless, I think a required read for fans of his work.
by Brian Evenson
The Cupboard Pamphlet, 54 p.