I’m not entirely sure what a “writer’s writer” is, but every time I hear that term, Brian Evenson comes to mind. He seems to purposefully tackle every genre, usually a few of them at once, in order to prove that true talent is a malleable thing that can adapt to a multiplicity of forms. Regardless of what he does, it shines and puts to shame most authors only working in that genre. In The Warren, Evenson’s newest novella, the author takes readers into a science fiction realm slightly reminiscent of 2012’s Immobility, and proceeds to explore memory, humanity, and identity in ways that inhabit the interstitial space between philosophy and psychology while still firmly rooted in science fiction. The result is an unexpectedly poetic and mystifying narrative in which “being” is an uncertainty packed with diversity and identity is a shifting question that refuses to be answered.
In The Warren, X, the narrator, doesn’t have a name. He once had one that someone gave him, but the memory of that is blurry. There’s also the possibility that he doesn’t have a name because he has many. That confusion is multiplied by the multitude residing in X’s brain. By looking inside himself, X can sort of see and hear the people inside him. Unfortunately, the people are only inside him and he is alone in the warren, a relatively safe place in a world that has become uninhabitable. Then, he discovers that there is someone else with him; an artificially preserved man who might have more information that the computer X is forced to deal with. Bringing the man back and trying to get answers becomes X’s mission, but things don’t go as planned. What follows is a short, powerful narrative in which humanity is questioned and the answers that begin to appear only bring destruction.
Evenson understands that memory and identity are not monolithic elements but rather perennially shifting things akin to zigzagging floating signifiers. This knowledge is at the center of The Warren, but in the form of a series of questions about the self that, despite their apparent simplicity, expand rhizomatically: “And you claim that these two things are the same? To be a human and to be a person?”
Given the length of The Warren, no one would have criticized its author for focusing on identity in that desolate landscape/contained microcosm. Despite that, Evenson also tackles the role memories play in the definition of self, and he does it in a way that bridges the gap between sci-fi and literary fiction:
I do not have an earliest memory. All the memories came at once, an overlay of a dozen different personalities and all the memories going along with them. Or at least some of the memories—there is not enough room and each new memory I make, each new thing I do, ends up sacrificing memories that came before. Each moment I live snuffs out a little more of the lives of the others within me.
The beauty of The Warren comes from the fact that it is anchored in uncertainty but also touches on a plethora of elements that Evenson does very well. For example, the questioning that constantly happens inside X’s head is followed by descriptions of the place that surrounds the warren and the effects of it on the body and the suits that must be used outside the safety of the warren’s walls. Likewise, dealing with concepts like identity and memory doesn’t prevent the author from offering some passages of brutal violence that will satisfy fans of hardcore horror (and as demonstrated in Last Days, no one can do amputations like Evenson). Despite all these elements, ambiguity is pervasive and even time becomes unstable:
For hours, days, years perhaps, I was trapped in a dream, slowly suffocating. Sensations, when they came, were muted, distant, less as of I was experiencing them and more as if someone else experiencing them was describing them to me. I could feel my mouth and sometimes the lids of my eyes, but when I moved my hands and fingers, it was as if I were moving them through a liquid exactly as thick as they were and feeling nothing at all.
The Warren is a sci-fi novella, but it is a sci-fi novella written by Brian Evenson. This means that it is smart, full of top-notch writing, and packed with horror and philosophy. This is a novel about desperation caused by bewilderment and an relentless sense of confusion made even bigger by the fact that someone is not what they thought they were. This celebration of misperceptions exceeds what sci-fi usually offers in terms of intellectual/philosophical content, and it leaves readers wanting more, which is something Evenson always pulls off.
by Brian Evenson
Tor.com; 96 p.