“Around me all was dark with the darkness of the world in the night of language, words eating at my skin.”
—From “The Polygamy of Language,” by Brian Evenson
When Brian Evenson’s first book, Altmann’s Tongue, came out in 1994, it made barely a ripple in the centers of established literary might. It swiftly created a small and cultish buzz, but critics didn’t seem to know what to do with this bizarre collection of twenty-eight taut, almost relentlessly brutal short stories—here a boy finds his stepfather dead, his mouth stuffed with bees and sewn shut with carpet thread, there a cheerful skeleton named Bone Job rattles down the road in search of God—and a cerebral novella that seemed to borrow as much from the nouveau roman as the stories did from Hieronymus Bosch. When not ignored completely, Evenson was judged a slightly distasteful curiosity. In a capsule review, the Los Angeles Times nervously conceded that “there is a talent here,” albeit, “an eldritch one.”
In faraway Utah, though, Altmann’s Tongue was taken quite seriously. For Brian Evenson is something of an odd bird, an eldritch one even. Not only the author of fictions whose emotionless violence mocks human flesh, Evenson was also a Mormon of no little piety. Raised in quiet, conservative, church-going Provo, he was at one point even a member of the high priesthood of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. To thicken the brew, Evenson is also a scholar with a Ph.D. in critical theory. He was one of the main players in the brief flap over Gordon Lish’s influence on Raymond Carver a few years back, and has just published a monograph on Robert Coover’s fiction. Quotes from Kristeva and Artaud introduce stories in Altmann’s Tongue, and an accolade from Gilles Deleuze adorns the back cover of Dark Property, Evenson’s latest book.
It was in Provo, where the then twenty-seven-year-old Evenson had just begun teaching in Brigham Young University’s English department, that Evenson would receive his harshest reviews. In the fall of 1994, a few months after its publication, a Brigham Young student wrote a letter to Mormon authorities labeling Altmann’s Tongue “a showcase of graphic, disgusting, pointless violence.” She only made it to page eighty four—the conclusion of the aforementioned death-by-bees-in-the-sewn-up-mouth story, called “Stung,” which ends with more than a suggestion of incest—before she had to quit, feeling “like someone who has eaten something poisonous and is desperate to get rid of it.” She was, she wrote, “terrified to think that a man who is capable of creating and perpetrating this kind of mental imagery on others was able to be hired as a professor at BYU.”
By spring, shortly after Evenson won an NEA grant on the merits of one of the stories in Altmann’s Tongue (“The Munich Window,” a wry tale narrated by a man who, having murdered his wife years ago, is grudgingly called back to murder his daughter as well), a university spokesman had told the Deseret News, “We don’t want this kind of stuff coming out of this institution. We are not talking about literature in general. We’re talking about extreme, brutal, sadistic, and violent depictions of violence.” University and church officials alike made it clear to Evenson that if he kept writing similar works he would not only lose his job, but might face excommunication from the church, a cataclysm for a devout believer.
Evenson chose to leave Brigham Young. He has since published two novels and two more short story collections, each as uncompromisingly sanguineous as the first, with Contagion, the most recent collection, surpassing it by far in sophistication and complexity. “I don’t want to have to make a choice between the Mormon Church and my work,” he told the London Times in 1997, “but if I do I will be on the side of art, even though I still have my faith.” Even on a second or third read, Altmann’s Tongue, which was reissued by the University of Nebraska Press last year with a new introduction by the philosopher Alfonso Lingis, is still a profoundly unsettling book, shocking as much for the rawness and vitality of its prose and for the mythic strangeness of the world it depicts as for any of the variety of corporeal indignities perpetrated therein. It is a world not only of violence, but of profound affectlessness, in which death and mutilation appear with all the banality of a dirty shoe. It is at times a world recognizably our own (Altmann, after all, is the name taken by Klaus Barbie, the onetime “Butcher of Lyons,” while in hiding in Bolivia), at times a nightmarescape of desert fortresses and walking dead, peopled with characters bearing names like Ivar the Boneless, Hébé, Bosephus.
Some of the stories are bare and simply bleak. In “The Father, Unblinking,” a man finds his daughter dead of fever and secretly buries her in a corner of the barn. “You seen your little lullaby?” his wife asks. “I haen’t seen her,” he lies, and runs off searching for a shovel. Some are cruelly comic, like “Killing Cats,” about a chirpy couple who enlist the sublimely passive narrator’s help in disposing of their pets: When the husband “saw the cats climb up there to lick the plates, he wanted to ‘blow their furry bodies right off the table.’ He had wanted to ‘blast the cats away’ for quite some time, he said, Checkers most of all, he said, but Oreo and Champ were no exception.” Or “The Boly Stories”—three tales of murderous rural cretins, relayed in an almost slapstick vernacular (“Boly looked up and got a spatter of blood eyewise. He woped the eye clean and seed other blood red-spatter down on the leaves around him and on him too.”), like Cormac McCarthy’s Appalachian novels perversely bred with a Donald Barthelme yarn and fed raw to Gordon Lish.
Some of the stories are simply creepy. “Having sewn Jarry’s eyelids shut, Hébé found himself at a loss as to how to proceed,” begins one, which doesn’t go much further than that. Others are creepily religious, like the title story, which begins, “After I had killed Altmann, I stood near Altmann’s corpse watching the steam of the mud rising around it, obscuring what had once been Altmann. Horst was whispering to me. ‘You must eat his tongue. If you eat his tongue, it will make you wise,’” and, its final sentence reveals, is narrated by a vulture, or an angel, or perhaps a winged demon. The starkly minimalist “After Omaha” depicts a scene from a war between men and angels (or maybe vultures, or winged demons): The protagonists hang bacon from the trees, cut the lights, and crouch in wait “for the dull flapping of heavy holy wings.” Three interconnected stories portray, in gore-stained Borgesian allegory, the inhabitants of a lone fortress who declare themselves under siege, and commence to devour one another. Another lightheartedly depicts the travails of Bone Job, a skeletal sort—“He ate rot and tree mold, shat grubs and maggots. He swabbed the insides of his ribs clean with handfuls of grass. Masticated mint leaves worked miracles for his breath”—as he wanders in search of God and a coveted Redline axe.
In response to his accusers at Brigham Young, Evenson declared his work to be in fact “uncompromisingly moral.” Altmann’s Tongue, he wrote at the time in a thirteen-page apologia, was an attempt “to paint violence in its true colors and to let it reveal for itself how terrible it is.” The stories offer, he wrote, “a violence that cannot be enjoyed—in response to the kind of glamorization of violence that television and movies provide.” It’s no surprise, really, that his attackers were unconvinced. If their analysis (bad literary images = bad man) lacked sophistication, Evenson’s seemed disingenuous. Certainly he does portray violence shorn of all context—ideological, religious, or even narrative that might render it meaningful, and in doing so bares its full horror. And while perhaps only a deeply moral individual could be capable of creating—or even recognizing—a world so fully stripped of moral content, there is far too much humor in these stories, too much aesthetic delight in the syntax of even the most gruesome episodes, for Evenson to pass himself off as a simple pedant.
A few years later, in an interview with Story Quarterly, Evenson gave a more interesting account of his work. “My stories have little explicit reference to my belief system or to any belief system that might save the characters from the immediacy of their existence,” he said. “Religion and morality, if present at all, are present in the reader’s recognition of their absence.” This of course still leaves plenty of room for didacticism, but it wasn’t Sunday-school homiletics that Evenson was after. “The religion my fiction offers, which is a religion of the collapse of the ethical will, is hopeless from the start: It will convert nobody.” That, however, is the point, or a good part of it. “Good writing unsettles,” Evenson said. “It causes rifts and gaps in belief which make belief more complex and more textured, more real.”
It is hard not to see Evenson’s work in part as rebellion, as an attempt to cleave some rifts in the unrelenting cheeriness of contemporary Mormonism, a culture of firm handshakes and toothy smiles stretched hopefully over a bloody and painful history. That history, of course, is no more or less violent (or beset by excesses of kitsch-induced optimism) than that of the American West, which provides the setting for much of Evenson’s fiction. The unending barrenness of the Western deserts—in which blood evaporates as quickly as water and corpses surrender themselves swiftly to sun, buzzards, and sand, in which the forces of nature are neither kind nor gentle and God, if deemed present at all, can be discovered only through the manifest evidence of his cruelty—provides a convenient metaphoric backdrop, the vicious sun chasing all comfort of shade from even the dark night of the soul.
Evenson’s interest in violence has other sources as well. He is a writer, not a mystic, and an extraordinarily precise and skilled linguistic craftsman. So he is interested in words, and intensely conscious of the violence language does to the world by abstracting it, flattening out its infinite particularities into the finitude of what can be said. Thus Evenson not infrequently uses grammatical terms to describe mutilations, as in “There was no simple way to parse the torso.” And, a good student of late-twentieth century literary criticism, he is ever conscious of the violence language inevitably does itself, dissolving the very meanings it hopes to disseminate. “Words, when they brush up against people,” he writes in his second collection, “swell and split and branch. They become unmanageable.” Thus, says a character in Dark Property, in what might easily stand as a motto for Evenson’s literary approach, “Truth cannot be imparted, it must be inflicted.”
In 1997, Evenson published a volume of earlier stories, The Din of Celestial Birds (the title is borrowed from an Alfonso Lingis essay), which date before those collected in Altmann’s Tongue to a period in which he had apparently not yet learned that lesson, and was still trying to impart truth in the conventional fashion. It’s a disappointing book, adrift in a murky magical realism, largely set in or near a fictional Latin American village, with an overlapping cast of characters, all of whom are reeling in one way or another from violence and its aftereffects. It is perhaps because the violence is here given context—a mythologized but still familiar setting of revolutionary conflict and bloodthirsty indigenous spirits—that these stories lack the painful impact he would later achieve. They are almost moralizing: People kill and are haunted by their deeds; violence begets violence. Only one story, appropriately titled “Altmann in Bolivia,” hints at that later territory of uncategorizable absurdity, tearing violence from the level of historic comprehensibility and rendering it inexplicable, uncanny, removing all the banality from evil, and returning it to the realm of the monstrous. The title refers to Klaus Barbie, responsible for the slaughter of thousands of French Jews, but the story depicts a nightmarish figure dressed in rags, his chest “crossed through by bandoleers, strung with holstered scissors and shears,” who wanders from town to town cutting hair and lopping off heads, slaughtering children and stray dogs, hanging them from his belt “in a skirt of bone.”
If church authorities had hoped to silence Evenson, the 1998 release of Father of Lies, his first published novel, made it clear that they would not. With a dedication to “the stiff men in dark suits, well pressed and ready for burial,” it tells the story of a psychiatrist named Feshtig (the name means, more or less, “strong”—Evenson loves his German), who learns that one of his patients, a respected provost with “the largely conservative religious sect the Corporation of the Blood of the Lamb,” also called “Bloodites,” has been raping and murdering local children, and that the church hierarchy is doing all they can to cover for his crimes. Feshtig, a Bloodite himself, is ordered by church authorities to hand over his notes and tacitly participate in the cover-up. Unwilling to hide the brutal truth, he is persecuted in a manner that will be very familiar to anyone who followed the controversy over Altmann’s Tongue at Brigham Young. “I was made to understand that my worthiness to be a member of the Bloodite faith was being called into question,” Feshtig writes. “I was told that someone had reported that in my psychiatric practice I was ‘preaching a vision of the world and the soul contradictory to the true vision offered by the restored gospel of Jesus Christ’… and that I was ‘openly preaching a nihilistic rejection of the soul that contradicted the Church’s recent Statement in Support of Family Values.’”
As a novel, Father of Lies has its shortcomings. Fochs, the murderous provost, is too simply and purely monstrous, the church lackeys too stereotypically craven, Feshtig too, well, strong. And Evenson seems ill at ease on the drab plains of realism. His prose is unremarkable, even flat, and his dialogue, usually sharp and subtle, is clumsy here. (“We want to convict someone quickly to put the community at ease,” a police officer declaims.) Evenson perhaps should have waited a few years before writing it—his anger may have been too raw to be transformed with any grace into literature, and Father of Lies functions more effectively as rebuke, a bitter insistence that “Hell is crammed full of godly men.”
The same point is made to far subtler effect in Contagion, Evenson’s most accomplished collection to date, released in 2000. Published by the same small publisher that released The Din of Celestial Birds, Wordcraft of Oregon, Contagion went almost entirely unnoticed in the press, but it remains one of the most strange and powerful books of the new millennium. The book contains just eight stories, none of them dispensable. It is perhaps Evenson’s most explicitly Mormon work, largely set in the desert, deeply concerned with language, with writing and testimony (Mormons are encouraged to keep journals, and the religion was founded through an act of writing—Joseph Smith’s legendary transcription of the Book of Mormon from golden plates revealed to him by the angel Moroni), crowded with polygamists, heretics, visionaries, self-proclaimed prophets, and killers of all stripes.
It goes without saying that these stories, most of them anyway, are violent, but the violence is more incidental here. Contagion’s characters are engaged in absurd, quasi-metaphysical quests, and metaphysics is for Evenson, like everything else, wound up with violence. In “The Polygamy of Language” the narrator murders two polygamists to take over the shelter they had prepared in anticipation of the apocalypse. “Here I hoped to finally force into words the thoughts which would, when properly formulated, unravel the problem of all possible language… by solving this problem all other problems would be resolved.” It doesn’t quite work. There are the corpses to deal with, and all manner of distractions, including plenty of opportunities for grim Evensonian slapstick: “The polygamists were still dead, though they had slipped from where I had heaped them, falling so it seemed as if the first was eating the other’s ear, though I knew this was not the way of the dead.”
In the title story, two men, hired to maintain the length of a barbed-wire fence, encounter a frightful plague, which causes blood to seep through its victims’ pores like sweat. They are ordered not to turn back, but to follow the fenceline to the source of the disease. They encounter bandits, cultists, and many dead. Plague and fence alike soon take on huge metaphoric weight, and their task becomes a quest. “What is the connection between wire and contagion, if any?” one scrawls in his journal. “When will I die?” Some of the stories spiral into the queasy vortexes of what Hegel called “bad infinity”—the endless repetition of finite phenomena, as opposed the good kind of infinity, the capital-I Infinity, from which Evenson’s characters are decidedly excluded. Psychiatric interns are ordered to live in unfurnished apartments and observe other psychiatric interns living in other unfurnished apartments (they all get a little crazy); a frontier lynch mob fiendishly perpetuates itself.
Some of Contagion’s stories are family dramas, though with properly perverse Evensonian twists. Two brothers fall apart after one murders their parents. (He asks the other whom he loves now that their parents are dead. “God,” the other answers. “‘In this world,’ [says] Theron, kicking Aurel in the face. ‘God isn’t in this world. Think, goddamn it.’”) Two half brothers, sons of a polygamous father, survive their mothers’ suicides and, a window between them, plot their own. (“We are all flesh, in constant decay,” one whispers. “If we are not dead yet it is because we are too busy dying to know we are dead. Every moment we do not kill ourselves is an unpardonable sin committed against ourselves.”) A boy lives alone with his father and comatose mother in an endless labyrinth of dusty hallways and locked doors, gathering keys and trying all the locks. “Let’s speak frankly,” the father says. “Do you think collecting keys is the best choice for you?”
This last fall saw the publication of Dark Property, a short novel that dates back to roughly the same period in which Evenson wrote the stories that comprise Altmann’s Tongue. It’s a strange little book, an extended crawl through a terrain of utter damnation. Despite the title (which refers obliquely to the soul), “dark” is not quite the word for this world, in which light is no more blessed. The sun—and it is indeed, we learn early on, “God’s sun”—only reveals corpses unseen in the night. It beats down with unrelieved cruelty, its heat spurring its victims to further evils, and to madness. The distinction between light and dark is immediately collapsed, and with it falls any hope of transcendence. Evenson’s epigram from the gospel of Matthew (“If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!”) is twisted out of context to occlude the very possibility of salvation. The word “freedom” appears but once in this book, in this sentence about a boy being chased through the desert: “The boy stumbled, effected a brief freedom, fell to earth.” His pursuers stomp him to death, then butcher and eat him.
All creatures devour one another in Dark Property. Crows pick apart the dead, and fall upon each other in their hunger. Even the landscape is dying (“Uprooted brush stumbled vagrant down the faint decline that slid into the flat. The trees sparsed out. The sage contorted, contracted into brittle fistocks. The road shivered though its last curves, threw itself straight.”) and the heavens themselves endangered (“Star-sprewn clouds shone feebly down… In the dark the crests of the mountains unwove, mingled their warp and woof with the dark tangle of night. Vast eddies of cloud swallowed and disgorged stars.”).
Preluding each chapter with further epigrams—untranslated and unattributed, wrenched slyly out of context—from Heidegger, Hegel, and Nietzsche, Evenson follows two figures through this waste. An unnamed woman, in a solitary incidence of nurture and care, carries her dying infant in a rucksack on her back. At the same time a huge, brutal man, ironically named Kline, drags a grown woman in a sack of his own, stopping occasionally to kick it until blood seeps through the burlap. (In a rare comic moment, the pair meet and, just before Kline attacks the grieving mother, she deadpans, “Somebody always has to have a sack, don’t they.”) They both encounter cannibals, a shack in which dwells a throat-cut corpse, and a seaside fortress peopled by the “righteous,” a cult of identically clad believers (in dark suits, natch) dedicated to reawakening the dead by replacing their organs with balloons, fruit and string, sewing, taping or stapling them back together, and breathing life in through metal tubes screwed into the throat. The two wanderers proceed, their fates inexplicably joined, a living, stumbling dialectic of striving and despair.
The language of Dark Property is everywhere as alien—and alienating—as its landscape, its syntax as tortured, its vocabulary as odd. Evenson digs up obscure and obsolete terms, employs them rather naughtily (using verbs as adjectives, nouns as verbs), and sprinkles them throughout. Thus despite the boy’s frement, he is strampled, his body flitched and flenched. Unforgettably, the book’s one love scene goes like this: “She neither regarded his face nor chose to squirm under him. Their swollen scugs tottered the walls, gave utterance in dark tongues that mocked all flesh.” (Scugs, by the by, are shadows, and also squirrels.) There are echoes of Cormac McCarthy everywhere—both are strangely enamored with the word “sprent”—but here McCarthy’s sprawling Western lyricism has been replaced by a tight almost Beckettian absurdism, like Blood Meridian boiled down to an oozy ichorous syrup. Evenson’s world is far stranger; if McCarthy tilts occasionally into the surreal, Evenson is only really at home there.
The first of Dark Property’s rather show-offy German epigrams is taken from Heidegger’s essay “Language.” Evenson ransacks Heidegger’s original statement, shifting its subject and ditching most of it in ellipses, leaving only a fragment which translates as “The sentence… leaves us to hover over an abyss…” Here and elsewhere Evenson, perhaps heroically, perhaps perversely, does his best to drag it—and us—down and in.