It’s been at least 10years since I last read a book by Brian Evenson. His first book, published under the auspices of Gordon Lish, was the devastatingly beautiful short story collection Altmann’s Tongue. Spare and moody, compressed and dangerous, it was a masterpiece. After that, I remember eagerly awaiting a future book and finally coming to read a novel by Evenson about a Mormon serial killer (a plot that could only be forgiven in the context of his own strange biography as a Utah Mormon whose passion–fiction of a most unsettling variety–did not have a place in his community). That serial killer novel, however, lacked the startling bareness of Altmann’s Tongue. It was, for me, too much of a novel. It felt contrived. Which brings me to this recently published short story collection, Fugue State. Though I don’t know what transpired in Evenson’s five intermediary books, Fugue State is a book in which Evenson in some ways bridges the gap between the spare, atonal and very nearly experimental writing of Altmann’s Tongue and the more accessible, but somewhat predictable writing in the Mormon serial killer novel.
The stories in Fugue State occupy a, well, fugue state; a unique space that is neither horror nor what we think of as the conventional literary short story that deals all too cleverly with the problems and absurdities of modern society. Here, Kafka meets Stephen King with a touch of Cormac McCarthy and a hint of longing akin to the kind of lament we might find in the best of Kazuo Ishiguro. The most memorable of these stories veer slightly closer to the conventions of literature: A younger sister is haunted throughout her life by an incident in which she and her older sibling had been left alone in the house with instructions not to open the door until it was time to go to school.
A man suddenly finds himself unable to properly use language before descending into himself in a misguided attempt to protect his daughter from the reality of his situation. Similarly, a man suddenly blinded in an accident withdraws from his wife, before finally covering the windows with black trashbags, removing all the light bulbs from the light fixtures and awaiting her return. Other stories are great fun, but not as poignant in their devastation. Still others seem too familiar — several takes on life after the end times, several takes on the faceless anxiety strewn by blank bureaucracy. Still, this is what you’d have to describe as an extremely solid collection. And, perhaps more importantly, these stories blend morbid yet accurate depictions of how we live with Evenson’s trademark compulsion to spill a deep vein of human weirdness onto the page. (Hal Niedzviecki)
by Brian Evenson, $14.95Coffee House Press 79 Thirteenth Avenue NE Suite 110, Minneapolis, MN 55413, USA coffeehousepress.org