BooksWeekend

Crossed Signals: Brian Evenson’s Stories Blend Genre and Literary Conventions

by Morten Høi Jensen on June 3, 2012

Brian Evenson (photo by Denny Moers, via raintaxi.com)

Brian Evenson’s writing might well be, in the words of a character from his new story collection Windeye, published by the venerable Coffee House Press, a means of “capturing on paper and holding steady and immobile the various motions and bodies that constitute an event.” The twenty-five new stories collected here are all event-driven, narratives spurred into life by mysterious disappearances, communal meetings, or acts of stomach-churning violence. A girl disappears through a small and almost unreachable window. Two men repeatedly attempt to kill a boy who’s already dead. A man’s sister disappears at the same time her dog’s throat is slit. And so it goes.

Evenson occupies the contested territory where literary and genre fiction meet, or collide. To him all material is fair game, as well it should be. Nabokov rightly told his students that only talent matters: whether you’re penning a tear-stained romance novel, or a postmodern whodunit narrated by a watchful kitchen blender, the most important factor is the writing itself. This is a point worth repeating. Some of the most interesting and influential writers have straddled both the popular and the literary: Graham Greene, Kurt Vonnegut, Charles Dickens, Jorge Luis Borges. The critic Arthur Krystal recently wrote a piece for The New Yorker in praise of guilty reading pleasures, and though I’d like to quibble about the Catholic word ‘guilty’ (what is there to be guilty about?), he made the useful point that the novel has its origins as a ‘guilty pleasure’; in the eighteenth-century they were widely believed to distract readers from the serious moral and religious agendas of the time. We might wonder from what high purpose Evenson seeks to divert us.

The covers of various books by Brian Evenson

Windeye, like much of his previous work, indulges in the kind of literary fantasy and phenomena that have earned him comparisons to Kafka and Barthelme, yet in style they often lean in the direction of more popular authors writing in the horror and fantasy genres. The combination doesn’t always go down easy. His characters tend to think in italics, as in “I should go into town, he thought,” or “Just a dream, he told himself, nothing but a dream,” which is a little cheap and unnecessary, like bad movie voiceovers. It’s a shame, too, because his prose, though sparing, is well-equipped to add some color to the otherwise bleak and colorless world it evokes: “He cupped the flame with one hand and saw below him nearly bare ground, almost no snow: a matrix of pine needles and dead vegetation and mud spidered through with veins of frost.” The way that the “matrix of pine needles” image and the “veins of frost” image hinge on that brilliant word “spidered” gives the sentence an almost symmetrical beauty.

Why then should the rest of Windeye be so withholding of literary splendors, so indulgent of tired clichés and lazy prose? And why is everything described as being ‘thick’ (“thick, dark curtains”; “thickly furnished”; “a thick forest”)? Gems like “The Moldau Case” and “Knowledge” (in which a writer of detective novels explains why he has yet to write his new detective novel), and the many wonderful opening sentences (“István acquired the other ear during the worst days of the war”), didn’t quell my disappointment, which was genuine, because the fact that Evenson contributed a novel to the Alien-franchise (Aliens: No Exit, published by Dark Horse in 2008) earned him near-hero status in my book. After I lobbed Windeye across the room in frustration, I picked up No Exit to revisit its unexpected writerly pleasures. At one point, protagonist Anders Kramm discovers in his home a familiar puddle which “was sticky and mucusy and came away in long strings.” And that’s just the second paragraph.

For the most part, No Exit hues close to its genre conventions, even as Evenson veers strategically to provide verbal and imagistic effects — whereas in too many of Windeye’s tales the author’s determinedly literary path feels interrupted by merely convenient genre conventions. Genre’s plot-driven directness and literary narrative’s more dilatory linguistic entertainments can be merged—Evenson had done it often. But the seams in this delicate fusing — if not done just right — can be glaringly apparent. In the literary Alien novel Evenson might write one day, the italics would be reserved chiefly for the reader’s delighted reactions.

Brian Evenson’s books, including Windeye (Coffee House Press, 2012), are available on Amazon and other online booksellers.

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