Brian Evenson’s five short-fiction collections and four novels are wonderfully difficult to categorize. Recognizable as literary fiction, but with strong undertows of horror and mystery, his style is all the more intriguing for defying classification. The stories in Fugue State will not disappoint, for Evenson extends his obsession with the uncanny and the unhinged that has won him a small but loyal following.
The cannibals, murdered ex-wives, and abandoned little girls who people these stories are not intended to titillate but instead point up Evenson’s chilling insight: that true terror stems from our dependence on language to communicate the murky stuff in our minds. He takes this Wittgensteinian despair a step further, suggesting that language is worse than inadequate—it is dangerous. In “An Accounting,” a fake messiah survives a harsh winter on the flesh of his companions, an act that is misinterpreted by his followers as a holy sanctioning of cannibalism. Evenson’s mostly first-person male narrators occasionally try written communication but quickly realize it is only a temporary solution. They likewise discover that the imagination, instead of providing solitary respite, becomes a prison that can—quite literally in one story—trap them.
What forms of expression does that leave? Zak Sally’s art (a series of title drawings and the fully illustrated story “Dread”) offers a possible answer. But while Sally’s aesthetic is appropriately spooky, his representations are resolutely literal (the outlines of a greenhouse for “In the Greenhouse,” the outlines of a box for “Invisible Box”). “Dread”—his chance to respond to the narrator’s growing fear of the oppression of language—fails to more than illustrate those very untrustworthy words.
Perhaps this is intentional, as added proof of the relentless pressure we put on words and images to generate meaning beyond themselves, a critique Evenson makes throughout the collection. “In the Greenhouse” finds a critic visiting an author, significantly named Craven, whose work, he has found, contains not a single original idea. They circle each other, “excessively formal,” the critic resisting Craven’s attempt to make him into one of his characters, to reduce him to a literary referent, until finally the critic gives in and they switch roles. Several of the stories explicitly address the violence at the heart of transactions between critic and creator, reader and writer, student and mentor, all of whom are bloodied by tussles around the intention, meaning, and interpretation of language.
The fugue state of the title story results from a contagion that makes one unable to derive meaning from words. The infected protagonist, when asked about his use of the term fugue state, replies, “It doesn’t mean anything. . . . I just wrote it.” He finds that it is “too much to force [an] image into actually meaning something as well.” Evenson’s is an immensely powerful collection, itself a little dangerous, and readers should take heed of the plight of Craven’s critic: The syntax of the sentences might rewire your head.