Bookforum talks with Brian Evenson

A Collapse of Horses BY Brian Evenson. Coffee House Press. Paperback, 240 pages. $16.

Brian Evenson has been disturbing readers with his stylish and macabre fiction since the 1994 release of his collection Altmann’s Tongue, which included a story about, among other things, a corpse whose mouth has been stuffed with bees and sewn shut. Evenson’s latest book, A Collapse of Horses, reveals that his unsettling talents have grown subtler and stronger—seventeen stories featuring unsolvable mind-games, drugged-out cults, and space-station claustrophobia, all rendered in Evenson’s unmistakable prose, which is capable of suggesting both grounded realism and jittery paranoia, often at the same time. He has been hard to categorize from the start, drawing influence from figures as far-flung as Samuel Beckett, Julia Kristeva, Edgar Allan Poe, and Joseph Smith. Early in his career, he was an active member of the Church of Latter Day Saints and a professor at Brigham Young University, and he is probably the only Mormon to have been edited by Gordon Lish. (Evenson left the church after it condemned his work.) “Mormon horror writer with avant-garde leanings” might seem like an improbable description, but Evenson excels at bringing different worlds and genres together, and his gift for making contradictory versions of reality overlap often intensifies his work’s creepy effects. Bookforum recently called the author in Valencia, where he teaches at Cal Arts, to discuss his work, how stories can inflict harm, and the tricks he plays on his audience: “You, as a reader, don’t really know what’s happening until it’s quite a bit too late…”

I had a hall-of-mirrors moment when I read the final story of your new book, because it replicates the book’s first story, but at a slant—both of them feature two characters, on horseback, seemingly on a postapocalyptic frontier. One of the characters is bleeding, and disappears, and then returns in a very menacing way. But the stories also contradict one another—the characters have different names, for starters. They overlap, but they also clash. It’s almost as if one story is a dream within the dream described in another story. It’s very different from, say, John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse, but there is a kind of baffling narrative circuitry there.

Yeah, that’s something I do a lot in my work, and as you say, in a very different way from Barth—if it’s metafiction, it’s a much gentler and less insistent kind of metafiction, although “gentle” is the wrong word because of the kind of stories they are. I feel that with the first and the last stories having those echoes, the effect is to make you feel that you have these two realities that seem like they may be meshed, or one may be a product of the other, and it’s impossible to really sort out which is more real. I hope it’s something that eats away at you as a reader.

It does. There’s a sense that information becomes contaminated as it moves along. In “The Report,” a man in solitary confinement hears what he thinks is a message tapped out in the cell that he thinks is next to his. He taps it out himself, and hopes that the message will make its way through the entire prison and return to him. The funny thing is that he doesn’t know what the message is, or if it’s a message at all.

It’s like a prison version of the game “telephone,” with the difference being that you don’t know if someone is actually whispering something to start it off. There’s a lot of uncertainty in that story. He’s obsessed with the report that he was required to submit to the authorities, and he’s obsessed with why and if that report led to his imprisonment. What did he do wrong? There is this sense, especially in that piece, that communication is a little bit incomprehensible, that you don’t know what exactly you’ve communicated to someone. But even in this confusion, whatever it is he’s communicated or miscommunicated still has serious consequences.

There’s uncertainty throughout the book. In the title story, the narrator has three kids or four kids—it seems to depend on the day. His house seems to be constantly changing shape. He’s very confused about what’s real. Would you say that your stories rely on a dominant version of reality? Or is it more of a blending or coexistence of various realities?

I think it’s more a coexistence, and it’s a very uncomfortable coexistence. I think, as humans, we like to feel like there are certain things that are stable, that we can hold on to, that are real. That story is about someone who has these basic things that he no longer can trust—his intense mistrust of his house, the fact that his children seem to be one day three and another day four. And so for him, there’s this kind of panic—he thinks that he has to do something to force reality to be what it needs to be, to hold still and behave. And of course that doesn’t work for him. I don’t really think that in these stories one version of reality is real and the others are not. I’m interested in the way in which one “reality” can compromise another. I go for intense ambiguity, where you just don’t know what the stable ground is.

Like the story “Dust”—Orvar, the protagonist and the head of security on a space station, is trying, and failing, to figure out who is murdering everyone. All of which is complicated by the fact that they might be running out of oxygen, and they might be hallucinating. Also, there’s the mysterious dust that’s accumulating—maybe, they wonder, it’s controlling their minds...

Are we running out of oxygen or are we not? Am I paranoid or is there something that’s in the air that’s doing something to me? He can’t really decide on these basic questions. And the reasoning he builds is so contingent that it’s hard to know exactly what the truth is. Orvar even thinks of one character as being another character for quite a while; he’s told he’s wrong, but even then he has to think of this character as the guy who isn’t the person he thought he was. So there are these moments where characters have to backtrack or sort things out again, but they still try, desperately, to make some sense of the world. What other choice is there?

A lot of your stories are very isolated, set in jails, in space stations, on cult compounds. The confined settings feel very controlled, but then that sense slips away, and it’s hard to pinpoint just when things go awry. It feels like the transitions are evoked not just with direct statements and concrete description but also through tone.

You, as a reader, don’t really know what’s happening until it’s quite a bit too late, which is the case for the characters as well. There are a lot of palpable details in the stories, so that you get the sense of solidity or stability. When that’s taken away there’s more of an impact. Even then, there are still things you can hold on to, there are a lot of details about bodies, some of them gruesome, there are a lot of details in terms of the physical space and the way the space is built, and there are a lot of claustrophobic details in the way that things are laid out.

There’s a lot of bodily harm in these stories. One character says to another, “It’s just a story. A story can’t hurt.” But it’s pretty clear that stories can inflict pain in your work.

Yeah, I think that’s true. [Laughs]

The new book is coming out at the same time as new editions of three of your older novels, with introductions by Samuel R. Delany, Matt Bell, and Peter Straub. Did this give you an opportunity to see how your fiction has changed over the years?

The oldest book is Father of Lies, which was ’98, and I hadn't looked at it for probably ten years, maybe a little longer than that. There’s a funny thing that happens where if you’ve written something and enough time has gone by, you start to remember it in a different way. It was very strange to read back over that and to both know it and not know it at the same time. Last Days is a little more recent, 2009, but you know that’s the book that has the most bodily harm, and it’s the most manic, a personal favorite. The Open Curtain, which came in between, is a little more sober. I think that’s the book that really teaches people how to read my fiction.

Why is that?

Because for a good part of it, it feels like a realistic novel. I think it kind of brings you into a realistic world, and then takes that world apart. It spends its first section building up the world pretty solidly, and then in the second section you start to see cracks opening in it, but it’s really not until the final section that you’re suddenly in a very different space. It’s a little more slowly done than in some of my stories. Ultimately, I think it’s a pretty disturbing book, but I also think it’s a little bit like getting into a warm bath and then having the temperature gradually increased to boiling.

Before Last Days even starts, the main character, a detective named Kline, has had his hand cut off by an intruder. On the first page he’s invited, menacingly, to solve a murder at a Christian sect that valorizes amputations, based on a line from the New Testament. It really hits the ground running.

I like Last Days a lot, but it’s very madcap. It is a reflection on what it means to be human, I think, and to what degree we do or don’t lose our humanity according to our actions. But it’s a very weird way of going about talking about those things.

In the afterword to The Open Curtain, you talk about leaving the Mormon church, which you had been a part of all your life. Did leaving have an effect on your writing?

You know, I think it has. All three of those novels have an interest in religion. Father of Lies is the most aggressive about it, and it is a fairly straightforward critique of religious authority—it was written when I was preparing to leave Mormonism. The Open Curtain is about a murder committed by a Mormon, but it ends up being about something a lot broader than that: the relation of madness and culture, I guess. And Last Days, the religion there is not really an identifiable religion—it ends up being more about community, and how communities come together. That book was strange to write because I became very sympathetic to the religious groups in it, to the Mutilates. These religions that really focus on one line from the Bible become very eccentric and very interesting.

I heard that you’re teaching a class on horror fiction in Transylvania this summer. That’s interesting. Do you identify as a horror writer?

I do and I don’t. I see why people position me that way. I guess I’m somewhere between literature and horror, happily straddling both.

Brian Evenson’s A Collapse of Horses is out now from Coffee House Press.