As The World Burns

The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell Brian Evenson. Minneapolis: Coffee House. 248 pages. $17.
Cover of The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell

Brian Evenson. Photo: Kristen Tracey, © 2021.

Brian Evenson’s latest collection, The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell, was published by Coffee House Press in August. Its stories often depict mysterious worlds in which several realities splinter apart. No one is who they seem to be. Everything is a lie, and nothing is true. Today, as our wealthiest citizens race to leave the planet and climate change takes its toll on our forests, oceans, and air, Evenson’s unblinking stories of genetic mutations and ecological disaster read as both cautionary and strangely transcendent.

DAVID PEAK: Several stories in The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell are set in worlds or realities that are either unsafe or no longer recognizable. Perhaps most prominently, there’s the high city in “To Breathe the Air,” which requires the story’s narrator to wear a mask. What role does an author have in translating or filtering the world in which they live?

BRIAN EVENSON: I think it’s impossible to write something that doesn’t have some connection to the world in which you live. It’s so interesting to go back and read old science-fiction stories and see how, no matter how distant they seem to be in time or place from the world they were written in, how imbued with the values of that world they still are. You see that both in terms of what they choose to pay attention to and in terms of their blind spots: there’s so much they don’t realize they’re taking for granted. It’s the same case for writers today: it’ll be a few decades before some of our current blind spots become evident. At the same time, some science-fiction writers have managed to wriggle free of more connections than others, or at least to be consciously aware of more of them, and there’s a sense that they’re both responding to the world they live in and, in many ways, projecting beyond it.

I think that the relationship that a genre like realism, say, has to the world is always belated: realism becomes so interested in mimetically representing the world that it often doesn’t really manage to escape the confines of the moment in which it’s written. Even when it succeeds admirably in realistically depicting the world as it is, it’s predicting a world that has already begun to change and vanish by the time the book is published.

The world and things going on in the world do inspire my fiction. I often find myself extrapolating current trends and thinking about where they might lead. A lot of my more recent fiction is about that, particularly in connection to things like human-induced climate change. And since the mood of my work is closest to horror, I think often that speculation ends up moving toward worst-case scenarios and what might possibly go wrong. I’m interested in those sorts of large issues, and in how humans are thinking, how they might change, at what point humans are no longer human. All those interests are very much picking up on current glimmers and threads in the world around me. But I’m approaching the world as it is at a slant or at an angle, as a provocation of the possibilities beyond it more than as an object of study in its own right. The mimetic qualities of my fiction are quite spare and focused, and I don’t find it all that interesting to talk about current events or trends in detail.

There’s that famous moment in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black about the novel being a mirror carried along a high road, sometimes showing the mud of the road, sometimes the skies. Stendhal’s point is that you shouldn’t blame the mirror for what it depicts but instead should blame the road. But what I’ve always found interesting about that passage is the way the mirror is moving, not holding still, flashing up and down, forward and back. I think that a lot of contemporary realistic fiction holds the mirror too steady. If it were more erratic and flashing both forward along the road where we haven’t walked yet and backward to where we’ve come from, it’d tell us a lot more than it can by just giving a selfie-like reflection of our over-mediatized face.

I’m glad you mentioned how your recent work is responding to human-induced climate change and how that connects to speculative fiction. Your story “Solution” is about a man who believes he can evolve a creature to survive “in our dying world” only to learn that he has created a contagion. And the man who enters the high city in “To Breathe the Air” is told by one of its citizens, “There was a device that once scrubbed the air . . . but it is broken. Perhaps my people broke it . . . or rather changed how it worked so we could breathe here.” Can you talk a bit about your approach to writing these two stories?

The narrator of “Solution” has managed to come up with something, but it’s something that will essentially destroy life as we know it. There are connections between his attitudes and the attitudes found in my story “Curator,” in which the main character is making a decision, after humanity has destroyed everything, to try to wipe out any trace of humans. As you mention, there are several other stories in The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell that have a climate-related inflection, and I think “Solution” responds to those as well. The process of writing “Solution” was to have written those other stories first, to think of those stories as being in dialogue, and to feel for what was still missing from that dialogue, if there was anything else I wanted to think about or explore. Ideally, each story changes the nature of the conversation a little bit and leads me to a new place.

With “To Breathe the Air,” it was a little different, partly because that story feels more like the start of a new conversation than an entry in a continuing one. It began when I was looking through Jeffrey Alan Love’s Notes from the Shadowed City, which is a kind of imagined, fantastical travel journal consisting of images paired with a sentence or two. One of those images was labeled “To breathe the air of the high city, I was given a strange mask.” That’s essentially the first sentence of my piece. I found that sentence, along with Love’s terrific drawings, so evocative that a story immediately began to rise up in my imagination. I thought at first it would be quite a short piece, but after writing a page or two I realized there was a lot there to explore, that it was a world I wanted to spend time in. I say that it’s a new conversation, but what I should say is that with a story like that I feel like I’m entering into a conversation that another artist has begun, trying to see both what I can learn from what he has done and how I can make it my own.

I’ve always been struck by the “thrownness”—to borrow a term from Heidegger—in your fiction, the sense that we have been thrown into the world. Is this confusion—this uncertainty of knowing—part of your writing process?

Yes, thrownness is a good description of it. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when I was first writing the stories that would be gathered in my first book, Altmann’s Tongue, I was also taking a grad class at the University of Washington on Heidegger taught by the German philosopher Ernst Behler. It was an incredible survey of Heidegger and his work that also included Behler talking very specifically about moments where the translations failed. I’ve talked a lot about the influence of Deleuze on my work but I don’t think I’ve talked all that much about the importance of other philosophers. Heideggerian thrownness was certainly important to me in terms of thinking about the situation of my characters and in terms of simulating something for my readers. I think my work is often circling this notion of the unknowability of the world around us and suggesting there may be something malicious to it. It’s absolutely part of my writing process, and, honestly, a big part of my world view.

To continue with Heidegger for a moment, I’ve always wanted to ask you about the opening epigraph of your book Dark Property, which is an untranslated passage from the “Language” lecture. It seems to translate as: “The sentence . . . leaves us to hover over an abyss.” Personally, I like to think that language brings forth the world. What do you believe is the function of language in your writing?

Let me first mention that since Dark Property is out of print, I’m happy to send a PDF to anyone who asks. Your translation of the Heidegger quote strikes me as accurate. I’m doing something a little devious there in that I’m taking a moment from Heidegger’s “Language” essay and quoting it in a way that makes it become more complex and expressive. The original quote, in one translation, is “The sentence, ‘Language is language,’ leaves us to hover over an abyss as long as we endure what it says.” Heidegger has a particular recursive sentence in mind, but I’m deliberately eliding that to expand it to make a statement about what sentences can do. Heidegger goes on to say, “If we let ourselves fall into the abyss denoted by this sentence, we do not go tumbling into emptiness. We fall upward, to a height.” So his way of thinking about the abyss essentially turns it on its head, and he further suggests that that combination of depth and height essentially creates “a dwelling place for the life of man.”

For me, in terms of thinking about writing, the sentence is something that allows us to hover over the abyss. There’s something about language itself—and sentences in particular—that allows us to negotiate and experience the world in a way that might otherwise be impossible. Yet it’s also true that language is the thing we dwell in as much or perhaps more than the actual world (since so much of our understanding of the world is mediated by it). So much of my work is about opening up that abyss below the feet of my readers, to give them a sense of that vertiginous feeling and danger that is also, at its best, exhilarating. I think of language as being experiential and intensive as well as communicative. All of that is pretty abstract and hard to put into words and I think there are even seeming contradictions in what I’m saying. It’s always hard to use language to talk about what language does. I wish I could somehow demonstrate it with an ax instead, which is I suppose what happens, in a way, when those concepts become translated into fictional situations.

To bring things back to The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell, all this reminds me of a line of dialogue from the titular story: “The quality most needed is a particular attentiveness, an ability to tune the soul to a frequency where its vibrations fall slightly below the surface of appearances.” This is something your fiction has always done for me: create access to something beyond the surface of appearances. Is this something you’re exploring in your next collection, or even your next longer work?

The strange thing with a character like Szabo, who the main character in “The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell” initially thinks is ridiculous, is that there’s a kind of reversal in which she realizes that beneath that ridiculousness there’s something terrifying and real, something he’s begun in his own clumsy way to get at and that she might be unintentionally implicated in. That realization horrifies her. The only thing she can think to do is flee—but of course, as is often the case in my fiction, it’s never that easy. I’m an excommunicated Mormon and am essentially agonistic at this point. Yet I somehow have both a strong belief in and a healthy skepticism of the numinous, and those two balance each other out. I don’t think it’s a question of choosing one or the other so much as learning how to occupy the complexities of that continuum. Despite the fact that a very problematic character says it, that line of dialogue is pretty close to something I believe and also a pretty good aesthetic statement about what my fiction is trying to accomplish.

The next longer work will probably be a sequel to Last Days, called Phantom Limb, which I think will extend some of the arguments about what it means to be human that are in Last Days. I’m about a third of the way done with that, but it’s a question of finding sustained time to work on it. The next collection will definitely extend some of the eco-horror/climate horror moments found in The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell and also takes up a larger exploration of the post-human. It’s about two-thirds of the way done, so I’m at the stage of figuring out what’s actually there, how the stories are talking to one another, and what else needs to be part of the conversation.

David Peak’s most recent book is Eyes in the Dust and Other Stories (Trepidatio Publishing). He lives in Chicago.