Monday, January 1, 2007

The Wavering Knife by Brian Evenson

One of the best things an author can do for you is to leave you with an image that you'll never forget. Short stories do this for me more than novels, I think. From novels, I mostly take away characters, or a general feeling of the novel's place or a memory of its stylistic affect. From poems, when I read them (which I try not to) I am sometimes left with a memorable line or even a word. Short stories, though, deliver a single frame -- like the ranting in the doctor's office waiting room from Flannery O'Connor. The bent translucent form over the candle from Melville. The throbbing floorboards from Poe. Recently I remember remembering the one-armed man in the tree, pruning it with a chainsaw, from Karen Brennan. (Of course there are those memorable moments I'd rather scrape from my brain, like every scene in any movie that helpfully features a person being burned alive. Thanks Hollywood!)

From Brian Evenson's collection, The Wavering Knife, I am left with a residue of images I have never seen before, and that's saying something small, but significant.

Half of these stories are brutal, relentless, and cold. The other half (and I don't mean exactly 50 percent, but *some*) present a lighter, more ridiculous fare. The latter and lighter group are about silly men and the dumb things they do and say -- from the Promisekeeper group that meets in a bar to the guy who tries to set up a church in Walmart, to the pair of redneck gravediggers who have so much trouble getting their corpse into a shallow hole in hard packed dirt that they chop him up, pee on him, eviscerate him, stomp on him, and eventually throw what's left of him into a ravine and pretend to cover up the grave. What happens next? The family and minister come over the hill, with the coffin he was supposed to go in, asking to "dig up" the body. These stories, though smart and wry, are not my cup of irony. The other half of the book, however, is priceless. Evenson's great accomplishment, his genius, lies in these other stories: "The Ex-Father," "The Intricacies of Post-Shooting Etiquette," "The Wavering Knife," "Virtual," "One Over Twelve," "The Progenitor," and my favorite, though it isn't the showiest story in the book, "House Rules." "House Rules" affected me the most, though it is quiet and drab, and the image of the velvet rope across the stairway will stick with me for sure.

Maybe these stories are evolved Kafka, or maybe they're perfect scifi. This is a fiery imagination kept rigidly contained in exacting boxes, let out in discreet units, each one perfect and with a strange serenity. These stories take you in utterly, and then truly reward you, like magic tricks that really work. I can't really give you any plot nuggets or summaries for these, because they don't work except in their own context, provided by the stern, rigorous language and the limitations of the prose. They're so strange and explosive in the ideas that drive them that they need Evenson's specific containers to make them conceivable. Story after story I would finish and then say, "That was so WEIRD. And FABULOUS." Then I'd hungrily go on to the next.

It's not surrealism -- everything is true within its own law. It's maybe alterealism. Whatever it is, it was enormously engaging and challenging to read and halfway through I was already thinking in my head of people I know who would love a book like this. Definitely read it. A small black rendering on a blank tablet, of something truly different, is more intriguing than a dense and colorful mural, six blocks long, of something we already know.

I met Evenson a long time ago at a conference in Denver, and I can't remember much about that conference, including meeting Evenson, except that I know I did and that he had kind of a wild aspect. He looked more like the book jacket photo on The Wavering Knife than he did this photo here, but I'll include this more respectable one since he's now the Director of the Literary Arts program at Brown University.

1 comment:

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