Brian Evenson's latest novel Last Days (Underland Press) is cerebral yet visceral, a great addition to that style of detective noir that exists in a space between--like Paul Auster's City of Glass, some of Kafka, and the best of Derek Raymond. For this kind of fiction, solving the case isn't the main point. In fact, the nature of the case may change so radically as to be unrecognizable by the end. Last Days follows Kline, a brutally dismembered detective forcibly recruited to solve a murder inside a cult of mutilation. Attempting to find his way through a maze of lies, threats, and misinformation, Kline discovers that his survival depends on an act of sheer will. Yet Evenson pushes the story well past where a lesser novelist might have stopped, bringing Kline and the reader into a place where ordinary moral choices no longer make any sense.
Evenson is the author of eight books of fiction, most recently The Open Curtain, which was a finalist for the Edgar Award and the International Horror Guild Award, and was named by Time Out New York as one of the best books of 2006. He is the recipient of both an O. Henry Award and an NEA award. Evenson's writing has been described as dark, violent, philosophical, critical, and lyrical. "Like Poe's, Evenson's stories range from horror to humor; a similarly high critical intelligence is always in control," writes Samuel R. Delany. "We read them with care, with our guard up, only to find they have already slipped inside and gotten to work, refining the feelings, the vision, the life."
OF Blog of the Fallen's Larry Nolen recently interviewed Evenson, and since Larry has done work for Omnivoracious before, I thought I'd share some of that interview here (with permission)--especially since it's one of the best Evenson has done...
Larry Nolen: From what I understand, you lived outside the United States for some considerable length of time. In what ways, if any, did that experience influence your views of the world and your fiction writing?
Brian Evenson: I lived briefly in Mexico and I also lived in France for a while, and I've translated from both French and (in collaboration) from Spanish. I think living outside of the United States changed the way that I thought for the better. It made me reconsider a lot of ideas and beliefs that I had taken for granted and I think it also really expanded my ability to empathize with others. Speaking French even changed the patterns of my thoughts, helped me to see things about the world that I hadn't notice before. I think reading had already done some of that for me, but I think speaking a foreign language and living in a foreign country was incredibly important for me as a writer.
Larry Nolen: Who were some of the real-life and literary influences on your writing career?
Brian Evenson: The most important real-life influence was a Welsh writer named Leslie Norris who was a tremendous supporter of my work when I was in college. He'd read incredibly widely and got me reading obsessively and eccentrically, which has been the most important thing to me as a writer. One week he'd introduce me to J.G. Ballard's The Concrete Island and the next he had me reading Salman Rushdie's Shame or . He introduced me to a great many writers I probably would have eventually found on my own, but also to a few that I never would have found but who I love: writers like Mervyn Peake, Dambudzo Marechera, and Caradoc Evans. He also had no interest in making my work fit a certain model: he liked that it was in its own strange place and encouraged me to build a space for myself in a way that I've always tried to emulate in my own teaching. Professionally he helped me know where to send work out and also introduced me to my first agent. I really couldn't have done without him. My most important early literary influences were Franz Kafka, who my father introduced me to when I was 14, and Samuel Beckett who I stumbled on on my own when I was in high school. Kafka really changed my sense of what writing could do, and then Beckett changed it again: his novel Molloy is still one of the most important books for me. Later there have been other people and other writers who have been very, very important, and many who still are, but those are the some of the earliest.
Larry Nolen: Interesting that you mention Kafka here, as I thought when I was reading [your other work] that there were hints in your stories of his use of a direct voice to accentuate the surrealness of the surroundings. Hadn't considered Beckett, however. If pressed, what one element, if not more than one, of Molloy would you say might be found in your work?
Brian Evenson: Yes, Kafka's there and I feel like I learned a tremendous amount for him. With Beckett, there are things he does in Molloy that I think were very influential for me: the way that Molloy and Moran become doubles of one another and yet remain intact, for instance. I also very laboriously compared the French and English versions of the novel word for word, and published an article about that, so I think I've thought more closely about the words and sentences of Molloy than any other book I've read, and it's a book I re-read regularly. I love the tone of Molloy as well, and the shift in tone from the first to the second part. I love the moment in the second part when a stranger thrusts his hand at Moran and the latter says "I can still see the hand coming towards me, pallid, opening and closing. As if self-propelled. I do not know what happened then. But a little later, perhaps a long time later, I found him stretched on the ground his head in a pulp. I am sorry I cannot indicate more clearly how this result was obtained..." That passage does a whole series of things I find astounding. When I first read that, it really crystallized something for me, and I think a lot of my fiction has been an attempt to create for others the feeling I felt when reading that. That's just the tip of the iceberg.
Larry Nolen: In your latest novel, Last Days, you expand upon your 2003 novella, The Brotherhood of Mutilation. What led you to decide that you had more to tell within that setting?
Brian Evenson: When I first finished the novella, I thought that would be it, but something about that world really stuck with me. And I found I'd become attached enough to Kline as a character that I kept thinking about him, about what the kind of sustained trauma he'd been through was likely to do to him. I also realized that even if he escaped the brotherhood were definitely the sort of people to hold a grudge. The second part, then, ends up being a kind of exploration of how one loses one's humanity, with Kline reaching a point that all he can think to do is bring about a sort of apocalypse, one that's both internal and external.
I also think that the really odd investigation I was doing of a certain kind of extreme religious belief didn't feel like it was done; I wanted to explore the notion of schism and the added complications this can cause (as religious history has shown). I also think the kinds of noirs and detective novels I was reading shifted a little bit and I suddenly started to see new possibilities because of writers like James M. Cain, Richard Stark, Fredric Brown, and David Goodis (Dashiell Hammett is at the heart of the first part, particularly The Dain Curse and Red Harvest). Then suddenly I entered a period in my life where everyone seemed like they were named Paul, and during that time I discovered that Paul Wittgenstein had done one-handed piano pieces. From there, everything fell into place.
Larry Nolen: You note that the second part of Last Days explores how one might lose one's humanity. Has that been a thread that has run through much of your fiction, or are there key differences in how Kline's story evolves?
Brian Evenson: This is a good question. I think that that's been a concern in different ways in my other fiction, but usually it's been put a little differently. Some of the stories in Altmann's Tongue, for instance, are interested in exploring that by its absence, by having the reader be faced by acts of violence or difficult choices presented flatly, without a sense of authorial judgment, so that there's no safety net. I think, when this strategy works, it can make the reader think about his or her own ethics, his or her own choices, by being confronted by something that seems to be potentially monstrous. With Last Days it's a little different. In the first part, after making a major choice before the story starts, Kline is carried along by events or circumstances to a point where he has to make a similar sort of choice. The second part starts in the aftermath of that choice, in what he's done after that, and follows with him consciously making a choice to try to extricate himself from a difficult situation by repeated acts of violence. He does in fact extricate himself but by so doing he may very well have 'lost' himself. He has very complicated feelings about what he's gone through and going through, and is afraid both that he's becoming an animal and that (and this terrifies him much more) the cult members might be right and that he might be more than human: chosen or divine. So, whether he's losing his humanity to become less than human or more than human is a question that he keeps toying with, hinting at.
Larry Nolen: You refer to Kline having "choices" throughout the narrative, yet events/circumstances exert a major influence on those choices. One of the issues of contention between adherents of various religious faiths is that of just exactly how much "choice" an individual has, especially in regards to moral actions. Would it be fair to question just how much of Kline (or the Brotherhood)'s actions are the result of faith and how much was "predestined?" Would Kline or the Brotherhood have different interpretations of this?
Brian Evenson: Yes, this is fair, and yes, Kline and the Brotherhood or its break-offs would interpret it differently. Kline does, in theory, have free will, but Borchert makes it very clear to him that there are severe limitations on what choices he can make"”usually it's a choice between something bad and something worse. In the second part, every time he tries to act freely circumstances arrange themselves such that the Pauls can see it as a sign that what happened was predestined, and I wouldn't be surprised if any survivors would continue to think that way, that this was destiny, a "test". Kline wants to believe his actions are free, but seems increasingly worried that they're not. That's one of the basic tensions between religion and the individual: where does free will stop and predestination or foreordination begin?
Larry Nolen: Instead of asking where you got the inspiration for your ideas, I want to reverse the order a bit: In what ways has the act of creating stories affected your views on the world and your interactions with others?
Brian Evenson: This is a very good question, and I don't know that I have a very good or complete answer. I think writing stories has made me very curious about the world around me, and has attuned me to things and interactions that I otherwise would pay no attention to. It's also taught me to hide the fact that I'm attuned and listening, since I find that behavior changes when it's observed. I don't think I'm always writing instead of living or always half-living the event and half-thinking about how that event might be transformed into fiction, but there are definitely moments when that does happen. I think writing's made me more skeptical, but also more patient. I do think to be brutally honest that in some ways it's made me more of a misanthrope, but in other ways much more empathetic with the world in general, but having said that I think I'd be hard-pressed to prove it. I also think, partly because of the controversy surrounding my first book, that writing has made me feel like I have to take responsibility for my own actions and be willing to stand behind them. I opened by saying that I feel like there's less of me there when I'm not writing. I think the reverse is true; writing (admittedly in a complicated way) makes me feel more present in the world.
Read the rest of Larry's interview here.