Brian Evenson's Staggering Ventriloquism

by Zack Graham

The author of over two dozen books of fiction, criticism, and work in translation, Brian Evenson is a master of many languages, tones, voices, and forms. His work renders the distinction between“literary” and “genre" fiction trivial. 

photo credit: Valerie Evenson/Courtesy Tor Books

photo credit: Valerie Evenson/Courtesy Tor Books

In his most recent publication, a novella from Tor Books called The Warren, Evenson writes from the perspective of a being with a failing memory and multiple consciousnesses as it attempts to determine if it is human, or how human it is, while struggling to survive in the titular “warren,” (it’s never made clear what the warren is — a room? A shelter? A building? A vessel?), which protects it from the lethal post-apocalyptic world around it. Simple and straightforward, no?

These are the kinds of stories Evenson tells, stories that morph and writhe and unnerve, stories inside of which you never quite know what’s happening that nevertheless leave you constantly afraid of what will happen next. 

A new collection of short stories, Song for the Unraveling of the World, arrives from Coffee House Press today, Tuesday, June 11th. Song puts Evenson’s staggering ventriloquism on display, incorporating elements of science fiction, horror, fantasy, translation, poetry, and myth, often within a single story.

The collection’s title story is its longest and strongest tale. It centers around Drago, who wakes up one morning to the sound of his daughter singing faintly in her room next door. But when he goes into her room, he finds that she has disappeared, and that her bed has been moved to the middle of her space. All of her possessions surround the bed, forming a circle. As Drago searches first the house, then the neighborhood, for his daughter, we learn about his relationship with her, as well as to his estranged wife, and his potential role in his daughter’s disappearance.

Other similarly sinister stories shine as well. “No Matter Which Way We Turned,” a piece of flash fiction that leads off the collection, centers around a girl who “didn’t have a face”—“a whole girl made of two half girls, but wrongly made, of two of the same halves.” A longer story, “Wanderlust,” is so clever that I have to spoil it a bit: a regular guy sitting at his desk one day feels as though someone is watching him. No matter what he does, he can’t shake the sensation. The only way he can cope is by wandering. So he leaves his comfortable life, his girlfriend, his apartment, and his job, and wanders from city to city, homeless, scavenging, never sleeping in the same place twice. After a while, he finds that he can’t determine how much time has passed or where he is until, one day, he sees a familiar building, walks in, goes to the appropriate floor, and walks into his old office to find himself where he began the story: sitting at his desk. He has wandered into the past. It was he who was staring at himself.

Evenson’s characters exist in a perpetual state of delirium, somewhere between asleep and awake, conscious and unconscious, alive and dead. His worlds are fragile, fraying at the edges, askew. His stories frequently center around facelessness, forgotten identity, faulty memory, doubling or duplicity, and multiple and/or warring consciousnesses, themes which are nearly always served slathered in doom. He can even make his characters’ dreams compelling, dreams which sometimes span multiple pages, to the point where you lose track of where the dream ends and where the story returns, a trick that underscores the sense of sleeplessness underpinning the tone of Evenson’s writing.

Song for the Unraveling of the World proves Evenson’s mastery of the short story form. I would go as far as to say that Song… gives Ted Chiang’s new collection Exhalation a run for its money. The comparison is apt because, like Chiang, Evenson is often categorized as a “genre” writer, despite the fact that his stories are often more than stories; they are philosophical meditations on what it means to be alive.

Zack Graham’s writing has appeared in Rolling StoneGQNewsday, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of an Emerging Critics Fellowship from the National Book Critics Circle, and is at work on a collection of short stories and a novel.