All around me, the night of language was filled with a darkness that seemed to consume my very being.
–Inspired by “The Polygamy of Language,” by Brian Evenson
Back in 1994, Brian Evenson’s debut book, Altmann’s Tongue, didn’t receive much attention from the literary world.
A small, cult-like following did form, but critics were left unsure of how to react to the bizarre 28 short stories and cerebral novella that used elements from the nouveau roman, as well as Hieronymus Bosch.
Evenson was usually either ignored or labelled as a strange curiosity. The Los Angeles Times even commented that “there is a talent here,” albeit, “an eldritch one.”
In Utah, however, the works of Brian Evenson were taken seriously. He is an out-of-the-ordinary person, even strange. His fiction is characterised by violent and emotionless scenes with a mocking of human flesh.
Moreover, he was a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and was even a part of the high priesthood. He holds a Ph.D. in critical theory, and was a major part of the Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish discussion.
In addition, he has a monograph on Robert Coover’s fiction. Quotes from Kristeva and Artaud can be found in Altmann’s Tongue, and a quote from Gilles Deleuze appears on the back cover of Dark Property, Evenson’s most recent publication.
When Evenson started teaching in Brigham Young University’s English department in Provo, the reviews he received were unkind.
In the autumn of 1994, shortly after its publication, a BYU scholar sent a missive to Mormon leadership criticising Altmann ‘s Tongue for its “grisly, pointless, and revolting violence.” She stopped reading at page eighty four, where the tale of “Stung,” a narrative involving murder by bees and what could be interpreted as incestuous behaviour, ends.
She described the experience as “like consuming something toxic and wanting to be rid of it” and was “frightened” that a person with such an imagination could be employed as an instructor at BYU.
In the spring, a university representative informed the Deseret News that Evenson’s work, such as Altmann’s Tongue (“The Munich Window”) – a piece of writing which tells the story of a man murdering his wife and being asked to kill his daughter too – was not welcomed.
It was made obvious to Evenson that should he continue to write like that, he would not only be out of a job but potentially excommunicated from the Church, a devastating outcome for a devoted believer.
In 1997, Evenson chose to leave Brigham Young and has since published two novels and two more short story collections. The most recent collection, Contagion, has surpassed the earlier works in sophistication and complexity.
He told the London Times, “I don’t want to have to make a choice between the Mormon Church and my work, but if I do I will be on the side of art, even though I still have my faith.”
The University of Nebraska Press recently reissued Altmann’s Tongue with a new introduction written by philosopher Alfonso Lingis.
Upon reading the book, it is clear why it is still so profoundly unsettling, shocking not only for the violence, but also for the rawness and vitality of its prose and the mythic strangeness of the world it portrays.
The book’s characters, with names like Ivar the Boneless, Hebe, and Bocephus, inhabit a world that is recognizably our own, yet also a nightmarescape of desert fortresses and walking dead, in which death and mutilation appear with all the banality of a dirty shoe.
Altmann is the name taken by Klaus Barbie, the one time “Butcher of Lyons,” while hiding in Bolivia.
Some of the narratives that are portrayed are bare and dismal. For example, in “The Father, Unblinking,” a man finds his daughter dead of fever and covertly in terms of her in the barn. His wife inquires, “Have you seen your little lullaby?”
He responds with a lie, “I haven’t seen her,” and then makes a dash to find a shovel. Others have a cruel humorousness, such as “Killing Cats,” which is about a perky couple who get the narrator’s assistance in discarding their pets.
The husband desires to “blow their furry bodies right off the table” and has long wanted to “blast the cats away,” especially Checkers, but Oreo and Champ as well.
Lastly, there are “The Boly Stories’ ‘–three stories of rural murderers, stated in a comedic vernacular (“Boly looked up and got a spatter of blood eyewise.
He wiped the eye clean and sowed other blood red-spatter down on the leaves around him and on him too.”) that is akin to Cormac McCarthy’s Appalachian novels crossed with a Donald Barthelme story and scrutinised by Gordon Lish.
Some of the stories are quite eerie. As one example, the tale begins “Having sewn Jarry’s eyelids shut, Hebe found himself at a loss as to how to proceed”.
There are also some disturbingly religious stories, like the title one, which starts off with the line “After I had killed Altmann, I stood near Altmann’s corpse watching the steam of the mud rising around it, obscuring what had once been Altmann.
Horst was whispering to me. ‘You must eat his tongue. If you eat his tongue, it will make you wise,'”, while its concluding sentence reveals it is narrated by a vulture, or an angel, or maybe a winged demon.
Additionally, the succinct “After Omaha” describes a battle between men and angels (or it could be vultures, or winged demons): people suspend bacon from the trees, turn off the lights, and crouch in anticipation “for the dull flapping of heavy holy wings.”
Three interconnected stories portray, in a gruesomely allegorical way, the inhabitants of a single fortress who announce themselves to be under siege, and then start to devour each other.
Another anecdote humorously describes the hardships of Bone Job, a skeletal character–“He ate rot and tree mould, defecated grubs and maggots. He swabbed the insides of his ribs clean with handfuls of grass.
Chewing mint leaves worked miracles for his breath”–as he roams around looking for God and a much-desired Redline axe.
In his defence against the accusations of Brigham Young, Evenson asserted that his work was “unquestionably moral.” He clarified that Altmann’s Tongue was an attempt to “illustrate the dreadfulness of violence” and to oppose the “glamorization of violence by television and movies”.
His critics were not satisfied, claiming that his writing lacked morality. Evenson, however, argued that his stories showed violence without the context of religion, ideology or narrative, making it more horrifying.
Some might view him as a moralist, but his stories have a comedic aspect to them, and his writing style offers a certain pleasure in reading, which cannot be overlooked.
In an interview with Story Quarterly, Evenson gave insight into his creative process. He stated that his stories lack any reference to a belief system that would free the characters from their reality, and that religion and morality, if present at all, are left to the reader’s interpretation.
He noted that the religion presented in his writing is one of the collapse of the ethical will, and that it is not meant to convert anyone. To conclude, he remarked that good writing causes disruption to belief and makes it more intricate, and real.
The work of Evenson appears to be a form of rebellion against the idealistic nature of contemporary Mormonism; a culture that is often forced to ignore the painful history it is rooted in.
That said, this history is no more chaotic or optimistic than that of the American West which often serves as the locale for Evenson’s fiction. The desolate Western deserts of America serve as a symbolic representation of the harshness of nature and the lack of God’s mercy in this world.
The burning sun symbolises the difficulty of finding solace in even the darkest of times.
The source of Evenson’s passion for violence also stems from his profession as a writer. His expertise in language and crafting of words makes him aware of the harm that language can do to the world by generalising and reducing its complexities.
As a result, he often uses grammar terms to describe acts of brutality, such as “There was no simple way to parse the torso.” He is also aware of the violence that language inflicts upon its own meaning, as it is hard to decipher the truth from words.
This is best expressed by a quote from his second collection, Dark Property, where a character says, “Truth cannot be imparted, it must be inflicted.”
In 1997, Evenson put out a compilation of earlier stories known as The Din of Celestial Birds (the name of which is taken from an Alfonso Lingis essay).
These stories do not have the same degree of impact he would later manage to achieve, likely due to the fact that they presented violence in a context of revolution and bloodthirsty indigenous spirits.
However, one story, known as “Altmann in Bolivia,” hints at what’s to come for him.
It is about Klaus Barbie, who was responsible for the death of countless French Jews, and describes a figure wearing rags, whose chest was adorned with holstered scissors and shears, who wanders from town to town cutting hair and decapitating people, children and animals alike, and hanging their corpses from his belt.The release of Evenson’s debut novel, Father of Lies, in 1998 declared that church authorities were not able to silence him.
Dedicated to “the stiff men in dark suits, well pressed and ready for burial,” the book follows the story of a psychiatrist named Feshtig, a Bloodite, who discovers that a provost from the “Corporation of the Blood of the Lamb” had been raping and killing children, and the higher-ups were attempting to conceal it.
He refuses to go along with the cover-up, and thus is treated with contempt in a fashion very similar to the situation surrounding Altmann’s Tongue at Brigham Young.
“I was made to understand that my worthiness to be a member of the Bloodite faith was being called into question,” Feshtig wrote. ”
I was told that someone had reported that in my psychiatric practice I was ‘preaching a vision of the world and the soul contradictory to the true vision offered by the restored gospel of Jesus Christ’… and that I was ‘openly preaching a nihilistic rejection of the soul that contradicted the Church’s recent Statement in Support of Family Values.'”
In Father of Lies, Evenson’s novel, there are some concerns. Fochs, a menacing provost, is depicted too simplistically as a villain, and the church servants too much as stereotyped cowards.
Additionally, Feshtig is overly strong. Evenson’s writing style itself is average, and the dialogue is clumsy. It is possible that Evenson wrote this novel too soon; his ire may have been excessively intense to be skilfully metamorphosed into literature.
In this way, Father of Lies is more effective as a denunciation, conveying its message that “Hell is crammed full of godly men” with great bitterness.
In 2000, Contagion, which is arguably Evenson’s most successful work to date, was released by the same small publisher that put out The Din of Celestial Birds. It flew under the popular radar, but remains one of the most extraordinary books of the new millennium.
The eight stories in the book are all significant and it is quite evident that the author has incorporated a lot of Mormon themes in the work; it is set in the desert and there are references to writing and testimony, which are important to the Mormon faith.
There are also characters like polygamists, heretics, seers, prophets and killers.
It is clear that the majority of these tales contain violence, but it is not the focus of them. In Contagion, violence is a part of the characters’ metaphysical pursuits.
The story “The Polygamy of Language” has a narrator who kills two individuals to take control of a shelter they had made in preparation for the apocalypse. They believed that solving the problem of language would solve all other problems, but it did not.
The aftermath of the incident caused a plethora of issues, and Evensonian black comedy was present when the narrator noticed ”
The polygamists were still dead, though they had slipped from where I had heaped them, falling so it seemed as if the first was eating the other’s ear, though I knew this was not the way of the dead.”
The title story follows the journeys of two men, who have been hired to maintain a barbed-wire fence, as they encounter a devastating plague that causes blood to flow from its victims like sweat.
They are commanded not to turn back, but to continue following the fenceline to the source of the plague. Their expedition leads them to run into bandits, cultists, and many dead bodies.
The plague and the fence become symbols of a larger meaning, and the men embark on a metaphysical quest, asking questions such as: “What is the relationship between the wire and the contagion, if any?” and “When will I die?”
Moreover, some of the stories plunge into the unsettling loops of what Hegel referred to as the “bad infinity”–the unending repetition of finite matters, which is completely distinct from the pure infinity from which Evenson’s characters are excluded.
Psychiatric interns are ordered to inhabit empty apartments and observe other psychiatric interns living in similar unfurnished dwellings (which results in them all going mad); a western lynch mob endlessly perpetuates itself.
In Contagion, some of the stories take the form of family dramas, albeit with the dark twists that Evenson is well-known for.
Two brothers drift apart after the other commits patricide; when asked whom he loves now that their parents are gone, the other replies “God,” to which the murderer retorts, “In this world, God isn’t in this world.
Think, goddamn it.” Two half-brothers, sons of a polygamist, struggle to come to terms with the fact that their mothers took their own lives and, separated by a window, discuss their own mortality. (“We are all flesh, in constant decay,” one whispers.
“If we are not dead yet it is because we are too busy dying to know we are dead.
Every moment we do not kill ourselves is an unpardonable sin committed against ourselves.”) Another tale follows the life of a boy living with his father and comatose mother in a complex of corridors and locked doors, searching for keys and trying them in each lock.
His father, in a moment of candour, asks if the boy believes that collecting keys is still the best choice for him.
This autumn marked the publication of Dark Property, a novel from the same era as Evenson’s Altmann’s Tongue stories. It is a peculiar book, a prolonged journey through a realm of absolute damnation.
Despite its title (which alludes to the soul), “dark” is not a fitting descriptor for this world, in which the light is no more divine. The sun – declared as “God’s sun” – only uncovers corpses unseen in the night. It scorches with relentless brutality, pushing its sufferers towards more wickedness and insanity.
The boundary between illumination and darkness is quickly abolished, and with it, any expectation of redemption. Evenson’s quotation from the gospel of Matthew (“If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!”) is distorted to obscure the potential for salvation.
The word “liberty” appears just once in this novel, in a sentence concerning a boy pursued across the desert: “The boy stumbled, obtained a fleeting freedom, fell to earth.” His pursuers crush him to death, then butcher and consume him.
In Dark Property, creatures engage in a continuous cycle of predation. The crows, for example, ravage the corpses of their victims and compete with each other for food. The environment is also suffering, as evidenced by the “uprooted brush” and “contorted sage” that cover the land.
The night sky is also at risk, with “star-spawn clouds” and “vast eddies of cloud” obstructing the view of the stars.
At the outset of each chapter, Evenson supplements his text with epigrams–untranslated and unattributed–originating from Heidegger, Hegel, and Nietzsche.
Following two separate figures, an unnamed mother carrying her sickly infant in a rucksack, and a violent man named Kline dragging an adult-sized sack containing a woman, the story progresses.
Unfortunate events such as encounters with cannibals and a cabin with a slit throat corpse take place.
Eventually, the two find themselves at a seaside fortress held by “righteous” members, wearing identical suits, devoted to reviving the dead by replacing their organs with balloons, fruit, string, and stitching them back together and breathing life into them with metal tubes inserted into the throat.
As their paths remain intertwined in a concept of striving and despair, the two figures move on.
Dark Property is characterised by an unknown language, marked by an unusual syntax, and with words that are often unfamiliar and even obsolete. Evenson utilises these words with an inventive intent, utilising verbs as adjectives and nouns as verbs.
The protagonist is fremont, strampled, and flitched and flenched. The book’s love scene is expressed in an unconventional way: “She neither regarded his face nor chose to squirm under him.
Their swollen scugs tottered the walls, gave utterance in dark tongues that mocked all flesh.” (Scugs are shadows and squirrels).
There is a resemblance to Cormac McCarthy in the use of the term “sprent,” however, in contrast to McCarthy’s sprawling Western lyricism, Evenson’s writing is tight and nearly Beckettian in its absurdity.
Compared to McCarthy, Evenson’s world is more strangely surreal.
The initial quotation in Dark Property is a German line from Heidegger’s “Language” essay. Evenson significantly alters the original message, reducing it to a fragment which, when translated, reads ”
The sentence… leaves us to hover over an abyss…” In this case and others, he attempts to pull himself and the reader into the depths of the abyss.
Using an alternate structure, the same idea can be expressed as follows:
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