As if wooing Sisyphus, I push hungrily through the 25 stories in Brian Evenson's new collection, Windeye, trying each time to get to The Answer. Is the man a maniacal killer, or trapped in an experiment? What happens in the caves? Will the dead boy be avenged? Can Halle survive until the end of the oxygen shortage?
Foolish me. Evenson's stories, as puzzling as they are, never get to The Answer — or, if they do, it's not likely there is a Question. These stories don't end, but rather leap off cliffs and out of sight ("It was as if none of them really knew what was happening to them: none of them understood it, yet none of them were able to stop. And then it got worse." — "The Tunnel"). Instead of an ambiguous shrug at the end of a suspenseful story, there is a glimmering, jeering, three-dimensional absence ("And then he couldn't manage to think even that." — "The Oxygen Protocol").
Evenson, acclaimed author of the virtuosic Mormon murder thriller The Open Curtain, and the creepy post-apocalyptic novel Immobility, has a well mapped-out moral universe. The territory is familiar — identifiably his. Bloody, ruthless, symbolist, bodily physical and atmospherically hollow. With his junky blend of horror, sci-fi and Beckett, Evenson solves many writerly problems: how to systematically destabilize exposition; how to upend the "it-was-all-a-dream" ending; how to use the imagination to get out of the mind and into the body. His stories are narrative events, and his formalism has earned him a devoted, even cultish following among writers.
It makes sense. The stories that work here work exceedingly well. They haunt and bleed and force the reader into contemplation, each one introducing a kind of unique metaphysical problem.
The title story, "Windeye," which won a PEN/O'Henry Award in 2011, is exquisite. It begins in a nostalgic, almost songlike mode: "They lived, when he was growing up, in a simple house, an old bungalow with a converted attic and sides covered in cedar shake." The house, it turns out, is not entirely simple, for there is an extra window on the outside, a "windeye," that has no correlating window inside. In trying to figure out the mystery of the window, the boy narrator discovers that the they isn't a simple matter either:
"Over the years there were moments when he was almost convinced, moments when he almost began to think — and perhaps even did think for weeks or months at a time — that he never had a sister. It would have been easier to think this than to think she had been alive and then, perhaps partly because of him, not alive. Being not alive wasn't like being dead, he felt: it was much, much worse."
"They," "Them," "The Voice," and "The Man" — frequently weak, embryonic or overly political prepositions in fiction, serve noble purpose in Evenson's work. In "The Drownable Species," the unreliable narrator/psycho-killer is drafting his story for a friend. He is then "informed by my friend that I have been showing my writings not to a him but to a them, to a series of different men." They go on to clarify that they are not friends so much as "interlocutors." The shifting nature of the interlocutors mirrors the shifting perspective of the madman trying to untangle his multiple delusions.
Madness is perhaps the most inert threat in Evenson's world; at least it is emotionally logical. Some of the most terrifying and remarkable stories take up issues of agency — particularly the lack of agency such as befalls a young orphan who gets caught up in a supernatural murder spree in "Grottor." As the boy Bernt "solves" the mystery, he becomes increasingly unable to escape it. The paralysis of a nightmare. "He is going to kill him, thought Bernt, yet he could make no effort to stop him." The horror in this especially unsettling tale comes neither from the "boo" nor the blood (and there is a lot of both) but from the ritual irrationality of Grottor's evil, his unnamed cosmology, his beast.
Evenson is intense. Anything goes in his work, and often it goes very badly. But his sensibility is so loose-limbed and nimble — so late-night-television, so literary. Reading him is basically the most fun you can have contemplating your own mortality.