Friday, October 8, 2010

Brian Evenson - Last Days

Last Days is a streamlined punch to the gut. There are no wasted words here, no auxiliary threads to subtract from the main thrust, nothing to prevent Evenson’s ideas from shooting directly into your skull. The tone is fast and fevered throughout, events always accelerating towards a conclusion that promises to be anything but neat, the resolution of plot threads anything but surgical.

It is impossible to get over a feeling of unease while reading these two novellas, impossible not to feel dirtied with each word that passes beneath your gaze. Kline’s past is heroic, but it’s taken to such extremes that the reader can’t read it without feeling a tad queasy, the sort of victory that the celebrants will always wonder if it might have been better for everyone involved if it had been a defeat, instead:

[They had] read about his so-called heroism and how, even when faced with the man with the cleaver – or the “gentleman with the cleaver” as they chose to call him – he hadn’t flinched, hadn’t given a thing away. Was it true, they wanted to know ,that he hadn’t flinched? That he had simply watched the man raise the cleaver and bring it down, his hand becoming a separate, moribund creature? (p. 25)

In the same vein, every sympathetic character is also a monster, every simple decision a potential moral abyss, every simple task labyrinthine and difficult. The reader feels sympathy for Kline but should they? Gous is nice, companionable, even. And yet he is also depraved in their own way, caught up in the cult until it is more powerful than right or wrong, life or death, to him

That cult, The Brotherhood of Mutilation, is the center of this story. Taking Mathew 29 (And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out…) to the extreme, they’ve developed a religion out of the process of self mutilation, glorifying in disfigurement to the point that their leader is nothing but a tongue-less head and a nipple-less torso. It’s easy to simply classify the Brotherhood as evil, and it often seems right to do so, but they are often more alien than wrong, more amoral than immoral. The utter incomprehensibility of their mindset, held together by its unapproachable but unassailable logic, is one of the greatest strengths of the text, dictating the course of almost every conversation between Kline and the cult members:

“You can’t all be Paul,” [Kline] said.

“Why not?” said the man. “Is this a teaching?”

“A teaching?” said Kline. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Should I write it down?”

“Write what down?”

“’You can’t all be Paul.’ And whatever else comes thereafter from your lips.”

“No,” said Kline, a strange dread starting to grow within him. “I don’t want you to write anything down.”

“Is this too a teaching?” said Paul. “Write nothing down?”

“Nothing’s a teaching,” said Kline.
(p. 132)

The Brotherhood is a place of contradictions. On one hand, mutilations are a source of distinction approaching religious ecstasy, something that is an unbelievable honor and something to be revered above all else. At the same time, lower members of the Brotherhood often get their amputations at amputation parties, events were everyone socializes and drinks until the evening culminates with anesthesia and the bite of the knife or cleaver. That combination of reverence and irreverence colors much of Last Days.

Evenson’s narrative is one of disorientation. Events move at an intentionally jerky, artificial pace, as Kline is thrown, shoved, and otherwise man handled to revelation after revelation. This is effective at subjecting the reader to Kline’s confused mental state, forcing the reader to struggle to process information at the same speed as Kline. Over long periods of time, however, the technique becomes tiresome, leaving the reader with almost nothing to grasp onto as progress for the occasional long stretch. Up until the end, Kline is not the arbiter of his own destiny, and very few of the book’s events are determined by him until then. Kline, though physically and mentally powerful, is not a strong character in the traditional, plot-driving sense, and it can grow annoying to have a story almost wholly directed by outside elements, though Evenson’s writing and pacing are too strong for that to ever grow into a truly debilitating issue.

Combining with the tautness of the story, Evenson’s prose is so bare as to be effectively invisible for most of the book, simply dragging the reader along by the throat and standing aside to let them see the events looming up above them. Motivations are rarely shared, and the dialogue is almost always declarative, often in fragments. Character’s seem to talk at one another far more often than to one another, leaving whole aspects of story and mysteries open to be connected, if there even is a connection, by the reader. Every once in a while, Evenson will display the same irreverence that he does to mutilation and matters of faith to the characters’ conversations and the book’s mysteries:

“I’m here because of Aline.”

“Who’s either dead or not dead.”

“Exactly,” said Kline.

“There’s a big difference,” said Gous. “That’s what we intend to find out.”

“What?” said Ramse.

“That,” said Gous.

“What?” said Ramse, looking around. “What’s going on?”

“Exactly,” said Kline. “That’s what I want to know.”
(p. 84)

Much has been made of how terrifying Last Days is. Now, fear is obviously a fairly personal thing, and it’s unlikely that the same section will affect two different readers in the same way, but I have to say that, for the most part, I did not find Last Days frightening. Grotesque, yes. Disturbing, yes. Terrifying, no… Except for one scene in the beginning of the second novella, that is, where the powerlessness of the narrator is rammed home so hard that I was almost falling off my chair I was so freaked out while reading it. So I guess I’ll take it back, Last Days can be pretty frightening when it really wants to be.

The first novella here, Brotherhood of Mutilation, is the tighter of the two. The concepts are at their freshest and the disorientation at its most acute, yet least forced. In addition, the novella twists its central scene and throws it back at us again and again, in dreams and memories and recurrences, until we feel as haunted as Kline, turning the pages in order to escape his past.

By contrast, the first while of Last Days feels like the reader’s treading water in a shifting sea; they may be moving, but it’s by no action of their own. Once that part concludes, however, Last Days begins to pick up speed and never stops doing so. Despite a few mishaps, it becomes almost the equal of the first novella and in many ways that book’s inverse. Brotherhood of Mutilation was all about Kline being controlled, about Kline being powerless in his own destiny, but that theme was so much a part of the story’s structure and foundations that it was never questioned. In this novella, on the other hand, Kline lashes out at the ties that bind him, the novella concluding in him asserting his own dominance to the detriment of everyone around him.

The differences between the two novels are what gives the collection as a whole its identity, the overall tale managing to take the strengths of its two halves, with each novella generally balancing out the other’s weaknesses. Last Days is an immersing and a disturbing read.

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