If asked my opinion of author Brian Evenson prior to reading of Fugue State, the new short story collection by the critically-acclaimed novelist, I would have damned Evenson's work with faint praise. Based on my lukewarm experience of The Open Curtain, I would have probably given a noncommittal answer along the lines of, "Interesting." The Open Curtain was a strong starter that showed great promise, but it never hooked me emotionally. Still, I couldn't entirely discount Evenson's talent. Especially his ability to capture the worldview of damaged, cracked, and possessed individuals.
In an essay about Roger Federer, David Foster Wallace tried to imagine what it was like to play tennis as Federer. The trick to understanding Federer, Wallace decided, was that you had to view the world in relativistic terms. From the frame of reference of a non-Federer, Federer is amazingly fast with an uncanny capacity to find and connect with the ball. But Federer doesn't understand the world in terms of his lightening speed or relentless accuracy. Rather, from his frame of reference, the rest of the world is slow. The ball, to him, seems fat and sluggish. He may understand, on an intellectual level, that this perception is a result of his unique speed. Existentially, however, his heightened speed is the baseline. Federer doesn't live in a world where he's leopard; he lives in a world were everybody else is a sloth.
Evenson has a special talent for describing the haunted world of the mad and cursed in relativistic terms. In The Open Curtain, a young man finds himself haunted by a religiously-motivated crime that lurks in his Mormon community's past. Whether he's "haunted" in a poetic or supernatural sense becomes, through a meticulous act of mental and spiritual archeology on Evensons part, an academic question. Once you've truly become haunted, the ghosts no longer need to be real. As Evenson's character falls deeper and deeper into his unique frame of reference, he ceases to be somebody suffering from a unique nightmare and became the one man who can see the dark and portentous resonances that everybody else – a world of sloths – cannot or refuses to see. That's Evenson's unique capacity, a fine tuned form of Keats negative ability to project himself in the minds of others. In Evenson's relativistic world, the mad don't live prosaic lives punctuated by crazy and inexplicable incidents. That's what the world of the insane looks like to sane people. From within the framework of madness, the world makes complete sense. (In fact, what's a better definition of insanity than that the world makes total and complete sense all the time.) Those who don't share the frame either don't get it, refuse to get it, or are pretending not to get it.
Do crazy people know they are crazy? Evenson's answer seems to be, "No. They know you are."
What makes Fugue State a break out work is that Evenson's unique gift for describing the world from within the frameworks of unique experience has expanded to capture all modes and manner of expression. There are several horror stories in Fugue State, but they rub shoulders with comedies, tragedies, sci-fi fantasy, domestic drama, and shaggy dog stories. And nearly every single story out of the nineteen collected is a complete and utter success.
Screamers and Screamettes, we aren't even half over with this year and it's been a great year for "hopeful monsters" in genre lit. J. Robert Lennon's Kafka-by-way-of-Deliverance novel Castle, Robert Goolrick's reinvigorating A Reliable Wife, and Nick Antosca's twisted and philosophical Dante's tour of a soul-killing roadside netherworld Midnight Picnic. In an average year, that would be as much as I'd have the right to expect. But Fugue State not only joins the slowly growing ranks of liminal-genre awesomeness, but actually raises the bar.
The book starts out with quartet of solid singles. The opening story, "Younger," showcases Evenson's ability to fully invest in a mindset. Less a story than a character study, it details the conflict between two sisters, one of which has never been able to get over what, according to the other one, was a completely innocuous and mundane incident. Mapping out two contrasting mentalities, each complete and consistent, but utterly incompatible, yet strangely intertwined, is safely in Evenson's wheelhouse. It's like starting an album with a track that could have been on the last album. It says, "Hey, it's me. Remember where we left off?" Evenson then takes that technique and pushes it in "A Pursuit," a David Lynch-esque chase story, and "Mudder Tongue," a nightmarish tale about a man be abandoned by language. (Is it magical realism or a rigorous depiction of neurological condition? That's the beauty of what Evenson does here: Life described in sufficient detail is indistinguishable from magic.) This is followed with the brilliantly satiric "An Accounting," which is a smart take on the current apocalyptic trend in genre lit. Fusing religion, a post-doomsday road tale, and ritual cannibalism into an efficient and laugh-inducing tale, Evenson's made the anti-Road. I won't be able to watch that movie now without giggling.
Other standouts include the office life satire "Ninety Over Ninety," the surrealistic take on the consequences of mime-sex "Invisible Box," and the post-modern Gothic "In the Greenhouse." The prize jewel in the collection is "Girls in Tents." A domestic drama about a disintegrating family, it is told in a manner that evokes the best of Millhauser. There's not a single supernatural element in this story, but it feels like a modern fairy tale.
Some of the stories feel a bit underdone, as if they were ideas for a larger work that never developed. And, unfortunately, there is "Alfons Kuylers," which perfectly captures a Poe-ish tone, but then devolves into a plot so shopworn that I thought I had read this story before only to realize that I've essentially read it several times before.
Still, even at their worst, the stories in here have a genuine, crackling life to them. It would be dishonest to say, given the range of Evenson handles ably in this collection, that Fugue State is a collection of horror stories. But, for fans of Evenson's darker stuff, this is a brilliant showcase for his capacities as a writer. For anybody unfamiliar with Evenson, this book is the place to start.