5x5: Brian Evenson

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 Illustrations by Josephine Demme

In this series five different writers talk to one writer about five (or more) of his different books. In this second interview, Brian Conn talks to Brian Evenson about ImmobilityRead the first interview with Colin Winnette, the second with Matt Bell.

Brian Conn in Conversation with Brian Evenson

I was kicked out of a reading room at the Providence Public Library while rereading Brian Evenson’s Immobility. I had been there for several hours when an oily man in a crooked tie approached me. This room is for students and people with laptops, he said, looking away. Not for casual reading.

Well, the rules are the rules. But as I walked out of the library I wondered whether the oily man’s accusation of “casual reading” was justified. Is Immobility casual reading? I still do not have an answer to this question. Immobility is a science fiction novel featuring scenes of graphic violence, a description that suggests the kind of novel that might be read casually. But it is also a novel about not knowing who or what you are; and that theme is not developed casually, but is instead integrated so thoroughly that by the time you reach the end you are likely to have forgotten forever what you once meant by the word human.

That is not among the usual effects of casual reading.

There’s a deadpan humor in some of Evenson’s writing. The scene in Immobility in which one of Horkai’s keepers holds him down while the other prepares the bone saw is a strangely funny scene. It’s a scene that elevates your heart rate and your breathing rate and maybe it just seems funny because you don’t know what else to do with that excitement.

Maybe that’s nervous laughter. After all it is a bone saw. It cannot be serious. It is apparently serious. Evenson offers us no help in understanding whether he is serious or not, whether or not this is a casual book. His language (the substrate of narrative) tells us that we do not know what language is, that language does not know what language is, that we are all blind.

Since so many of the usual categories break down when applied to Evenson’s work, for this interview we had recourse to magic. I spoke to him in his office at Brown University.

—Brian Conn

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I. THE THREE OF CUPS

BRIAN CONN: I brought tarot cards. I had this idea that we should use them to talk about Immobility. I don’t know if you spend much time with tarot cards.

BRIAN EVENSON: A little.

BC: I’ve spent a lot of time with the major arcana. Let’s take those out and only use the minor arcana, so you and I will have equal knowledge. I’ve also brought Arthur Edward Waite’s Pictorial Key to the Tarot. We could take three cards, one after the other. The first we could use to talk about Immobility. With the second we could focus more on you and your habits as a writer. And the third—I think you said once that this book might be part of a longer series, that there’s a larger world here?

BE: Right.

BC: So maybe the third card we could use to talk about that stuff. I don’t have a particular ceremony. Should we just look at the top card?

BE: Sure. It’s the three of cups.

BC: The three of cups. Maybe we should look at it before we consult Arthur Waite. What do you think is there?

BE: Well, there are three cups. Everyone is raising a cup, so there’s a kind of festive or joyous mood. The number three is obviously important in the three of cups, but also in my work, I think.

BC: In Immobility particularly?

BE: Well, in Immobility there are three people who are traveling, but there’s a duo within the trio. It’s a triple that isn’t ever completely triple.

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"Pain can recalibrate your life."

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An Interview with Aaron Gwyn

Aaron Gwyn’s first book, a collection of stories titled Dog on the Cross, was a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award. His work has appeared in Esquire, McSweeney’s, and Glimmer Train. He teaches at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. 

We talked about his latest, Wynne’s War, a contemporary Western, set among an elite American Special Forces unit preparing to stage a secret mission on horseback in eastern Afghanistan.

—Kyle Minor

I. “THE UGLY FACT IS BOOKS ARE MADE OUT OF BOOKS”

KYLE MINOR: Wynne’s War opens with an epigraph from Cormac McCarthy. What kind of relationship have you had with his novels?

AARON GWYN: I’ve noticed that it’s become fashionable for young(er) novelists who’ve clearly been influenced by McCarthy to deny that influence.  I understand: nothing hurts as much as being figured out.  McCarthy himself, in the first interview he gave after the success of All the Pretty Horses, said: “the ugly fact is books are made out of books.”  I agree (though I don’t wouldn’t call that fact ugly.  I’d call it the “Western Literary Tradition.”

I started writing because of Faulkner, but I’ve developed into whatever kind of writer I am because of McCarthy’s western novels: Blood Meridian and The Border Trilogy.  I make no secret of the fact that Blood Meridian is my favorite book, and that it is, in my opinion, the best American novel after Absalom, Absalom and Moby Dick.  Followed very closely by Philipp Meyer’s absolute masterpiece, The Son.  So, I suppose my Top Five Novels would be:

1. Absalom, Absalom
2. Moby Dick
3. Blood Meridian
4. The Son
5. All the Pretty Horses

KM: What other novelists became important to you as you were deciding what kind of writer you wanted to become?

AG: I like Beckett’s novels. The Molloy “trilogy” and How It Is.  I like Ulysses quite a bit. I like that Nabokov guy (Lolita and Pale Fire, especially). I’ve read and reread Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke which is fantastic and contains the best dialogue of any novel I’ve ever read.  I love Gilead.  Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms is worth the hype (though it’s not as good as his short stories).  You can read Don DeLillo with a minimum risk of blindness: he writes amazing sentences, and every now and then he’ll make you feel a little something.  Ben Fountain’s debut novel is a knockout.  Ron Hansen is an American master (read Desperadoes and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford STAT).  I love John Williams’s Stoner.  I don’t know why more people aren’t reading James Carlos Blake (start with Wildwood Boys).  I’m a fiend for Roth’s 1990-2001 novels, one hit after another.  Everyone who reads this should go get a copy of Richard Bausch’s novel Peace: it’s a stunning “little” 200-page war novel set in WWII Italy.  It’s a complete gem.

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5x5: Brian Evenson

 Illustrations by Josephine Demme

In this series five different writers talk to one writer about five (or more) of his different books. In this second interview, Matt Bell talks to Brian Evenson about The Open CurtainRead the first interview with Colin Winnette.

Matt Bell in Conversation with Brian Evenson

The Open Curtain was the first of Brian Evenson’s books I read, after hearing Dan Wickett of Dzanc Books and Aaron Burch of Hobart gush over it at a post-reading get together in Ann Arbor, shortly after the book’s release in 2006. I can remember much of their conversation focusing around the book’s third part, “Hooper, Amuck,” and for good reason: It’s a third act that rearranges and reimagines much of what came before, reopening the book’s mysteries in one of the finest refusals of easy resolution I’ve ever seen. Reading The Open Curtain rearranged what I thought novels were capable of, what I thought I wanted from endings, and reading the rest of Evenson’s body of work offered similarly disorienting and entrancing experiences. At AWP in 2009, Evenson gave a talk as part of a panel on “Truth and Consequences in Non-Realist Fiction” where he shared an anecdote about one of the best compliments he’d ever received about his fiction: “Someone wrote to tell me that after reading one of my books he woke up in the middle of the night and went into the bathroom and turned on the light and found he could not recognize himself in the mirror. You could argue that this is simply an indication that you shouldn’t read certain kinds of fiction before bed, but it resonated for me in that that same questioning of, and loss of, self is something that I experience every time I write.” There are many such lovely and wounding and transformative losses of self in Evenson’s work, and I was grateful to get to talk to him about how the ones in The Open Curtain came to be and about how that novel paved the way for the books that followed.

—Matt Bell

I. THE ONES THAT CAME BEFORE

MATT BELL: The Open Curtain was published in 2006, and was (I believe) your seventh book and second novel. Since then, if I’ve got my count right, you’ve published two other novels and two short story collections under your own name, plus four books as B.K. Evenson, plus eight works of translation, by Christophe Claro, Manuela Draeger, and others. That’s an incredible five years of literary productivity, and I wonder if it makes The Open Curtain seem longer ago for you than it was. The time between The Open Curtain and now isn’t necessarily enormous, but the art distance between them is sort of staggering: I’m having a hard time thinking of a literary writer who’s produced more strong work in such a short time. There’s a similar effect for me as a reader: The Open Curtain was the first novel of yours I read, and even though I’ve read it twice since there’s still a sense in which it’s my “first” Brian Evenson experience, with all the rest of your writing following.

How do you see The Open Curtain, when you look back at it? Do you have a sense of how it was different than the work that came before it, or how it might have anticipated what came after?

BRIAN EVENSON: Well, it’s a little tricky in that even though The Open Curtain came out in 2006 it was finished in 2004 and it was something I’d been working on for almost five years before that. It’s the book I’ve worked on the longest, and really does span a time when my work was changing and developing, when I was becoming more open to genre, when my narratives were becoming fuller and more developed, where I was starting, I think, to complicate the minimalist gestures of my earlier fiction with something else. And so, I was working on it when I was also working on The Wavering Knife, for instance, and I think the fact that that book ended up winning an International Horror Guild prize opened up some doors for me with The Open Curtain. The positive reception in the genre world that The Brotherhood of Mutilation (the first half of Last Days) got in 2003 also was important. Both those and several other things were instrumental in terms of changing my sense of what I was able to do as a writer, and I think that The Open Curtain began as one sort of book and only could come to its own after I’d really changed both as a human and as a writer. 

The Open Curtain was also something I thought of as a book that would teach people how to read my earlier books and it did something that I hadn’t done to that point: It has two at least relatively straightforward sections followed by a third that cracks open the reality so far created. It took me a long time (literally years) to come up with the recursive gesture that I use in the first several chapters of that final section, but that, I think, ended up opening something in terms of the fragmenting of reality that would end up being important both in the short fiction I’ve done since and in Immobility. I think The Open Curtain is the book I’ve learned the most doing, and definitely an important transitional moment for me.

MB: I’m interested to hear you say you wanted The Open Curtain to teach people how to read the earlier books, both because I’m curious what they’d been missing, and also because I think it’s interesting to consider the role of the writer in molding the reaction of readers over a body of work. What had readers gotten wrong about the earlier books? Was there any part of this desire that stemmed from your own changing understanding of the previous works?

BE: It wasn’t that readers had gotten anything wrong, only that some readers had a difficult time figuring a way into the work, or were repulsed by the violence, or came to the work, because of what they’d read about me in reviews, with preconceived notions of what they were going to read. I think the idea I had—and I didn’t have this when I began the book, only once I was in it—was that the book would mimic being relatively straightforward and then would get weirder as it went, and would finally crack open with the third section. I hoped that I’d bring certain sorts of readers in with the early pages and then gradually complicate things so that they were entering into a very different literary space almost without knowing. That seems to have worked, since that book was a finalist for the Edgar Award. The way I used to talk about the book that would become The Open Curtain when I was in the very early stages was that I wanted to write a book that was a series of three novellas, each of which would make you reconsider the ones that came before, each of which would in some senses erase or destroy what came before it so that you’d be left at the end with nothing, not knowing exactly what had happened to you. It doesn’t do that exactly, but it makes some gestures toward it, and the beginning of part three does it in lesser form. Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy does in fact do this, being a series of three novels, each of which makes you question what you thought you knew from the first one.

 

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"If something looks wrong there is probably something wrong."

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River Valley—from Transfigurations (32”x40” Gelatin Silver Print)

Bucky Miller in Conversation with Photographer Michael Lundgren

In Michael Lundgren’s kitchen there is something called the cabinet of death. It houses mostly artifacts that the photographer collects in the deserts of the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico, but among the expected seed pods, mammal skulls, and dried-out lizards are some dusty, mysterious bits of technological evidence. The most memorable of these is a half-melted and charred orange pill bottle that has fused to the digital camera memory card it contained, creating a reliquary for something unknowable but entirely relatable.

The cabinet is a reasonable parallel to Lundgren’s picture-making. His first book, Transfigurations (Radius, 2008) was akin to a Sonoran landscape survey performed by a magical realist. The work he’s made since, which he calls Matter, is a bit different. The landscape has remained the same, but Mike’s relationship to it has evolved.  A selection of those pictures are on view at Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco as part of the exhibition Where There’s Smoke from July 10—August 23. On a recent and unexpected drive through the Arizona desert Mike and I started talking about the shift in his picture making and I started recording.

—Bucky Miller

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Untitled—from Transfigurations (20” x 24” Gelatin Silver Print)

I. LOOK AT IT

THE BELIEVER: Your first book really was entrenched in the history of landscape photography, and I think the new work is less tied to the generation of photographers who influenced you. It deals with landscape in a way we aren’t used to seeing.

MICHAEL LUNDGREN: Exactly. The older work, I’ve been noticing more and more now looking at it, was really my way of digesting history, tracing the path of history in terms of photography in general, and specifically landscape photography. It charts the path of my understanding of my predecessors. It’s much less mine, even though I had thought it was mine at the time.

The new work has much less precedent, and the precedent is not in landscape photography. Even though it’s connected to the landscape, the precedent is in work that’s maybe only become possible because of the pictures generation.

BLVR: Like what?

ML: The idea that photographs come from other places. The idea that a valid art photograph does not just come from the solo artist with a vision, but that one can glean things from contemporary culture, from the vernacular, from advertising. That generation changed the way we see pictures. Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel are probably the largest, most obvious influence.

BLVR: Evidence.

ML: Yeah. They are the biggest influence in the known world. In the unknown world, which is where the best work is, other artists are important.

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