Book Review : Brian Evenson - Altmann's Tongue (1994)
It's not uncommon to hear a book changed someone's life. There's a power to reading created by its intimate nature and the effort put into it. But what about books that changed their author's lives? And I'm not talking about runaway successes here. Brian Evenson's debut short story collection Altmann's Tongue famously got him in trouble with Brigham Young University and the Mormon Church, two institutions he was a part of. Can a book withhold such power that it ends up altering its author's life? If so, what kind of book can do that? Brian Evenson is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers, so I read Altmann's Tongue to find out.
The first thing you need to know about this book is that it's fascinated with death. Brian Evenson's always been fascinated by boundaries: the sacred and the profane, existence and transcendence, that sort of thing. He tackles the oldest and greatest boundary of them all in Altmann's Tongue, which seems sensible given it was his first book. I particularly loved Her Other Bodies in that regards, which is the story of a man trying to cross a boundary by killing women and finding himself confronted by the lack of meaning of the atrocities he commits. Of course, Evenson doesn't give out a clear answer to what he's seeking. Her Other Bodies happens between two murders, so is the protagonist trying to make something happen? Is he progressing towards something? Your guess is as good as mine.
The Blank, A Slow Death and Extermination, three stories sharing a narrative about a community living in a fortress, examine death under a completely other angle. Their chief Thorne going into seclusion right at the start The Blank, the community begins living under the spell of Bosephus and slowly decaying over the length of the three stories. They're facing their own mortality like Adam and Eve after God turns their back on them. Or better yet, like God had died, leaving the community unprotected against its own annihilation. This is a thing about the stories in Altmann's Tongue, they mostly explore death in a religious perspective. They wonder it's a passage to: a) a better place b) a worse one or c) if it's just the process of watching your own body and consciousness withering. Joyous, I know.
In mid-April, Thorne sealed himself into his room and refused to come out. I will not, he wrote on a half-sheet of yellow paper which he slid under the door, repeat Lazarus' mistake and exit the tomb. All is the tomb. (The Blank, p.43)
The title story Altmann's Tongue is a curious one. It merely is a couple hundred words long where the narrator congratulates himself for murdering a man named Altmann for reasons he doesn't explain. Justification is brought later in another story titled The Abbreviated and Tragical History of the Auschwitz Barber, which is even shorter, but I thought it was an interesting experiment to remove the act of murder from justification and offering it in all its raw and uncanny glory. Murdering someone is a fucked up thing to do, no matter if it's justified or not. Brian Evenson explores murder and suicide (and weird religion) in detail in Altmann's Tongue because they are methods of gaining control over death human being have developed.
So, was Altmann's Tongue violent and depraved enough to warrant all the institutional trouble Brian Evenson got into for publishing it? Absolutely not, but it's funny how it colored everyone's perception since then. Kirkus called him: "someone who has trouble recognizing when enough is enough," which I think is hilariously lightweight and judgmental. Altmann's Tongue is a thorough, fearless (and somewat shameless) exploration of our relationship with death and it should be applauded. It's nowhere near the most extreme thing I've ever read. If it is for you, you seriously need to read Marquis de Sade. Altmann's Tongue doesn't believe in morals or taboos, but it's a legit book about death and religion and the place they occupy in literature.