Book Review : Brian Evenson - Last Days (2009)
"How can I be expected to solve a crime by looking at a reconstruction of it?"
"Mr. Kline, surely you're enough of an armchair philosopher to realize that everything is a reconstruction of something else? Reality is a desperate and evasive creature." (p.36)
Brian Evenson is the celebrated author of books such as The Open Curtain, The Wavering Knife, Windeye and more recently The Warren, which was my first experience with his writing. His stories are elusive, unfathomable and reputably violent, which are three qualities I appreciate in fiction. I received several requests to include Evenson's work in horroctober although pigeonholing him into a specific genre would be inaccurate and dismissive of how complex and engaging his prose is. Last Days is perhaps Brian Evenson's most celebrated novel and it isn't cosmic horror at all. It is nonetheless one of the most enjoyable things I've read all year. Last Days lives up to its reputation, beautiful people. It had the effect of a jolt of electricity to my boredom and cynicism.
Last Days is, at heart, a detective novel. It was originally a novella titled The Brotherhood of Mutilation published in 2003, which was expanded upon and turned into a novel in 2009. The protagonist is a man named Kline, an undercover cop who lost a hand to "a gentleman with a cleaver" during an investigation gone wrong, who is contacted out of the blue by private interests who require him to lead an investigation they refuse to tell him anything about. They will not take no for an answer and only Kline will do. So, the mysterious callers eventually show up to his apartment, kidnap him and bring him to the compound of an amputation cult who measure their closeness to God by the number of limbs they lop off their body. This is weird and shocking, I know. And it gets a whole lot weirder from here.
Now, the easy thing to say about Last Days is that it denounces the irrational nature of religion. There is obviously some of that, but it would be selling Evenson's novel short not to look any further. Because he most certainly did. Sure, the beliefs of the brotherhood of mutilation seem a little goofy. They literally worship nothingness. Non-existence. Existence is something impure to them and the path to enlightenment involves removing oneself from it. That is why brotherhood members are in awe of Kline's "self-cauterizer" status. He completed an entire step towards non-existence on his own volition, without professional assistance. The prototypical existential character Kline is considered to be super badass by people who long for non-existence. Brian Evenson has a wicked deadpan sense of humor and satirical jabs like this can be found all over Last Days. Here is another example:
"I'm not a one," said Gous, lifting up his hand. "Not any more."
"Still," said Ramse. "You're not much. You're what you are and we love you for it, but you're not much." (p.60-61)
Last Days is not just a satirical takedown, though. Far from it. The brotherhood of mutilation have irrational (or should I say impractical) ideals, but their operations couldn't be any more down to earth. The process of belief and worship have secularized in most of Western society and the brotherhood of mutilation reflects that shift. Their members don't worship an abstraction but the process of it. They operate like any contemporary power structure would: low level members are kept in the dark about the real purpose and intentions of the cult, they are asked for blind loyalty, advancement is strongly influenced by power figures, etc. Last Days is an existential novel in the sense that Kline is drifting outside of the predefined structures of our time (employment, religion), looking for truth. Not only he will be required to choose between existence and non-existence, but he will be required to find meaning to his actions in order to transcend the spiral of senseless violence he is a part of.
I'm a long time fan of detective novels and it has been some time since I've read one as efficient and original as Brian Evenson's Last Days. This novel not only stacked with interesting ideas about worship but it's kind of a feat of technical mastery in itself. Evenson wrote an entire detective mystery without any clues or traditional methods of investigation. Whenever Kline wants to process through any other means than violence, he is stifled by an amorphous set of rules. The essence of Last Days isn't the crimes committed, but a power struggle between Kline (self-determination, freedom) and Borchert (predetermination, existing structures). It is a novel that has a lot in common with Dashiell Hammett's hardboiled classic Red Harvest. It celebrates a tradition of bold and transgressive writing in a publishing industry that is more sales driven than ever.
Last Days is fucking amazing. It set my mind on fire and had me deliberately slowing down my reading in order not to miss details and keep the experience going for as long as possible. I was afraid to write one of my famous gushing fanboy reviews, but this is not so bad. Last Days is a novel about worship more than it is about religion. It examines the human compulsion to sacrifice oneself to a greater purpose and uses a traditional figure (the detective) in order to question a motive so deeply embedded in our culture it has co-opted our couscious desires. It is also a terrific detective novel and an open dare to every boring, formulaic mysteries ever published. I can't say enough good things about Last Days, beautiful people. It is an absolute scorcher of a novel. It set both my mind and my gut on fire, really. Novels like that are few and far between and are meant to live forever.