Book Review : Brian Evenson - The Open Curtain (2006)
I've made no secret of my admiration for the work of cult author Brian Evenson since discovering his work late in 2016. The witty criticism of organized religion and the seamless integration of language-based subtleties in his iconic detective novel Last Days in particular revealed a world of possibilities I was not aware the genre was capable of. Evenson is perhaps best known for his short story collection Altmann's Tongue and the novel The Open Curtain that chronicle his tormented relationship to Mormonism, a religion he grew up in and eventually separated from. Great authors often create great expectations for their work, so how did this one hold up?
Pretty great, considering it's completely different from his other work and therefore impossible to compare.
The Open Curtain is a novel with three distinct parts featuring different characters as the protagonist but that tell the same overarching story. First, there's Rudd Theurer. A quiet Mormon high school kid living alone with his difficult mother who becomes obsessed with a murder committed by the grandson of Brigham Young involving an archaic Mormon ritual. The second part of The Open Curtain features a young woman named Lyndi who's readjusting to normal life after the brutal murder of her parents. I would spoil the final part of the novel if I revealed anything about it, but it basically is one story narrated from three different point of views, which isn't random at all. I believe what Brian Evenson was trying to illustrate here, and your guess is as good as mine, is how religion can bind otherwise unrelated people together. And not always in a good way.
Brian Evenson defined his legacy as a writer of terror rather than horror when I interviewed him last Fall. The difference between the two concepts is quite clear in The Open Curtain. Evenson questions reality in the novel but never quite invalidates it, leaving the reader to fill the gaps in Rudd Theurer's story. Horror fiction conventionally seeks to terrify audiences using elements of its own narrative, but it's not quite the case here. There is more than one way readers can interpret The Open Curtain because Brian Evenson suggests different answers without ever committing to one in particular. Whatever terrifies you most as a reader is what is going to haunt you when you read The Open Curtain. It terrifies you by using your own fears without ever committing its narrative to it, which is why it's a novel of terror.
Reading The Open Curtain taught me a couple things about what makes a great genre novel. I wouldn't call it a conventional genre novel per se, but it has several elements of horror, mystery and thriller. Characters can never be defined by elements of the genre you're writing. Rudd Theurer is defined by Mormonism and the important absences in his life, notably his father and his brother Lael, which he grew up without. Rudd's intellectual pursuits are a response to these absences and the life-altering consequences of these pursuits usher in the genre elements: a collapse of reality, obsession, murder, etc. The Open Curtain is the story of a young man growing up with a controlling mother for only family and taking refuge in his own mind, which couldn't be any more universal. Most people relate to that. It could've worked without the genre elements, which is why it works so well. Brian Evenson doesn't offer answers that genre fiction pre-defined for him.
There is still a lot more to say about The Open Curtain. It's a multifaceted novel that uses its themes of ignorance, control and religious criticism to multiple angles. There are great scenes featuring Rudd and his teacher who just won't let him be obsessed with a murdered in his class papers. She doesn't really cares what he does outside of class for as long as the papers are uplifting. It illustrated how institutionalized and inescapable the religious control over Rudd's life is. The Open Curtain is another great novel from Brian Evenson. Perhaps not quite as transcendent as Last Days, but it was transcendent nonetheless. There are no authors smarter and more readable than Brian Evenson working today. He's in the class of his own. Whether you read The Open Curtain or Last Days, it doesn't matter. Read him, you can thank me later.