Book Review : Brian Evenson - The Wavering Knife (2004)
* a suggestion from Blake Butler *
Brian Evenson became a cult figure in the publishing industry with ambitious and original genre novels such as Last Days and The Open Curtain, and because of a well-publicized feud with Brigham Young University. Few readers remember his short story collection The Wavering Knife, which explores more difficult and destabilizing ideas. I chose the collection to take my relationship to Evenson's writing to the next level and, predictably enough, it had peaks and valleys that entirely redefined what he's capable of. There's a lot more to Brian Evenson than detective stories and criticism of religion, guys. Not sure I've understood everything about The Wavering Knife, but there's a lot to like about this little book.
I loved many stories of The Wavering Knife, but my favorite was perhaps Virtual, featuring a couple with a child that seemingly doesn't exist. The wife can see it. The husband can't at first, then begins seeing it and, in stranger circumstances, loses the ability to. Brian Evenson never confirms or deny whether the child actually exists. The protagonist Rudy seems to live in an parallel reality to his wife and constantly tries to convince himself that the child in question doesn't exist. Evenson questions himself Rudy's version of the events at the beginning by saying it's the version of the events "he grew comfortable with." Virtual is, ultimately, the story of two people who fail to reconcile their different worldviews but the focus is on the failure and not on whoever's right. And that failure is represented, heartbreakingly enough, as an invisible child.
The opener White Square was also great. It featured a stubborn, obsessive man named Gahern who's being interrogated by the police after being found living in his missing ex-wife's residence. The police detective builds this representation of the case using square shapes, hoping it will prompt Gahern to overcommit in his answers. What's so much fun about White Square is that it doesn't give all the answers to the questions it raises, yet you'll find some much later in The Wavering Knife in another story titled The Installation, which digs a lot deeper in the concepts of loss and reality. These stories are not directly related, but they're cousins or something. The protagonist of both stories are trying to stifle feelings of loss and guilt and give them a form that's tangible and easy to establish dominion over. There's something selfish, yet adorably broken to the two men. Brian Evenson establishes a lingering sense of them just doing the best they can with the cards their were dealt.
There are a handful of satirical stories in The Wavering Knife, which caught me off guard a little. There is a satirical element to Evenson's iconic novel Last Days but I hadn't experienced his writing in full let's-make-fun-of-something mode yet. Not that his satires are bad or stupid in any way. The Intricacies of Post-Shooting Etiquette was compelling and a hilarious ethical mindfuck that tried to answer the following question: if you try to kill someone you love and fail, what do you do then? The Prophets was another satirical short I loved. It's more aligned with what Evenson is famous for (making fun or religion), but his way he plays with the premise to let the reader constantly foreshadow something terrible is going to happen in order to cast a light on the process of belief and the audience's own judgement on it was brilliant. I finished this one chuckling and clapping, alone in my living room.
Now, I've only discussed the stories I liked most in the collection, but there are many others that make it worth your while: The Ex-Father, Promisekeepers and Barcode Jesus were other stories I thoroughly enjoyed. Some of The Wavering Knife's stories defeated me and I'm not ashamed to say it. I did not know what they were trying to say. Moran's Mexico: A Refutation, by C. Stelzman and The Progenitor among others left me wondering what the fuck had I just read. The Wavering Knife definitely isn't where you should start with Brian Evenson. It's kind of a panorama of ideas that aren't thematically related, but that fit together by sheer force of tone and style. I've enjoyed it perhaps slightly less than his novels, but it's still more compelling than 99% of whatever else is out there. If you like Brian Evenson's writing at least half as I do, read this collection.