Evenson, Brian 1966-
Evenson, Brian 1966-
PERSONAL: Born August 12, 1966, in Ames, IA; son of William Edwin (a physicist) and Nancy Ann (an architect; maiden name, Woffinden) Evenson; married Connie Joyce Nelson (a professor of French), August 16, 1989, divorced, 2001; children: Valerie Ruth, Sara Annica. Education: Brigham Young University, B.A., 1989; University of Washington, M.A., 1990, Ph.D., 1993. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Mormon (excommunicated, 2001). Hobbies and other interests: Film, translating French and Francophone literature.
ADDRESSES: Office—Brown University, Literary Arts Program, Box 1923, Providence, RI 02912. Agent—Matt McGowan, Frances Goldin Literary Agency, 57 E. 11th St., Ste. 5B, New York, NY 10003. E-mail—[email protected].
CAREER: Novelist, short-story writer, and educator. University of Washington, Seattle, lecturer in English, 1990–93, assistant director of computer integrated class, 1991–93; Brigham Young University, Provo, UT, assistant professor of English, 1993–96; Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, assistant professor of English, 1996–99; University of Denver, associate professor of English, 1999–2003; Brown University, Providence, RI, assistant professor of English, 2003–04, associate professor of Literary Arts, 2004–, director of Literary Arts Program, 2005–; Syracuse University, visiting assistant professor, 2002, 2004.
AWARDS, HONORS: O. Henry Award (honorable mention), 2000, for "The Intricacies of Post-Shooting Etiquette," 2002, for "White Square"; Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Award, 2003, for "Virtual"; Howard Foundation Award, 2004–05; Camargo Foundation Grant, 2005; Best Short Story Collection, IHG Award, 2005, for "The Wavering Knife"; National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writer's Fellowship, 1995; O. Henry Award, for short story, "Two Brothers."
Altmann's Tongue: Stories and a Novella, Knopf (New York, NY), 1994.
The Din of Celestial Birds (short stories), Wordcraft of Oregon (La Grande, OR), 1997.
Prophets and Brothers (chapbook; short stories), Roden Press, 1997.
Father of Lies: A Novel, Four Walls Eight Windows (New York, NY), 1998.
Contagion and Other Stories, Wordcraft of Oregon (La Grande, OR), 2000.
Dark Property: An Affliction (novel), Four Walls Eight Windows (New York, NY), 2002.
Brotherhood of Mutilation (chapbook), Earthling Publications (Northborough, MA), 2003.
The Wavering Knife, FC2 (Normal, IL), 2004.
The Open Curtain, Coffee House Press, 2006.
Understanding Robert Coover, University of South Carolina Press (Columbia, SC), 2003.
(Author of Introduction) Thomas Bernhard, Three Novellas, translated by Kenneth J. Northcott and Peter Jansen, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 2003.
(Translator, with John Ashbery) Giacometti: Three Essays, Four Walls Eight Windows (New York, NY), 2003.
(Translator) Jacques Jouet, Mountain R, Dalkey Archive Press (Normal, IL), 2005.
(Translator, with David Beus) Red Haze = Nuage Rouge, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 2005.
(Translator) Chair Electrique, Soft Skull Press (Brooklyn, NY), 2006.
Contributor of introduction to Friedrich Durrenmatt, Selected Works: Prose, University of Chicago Press, 2006. Contributor to periodicals, including Quarterly. Magic Realism, contributing editor, 1992–; Rough Draft, editor, 1994–.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Pergolesi's Death, a novel; A Circular Desert, a novel; researching "to what extent Gordon Lish edited Raymond Carver."
SIDELIGHTS: Brian Evenson is a prominent writer who has won widespread recognition—and engendered considerable controversy—for both his novels and short stories. His debut story collection is Altmann's Tongue: Stories and a Novella. This work has been especially praised for its highly artistic rendering of often violent subject matter. "He is a literary version of Stephen King, trading more on psychology and character than gore," affirmed Jerry Johnston in his Deseret News assessment of the collection. Oregonian reviewer Eva Hunter observed that "[Evenson's] stories are full of dread and irony and are … unceasingly nihilistic." David Beus wrote in the Review of Contemporary Fiction: "There is a detached brutality to [Altmann's Tongue,]" noting that this "is both disturbing and compelling. The violence surprises in its fierceness and variety, but never by its occurrence: it is inevitable."
The tales in Altmann's Tongue are frequently concerned with unusual and gruesome behavior. In "Hey, Luciano!," for example, a man tending his front lawn is killed for providing a motorist with inaccurate directions, while in "The Father Unblinking," a man discovers the corpse of his child and buries it, then professes ignorance of his offspring's whereabouts. While these and other stories in Altmann's Tongue are concerned with extreme behavior and events, reviewers noted that Evenson's writing style is simple and direct, leading critics to compare his works to those of Raymond Carver, one of the foremost practitioners of what has been described as a "minimalist" school of American fiction writing.
Reviewers acknowledged Altmann's Tongue as the first work of an impressive new writer. Jerry Johnston, in his Deseret News piece, called Evenson's collection "quite a debut," and Hunter hailed Evenson as "one of the most exciting new voices to come out of the Northwest in several years." In a Student Review interview with Lara Candland, Evenson stated: "Generally, I am pleased with Altmann's Tongue." He added: "Looking at it now, I see all sort of things that I would change, but I know that if I do change them I'd find a bunch of new things. The work is always imperfect. But sometimes imperfections lend a face an odd beauty."
Evenson's work on Altmann's Tongue led to conflict between the author and the Mormon church hierarchy. He ultimately left the faculty of Brigham Young University because of the controversy, and he was threatened with punishment by the Mormon Church itself. In an interview with Geoffrey H. Goodwin on the Bookslut Web site, Evenson also said that the trouble caused by his fiction also led to the collapse of his marriage. Evenson, however, has not compromised on his approach to fiction, nor has he altered his view of its power to affect readers. In the Bookslut Web site interview, he stated that "knowing that people might dramatically object to what I do made me think very carefully about what I was doing and made me very committed to it: knowing that my life could fall apart because of my fiction made me want to be certain of every word I put on the page. If it was going to destroy me, I wanted it to be worth it," he told Goodwin. He has taken up other academic positions at Oklahoma State University and Brown University, and has continued to write provocative, undiluted fiction.
Some critics have suggested that Father of Lies: A Novel, in which a high-ranking church member uses his position to commit atrocious crimes and abuse, is a reaction to his treatment at Brigham Young University. A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented that "his scary fictional treatment of church hypocrisy has the feeling of a reasoned attack on blind religious obedience." Eldon Fochs is a middle-aged man who serves as lay provost for the religious group, the Corporation of the Blood of the Lamb. Fochs, however, is not a benevolent cleric; he exploits his position in the church to repeatedly and systematically sexually abuse children. To Fochs, he is actually saving his victims by the abuse he inflicts on them. In his demented mind, he has justified what he does in theological terms—church elders are by definition good, therefore anything he does must also be considered good. Worse, the higher levels of the church know about Fochs's behavior, but instead of helping him or bringing him to justice, they protect him and let him continue. Attempts are made to expose the problem by Fochs's psychiatrist, the mothers of the abused boys, and others, but their efforts fail, and often backfire—the mothers of the abuse victims are excommunicated from the church. As the novel progresses, Fochs's crimes expand to include murder, and a mysterious, possibly allegorical figure named Bloody Head intervenes on Fochs's behalf in return for repugnant favors. Eamonn Wall, writing in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, stated that "Father of Lies is a compelling novel. Evenson writes with a powerful moral vision which is deftly welded to the novel's finely wrought structure," and which does not take precedence over the narrative itself. Wall concluded that the novel is a "profound work of fiction."
With Contagion and Other Stories, Evenson "stakes out his own disturbing, sometimes hilarious, and always bizarre narrative terrain," remarked Peter Donahue in the Review of Contemporary Fiction. Many of the stories are set in a bleak version of the American West. The protagonist of "A Hanging" forces a stranger to kill someone and then to take his own life. A group of explorers undertake a harrowing journey across an arid plain in "Prairie." In "By Halves," two brothers agree to a suicide pact to save themselves from their abusive religious zealot father. The linguist protagonist of "The Polygamy of Language" furthers his language research by murdering his polygamist neighbors. The collection "challenges readers in daring and unexpected ways," Donahue concluded.
Dark Property: An Affliction is set in a bleak, post-apocalyptic world where cannibalism and necrophilia are commonplace and brutality is a requirement just for survival. The novel revolves around an unnamed woman and her dying infant who are captured by bounty hunter Kline. As the novel progresses, Kline's treatment of the woman becomes more vicious, but her resistance gathers in intensity, as well. Finally, Kline mutilates and kills her. Also stalking the unforgiving landscape are the Resurrectionists, men clad in dark clothing who commit murder and engage in cannibalism. The Resurrectionists seek, and find, a way to erase the boundary between life and death. When the unnamed female protagonist is brought back to life by the Resurrectionists, she willingly helps them return her child as well. Soon, however, Kline is back on their trail again, and the novel continues to traverse a landscape of violence and horror. "By the end of this grisly parable, Evenson has earned his place in a long tradition of heterodox visionaries," commented James Gibbons in Artforum. "If you can stomach the brutality, it's a trip worth taking."
In The Wavering Knife, Evenson combines humor and satire with his trademark approach to brutality, violence, and the hypocrisy of those who think they inhabit the moral high ground. In "The Prophet," the self-righteous narrator looks to save his church by exhuming and reviving a well-known preacher who has been dead for years. In "Barcode Jesus," the protagonists set out to establish a church in their local Super Wal-Mart. Other stories are more serious, such as "The Ex-Father," which finds a young girl recovering from the trauma of her mother's violent suicide and adjusting to her new life with her emotionally distant father. Evenson's stories in this collection "exhibit beautifully precise language and detailed character development," commented Brooke Nelson in the Review of Contemporary Fiction. Reviewer Randy Schaub, writing on the Bookslut Web site, noted that the stories are disturbing, but that "Evenson's details and descriptions immerse the reader so thoroughly that moral judgments are suspended until the narration ends."
Evenson told CA: "I first realized that I was interested in writing at age twelve when my mother entered a science fiction contest and invited me to write something as well. Quickly I became involved in the writing of a piece with the usual science fiction ele-ments—which finally fell apart, but I realized at that time that I wanted to write. A few years later, my father introduced me to the works of Franz Kafka, which made me realize that you could do things with fiction that you could do in no other way. From Kafka, I moved on to other European writers, most notably Samuel Beckett, and I have always felt that I have more of an involvement in the European tradition than I do in contemporary American literature.
"I began writing seriously again at Brigham Young University, where, with the help of Welsh poet Leslie Norris, I began to realize that the surface of the literary object, the sounds, textures and rhythms, were at least as important as the deeper structures. Many of the stories written during this period are collected in a limited edition of early stories, One Thick Black Cord.
"In writing Altmann's Tongue I was attempting to confront the way in which violence has become a very comfortable part of our society—in video games, in television, in movies. I find it disturbing that violence is often glamorized and, in being glamorized, is made to seem something other than what it really is. Altmann's Tongue is an attempt to regard violence with the utmost seriousness, to reveal it as it really is to make it again a horrifying matter. I see the book as a moral act in that it forces the reader to bring her or his moral values to bear on the work. Indeed, as a moral landscape, Altmann's Tongue is almost empty—it is only through the reader that morality enters in: it demands the reader exercise his values.
"In Mormon culture Altmann's Tongue has been a source of controversy. People inside the culture are disturbed by it and by what it might make people think of Mormons. It has been suggested to me that the book is not appropriate for a 'church university' such as Brigham Young University. Yet my next book, Dark Property, has similarities to Altmann's Tongue and in some ways goes even farther. It seems to me that once an artist begins to compromise, he never stops compromising. I feel it necessary to continue writing what I write, that my writing is both moral and useful, and that it appeals to people who might immediately reject the more ordinary type of moral stories."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Artforum, spring, 2003, James Gibbons, review of Dark Property: An Affliction, p. 23; spring, 2004, Nicole Rudick, review of Mountain R, p. 50.
Booklist, February 1, 2003, Keir Graff, review of Understanding Robert Coover, p. 964.
Brown Daily Herald (Brown University, Providence, RI), July 12, 2003, Jefferson Moors, "Controversial Prof. Joins U. Writing Dept."
Deseret News, September 25, 1994, Jerry Johnston, review of Altmann's Tongue: Stories and a Novella, p. E1.
New York Times Book Review, November 27, 1994, Brendan Bernhard, review of Altmann's Tongue, p. 22.
Oregonian, January 8, 1995, Eva Hunter, review of Altmann's Tongue, p. E5.
Publishers Weekly, August 22, 1994, review of Alt-mann's Tongue, p. 40; August 17, 1998, review of Father of Lies: A Novel, p. 49; February 2, 2004, review of Mountain R, p. 59; July 18, 2005, review of Red Haze, p. 185.
Rain Taxi, winter, 1998–1999, Xandra Coe, review of Father of Lies.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, fall, 1994, David Beus, review of Altmann's Tongue, p. 209; spring, 1999, Eamonn Wall, review of Father of Lies, p. 200; spring, 2001, Peter Donahue, review of Contagion and Other Stories, p. 203; summer, 2003, Alex DeBonis, review of Dark Property, p. 140; summer, 2004, Brooke Nelson, review of The Wavering Knife, p. 139.
Student Review, September 21, 1994, Lara Candland, interview with Brian Evenson, p. 6.
Times (London, England), July 15, 1997, Jason Cowley, "The High Priest's Story," interview with Brian Evenson, p. 17.
Association for Mormon Letters Web site, http://www.aml-online.org/ (March 4, 2006), Michael Austin, review of Altmann's Tongue; R.W. Rasband, review of Father of Lies; Chris Bigelow, review of Father of Lies.
Bookslut, http://www.bookslut.com/ (March 4, 2006), Geoffrey H. Goodwin, interview with Brian Even-son; Randy Schaub, review of The Wavering Knife.
Brown University Web site, http://www.brown.edu/ (March 4, 2006), biography of Brian Evenson.