Reviewed by Daniel Duffy
Twenty years ago, author Bruce Sterling wrote an article in the short-lived Science Fiction Eye in which he coined the term “slipstream.” Sterling defined slipstream as “a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility,” and offered a thorough list of slipstream novels. Brian Evenson’s new nineteen-story collection, Fugue State, belongs on an updated version of that list, alongside the myriad others that have stretched the boundaries of fiction in a market that consistently and frustratingly prefers writing that is “safe.”
In the first story of the collection, “Younger,” a nameless woman is haunted by the morning she and her older sister were left home alone by their panicked father. The woman swears that the morning was the turning point in her life – the moment when “time slowed down…and never really sped back up again” – but the woman’s older sister, who has married and moved on with her life, claims simply that “nothing happened.” Evenson thereby creates a strange disconnect between the central character in the story and the world surrounding her. This is where “Younger” succeeds: an obscure account of a past event draws us into an ever-widening gap between a young woman and the world around her, and then leaves us there, confused but strangely satisfied.
The following story, “A Pursuit,” is a different bowl crafted from the same clay. A man who believes he is being pursued by his second and third ex-wives has just left his first ex-wife’s home, where he found blood on the floor and quickly left without looking into the matter. Evenson crafts the story in such a way to persuade his readers to sympathize with the central character, and we find ourselves following him and growing increasingly paranoid with him as he drives madly, without destination. The man keeps driving instead of returning home, continuing an endless escape from a reality that he alone has created for himself, and the reader is again left floating somewhere out in the middle, with nothing definitive to grab on to.
The title story, “Fugue State,” is written in an addictive prose style that challenges its readers to hold several contradictory views of reality simultaneously. Evenson places his first person narrator in the most strangely disconnected reality yet – a bizarre world infected by a plague that causes severe amnesia, bleeding eyes, and eventually death. The story spirals into a case of mistaken identity. The narrator, Arnaud, in forgetting who he is, actually takes on the identities of the characters that he interacts with throughout the story, and his confusion becomes the readers’ confusion as we eventually are not sure who the real narrator is, or if Arnaud was ever really Arnaud at all.
The psychological angst, dark comedy, and paranoiac hallucinations in “Younger,” “A Pursuit,” and “Fugue State” echo throughout Evenson’s collection: a father who has lost his ability to speak is driven to suicide only to be caught in the act by his daughter; an unholy man in a post-apocalyptic wasteland inadvertently becomes the Midwestern Jesus; a man who has been struck blind decides to blind his wife; and a little girl whose heartbroken father commits suicide tells the police that her mother “had something to do with it.” Evenson consistently proves that everyday details are not vital to successful storytelling. Without those details, his stories instill a strong sense of paranoia and discomfort in us, but they also pull us forward, one into the next.
Evenson places the characters in Fugue State in situations that challenge their views of reality, and thus challenges his readers to understand that this world we live in is strangely different for each of us, and yet fundamentally familiar to all of us in the way that we all share doubts, anxieties, and fears. As a result, his writing is of the same ilk as authors such as Paul Auster, William Burroughs, Don DeLillo, and Thomas Pynchon – authors who have had the courage to attempt prose that focuses less on conventional story progressions and rational endings, and more on creating an overall feeling in the reader that something just isn’t right – that, in the words of Sterling, “the picture is leaking from the frame and may get all over the reader’s feet.”
Daniel Duffy is a bartender and an M.F.A. candidate in the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College.Posted on March 15, 2010 at 5:55 AM