Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Story by Story: Brian Evenson's 'Fugue State' (3) 'Mudder Tongue'

3rd in 'Fugue State' comes Evenson's 'Mudder Tongue,' which originally appeared in McSweeney's.

From the two word couplet of the title we're inculcated immediately into Evenson's strange knack of archaic-sounding language, such as that of his 'Altmann's Tongue' years, a title which, after the story is read, will become even more strange and resounding in a different way than it seems to at first glance: a great application of titling, taking it beyond.

'Mudder Tongue' is the first definite instance so far in 'Fugue State' of Evenson's extremely singular black humor, which in the context of this piece seems to work as a counterbalance to what is a man in a dire and ultimately confounding situation: his losing the ability to control his mouth. He finds himself, without will, beginning to insert uncommon words into normal speech, a condition that grows in extremity and discomfort as the story progresses.

Instead of milking this straight, though, Evenson of course continues to build the narrator's disarray in slightly increasing strokes, amplified mainly by his relationship with his daughter and her growing concern (and simultaneous lack of full understanding of) his condition.

It is the realm of many of Evenson's fictions to take a situation like this, that is inexplicable in nature, and to continue to build it in slow, tight loops of worsening. While here the event is comic, the overall effect is that of an increasingly narrowing field of vision from within the protagonist's head, though kept at bay, if in a strange way, by the distanced language (the use of third person limited), and the posture of the even tone, even in the face of such horror. Evenson's choices for words that the protagonist inserts over others work well to simultaneously milk that horror and relieve it, causing strange jerks of both humor at the slip ups, but increasing awareness that something here is going very wrong. His sentences are clean and forward moving, yet voiced in such a way to make the impending seem even more potentially eruptive: it is a pacing kind of silence, a build: and clearly, as with many things in life, it is the anticipation of the eruption, instead of the eruption itself, that is the truly pleasured and fevered form.

If anything, one major lesson that any author interested in the macabre could learn from Evenson is his immaculate restraint, his careful plodding and use of space and uncertainty, to counterbalance the sense of impending horror (which sometimes never even comes, or when it does, might come in glimpses, as we've seen in the first two stories here.) It is at once cold and warm, hard and soft, waking and awaking. In this way, using subtle, well conceived strokes of familiar unfamiliar over the usual horror traps of over-the-top or ridiculous (even in the presence of a conceit that is not, technically, familiar to most, if any, humans), the narration becomes claustrophobic as it opens up, instead of more raw, like a rope tightening around the neck.

The positioning of the protagonist in odd and uncomfortable situations among his body, among other bodies; his growing inability to make that body perform in reflection of how he wants: it all comes in a way that concentrates the laughter more on the shake of the body than the pleasure of it.

And it is Evenson's unique sense of humor, voiced and aimed in a terrain where the jokes are not jokesby themselves but also further amplification of the story's center, its condition, making them not anecdotal or amusing, like much of fictional humor can be, but further nodes, further fire: this is his great key. Getting a person to laugh in the midst of such discomfort is the sign of the real doors being opened, the right walls coming down. This is a worm that is going to feed.

The story's ending, which I will not allude to here for those how have not read it, is perhaps the ultimate example of that final door opening, leaving the reader stunned and off-balance at the same time, in a way completely unexpected. The last paragraph of this story is among my favorite of all last paragraphs in a story that I can recall.

In the context of the book, this story is so well placed, in that it opens on the recursive fear and inward paranoia of the first two stories, and turns them on their head, inflicting an even weirder, at once more comfortable (because you're laughing) and uncomfortable (because you're laughing) twist of the ideas at hand, setting up already that this book is not a 'collection of stories' by association alone, but clearly a reflection of a singular text, a body.


Brad Green said...

Just wanted you to know that I'm reading and enjoying these posts about Evenson very much. He's an author that I haven't yet read but will. Thank you!


thanks brad, glad you are enjoying, you should definitely check him out!

m t fallon said...

I haven't read FS yet, but I've read several Evenson books and also pieces in journals. Wavering Knife is the top shelf. I love reading his seemingly competent self-effacing narrators who soon enough lead us into f'ed up situations full of horror and deluded (often religious) mania, and it's so terrifyingly funny, as you nail it in the 2nd post: "Getting a person to laugh in the midst of such discomfort is the sign of the real doors being opened, the right walls coming down. This is a worm that is going to feed." Perfect. Thanks for these posts, looking forward to more.

Michael Goroff said...

I love stories about the body as an idea and physical shell failing us in unexpected ways like this. Kind of a Gregor Samsa complex but the uncanny is a bit less symbolic and more believable, still human but the limitations of the human flesh and nervous system. I love shit like that. These posts make me see how badly I need to read this book. Carry on, Blake. I'm so enjoying this series you're doing.


thanks mt and michael, i am glad it is being enjoyed, that makes me happy

Wavering Knife is holy unholy

Prathna Lor said...
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any of them are good starts.

i actually think 'fugue state' might be a great intro

but 'the open curtain' is also a great intro

my personal favorite is 'the wavering knife' though it would be more difficult as an intro

Prathna Lor said...
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in my top 5 books of all time