Friday
Aug142009

Fugue State 

Brian Evenson



Coffee House Press
July 2009, Paperback, 208 pages
978-1566892254

 
The  Other CIty

Reviewed by Ryan Call


 

I.

In seeking entry to the stories of Brian Evenson, readers have invoked the names of a variety of significant authors, including Edgar Allen Poe, Franz Kafka, Flannery O’Connor, Donald Barthelme, and Robert Coover. Others have considered genre, have spoken of horror and mystery and detective fiction, noting Evenson’s uncanny ability to bend these distinctions to his will. Still others have focused upon Evenson’s careful, scalpelar use of language, how he neatly manages to cut away the fascia of normal life to expose its most brutal and frightening parts. As evidence, consider the original jacket copy of Altmann’s Tongue, Evenson’s first collection, which states, “In Evenson’s world, all moral and all social categories dissolve. Only diction and syntax count–and they count only insofar as they might succeed in freeing utterance to enact itself at its most cruel.” Given Evenson’s tendency to write of graphic, messy violence, his painstakingly rendered sentences are almost surprising for their neatness.

I am familiar with these previous points of entry, but I also appreciate how a phrase within a text flares upon the brain, how that in turn leads to a string of connections that influence the reader’s experience of the text. In Fugue State, Evenson’s latest collection, the phrase that seemed to finally make cohesive my reading experience, to at last offer me one way into the book, arrived during the opening sentence of the titular story:

I had, Bentham claimed, fallen into a sort of fugue state, in which the world moved past me more and more rapidly, a kind of blur englobing me at every instant.

I do not mean to suggest that I had failed to enjoy the stories before that moment, but that a click happened in my thinking about the book as a whole: I realized that I did not completely understand the term “fugue state.” I had simply overlooked its importance, having felt satisfied with my vague, incorrectly contextualized definition: a fugue state reminded me of fog, of overcast weather, for some reason.

Evenson’s Fugue State shares its name with that of a mental disorder called Dissociative Fugue, formerly known as Psychogenic Fugue, the sufferers of which fall into a temporary state that often sends them wandering about unaware of their personal identities. According to the DSM-IV, diagnostic criteria for this condition include the following:

A. The predominant disturbance is sudden, unexpected travel away from home or one’s customary place of work, with the inability to recall one’s past.

B. Confusion about personal identity or assumption of a new identity (partial or complete).

C. The disturbance does not occur exclusively during the course of Dissociative Identity Disorder and is not due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, a medication) or a general medical condition (e.g., temporal lobe epilepsy).

D. The symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

Given the nature of the nineteen stories in the collection, I find it hard to avoid holding them against this diagnostic template, a confession that brings me at last to my disclaimer: any further discussion of Dissociative Fugue, neurosis, amnesia, and so on, is meant only to reconnect to the above initial point of entry. I do not want to contend that Evenson set out to write a collection that follows neatly the prescription of a psychology textbook, but instead I want to show that the stories in Fugue State fictionalize many kinds of dissociation going far beyond the merely clinical: a father’s mental disease destroys his ability to speak, causing him to realize that “language was starting to slip in his mouth”; an ambassador of sorts wanders through a post-apocalyptic landscape, his teachings unintentionally giving rise to cannibalism; another father, having divorced his wife, slowly withdraws from his daughters’ lives; a sculptor impassively renders into a blurry pencil sketch the ever-shifting lines of his dying wife’s face; a man, having murdered his mentor, finds passage aboard a freighter populated by the dead. The internal struggles of Evenson’s characters often lead to violent, erratic, and dysfunctional behavior, though they are just as often cast into equally terrifying situations by forces beyond their control. They trade places with one another, change personalities, forget their identities. They struggle to communicate with others, to find their place in the normal world, to deny the inevitability of their death. These are stories in which personal neurosis cleaves through one’s identity as easily as a hatchet through bone, and Evenson is just the man to put such experiences into language.

 

II.

I do not know exactly how Evenson creates these stories, whether he plots them out or works sentence to sentence, discovering the stories as he goes. It may not matter. What I do believe is that it is from his sentences that the most interesting forms of dissociation arise, as the stories seem to progress terribly from one sentence to the other, each sentence unable to do anything but lead inexorably to the next. The experience of reading these sentences is pleasantly exhausting, like climbing up and over an enormous wall only to find another wall beyond. The language often holds the reader at a distance, requiring one appreciate both its aesthetic value and the plot it narrates before continuing.

Consider “Younger,” the first story of the collection, which introduces the fugue state into which most of Evenson’s characters eventually descend. Here, a younger sister attempts to accurately recall a relatively minor childhood event that has since nearly destroyed her life. One morning before school, she and her sister are left home alone unexpectedly by their father, who explains to them two rules that they are to follow: they are to leave for school when the oven timer rings and they are not to open the door for anyone. The rules seem simple to the girls, and after their father leaves, they engage in perhaps the most fanciful play of their childhood. They not only dress themselves as ponies, but also feel as if they have transformed their physical bodies. According to the younger sister, they “were building a whole world up around them, full of things more vivid and slippery than anything the real world could offer.” Their play is made possible, obviously, by the absence of any adults, but the magic ceases with the near-simultaneous happening of two events. The oven timer goes off, signaling that they are to leave for school. Immediately after, the doorbell rings once, twice, freezing the girls in the kitchen, trapping them between the first of their father’s commands and the second:

They waited awhile for the doorbell to ring a third time. When it did not, her older sister whispered Come on. But they had taken only a few steps when they heard not ringing but a hard, loud knock: four sharp, equally spaced blows right in a row. And that stopped them just as much as if someone had yanked back on their bridles.

The moment passes quickly and the knocker leaves, but the terror of the stranger’s knocking at the door violently imprints itself upon the psyche of the younger sister. It is this event that traumatizes her for the rest of her life. Their being alone without their parents, originally a boon to their imaginations, transforms into a curse.

Interestingly, the first sentence of the story tells us of this dissociation, explaining the end result even before we know the cause: “Years later, she was still calling her sister, trying to understand what exactly had happened.” Within two words, Evenson establishes temporal distance, separating the main character from her past, even as she struggles to regain it, to control it, before completely expelling it from her mind in hopes of healing herself:

Even years later, she continued to feel that if only she could understand exactly what had happened, what it all meant, she would see what had gone wrong and could correct it, could, like the older sister, muffle her feelings, begin to feel things less and, in the end, perhaps not feel anything at all.

It is important to note this temporal distance, again mentioned in the phrase “years later,” because the retelling of the event is, despite the third person narrator, from the perspective of the younger sister, and therefore flawed, unclear, fraught with terror, hazy with the passage of time and the alternating cycles of repression and neurosis it has weathered.

Evenson invokes the younger sister’s constant cycling through successful repression and debilitating neurosis by the rhythm of his sentences, which progress through numerous introductory phrases, nonrestrictive phrases, parenthetical phrases, compound predicates, narrative asides, and other syntactical turns, as though the sentences and the thoughts behind them were constantly doubling back upon themselves, revising themselves, each new syntactical complication an attempt to create a pathway towards the relief the younger sister hoped to find. “Younger,” in this sense, represents the tamest dramatization of the fugue state, easing the reader into what will become a remarkable reading experience.

If “Younger” hints at dissociation, then the last story of the collection, titled “The Adjudicator,” maximizes it in all possible ways. In “The Adjudicator,” the narrator and the few surviving remnants of humanity have lived through a “conflagration” and now exist in a post-apocalyptic landscape, farming for sustenance, trading services and goods, and answering to their appointed leader, Rasmus. The narrator begins the story, saying, “We have been some time putting our community back into a semblance of body and shape, and longer still sifting the living from the dead.” The narrator, however, appears apart from both the living and the dead: he is completely hairless, has powerful healing abilities, which he claims to have received after emerging from the fires, and carries with him a violent past. Rasmus and the community tolerate his usefulness (he is handy with a hatchet and a plough), but in many ways he exists on the fringe of the community due to the rumors circulating about his powers. That is, until one day, when Rasmus inexplicably orders him to kill another hairless man named Halber. When the narrator disobeys Rasmus, violence descends upon the town, again rending it apart.

What Evenson has created here is a world separated from its previous version, peopled by men who are mere shadows of their former selves, men easily limbed by the sharp blade of a hatchet. We get a sense of the vast gap between past and present when Rasmus questions the narrator as to his trade, and the narrator responds simply that he is a farmer. But Rasmus asks again, saying he meant before the conflagration. The narrator avoids the question, but later reveals himself to his readers:

I had no former profession. I was dissolute, poisonous to myself in any and all ways. At a certain moment, I reached the point where I would have done anything at all to have what I wanted, and indeed I often did. Many of the particulars have faded or vanished from my memory or been pushed deeper down until they can no longer be felt. There was one person, someone I was, in my own way, deeply in love with, whom I betrayed. Someone else, of a different gender, whose self I stripped away nerve by nerve.

The narrator’s survival of the conflagration represents a dissociative fugue: he has found himself living a new life in a new body with little memory of the past. But like someone in a fugue state, he cannot completely escape reality (in his case, the pain that he has inflicted upon others). It is Rasmus who breaks through the narrator’s defensive amnesia by asking him to murder Halber. The narrator unhappily notes in response, “I felt as if most of my old self had been slowly torn free of the rest of me, and I was not eager to have it pressed back against me again.” He allows Halber to go free, but later that night he is confronted by the noise of Rasmus and his men and the “indifferent, dull sounds of metal slipping into flesh,” as they attack Halber, leaving him to die in a nearby ditch. In retaliation, the narrator sharpens his hatchet yet again.

The voice of the narrator in this story strikes me as emotionless, blunt, speaking the measured language of a man who has “no strong moral objection to murder pure and simple.” It is quite different from the stuttering, nearly frantic language that we saw in “Younger,” and yet in its own way it is also evidence of the narrator’s neurosis. The narrator of “The Adjudicator” uses language to set himself apart, to control conversations, to manipulate the way his story appears. In the above excerpt, we can see how his confession gives weight to the nature of his past actions while, perhaps conveniently, failing to give the gruesome details. Whether or not he truly remembers the particulars hardly matters (though his later actions suggest that he has not forgotten). It’s how he confesses this gap in his memory, with emotional coldness and a lack of concern for those he harmed, that reveals the effort he has spent to distance himself from his former self.

And yet what is surprising about “The Adjudicator” is how Evenson adjusts the language momentarily to reveal that, despite the great amount of control the narrator exerts over the telling of his story, there is a fault in the narrator’s careful construction of his personality, one that leads to his eventually backsliding into violence. The fault is apparent in his continued fascination with the human arm he unearths in his field, one of the many limbs he had previously sown there. The narrator first describes the arm as “blackened,” and then it appears again later in the narrative, having “surged up under the sharp prow of the plough… its palm open in appeal.” The narrator ignores this appeal and quickly buries it before Rasmus and his men approach. But he cannot leave it alone for long:

After they had gone, I dug the arm up again and examined it, trying to determine how long it had been rotting and whether I had been the one to lop it free. In the end, I found myself no closer to an answer than in the beginning. Finally I could think to do nothing but plough it back under again.

We do see the narrator’s obsession with the severed arm, and from that we understand the real consequence of his fugue state: he will eventually emerge from it and become the terrible person he once was. Fittingly, the image of the severed arm reappears at the end of the story, not as a blackened, isolated thing, but as the twin, freshly hacked forearms of the dying Rasmus.

 

III.

While all of the stories in the collection could serve as examples of how Evenson uses language to combine the emotional richness of “Younger” with the physical extremes of “The Adjudicator,” none does it as remarkably as the title story, “Fugue State.”

Rather than tell a single protagonist's story, “Fugue State” follows the passage of a disease from one character to the next. In a sense, the main character of the story is the disease itself, the symptoms of which manifest in its victims as severe hemorrhaging of blood from the eyes, ears, and nose; increasing numbness or cloudiness of the senses; irreversible amnesia; confusion regarding personal identity; and loss of language comprehension, thus reducing each character to a vague, lost sort of person. In most cases, the victims of this disease die immediately, with the select few who survive the initial stage of the disease doomed to live constantly in the present, consumed by their constant attempts to discover answers to the questions they forgot they answered moments ago. In “Fugue State,” plot is merely the means by which Evenson uses the language of the story to emphasize its creative nature, providing a loose structure against which readers can check the various clues they've picked up throughout the story: through language, we give expression to our identity, our emotions, we understand others. Without it, there is nothing but the present, flashing and incomprehensible, consuming us. Language is the tool that prevents our dissociation.

The story begins in the midst of a mysterious interrogation, during which a suspect named Bentham claims to have “fallen into a sort of fugue state.” Arnaud, the examiner, takes careful notes throughout the session, but Bentham quickly becomes confused, delirious, bleeds out and dies. Arnaud, then, is placed in a locked room by his superiors; he makes a telephone call, dialing “the number” (note that he already cannot remember whom he is calling; it is simply “the number”) and leaves a confused message on someone named Hafner or Hapner’s answering machine. When he can no longer understand the notes he has scribbled in his notebook, he realizes that his mental abilities have failed, and as the guards strap him into the bed, he too falls into a fugue state, bleeding out as the interrogation is underway.

The setting shifts to an apartment where a man awakens to discover a woman dead on the kitchen floor beside him. He cannot remember anything about himself, though he discovers dried blood about his eyes, ears, mouth, and nostrils, so we understand that he has survived the first stage of the disease. When he searches the pockets of the woman, he finds he cannot read her identity cards, for the “characters on them, what he assumed were characters, meant nothing.” Essentially, as in Arnaud’s case, the disease, the fugue state, has wiped out his ability to perceive written language as anything other than marks on a page. It does not keep him, however, from understanding the basics of spoken language, for eventually he discovers a blinking device nearby, the button of which he presses to hear Arnaud’s message:

What a strange message, Arnaud thought. Or wait, the man thought, I’m not Arnaud, that’s not my name, my name is something else. What was it?

He listens to the tape a few more times and settles upon the name Hapner for himself. This much he can grasp, a name and its connection to an identity, a point from which to begin his search.

Carrying the machine with him, Hapner wanders through the building, which has been quarantined, looking for Bentham and Arnaud, the names he heard on the tape. He talks his way into an apartment two floors down by lying about his health, but is soon found out by the owner, an armed man named Roeg who managed to survive the outbreak without contracting the disease. Roeg realizes his mistake in allowing Hapner into the apartment (“I know a Hafner on the eighth floor… But you’re not him,” he says) when Hapner cannot follow his conversation. The disease works, apparently, by disrupting both one’s ability to understand written language as a symbolic vehicle and one’s ability to keep in mind a rhetorical context, a sense of the history of language, in order to create meaning. In his panic, Roeg shoots at Hapner, but the fugue state overcomes him. As Roeg slowly drops onto the couch, Hapner speaks soothingly to him, carefully wiping “away the blood already seeping up through the man’s eye sockets.”

From there, the characters of “Fugue State” descend into a further chaos made possible by the progression of the disease. After Hapner leaves Roeg, he is attacked by a thief, whom he kills with a hammer. During the fight, Hapner suffers a broken arm and then the disease reemerges, reducing him to an incoherent, lost, mentally depleted, nearly languageless figure. He stumbles back to Roeg’s apartment, now unrecognizable. As he dies, he listens one final time to the recording:

Did it all come flooding back to him? Not exactly, no. It went on from there but he was no longer listening. Hapner, his mind was saying, Arnaud. He tried to sit down, crashed to the floor. He lay there, staring at the ceiling, trying to hold on to the two names, to keep them at least. But they were already slipping away.

Hapner dies without an identity, lacking awareness of his own self, having fully become dissociated from the world. He can only focus on two names, two words, merely a few sounds, now devoid of any meaning.

Then, in the story’s final twist, another man awakens on a couch. Evenson leaves enough clues for us to realize that this man is Roeg, having regained consciousness, whose weakened ability to retain language and its meaning is readily apparent in how quickly he loses control of himself. He looks around, sees a man with a broken arm on the floor (formerly Hapner), dead apparently. Struggling with amnesia, he finds the answering machine, depresses the button, and listens, deciding afterwards that he was indeed Hapner, though even here he is still unsure. “I must be a private detective,” he thinks, in perhaps the funniest moment of the book. The new Hapner tries to write down the name he has taken, but cannot make sense of the marks on the paper. He leaves the building, his building, immediately forgets the name he had assigned to himself, immediately forgets that the building is his own, and, as he stands in the street, he looks back at the building, feels it is oddly familiar, and then turns towards it, thinking it worthy of his investigation:

Probably as good a place to start as any, he thought. He crossed the street, opened the door to the building. Who knows what I will find? he thought.

Well, we do, for our abilities to understand language, to make use of it as a conduit of meaning, have not failed us, and we have yet to become “englobed” by the chaotic blur of the world as it surrounds us. Language, its complex structure, its rational ordering of meaning, is our defense, and Evenson, with Fugue State, has once again confirmed his appreciation of this. With great imagination, he demonstrates not only how words and sentences can fit together in interesting ways, but also how their “combinatorial agility” (as Barthelme once put it) can reveal “how much of Being we haven’t yet encountered.”

And what do we see in Evenson’s stories but a part of Being that we try to avoid in our own lives as much as possible? It is the part that we hope to ignore until the very last possible moment, until all other methods of escape have dropped away, leaving us wide-eyed, distraught, fully associated now with our greatest fears. For ours is a common end, a part of Being as natural as goodness, health, and life, and just as inevitable as the closing of a book: cruelty, sickness, death. Is it odd, then, to suggest that, despite the sometimes disturbing effects his writing can produce–no, perhaps even on account of them–Evenson's revelation of this gloomy underside of Being actually functions to temporarily relieve our own neurosis? Is it odd to suggest that Evenson’s words are so powerful, so carefully strung together that they can wrap us in other worlds of his creation, thus briefly dissociating us from the sometimes unpleasant happenings of our own?

No, I don’t think it is odd at all. In fact, I’m thankful we have access to a writer like Evenson so that he might console us with his stories, his characters, and his language when our very existence, our own individual identities so often appear weakened, threatened, seemingly dissociated from our right and truthful selves, whatever they may turn out to be.