A Collapse of Horses
By Brian Evenson
Coffee House Press
Reviewed by Alexander Lumans
I love a good concept album. Be it Pink Floyd's The Wall or Nine Inch Nails's The Downward Spiral. The ability to put together not only a collection of individual artistic creations, but to also have them work in conjunction with each other, in a dialogic pattern of narrative inhale and exhale and the moments in-between—that's true mastery, in my opinion. Same goes for works of literature. And I'm not talking about novels-in-stories; I'm talking about thematically-linked, tonally-rich, expanding universes. Works like Tenth of December by George Saunders or Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link. The kinds of books that continually open up their specific world with each piece. Now, in the ranks of Saunders and Link, we should add Brian Evenson's newest collection, A Collapse of Horses.
A Collapse of Horses' central narrative concept is introduced and concluded by its bookending stories: "Black Bark" and "The Blood Drip." "Black Bark" is about two injured outlaws fleeing into the desert; similarly, "The Blood Drip" is about two nefarious men driven out of town. Yet, inside both of these stories, other stories are told. One character in "The Blood Drip" actually tells the story of the characters in "Black Bark." This might yield the feeling of passive, reductive circularity if it weren't for the way each story ends: with a widening aperture. "Black Bark" concludes: "'A story, then,' said Sugg. 'A last one for the road. I'll make it a good one.' He smiled again, that same terrible smile. Then his lips formed the words, 'Let's begin.'"
This signals that every subsequent story in the collection could be the story Sugg tells his partner. The final story reconvenes its original themes but the cycle has been set on a faster spin. "The Blood Drip" ends: "He stayed there hunched over Karsten, waiting for an answer. When no answer came, he smiled and nodded, and then, making that same soft hissing sound, he leaned in."
Both stories culminate with a nebulous new beginning. I specifically mention these bookends to elevate the collection out of a chorus of unthreaded voices, to emphasize that each story takes us further down the spiral. We soon reach a place of physical destabilization and mental wrongs. This sliding scale of a position is how best to approach Evenson's work. We must be receptive, empathetic, and in the same terrifying positions as his wayward narrators. As conceptual reinforcement, to quote (with no small amount of intellectual risk) Trent Reznor from The Downward Spiral's final track "Hurt" (a bookend with the first track "Mr. Self-Destruct"): "I focus on the pain, the only thing that's real." In Evenson's collection, the pain is as real as ever because it is the kind of pain that we ourselves create through belief and, more powerfully, fear.
Evenson wields many weapons while fighting a war against the seemingly rational world. There are stories, like "A Report" or "Past Reno," about characters who want to know why they are where they are because they know too little, and stories, like "Dust" or "Seaside Town," about characters who are doing their best to escape where they are because they know too much. This negotiation between the dangers of knowing too little and knowing too much is Evenson's deft hand at the lathe of storytelling. In the title story (which I'll discuss later), the narrator explains, "Not knowing is something you can only suspend yourself in for the briefest moment." It's these briefest moments, however, that come to make up the whole breadth of Evenson's individual narratives and overall collection.
As a reflection of contemporary concerns, it's a powerful move on Evenson's part to address our anxieties about acquiring knowledge and the responsibility that comes with this by setting those anxieties in fabulist circumstances. By witnessing exaggerated situations, readers can witness characters being pushed to decisions rather than wallowing in hesitancy. To Evenson, knowledge is not always the path to freedom. If anything, he might agree more with Kant: "I had therefore to remove knowledge, in order to make room for belief." In many stories, it's belief (call it instinct, faith, guts) that cuts through the swathes of confusion because rational wisdom comes up short in his world.
Evenson's work is all mood and escalation. The tone plays notes of paranoia, mortal panic, an overall song of confusion concerning the basic fabrics of life. The stories take place in a world that is our own, but with very few signposts to tell us when or where—an aspect that some MFA workshop readers might find confounding, but that in this collection is part of the oeuvre of dissolution. We witness worlds and characters that have already declined and are decaying further. As readers, we allow ourselves to descend into these purposefully destabilized environs (in the same way we visit cemeteries, ruins, and museums dedicated to disasters) because we know we can always climb into our air-conditioned cars to leave it all behind. Only, by the end of each of Evenson's stories, we are not provided with that easy brand of escape. No convenient, epiphanic conclusions here. A selection of several of his endings:
Perhaps it would fade and perhaps it would not, but in either case it wouldn't matter, at least not to him, because by that time he would be dead or gone or both. ("The Window")
Or maybe not, he thought a few hours later, well into the drive and recognizing nothing as familiar, completely unsure where he was. Maybe not as far as Utah, but certainly somewhere past Reno. That would have to be far enough. ("Past Reno")
And soon there was nothing more than that, a coolness against her face and then nothing at all, back and forth, back and forth, less and less of both each time, slowly vanishing but never quite gone, she too going with it. What can I do? a scrap of herself wondered. Do? another scrap answered. What can you do but wait? ("Scour")
If there are epiphanies, they aren't the epiphanies you necessarily want to have. Instead, they are realizations of timeless claustrophobia—the walls of society and the mind closing in—all in this downward spiral that will inevitably open up onto itself only to descend again. Evenson tells his stories with the dislocated hypotyposis of an Escher composition's infinity.
This review would be incomplete if it didn't also address the collection's very excellent title story. This is because it encompasses the book's existential concerns under its arabesque shades of narrative grey. The narrative is about a man whose house and world begin to change around him in minutely perceptible yet inexplicable ways. The rest of his family does not see or realize it. This begins to drive him mad, eventually to conflagratory results. But I want to draw attention to a particular passage near the beginning, which is a greater legend by which to read the collection:
Imagine this: walking through the countryside one day you come across a paddock. Lying there on their sides, in the dust, unnaturally still, are four horses. All four are prone, with no horses standing. They do not breathe and do not, as far as you can see, move. They are, to all appearances, dead. And yet, on the edge of the paddock, not twenty yards distant, a man fills their trough with water. Are the horses alive and appearances deceptive? Has the man simply not yet turned to see that the horses are dead? Or has he been so shaken by what he has seen that he doesn't know what to do but proceed as if nothing has happened?
The narrator revisits this moment several times in an attempt to come to a conclusion about whether the horses are dead or if it's just his perception that makes it so. The point, for Evenson, is not to find a definitive conclusion. Most of his characters (and Evenson in turn) are concerned with that liminal yet infinite space between seeing and understanding. The more we are confronted with absurd images that defy explanation, the more distanced we become from the contours of prefab reality. And as scary a place as this mental zone can be, it's also one in which we can remake ourselves for the better, or at least decide to try and then see how much resistance we meet. Are the horses really dead? Is the man too shaken to acknowledge it? Is neither true? It's no small gesture that the story ends with this paragraph where, again, Kant rears his ever-perceptive head: "But do your worst: disrupt my certainty, try to fool me, make me believe. Get me to believe there is nothing dead behind me. If you can make that happen, I think we both agree, then anything is possible."
A Collapse of Horses is a perennially dusty, dark, haunted house of atmospheric dilemmas whose plots continually reverse a reader's expectations. You don't come away from it feeling either lifted or buried; rather, each story leaves you with the distinct urge to question (or reinforce) more of your own perceptions. And this is a diachronic power masterful writing wields in general by showing characters in un-equanimous positions. Like Reznor's "Mr. Self Destruct" chorus ("I take you where you want to go / I give you all you need to know / I drag you down I use you up / Mr. Self Destruct"), Evenson provides his plagued characters with multiple exits to multiple abysses—the album concept's revelatory pose being that when the abyss stares back, one has the ability to decide the form its face takes. How these characters are doing by the final page (destroyed, descended, or otherwise) is always up for grabs: will their beliefs be as strong as their convictions, or will they collapse under their own titrated weight?