Web del Sol Interview

Brian Evenson

By Ben Marcus

(first published in Storyquarterly 31)

Brian Evenson is the author of Altmann's Tongue (Knopf, 1994), and is a professor of literature and critical theory at Oklahoma State University, on leave from Brigham Young University, where he was asked to discontinue publishing fiction or risk his status in the Mormon Church. Ben Marcus published The Age of Wire and String in November of 1995 with Knopf. He is senior editor with Conjunctions, and teaches at Old Dominion University.

Marcus: Your first book, Altmann's Tongue, has generated a volatile objection in your community, so I would like to begin by considering, the apparent tension between your Mormonism and the fiction you write, and secondly, address the broader implications of a prose that renders violent acts.There are certainly connections between these, and perhaps we can approach them by exploring how precisely your religious beliefs measure into your written work.

Evenson: For most Mormon writers, religious belief comes into the literary work superficially-the situations are Mormon, the responses are didactic, the stories are meant to teach easy lessons. The belief system is like a glaze shining on the surface, obscuring the art, and the reader gets the impression that the stories are simply an extension of the Mormon conversion effort. My stories have little explicit reference to my belief system or to any belief system that might save the characters from the immediacy of their existence-my characters live in a world in which terms like "belief" and "values) seem meaningless. Religion and morality, if present at all, are present in the reader's recognition of their absence, and for having been translated into structural and organizational principles. But my participation in Mormonism informs the language and the grammar and operates on a barely perceptible level: the fiction steals some of the syntactic gestures and modes of expression found in Mormonism, but uses these without the accompanying religious or moral content.

Marcus: There is something in your work, real or perceived, that members of the Mormon community have been less than willing to accept, which does not amount to the aesthetic questioning a critic might undertake. This response, made public by the authoritative figures of your community, has burdened you with defending yourself in a forum that seems barely capable of attaining anything close to a clear understanding of the work, or of the need and reason to make a work of fiction. You further deal with an ever-present danger of excommunication. As a consequence do you not sometimes feel yourself to be an apologist for your own task? Does the act of defending your writing to your community hinder or augment your aesthetic practice?

Evenson: The constant tension between my views and my community's views augments my aesthetics, but I think that my being called upon repeatedly in Mormon culture to defend my writing has been a hindrance. The biggest mistake I made was to allow a Mormon hierarchy ignorant of literary fiction to define the terms of the argument over the validity of my fiction. I have been too much on the defensive, trying to justify my work in their terms, but I wouldn't read it that way and I have very little sympathy for those who would. But at the time of the controversy I was at risk of losing my job at the Mormon-controlled Brigham Young University if I chose not to answer in their terms. Now that I've left BYU, I can choose to answer differently. Though of course I still run the risk of excommunication.
      As a writer, I gather a useful tension from the fact that I am a believer, but that belief becomes imperceptible in my prose. I don't know why. I don't think that writing, real writing, has much to do with affirming belief-if anything it causes rifts and gaps in belief which make belief more complex and more textured, more real. Good writing unsettles, destroys both the author and the reader. From my perspective, there always has to be a tension between the writer and the monolithic elements of the culture, such as religion.

Marcus: But what if this tension gave way to something less artistically indulgent or useful, such as actual banishment? If you were excommunicated, you could certainly discover that suddenly, in the larger context of American culture, fewer powerful figures would feel particularly threatened or incensed by your work. You would simply be seen as one of many artists, rather than the only one, and thereby face the more general indifference and dismissal of a different, larger segment of the country. Would your forced removal alter the focus of your writing?

Evenson: Excommunication would be difficult for me personally, but I don't think it would change my writing. It might broaden the focus a little. My impression has been that in the larger culture, although people feel less incensed by my work, they do still feel the work is unsettling-the difference is that outside of the Mormon culture there seems to be a viable space for work that unsettles. And I've never written directly for Mormons: I've always felt myself part of a national rather than a local tradition and I'd like to think that the work is strong enough to stand on its own, outside of controversy.

Marcus: Do you view religious rebellion as an aesthetic? I am trying to understand how directly your works of fiction relate to your role as the disturber. In, again, a more jaded or more actively consumptive community, where fewer people are as likely to be alarmed by your material, or by the idea of your material, do you Suddenly devise a new approach to assure your difference, Your ability to alarm your audience? I am asking if you rely on the shocked response, if your work depends on it.

Evenson: Yes, religious rebellion is an element of my aesthetic in a much more essential way than might be evident. All religion proceeds from the need to channel violence and to give it significance-to redeem the violent act. Religion tries to create a buffer between the individual and the meaninglessness of the world. It doesn't do away with violence, it just attempts to contain it. In positing things beyond this world-a God, a transcendent heaven, moral absolutes-religion does violence to the present world. On a level of content, Altmann's Tongue insists that violence is meaningless and that justification of violence, controlled or not, is ultimately futile. Instead of doing violence to this world by positing transcendents, Altmann's Tongue does violence to the transcendents by refusing to acknowledge anything beyond this world, by offering characters who cannot even imagine the existence of a beyond.
      In that sense, Altmann's Tongue is opposed to all notion of religion, and serves as a sort of anti-religion. But at the same time, the violence in Altmann's Tongue is still being channeled. It is presented, contained, and directed through language. Thus the impulse behind the book is the same impulse as that behind most Western religions, though warped. The book is in some senses an attempt to create the sort of religion which would operate independent of notions of transcendence.
      Writing is perhaps a means of metaphorically constructing a new religion, one that, at least for the time one is writing or reading, makes all other religion obsolete. In that sense writing is both religious and heretical. But the religion my fiction offers, which is a religion of the collapse of the ethical will, is hopeless from the start: it will convert nobody.
      Writing for me is about moving through obstacles and establishing a trajectory inward, moving by way of intensities into more and more unsettling and revealing territory. Anything that blocks the path you must cut through, including religion, including yourself.

Marcus: When writing is called "violent," a fundamental semantical mistake is being made, unless the claim is that the writing is itself a violent agent. In some ways, a writer can be pleased to see language being accorded the power to destroy objects-one cannot make the case often enough-but the accusation of "violent art" is rarely uttered in praise, and thus it threatens to deliver its own violence onto the artist, in the form of an assault of ignorance. What is your response to this common, harmful confusion, particularly as it applies to readings of your work?

Evenson: To render a violent act in Ianguage is not at all the same as committing a violent act. The writing itself is not violent, but rather precise, measured, controlled, in the grip of certain arbitrary but self-consistent rules. Only rarely does real violence become endowed with aesthetic qualities. Like religion, language does violence to the immanent world by forcing the objects of that world to be understood in terms of generalities, by stripping them of their specificities and categorizing them. And this sort of violence is in everything.
      Nietzsche talks very convincingly about how ethics are founded on murder and how the Christian notion of good is perhaps the most insidious form of violence available. But this isn't the sort of violence that people are talking about when they say the book is violent. To call a piece of writing violent because it renders violence is ludicrous-it shows an inability to separate representation from reality, an inability to acknowledge frame, a refusal to admit the ways in which actions become transformed in being translated into words. If you've ever been involved in real acts of violence, you can see how profound the difference is.

Marcus: But the confusion, perhaps, should not be discounted as a mistake in terminology. Conceivably those who have been disturbed in this manner by your book have indeed felt violated by it, accosted by the language you have arranged, and you have therefore succeeded in some measure to produce a representation that achieves the force of reality. You no doubt were concerned, aesthetically, to accomplish a disturbance. Your writing is everywhere attuned to techniques of rendering, that enhance the troubling aspects of "authentic" violence. You have created an experience in language that is utterly convincing to these readers, perhaps, and therefore they fear you.

Evenson: Yes, the stories were disturbing to write and I would just as soon that people found them disturbing to read. But I disturb nobody-I only give them an occasion for disturbing themselves. In life, violence happens to you. In literature, you make the choice to pick up the book and read, and to continue reading. I might argue too about whether readers fear me: I suppose that they have externalized their fears in me, but what they really fear is what they see of themselves in the stories.

Marcus: I am interested in where you see your work failing. Elaborate doubt mechanisms-the new arrogance-seem crucial to the drive to work. When you pursue a piece, and when you revise and remake it, how consciously are you correcting your disappointments with previous work? Similarly, when you outgrow a piece, or, more correctly, when you come to know your work in a manner that allows you to dismiss it, what are the characteristics of that knowledge? The larger question here involves the private criticisms you have of your own work.

Evenson: Of Course I have doubts. I think many people, as you suggest, let their doubts be systematized into a sort of arrogance. It's a defense mechanism: it is safer to invent elaborate and artificial doubt mechanisms than to face the real doubts.
      When I revise, I reach a point where I can't tell if I am improving the work or ruining, it, where doubt about my abilities becomes paralyzing. I throw away many pieces at that point. The pieces that have the resiliency to make it through that stage intact are the ones worth continuing with. Revision itself is difficult to discuss because I think it can be approached productively in a number of ways. In sentence-by-sentence revision, up to a certain point you can proceed by scientific or pseudo-scientific methods. For instance, you can work towards establishing a certain ratio of glottal stops in a particular sentence, determining that ratio by content of the piece as a whole combined with the percentage of gIottals in other sentences. Or you can work to establish syntactical pat terns. But there comes a point where the regularity of mechanical procedures must be sacrificed to intuition. The introduction of significant variation both on the level of individual sentences and in terms of the larger structures of the piece will, if done correctly, significantly increase the power and mystery of the writing. There are always structures, but the best writing makes formal and structural elements integrated-there is, Beckett suggests in speaking of Joyce, neither form or content independent of one another, but content is form and form is content-they can't be separated. Revision I think is where the strongest links between form and content are forged.
      At a certain point in revision, I worry that I've gone too far and have allowed a concern for formal craftedness to subjugate the other aspects of the fiction. Overmuch concern with formal craftedness can keep one from seeing a more organic type of structuration, closer to chaos or to the unconscious.
      I can tell when a piece doesn't work, but it is harder to tell when it does work. And no matter how well it works, it can always work better. Almost every time I return to a piece, I find things that are wrong with it and problems that I have since learned how to resolve. Sometimes a story has been constructed, almost unconsciously, so that its problems are a part of the structure itself, and to solve them either creates additional problems or ruins the balance of the piece. The best pieces of fiction are the hardest to revise, because by nature they will resist easy solutions. As the repertoire expands, earlier work often seems unsatisfactory-but again, the best work, even early work, will defend itself. Imperfections will always be there and are, perhaps, an integral part of any fiction.

Marcus: One frequently hears imperfection spoken of as an excuse for the absence of clarity, however. The writing is "difficult" or "challenging," which translates usually into "unreadable." The mistakes, so-called, are considered organic and interesting, intentional, but probably only to other writers, and even then only to a few. This is not necessarily the imperfection you speak of, because nowhere in your work do I sense you sacrificing clarity to pursue a tonal indulgence, or a whim that occurs to you mid-sentence, thereby sabotaging the task you set out on. But it is clear that for you imperfection occurs somewhere outside of certain laws of utterance you have set for yourself. You seem to be referring to a set of problems your readers may have yet to discover, which interests me, and indicates that you have a strong identity as a reader of your work, that within that role you produce the possibilities for your next act of writing.
      So there is a closed system. But at the same time you have read a wide body of writing, and vou review new work regularly. How important to your work is your practice of reading contemporary fiction?

Evenson: Certainly contemporary fiction has been important but probably contemporary writing of other kinds-poetry and philosophy-and fiction which is not contemporary have had more of an impact on me. Now I read at least as much continental philosophy as I do literature, though I often read philosophy as if it were literature. I've also consciously read outside of the American tradition, trying, to keep abreast of developments in African and European literature. I can think of one or two African writers, Ben Okri and Edouard Maunick, and a handful of French and Austrian writers, Thomas Bernhard, Heimeto Von Doderer, Christian Gailly, and Gilles Deleuze, who have given me ways to think about fiction that I could not have gained from contemporary American literature.
      Too many people in creative writing programs find themselves reading and learning from very few figures. You should draw on everything in every direction. Everything around you can potentially teach you about fiction.

Marcus: I agree that instruction must come from elsewhere. But what of this desire to have the source validate the finished writing? There is a sense now that certain writers are scouring more and more obscure sources, gaining their artistic identity as consumers, through diligent readings of uncommon materials, with the notion that these original consumptions will transfer over into the composition of original fictions, assuring them of something valid and unique that can be defended simply by deferring to the sources.

Evenson: Yes, I think that there are writers who think that if they somehow draw on a source it will validate them, will make it so that their work has a certain status. But much of the time a knowledge of the sources just makes the reader realize how much better the sources are than the fiction at hand. I mistrust writers who are too insistent on calling at tention to their sources-for whom it becomes a sort of name dropping within the text.
      You can't help but borrow, though you always have control over the way you borrow. I most often borrow in ways that subvert or even ignore the original intent, which is a practice I learned from the work of Samuel Beckett. I borrow both concepts and stylistic devices, but always do what I can to make them my own. The Sanza Affair, for instance, takes its first sentence from the first sentence of another book. In some senses it began as a response to that book but in the writing took on a life of its own. Good borrowing deforms the borrowed material in such a way as to make it an original and integral part of its new context. It can't be gratuitous and it can't be slavish.

Marcus: Yes. I think of John Tranter's piece "Howling Twins" from Conjunctions #23, in which he employs what you might call extremely good borrowing. Yet he ultimately decides, in an afterword, that "explaining" his method is crucial to the work itself, which I find extremely disappointing, and ultimatety incorrect as he lays it out. The writer knows very little of his or her own operations. This is a stark division between contemporary artists. Some are eager to leave the dream of their work and offer keys and codes and source lists and such whether in afterwards or notes or other postscripts. Other want the disguise to be part of the work, almost the point of it, to celebrate not the "source" but to leave it behind.

Evenson: Yes, explanation almost always kills the piece: it nails the terms down too heavily and where you had a living dog before you now have a dog nailed to the floor. It's interesting to see how the dog has been nailed to the floor, but try getting the dog to fetch. I would say disguise is the best option, though explanation and postscripts can be a form of disguise as well, like the best of Eliot's notes to The Waste Land. I also think that when borrowing becomes too incestuous, too much confined to a small group of writers or a certain type of writer, it loses its power. Good borrowing makes unexpected links. The American writers I like seem to me to have stepped outside of the American tradition and are carrying on conversations with a wider group of writers. Zimbabwean author Dambudzo Marechera says, "Either you are a writer or you are not. If you are a writer for a specific nation or a specific race, then fuck you." I agree. Marechera himself is an interesting case. His stories are highly autobiographical and take place in the ghetto where he grew up in, but his prose has gathered textures and rhythms from all over the globe-from Russia and from England as well as from African writers. Even in his most personal and African moments he is carrying on a conversation with writers from elsewhere. Gordon Lish and Paul Auster's writings are insome senses similar-their fictions are seemingly autobiographical and most often take place in New York, but you see their best fiction addressing Austrian writers, French writers, Irish writers.

Marcus: Their acknowledgment of their influences is perhaps less than subtle. Lish's Zinzum draws an epigraph from Thomas Bernhard's Correction, which title Lish then uses for the last section of his book. He seems to be asking for attention to the Bernhard question in his work, and. one hardly even needs to know what to look for. In this sense, though, he is far shrewder than Auster, who, in my view, is avidly, nostalgically, pursuing an emulation, particularly in The New York Trilogy, with clumsy efforts at concealment. Lish employs the external carapace of Bernhard-the unbroken paragraphs, the linguistic insistence-but demonstrates a different kind of organic life underneath. The instruction here invokes Guy Debord's notion that we can only achieve a complicated singularity by "piggybacking" on a frame that has already pierced through the indifference of a culture. Lish wilfully discloses the secret, which allows for another, possibly better mystery.

Evenson: Well, he discloses it because it is not really a secret at all-Bernhard is known for his nonparagraphing and any time you write a story that doesn't break into paragraphs you risk the comparison. So Lish mentions Bernhard somewhat brazenly to get it out of the way I think. Yes, the organic life underneath is vastly different: within his non-paragraphing, Bernhard provides a verbal event constructed around opposition and paradox, a binary movement forward and backward. Lish, on the other hand, operates in terms of the rotation of objects, bringing the same objects to attention in a changing sequence. The rhythm is different. So, Lish seems to me to bring up Bernhard precisely because Bernhard has very little to do with Zimzum. And he probably does so to hide other influences. You are probably right about Auster-too insistent, too much tied up in emulation. But at the same time, he doesn't care: he doesn't seem to be trying to fool anybody, so I don't mind. You don't have to care about who he is emulating. Maybe a better example is someone like French writer Eric Chervillard, who knows how to write a Beckettian sentence but does so in Such a way that the fact that it is a Beckettian sentence seems unimportant: he's appropriated the form to such a degree that it has become entirely his own. Lish is able to do that with Bernhard's carapace, whereas someone like Mark Diamond, in his own imitations of Bernhard, fails miserably. Good borrowing is like demonic possession: you move into the body of the other and make it move according to your own will. If it won't move according to your will, you've failed.

Marcus: Discuss your statement that you came to Cormac McCarthy too late to be Influenced by him. What is influence, as you conceive it?

Evenson: I suppose what I meant at the time was that I see the basic elements of my style as having been formed by a particular group of writers and that, by the time McCarthy came to my attention, this was already in place. But also, that enough time has not elapsed for me to be influenced by him yet. No writer is influential until I have had a chance to forget him. Of course, McCarthy has had a dramatic effect on me-I think of Outer Dark and Blood Meridian as being among, a handful of books I genuinely admire-but I haven't digested him yet: any influence he has had on my work is manifest on the surface rather than in the deeper structures. By the time I am at the point where I feel I am most profoundly influenced by McCarthy, all visible trace of him in my writing will have vanished.
      Influence is, I think, very much a process of taking another writer's work and breaking it down subconsciously, stealing his soul. Maybe influence is a bad term for it, because I see the person who is influenced as the active party. When I first read Thomas Bernhard, for instance, I would go around for days thinking in the same patterns as Bernhard's narrators, finding my own syntax stolen by Bernhard. I wasn't in fluenced by Bernhard, however, until I had gained my own voice back. Influence comes in gaining control over the voices that fiction inflicts upon you, in bending the voices to your will.

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