Brian Evenson considers the flippant one-word description of his fiction as “violent” just that—flippant. Still, when an author pens lines such as, “He drove across the border, crossed into the barren northern stretches of Utah. Three miles into the state he killed his first, bashing her eyes in with his tire iron. In the back of the U-Haul he carved 35 stars into her back, rows of seven and eight,” the word “violent” seems applicable.
In fact, unsettling images like these ushered in the controversy surrounding Evenson’s first collection of fiction, Altmann’s Tongue. Published in 1994, the collection of 25 shorts and one novella immediately garnered critical praise and a slew of literary awards. At the same time, it also caught the attention of officials within the hierarchy of the LDS Church and at Brigham Young University, where he taught. Then in 1995, shortly after receiving an NEA fellowship, Evenson was faced with an ultimatum: either quit writing fiction in the same vein as Altmann’s Tongue or face termination from his job—and perhaps excommunication from his church.
Surely it’s a difficult choice for any artist to face—especially when it was precisely his upbringing within a conservative culture that fed that so-called “disturbing” literature.
“I remember as a child being encouraged by Mormon Church leaders not only to keep a journal, but when I did, to focus on the good things rather than the bad,” explains Evenson. “I grew up surrounded by optimists and feeling, to paraphrase Candide, that all was right in this best of all possible worlds.
“Yet by the time I was a teenager, I began to realize that there was a great deal roiling below that smiling surface—violence, child abuse, drug abuse, a patriarchal attitude that could easily degenerate into a kind of madness. I think, particularly when I was still Mormon ... I felt compelled to try to give voice to this hidden portion of the culture, to provide a kind of balance to the rampant and often naive optimism I saw around me. Brigham Young speaks of everything being worthy of attention, in heaven, on earth and in hell, and that was something I took very seriously and literally.”
Evenson saw his purpose as a writer to “bring the whole culture, in all its positive and negative aspects, to light.” It just happened to manifest itself in contextualized violence, the characters often responding with deadpan emotion, secretive denial and/or total disregard for civil humanity.
So is Evenson’s work disturbing? Absolutely. No one should feel comfortable in literary realities where relations callously shoot one another for no apparent reason, where religious authorities abuse their power to rape and murder members of their own flock and people casually discuss their desire to blow kittens away with shotguns.
But as Evenson left BYU to teach at other universities, purposefully distancing himself from the Mormon Church after having his name removed from membership, he realized that those undercurrents of evil and violence within society radiate throughout the broader American cultural landscape. The social contradictions throbbing under the surface weren’t just limited to “Happy Valley.”
“Since I’ve left Mormonism, I’ve felt my obsessions to lie elsewhere, in an attempt to understand difficult interactions within families ... and in philosophical issues involving the difficulty of being and the impossibility of knowledge,” says Evenson. “I think, as I’ve detached myself from Mormonism, the violence—while still present—has become sublimated to philosophical concerns about knowing, family interactions, and to, at least in some cases, humor.”
Evenson’s seventh and newest book, The Wavering Knife, is a testament to that noted sublimation. Although the violence is still present, even at times still quite overt—as in “The Ex-Father,” when the mother of two young girls commits suicide by attempting to sever her own head with a serrated blade—it is couched within the story to lend an air of severity to the human condition. In this case, the violence is also juxtaposed against the “funny joke” the girls play on their Ex-Father in order to wake him up from his destructive and unruly stupor.
“Altmann’s Tongue,” notes Evenson, “seems to me the most tightly focused of the collections; The Wavering Knife seems to me the most diverse, with humor much more visible. ... I think also that there’s a great deal more emotion and affect in The Wavering Knife, that many of the stories in that book let emotion and feeling in to a degree that doesn’t occur in the earlier books.”
In spite of everything, Evenson’s admitted move away from the “prominence/necessity of violence” in his work has in no way negated his ability to engage and challenge the writer. That is why simply categorizing Evenson’s work as “violent” grossly disregards his unique character development, his craft of word and every philosophical conundrum he tenaciously tackles. It’s one word that doesn’t quite capture a complex literary universe.
BRIAN EVENSON Finch Lane Gallery/Art Barn, 1325 E. 100 South, Thursday Nov. 4, 7 p.m. Free admission. 596-5000 or www.slcgov.com/arts