Song for the Unraveling of the World by Brian Evenson
Book Review by Shane Douglas Keene
It’s always hard for me to review work by authors such as the one I’m talking about today. Brian Evenson is one of those folks who seems to have been born with a pen in his hand and a story in his heart. Words seem to flow naturally and freely from his mind, spilling out on the page and painting the most vivid of word-pictures with little to no effort whatsoever on his part. And maybe they do, I don’t know, but I sincerely doubt it. The kind of craftsmanship that went into the stories in the collection, Windeye, and again into this one, takes a lot of work generally and doesn’t come easily to even the best of authors. So when I think about the tales in Song for the Unraveling of the World, I feel more than just a little bit of awe. When you get your hands on it and start reading it–you should–it won’t take you long at all to see why.
“No matter which way we turned the girl, she didn’t have a face. There was hair in front and hair in the back–only saying which was the front and which was the back was impossible.”
Thus begins one of the strangest trips you’re likely to take this year. “No Matter Which Way We Turned” is a one and a half page story that lets you know from the get-go exactly what kind of uncanny talent Brian Evenson is, and gives you just a tiny inkling of the oddly literary greatness you have ahead of you. What do I mean by that? Well, it’s obvious throughout that what you’re reading is genre fiction. It’s horror; it’s science fiction; there’s even some crime bleeding through. And yet, there’s a highbrow thread running through all these stories that would make them seem right at home in even the haughtiest of academic journals. It’s mind-blowing, soul-wrecking literature of the highest order, the result of plain old damn good storytelling by an artist at the pinnacle of his career.
From that first story onward, the collection becomes an exercise in dread and paranoia with stories like “Born Stillborn” about a man with two therapists that may be the same person or maybe both just figments of his imagination, followed in rapid succession by “Leaking Out,” a tale that is exemplary Evenson work, a strange one that creeps it’s way under your skin as a homeless man looking or shelter in an abandoned mansion manages to break his way into a waking nightmare. It’s a creature feature that could have only been born of Evenson’s pen, one I won’t soon forget, and neither will you when you read it. Then you have the titular story, the knockout punch in this triple combo of ambiguity and strangeness, a tale about a man looking for his missing daughter, the one he kidnapped from his estranged wife. This one really gets to your heart and gives you a pretty good kick to the horror bone, too. Paranoia doesn’t even begin to cover the goings on this tale of madness and self-delusion.
Next, we have two in a row that focus on sister characters, in both cases one older and one younger. “The Second Door” introduces us to the first set in a surreal story that reads like a literary rendition of a Dali painting, a tale in which the siblings live alone in a spaceship-like structure and, well, strange things happen. It’s kind of SF, kind of horror, kind of fantasy, and 100% pure Evenson gold, dark poetry with a vicious and unexpected bite. Trust me when I tell you, there’s no walking away from this one unscathed. The next pair come in the form of the aptly titled “Sisters,” in which we encounter a typical nuclear family: a mother, father, and two daughters. All perfectly normal, yes, except for the fact their ghosts. At least I think that’s what they are. But that’s one of the things about all the gems gathered in this book. A river of ambiguity runs through them, tying them all together into what, in spite of their dissimilarities, becomes a thematic whole. Every tale in the book leaves you thinking, wondering about one aspect or another. But the mystery isn’t an aggravating sort. When it comes to the ambiguous, it’s pretty much an Evenson signature and one that he’s damn good at. So good in fact, that it has the effect of enhancing your enjoyment of every individual entry, and of the collection as a whole.
Now let me talk about some of my favorite stories. Yeah, this book is loaded with some heavyweight lit on the frontend, tales that seem too good to possibly outdo no matter how fucking great of a writer you are. So imagine my surprise to find the very best of these stories dwelling on the backend of this wonderfully dark and disturbing book. It’s something I feel all good collections should do, something this one does in spades: it gets even better as it makes its way toward the anchor piece. Each successive entry builds on the greatness of the previous until it’s almost overwhelming, with straight-up crime pieces like “Room Tone” exploring the lengths a creative might go to for the perfect atmosphere, and “A Disappearance” demonstrating the power a voice carries when wielded by the right author:
“What do you do in such a circumstance, with a friend who is not, technically, a friend, who is only a friend because of your connection with his wife, who vanished? Who vanished under mysterious circumstances? Do you simply forget about him, let him fade slowly into oblivion? Do you think, yes, I’ll contact him someday, only not yet? Or do you do as I did and instead take it upon yourself to show up at his door?”
Evenson is most definitely the right author. If you needed further proof, you need only turn to “The Glistening World,” in which a woman follows a mysterious man in a golden suit, another of the author’s faceless entities in what turns out to be the most suspenseful and yet hopeful tale in the book. It’s an entry that is only outdone by the most jaw-dropping, breath-taking story in the entire collection, “Wanderlust.” If you weren’t already convinced of Brian Evenson’s status as one of our greatest living storytellers, this is it right here. Easily the strangest story of all, it’s also the best goddamn story I’ve read in this decade, so perfectly rendered and written as to be literally awe-inspiring.
No other writer can engage and captivate a reader the way Evenson can, and few in the business can even come close to his talent. Maybe Karen Russell or Nathan Ballingrud, but few others that I can think of. With mesmerizing tales like “Glasses”, “Trigger Warnings,” and “Kindred Spirit” leading us like sirens toward the amazing anchor piece, “Lather of Flies,” there are no flaws to be found in this thing and there is much to love. It’s always hard to quantify favorite things in fiction. Who’s your favorite author, what’s your favorite book, story, etc., and I’m almost never able to definitively answer such questions. But if you ask me who my favorite short story writer in any genre is, that nod goes to Brian Evenson, hands-down. I started to lean that way with Windeye and Song for the Unraveling of the World cemented the deal. I can melt into his stories for hours on end, lost to all but the characters in these beautifully haunting, thought-provoking tales. Any challenger is welcome to try and knock him off the extremely high pedestal I have him on, but all I can say is, “Good luck with that.”