Fugue State Brian Evenson
(with art by Zak Sally). Coffee House Press. 208 pp, $14.95
In the eponymous story of Brian Evenson’s collection Fugue State, the protagonist can’t figure out if he’s the subject or viewer, if he’s being analyzed or is analyzing. He doesn’t know where he is, what he’s doing, or who he is.
Your name is Roeg, the voice said. You are a small man. This is your home. I’m very sorry for all that’s happened to you. My name is—
And then it stopped. Roeg, he thought. Is that my name?
What is my name? he wondered.
My name? he wondered. Why do I want to know?
The narrator has to be told who he is. A voice, anonymous, describes the narrator to himself. This voice in a way gives the narrator a life, perhaps different than the one he had before. But it all is shattered when the narrator in that last line asks, “My name . . . Why do I want to know?” Is that what existence is all about, this narrator seems to ask—identity and recognition of that identity?
In Dan Chaon’s recent novel Await Your Reply—a work that attempts to mask a person’s identity and recreate another as he sees fit—a Fugue State is defined as
A dissociative psychological state marked by sudden, unexpected travel away from home or one’s customary place of work, with inability to recall one’s past, confusion about personal identity, or the assumption of a new identity, or significant distress or impairment.
Like Chaon’s novel, Evenson’s story collection has characters who try to dissociate themselves from their beginnings (or who have their beginnings redefined by others), who consciously neglect previous happenings and logical prognostications to believe what they want to believe to make the best of their situation at hand. They look at their past as a constellation, trying to fit the events in order so that it makes the now more palatable. It’s an unrealistic notion, but it’s one that is aptly accentuated by the gothic and grotesque nature of these stories.
“Ninety Over Ninety,” one of the longer and fuller stories of this collection, takes a traditional theme—a man in want of his freedom, a man wanting to do what he feels he needs to do—and adds a somewhat psychotic and dark-humorous angle. Philip Kossweiller, an editor at a small publishing house, wants to find that next great work that will define him as the editor with a great eye for literature. But unfortunately he hasn’t broken out any lucrative blockbusters for his publisher. A familiar stance is taken by the company: “No more of this literature crap. Sure, it’s good, but literature’s the icing on the cake. You don’t spread icing all over an empty plate, do you?”
Kossweiller is given three chances to find this blockbuster, botching the first and second with memorable humor. In his last swing, with the help of the marketing/publicity manager, he creates an over-the-top thriller starring a Swedish detective. And it works, becoming a franchise, employing titles that are as kitschy as James Patterson’s or Sue Grafton’s, but with punning variations of the Swedish detective’s name: First Bjorn Child, Bjorn Again, Bjorn Free. They get worse with time, less readable in Kossweiller’s eyes but more successful in the public’s. “I hate my life . . . I have no soul” is all Kossweiller can say about himself; for in the back of his mind all he wants is to edit a new literary project, a carrot at the end of the stick his publisher is waving in front of his face. He recognizes that he has lost his own concept of self.
Finally growing a backbone, he goes to his publisher and announces his exit, but his publisher gives him a clever ultimatum: before he can leave he must edit a collection of ninety stories by nonagenarians. The threat is that the publisher is going to create an editorial persona of Kossweiller, placing Kossweiller’s name in big font on the jacket cover of this odious book so that no other house would want him editing literary fiction. Evenson here brilliantly turns the tables over and over again in this story, showcasing the fight for identity to be one that will be tempestuous, the hardest thing one may have to do in life.
In the book’s more evocative and existential story “Dread” (which features the artwork of Zak Sally), Evenson reveals to us the logical conclusion of bending facts: his protagonist begins fearing the line “He no longer resembles me,” which soon eats away at his mind. Through minimalist drawings—though text-heavy sketches—we watch a literary brain and body crumble, until the chilling moment when we realize the true effects of what “He no longer resembles me” means: When the narrator stares at himself in the mirror he realizes “There was no getting around him. And here we still are, staring each other down, haggard and grim, bodies aching, each of us hoping the other will be the first to go.” This is nothing extraordinary but it gives us a moment to contemplate the gravity of not identifying our person, how that is possible and what it would do to our mind.
Evenson certainly has a way with setting up stories so that they are chilling or threatening when need be. Even at their least interesting, the stories in this collection entertain with their proximity to nightmares, following in the footsteps of Edgar Allan Poe. Yet Fugue State is probably too big for its own good: nineteen stories that riff on similar themes makes this collection too cumbersome to keep in one’s mind, disallowing what is being said and done to linger as it should. Having so many bits and pieces makes the reader feel as if the author threw in everything in his arsenal and thus the burden is on the reader to pick up the pieces and select which are good and which are bad. For when you take a step back and look, the unevenness of these stories is revealed: some stand out with their vicious images or their intense characterization while other, less imaginative ones are swept away in their wake. Still, that shouldn’t take away from the fact that when Evenson is on mark, he nails it completely. Just a little fat trimming, to keep the questions of who am I to a minimum, would have rectified this issue and made Fugue State a truly haunting book.
Salvatore Ruggiero attended Cornell and Oxford Universities. His writing has appeared in Rain Taxi, Powell’s, and the Five Borough Book Review. Currently working in publishing, he lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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