Winner of the International Horror Guild Award for a Short Fiction Collection
Brian Evenson’s fifth story collection constructs a human landscape as unearthly as it is mundane. Replete with the brutality, primordial waste, and savage blankness familiar to readers of his earlier works, Evenson’s Kafkaesque allegories entice the mind while stubbornly disordering it.
In the title story an obsessional consciousness folds back on itself, creating a vertiginous melange of Poe and Borges, both horrific and metaphysical. Here, as in “Moran’s Mexico,” and “Greenhouse,” the solitary nature of reading and writing leads characters beyond human limits, making the act of putting words to paper a monstrous violation opening onto madness. Evenson’s enigmatic names—Thurm, Bein, Hatcher, Burl—unplaceable landscapes, and barren rooms all combine to create a semblance of conceptual abstraction, as though the material universe had come to exist inside someone’s head.
Small wonder that Evenson’s work has attracted so much attention among philosophers, literary critics, and other speculative intelligences, for it continuously projects a tantalizing absence, as though there were some key or code that, if only we knew it, would illuminate everything. However, the blade of discernment wavers, and we are left to our own groping interpretations. This is a collection to be read and reread.
"These tales by a modern Poe occur under an immense pressure of language, insight, and observation. Harrowing (Evenson makes us want to check the word's literal meaning) as they are, they take place just beyond the numbed moment where cruelty and craziness grow banal. Like Poe's, Evenson's stories range from horror to humor; a similarly high critical intelligence is always in control. It's moot, sometimes, which tale falls into which camp. But we read them with care, with our guard up, only to find they have already slipped inside and gotten to work, refining the feelings, the vision, the life." —Samuel R. Delany
"Brian Evenson, one of America's darkest and most pungent comic writers, prods with the tip of his verbal knife at all our assumptions… He finds the alien in the archetypal, marrying strangeness to intimacy and creating, via syntax, an ever-imploding universe of consciousness. Insidiously and elegantly, Evenson's language claims its prey: the reader's seduced psyche."—Mary Caponegro
"The prose is thuddingly sad and inexplicably, weirdly comic, full of Evenson's allegiance to the unpleasant, the true."—The Stranger
"As you might expect of any book that provides no simple explanations for its characters' behaviors and contains figures who attempt to find metaphysical meaning in everyday images and acts, the back cover...calls up comparisons with the European visions of Kafka and Beckett...however, I am more comfortable placing Evenson's work within the long tradition of the American grotesque, beginning with Edgar Allan Poe and continuing with modern and contemporary figures such as Flannery O'Connor, Stacey Levine, and Gilbert Sorrentino."—Rain Taxi
Read other reviews online at Bookslut.com.
The Wavering Knife is also recognized by Popmatters.com as one of the Unexpected Best Books of 2004.
The black square on the table is meant to represent Gahern's estranged wife; it is presented as such at Gahern's request. The gray square beside it stands in for the black square's new husband, also presented as such at Gahern's request. Though Hauser has offered him the full gamut of shapes and colors, Gahern insists upon remaining unrepresented. Nothing stands in for him. When Hauser suggests to Gahern that the investigation might proceed more smoothly were a shape allowed to stand in for him as well, Gahern simply refuses to reply. Perhaps a green rhombus? suggests Hauser. Gahern asks to be returned to his cell.
The investigation, Hauser repeatedly reminds himself, is progressing poorly. Gahern will only speak when both the black square and the gray square are on the table before him. Even then he says little, if anything, of use. When questioned concerning the whereabouts of the gray and black squares, Gahern says nothing. He will not indicate whether these squares represent persons alive or dead. These are meant to stand in for them, they are symbols, is all he will indicate, gesturing to the squares. When Hauser hides the squares in his lap and asks Gahern where they have gone, Gahern only says, They are in your lap.
Such are the facts as Hauser has recorded them:
The additional information Hauser has amassed through interrogating Gahern is marginal at best. Hauser's investigation, Gahern insists, is a form of persecution somehow perpetrated by black and gray squares from a distance-their persecution of him has unexpectedly resumed. He is certain they will never leave him alone. He fled to escape them, came back only when he had taken steps to assure an escape. Now, he can see, he escaped nothing.
"What steps did you take to assure an escape?" asks Hauser.
"It is of the utmost importance," claims Gahern, "that I be provided a new identity and be allowed to leave the city immediately."
"Of course," says Hauser. "We will assign you a new identity: Rhombus, Green. Just answer a few questions first."
In Gahern's private world, Hauser thinks as he sits in stocking feet, a cup of hot water before him, there is only one shape. Square. There are, however, two colors. Or rather two shades-gray and black. Each of which admittedly might be described as a lightening or darkening of the other.
Through the window, through square panes of glass, he can see down into the central courtyard. The courtyard consists of eight rectangular slabs of concrete, of a slightly lighter gray than the gray square meant to represent the new husband. Beyond, he can see the even facade of the North wing of Branner B. Hauser's office is in the South wing of Branner B, a building designed by one Edouard Branner if a plaque on one marble corner of the building is to be believed. In his travels about the city, from crime scene to crime scene, Hauser keeps an eye open for Branner A, the precursor of Branner B. He has never seen it. Perhaps Branner A was torn down to make way for another building, perhaps even for Branner B. Whatever the crime that presents itself to him, Hauser's first question is always the name of the residence or residences attached to the crime.
Yet this crime is different. There is no crime scene to visit. He cannot ask his habitual question. Instead, it is just he and Gahern, in a narrow room, a table between. Only words. Or as now, just he himself, in his office, alone. Only thoughts.
One shape, he thinks. Two shades.
Why is it that Gahern will not take a shape and color to represent himself? Can I force him to accept a shape and color? Was it prudent, wonders Hauser, to have allowed this game of squares and shades to commence?
"Shall we try again, Mr. Gahern?" says Hauser. "Where were you during the month of October?"
"Fleeing the persecution of the following," says Gahern, and reaches out to finger first the black square then the gray square.
"Of what did said persecution consist?"
"They constantly disturbed me," says Gahern. "They appropriated my residence, interrupted my sleep, impeded me on my path to work, insulted me, interfered with my operations on the lathe in my place of employ-"
"-Yet, Mr. Gahern, curiously enough, I have a sheet of paper before me which claims that the reverse of what you say is true. On seven separate occasions complaints were filed against you by your ex-wife and her new husband, the last culminating in a restraining order."
"This too is part and parcel of their persecution of me."
"Where are they, Mr. Gahern? What have you done with them?"
"These are meant to stand in for them," says Gahern, gesturing to the squares.
"I'm afraid that doesn't answer my question," says Hauser.
Gahern folds his arms, tightens his lips.
Hauser receives a telephone call. It is Commissioner Torver. How is the investigation? Torver wants to know.
"It seems to have become a sort of geometry problem," says Hauser.
"Yes," says Torver, "so I hear. Or a child's game. Do you think it wise, Hauser? Shall I step in so we can have a word?"
Hauser assents and recradles the headpiece, awaits Torver's arrival. As he waits, he looks at the square panes of glass in the window. Surely, he thinks, I will be reprimanded.
He realigns the already aligned piles of paper on his desk, picks up the gray and black squares. If Torver were a square, he is starting to wonder as Torver enters, What color square would he be?
Yet, he suspects in looking at the man's face, in watching his lips move, that a square would not be the proper shape for Torver.
Hauser has two days and then the investigation will be taken from him, Torver seems to be saying. The gist of his words comes to Hauser as if from a distance. Like Gahern, thinks Hauser, fingering the squares, I myself prefer to remain unrepresented. Apparently Hauser's methods are most unorthodox, but Torver is willing to let him extend said unorthodox methods for a short period. Hauser must not let him down. Perhaps a rectangle, Hauser thinks of Torver, but soon discards this in favor of a simple oval. By the time he has settled on a dirty white for the color, the simple oval has finished its admonishments and is just going, leaving Hauser alone to wonder what the Commissioner's shape and shade signify.
Perhaps, thinks Hauser, I could produce a series of squares moving in almost indiscernable increments from black to gray, and substitute them in consecutively for each square on the table. After a number of careful substitutions, the black square would wither to gray and the gray square would have ripened to black. Gahern might realize something was happening, but perhaps would not understand what. Suddenly he would perceive that the square he thought gray was black and the square he thought black gray.
And what, Hauser wonders, regarding his reflection in a pane of glass, would be the point of that?
Anything could happen, one of them suggests, either him or his reflection, perhaps both.
But nothing significant ever does.
You have two days. You haven't time to experiment.
Perhaps, one of them thinks, both squares could be gradually changed until they are nothing but two pieces of slick white cardstock, squares of light shining up from the tabletop.
He closes his notebook, turns each square face down. Time has passed. He has learned nothing. Gahern is still there, just on the other side of the table. Unrepresented, still himself. I, too, Hauser insists, remain unrepresented. He holds his hand before his face, assures himself it is still a hand.
He watches the hand remove a cigarette from a pack, extend it toward Gahern.
Cigarette? he hears his mouth offer. He knows that the voice he hears in his head sounds different to him than it must sound to Gahern, listening outside the head that speaks. Who is to say who hears the voice correctly?
Gahern takes the cigarette, tucks it into his breast pocket. "You look tired," he says.
"What do you know about Branner A?" asks Hauser.
"Not who," says Hauser. "What. And A, not B."
"I don't know anything," says Gahern. "I don't even know what you're talking about."
"Look," says Hauser. "Let's forget everything. I don't care what you did with the squares. I'm willing to forget all that. Just tell me where to find Branner A."
Gahern does not answer. Instead he regards his fingernails. To Hauser, from the other side of the table, the fingernails appear to be normal. There is no reason that he can see for anyone to be looking at them. Yet he cannot stop looking.
Hauser's time all but gone, his methods failed, he has let Torver down or is about to. A final effort, his reflection tells him, gird yourself.
He brings in a piece of paper, blank, places it on the table between the black and gray squares. He sits across the table from Gahern, watching him.
He lets nearly an hour slip by without speaking. He looks at Gahern's face, trying to will it into a simpler shape.
He takes a pencil from his pocket, draws a short line on the paper. Carefully he tears up first the gray square and then the black square.
"Care to add anything?" asks Hauser.
"You're guessing," says Gahern.
"Am I?" asks Hauser, and standing up leaves Gahern alone in the room. He leaves behind the scraps of squares, the pencil, the paper.
Outside, he takes a place looking through the mirrored wall. Next to him are four people whom he chooses to represent in the following fashion: oval, triangle, rhombus, triangle. Through the mirrored wall, he watches Gahern sit at the table, head in his hands. He seems, for once, shaken. Hauser goes to fetch a cup of hot water; when he comes back, nothing has changed.
"Now what?" asks one of the shapes beside him.
Oval. Red, Hauser thinks, perhaps orange. Hauser holds one hand before his face to assure himself it is still a hand, then shrugs. "Wait," he says. "Nothing to do but wait."
He watches through the glass. Having sipped away his water, he goes in search of another cup.
When he comes back he finds Gahern has pulled his chair about to bring his back to the mirrored wall. He has taken up the pencil, is hunched over the paper, his arm moving furiously. Hauser wishes he could see Gahern's face.
Gahern remains hunched over for some time. At last he puts down the pencil, brings both hands together before his body to do something with the paper. Hauser finishes his water, but does not go back for more.
When finished, Gahern pulls his chair back to its usual place at the table. He has folded the sheet of paper into a white box, a simple cube. The pieces of the squares are nowhere to be seen.
Something has happened, thinks Hauser. Something always does.
Once Gahern has been returned to his cell, Hauser enters, sits alone with the box. He examines it, draws a picture of it in his notebook. It is the sort of box that children make, and having made them himself as a child, he knows which seam he must unfold first. He knows what to do.
He turns the seam and the box cracks open. Inside are the scraps of the black and gray squares. Dumping them out onto the tabletop, he forms a little heap. He unfolds the next seam, then the next, until the box lies flat on the table, nothing but a creased piece of paper.
There is nothing written on the paper. Indeed, all that remains of Hauser's original mark is a thinness in the paper where Gahern has fastidiously rubbed said mark away.
An hour later, Hauser is still staring at the blank sheet of paper, at the pile of scraps. Perhaps it is a denial, perhaps a confession, but in either case, he is no closer to understanding anything. There is no point, he knows from past experience, in asking Gahern to explain further.
He looks at his watch. He begins to piece the squares back together, the black one representing, he can still bother himself to recall fleetingly, the wife, the gray one representing her new husband.
Soon the investigation will be taken from him. He will pass along the evidence-the fragments of squares, the folded sheet of paper-and then he will tender his resignation to a dirty white oval. Leaving Branner B for good, leaving the unrepresented Gahern, he will walk into the street and lose himself in the crowd among shapes of all kinds. Until then, there is nothing to do but wait.
The Wavering Knife
The Wavering Knife