Like Kafka, the operation of horror in Brian Evenson’s provocative collection, Windeye, is in the service of metaphor. Just as Gregor Samson waking to find himself transformed into ungeziefer ( literally, vermin) may suggest the humiliation he suffered as a 1930’s Jew, so Evenson’s assortment of struggling protagonists, in their failure to transform, may suggest the existential paralysis that is the consequence of the loss of a stable world view, such as religion might offer. Where Kafka’s enterprise belongs to the realm of cultural satire shot through with the angst of the powerless victim , however, Evenson’s province is the psyche which extends, in almost every story, to the unreliability of a larger, more soul-rattling, vision. Kafka’s demons are always the others of culture-- the horrifying intricacies of the “apparatus” as glowingly described by the officer in “The Penal Colony,” the mawkish, patently insincere solicitations of the manager in the trapeze artist’s story, “First Sorrow,” to cite two examples--and Evenson’s are the mind itself, the not-knowing, the bewilderment that the unheimlich leaves in its wake, which involves the subtle, scary alteration in the world’s—or the life’s-- bedrock realities.
It is precisely such metaphysical uncertainty and the characters’ participation in it that are at the heart of Evenson’s new collection. Almost every story leaves the protagonist, as well as the reader, bereft, uncertain—perhaps bereft because uncertain-- and wallowing in enigma. “The best we can hope for, “ states the narrator at the end of “Knowledge," “is to reach a point where the crime is deemed unsolvable, where nothing is known or understood—a state of dogged and stubborn insistence on the detective’s episteme despite that episteme’s impotence in making sense of the world around him” (96).
“The Other Ear,” a story in which a man is directed to his unfortunate fate by his own (or not?) transplanted and ultimately shorn ear, is similarly bleak. The concluding sentence reads: “A moment later what was left of him had faded into the darkness and was gone as well.” And “The Tunnel,” which could be read as a sado-masochistic remake of Kafka’s “The Burrow,” delivers us, once again, to the impotent episteme of not-knowing, bound to repeat itself obsessively, nightmareishly:
“It was if none of them knew what was happening to them: none of them understood it, yet none of them were able to stop.
And then it got worse, still, for all of us.”
Perhaps the most affecting story here is the title story, “Windeye.” In it, a mysterious extra window in the house’s exterior (without a corresponding interior window)—a windeye—becomes the portal through which the protagonist’s sister is literally obliterated, as if she had never existed. The story, which occupies first place in the book, seems to set out the premises which govern the entire collection: Loss and grief dissolving into the horror of not knowing, the failure of the apparatus of understanding to deliver us to solid ground.
To complicate these premises, “Windeye” seems a not-so-subtle reference to the sister in his dedication, To My Lost Sister. Thus is the reader invited beyond the pages of the story and into the territory of the author’s psyche, provoked into speculating about a lost sister in Evenson’s past, a figurative or literal sister—not dead, we are assured in the story, but oddly vanished, like, as seems to be common knowledge, Evenson’s own Mormon faith. At the end of the story, and presumably at the end of the book, the author/narrator is still mourning his sister, still stuck in the existential morass of not-knowing. What had been enchanted in that story—the “windeye,” —has been rendered nonexistent and, in a breathtaking logistical tumble, has therefore rendered the magic, like childhood’s sister, sadly nonexistent as well.
All of this would be pretty grim fare were it not undercut continually by Bernhardian—or is it Barthelmesque?-- dark humor, Evenson’s genius for absurdity and his pitch-perfect prose. “I was the third man to enter the Sladen suit,” begins the story called “The Sladen Suit,” which continues in the toneless monotone of the documentarian: “I unfurled the long rubber entry tunnel situated athwart the umbilicus and insinuated myself into it, breathing the stale sweat of the pair who had gone there before me and who were, to a man, dead.”
Which reminds us that there is no richer, deeper or more complicated laughter than the laughter that emerges from horror, the laugh that we laugh in spite of ourselves.