A Collapse of Horses
by Brian Evenson
Coffee House Press 2016
While reading Brian Evenson’s new collection of short stories, A Collapse of Horses, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was any real hope for his characters. The protagonists in each of the seventeen titled pieces are often trying to escape the settings they’ve found themselves in, dream-like loops of time, place and character. I say ‘found themselves’ because they are often struggling to discern their own responsibility in the bizarre circumstances they are forced to confront. As I made my way through, I began to get the feeling that only the readers have the faculty to assemble answers to the characters’ predicaments.
Although the majority of stories are set in a straight-forward, recognizable present day atmosphere, elements of genre make guest appearances. Ingredients of sci-fi, western, paranormal, magical realism, spy-thriller settings all turn up here without overwhelming the text. The organizational style throughout also shifts around. “Seaside Town” is written with a higher diction, like with a Wodehouse flavor. Others, like “Scour,” use more episodic short bursts of prose.
What impressed me the most is Evenson’s ability to achieve a unity in mood throughout these disparate backdrops; the range of settings does not detract from an overall feel. It’s like the stories in this collection were fashioned out of the same odd, unidentifiable material, placed in separate boxes, and stacked beside one another in the same closet. Each piece has the feel of its own contained world with its boundaries, each constrained by the character’s ability to perceive those boundaries, all the while feeling them out.
There are shadowy matters at work in Collapse. There are themes of mental illness, imprisonment, and abuse. In general, he illustrates man’s inhumanity to man, often through the lens of an unthinking and violent bureaucracy. These are the conditions that Evenson’s characters find themselves in, and are desperate to escape or find some way to adapt. The comparisons of Evenson’s writing to Kafka are accurate and apt.
Mixed in with the noir settings, however, there is also an unmistakable playfulness alive throughout. This can comes across like a wink at the reader, and usually at a character’s expense. In “Any Corpse” Evenson gives us this bit of dialogue: “Speak clearly,” he said. “No parables, no stories, no riddles, just plain speaking from beginning to end” (171). As if doing this will simply give the answers to the questions we and the characters are presented with.
Indeed, the author does write with clarity – there are no modernist page-sprawling sentences or Barth-esque meta-narrative. There is a deliberate minimalism of character actions of words, making each choice and description stand out and meaningful.
“She regarded the sky, but there seemed to her no way to tell if the storm would return. And the landscape too was so flattened and beaten down that if it did return, there was no place to hide. Which way to go? Perhaps in the direction the car was pointing, unless they had gone off course in the storm. But if not there, where? She set off, traveling as quickly as she could, the landscape unvarying and flat, never changing, revealing nothing. Still, she kept walking, kept on (151).”
Coupled with this deceptively simple style is another technique, which I’m not sure how to describe other than call it a blurring of language. The slightest shift of a single letter noticed by a character pushes cascading implications across multiple, separately organized stories. There are specific words repeated throughout and the word choices are employed in such a way that a sentence or phrase in one story feels like a key to unlocking the mystery of those before it. That is a level of craft that makes for very satisfying, which is to say stimulating, reading.
Evenson’s characters propel themselves forward, consciously or unconsciously, into obvious hazard – an off-world mining operation, a estranged family reunion, or a barbaric former lover. These are the places where the trouble first entered their lives. However, taking their accounts and combining their collective neurosis together elevates their individual struggles. This is, I believe, the collection’s beacon of hope.