The word “apocalypse” comes from the Greek “apokalupsis,” which means “to reveal.” While the results of an apocalyptic revelation often mean destruction, destitution and death, the means by which a doom finds its day is subject to all kinds of social variables and interpersonal quagmires; Brian Evenson’s latest collection Song for the Unraveling of the World addresses these latter features of the end times incisively, harnessing the terror of the peripherally ever-present and out-of-reach. So it is not simply that this book is about the end of the world; it is that the “end” and the “world” are always up for discussion. As someone who seeks out apocalyptic media constantly—from nonfictional critique of environmental disaster to ancient and contemporary speculative fiction/myth—Evenson’s work would naturally become a sublime and inescapable influence in my world; I say “my” because, after reading his Song for the Unraveling of the World, I hesitate to use the delicate possessive “our,” a delicacy tested with humor, horror, pulp and intellect in his newest collection. Familiar readers of his work will find the doppelgängers, the gutturally-Nordic sound of names, the shadow-psychologists, the vicious artists, and the interstellar occult all familiar in appearance. Of course, their familiarity betrays nothing of how satisfyingly unpredictable they move through his stories. The tales are scientifically and spiritually experimental, testing familiar assumptions about consciousness, A.I., knowledge, and desire in unfamiliar scenarios (and vice versa) using clear and precise prose that build in rhetorical complexity. Reading the collection, I found it important to remember that the act of “unraveling” is often beautiful to witness—a loose, flowing, relatively unpredictable decomposition denoting all kinds of previous and future boundaries, existential, aesthetic, and otherwise. This process of unraveling begs questions that elude the reassurance of simple epiphanies, and all of these relationships—between what’s asked and what’s answered—become hard to forget. Yet to say Evenson’s stories “stick with you” is erroneous by sheer virtue of the cliche, and it does not respect the spidery consideration of his sentences. It would be much more accurate to say his stories “reveal a stickiness within you.” This is because his stories are less about the rules he used to build them with and much more about the rules people use to build “our” world(s).
Evenson is known as much for his brutal, uncanny tales of philosophical horror as he is for his kindness and generous availability to other writers and students. Having had the privilege of studying with him at CalArts, I was thrilled to sit and discuss his latest work; through a strange afternoon drizzle at the end of May, we ate some lemon-poppy cookies in his office and talked about the pitfalls of certainty, disembodied consciousness, pseudo-science and other features of horror in Song for the Unraveling of the World. (note: the interview starts off referencing the last story of the collection, “Lather of Flies”, wherein a film student is interviewing an infamous director and, through a series of events set off by that very interview, the student meets an unfortunate demise).

Giovan Alonzi: I was nervous to come here after reading “Lather of Flies.” [laughs]

Brian Evenson: Yeah?

…which was a great ending to the book.

Good, I’m glad you thought so. I haven’t been unaffected by living near Hollywood. There are something like three film stories in the book.

You’ve done so many interviews, why do we keep coming back to you?

[laughs] We shouldn’t, I’ll say, then we can just end the interview. I don’t know; hopefully every time I’m doing a new book I shift what I’m doing just a little bit. So maybe it makes it so that things that seem obvious about earlier books have to be reconsidered or rethought. I still feel like I’m moving into new territory. I feel like this book does a few things that the story collection before it didn’t do, which did a few things that the collection before that didn’t do. This one is more oriented toward Sci-Fi and genre, even though playing with genre has always been something I’ve done.

Which relates to the tension you’ve spoken about before between your different modes and your different pseudonyms as they correspond to writing genre versus philosophical horror. Along those lines, what were you left interested in after writing A Collapse of Horses?

About half of the stories in Song for the Unraveling of the World were written for literary magazines and half were written for genre magazines, and some of the ones in literary magazines were in “Best of” genre volumes, and vice versa. So there was this kind of weird back and forth that went on with this book between the genre world and the literary world. I’ve always been interested in that genre-divide, but I think that it’s become more intense here. Before, I had one foot in literature and one foot in genre and it was maybe a little more tentative. Now it’s not so much that I’m straddling a line: it’s more that I’m running back and forth over the line, kind of zigzagging.

There are certain stories, like “Lord of the Vats” which takes place on a spacecraft in the midst of interstellar flight, that immediately stuck with me and cast the book in such a speculative light, but then I remember that the titular story is about a child abduction in a world that feels contemporary.

Yeah. “Song for the Unraveling of the World” is a story where you think you know what’s going on but you keep on changing your relationship to the character who is at the center of it; and, by the end, you don’t know where you stand or how you feel about things.

The title of the story is an apocalyptic one, but on the surface the story might not stand out as a particularly apocalyptic scenario, perhaps asking the reader to consider what the “world” means in this case. In it, Drago is the protagonist, and he is also his own prophet, which immediately stuck out to me as an archetype of apocalyptic stories. What do you make of prophecy and prophets that surface in your work?    

I think it’s partly growing up Mormon. The notion of personal prophecy is something I’m very tied to and that I’m also very critical of at the same time. I spent a lot of time with this collection in particular arranging the stories and trying to decide what should go where. It took a while to figure out how to put the stories together. So, it starts with this brief speculative tale, and then goes into “Born Stillborn,” a weird psychiatrist story, which is a little more literary. And then it shifts to what seems to be a ghost story or a terror story, and then goes from there back into “Song for the Unraveling of the World” which seems like a realistic story, but I think so much of the implications of its mood is hinted at by reading the preceding stories, so you come to it in a different way. Context is really important—the way in which ideas or moods from other stories bleed out into or reflect other stories is pretty crucial. You can read these stories individually, which I’m totally cool with, but I also think it works best to read them in a sequence.

And the collection utilizes certain keywords—the word “unraveling,” for instance, becomes that much more charged as it appears in multiple stories throughout.

Yeah, there are a few things like that that keep popping up, even ways of phrasing things that echo from one story to another.

What feels like a discovery to you when you’re writing fiction?

For a lot of these stories, while I was writing them I didn’t know for certain where they were going. What kept me interested and kept me writing was just wanting to see where things could possibly go. In “Song for the Unraveling of the World,” the moment that became kind of key for me was when Drago starts talking about taking his daughter to the children’s museum, and that long rambling rant that’s this weird justification—that’s the moment where the story starts to turn in a different way. Those kind of moments I love, where I can find these hinges or pivots that allow the story to swerve or shift in a different way, where something unexpected happens. As a reader, I like stories I want to keep on thinking about after I’m done. So when I’m thinking about the endings of these stories, they often conclude in a way that lets them keep on processing in the reader’s head. Also: language—I really focus on language, and I’m interested in sound and rhythm.

The title of the book sounds like it’s going to be poetry.

[laughs] I suppose it does.

You’re known for your mastery of unsettling a reader, but, as I picked up the book, I wondered “How much more unsettled can I get? Aren’t I unsettled enough?” Turns out, I’m not. I say this to point out that even my own unconscious reaction to horror, weird, etc. could presume that its devices are “finite.” That there might only be so many ways a body can become a host, or sentience can appear where we’d expect resolute inanimateness (re: your stories “Line of Sight” and “Glasses”). Do you see limits like this in literary horror / new weird? What’s important to understand about these constraints?

I think there’s something about genre that feels controlled or even safe sometimes, in that you start reading a story and you’re like “Oh! I know this genre; I know what kind of story this is.” There’s something reassuring about it. There’s a certain kind of horror movie—a cabin in the woods story, for instance—where even if everyone dies you’re like “I know where this is going.” So you have these kinds of cues that genre gives you that allows you to feel safe or like you have something to hold onto.

I do give some of those cues, but I also take some of them away at the same time. So you have that sense of “I know where I stand; even if it’s pretty dark, I know where things are going,” and then, either within the story or in the next story, I’ll take some of those markers away, so you feel a little bit destabilized or unsettled. That, for me, is part of the process: putting you in a relationship to the story and to language in which you’re not as protected by what you have already decided the story is. I don’t know how it’s done sometimes; it’s often done through very subtle moments. And if you’ve read enough of my stories and then you run across a story that kind of fits into those “finite” genre categories, then you keep on waiting for the moment where it’s going to break out of them, and that ends up being unsettling in its own way as well. So it is all about these relationships and expectations. So much about fiction is about expectations that you fulfill or you don’t. If you fulfill them in a satisfying way, that’s great. If you fulfill them and it’s just too obvious, that doesn’t really work. And if you break expectations in a satisfying way, I think you can really get to interesting places. But sometimes people break expectations and it seems like they don’t know what they’re doing.

Speaking of expectations, especially in regards to your large body of work, the story “Trigger Warnings” stood out a lot; it seemed like a singular story. 

That’s a story that comes pretty late in the volume, and it is this moment where you think you’ve figured out what this collection’s like, and then suddenly there’s this disruption. It’s a very small disruption. At once it’s a relief because it’s somewhat funny, but also there’s a disturbing subcurrent to it that’s more connected to contemporary issues in some way. I don’t know what else to say about it; it definitely sticks out, but I felt like it belonged there.

I’m sure some people will wonder about your thoughts on trigger warnings because of the violent content that appears in your stories.

My son, who is six years old and in kindergarten, had a counselor come to his class and talk about trigger warnings. So he came home talking about his “yellow zone” and his “red zone” and we were like, “What’s going on, exactly?” He filled out this little chart, and he put down things like “my trigger is: when someone comes and puts my toys away.” And we’re like “OK,” but it seems like a misuse of how we think of triggers.

On the one hand, I do understand that people have very difficult things that happen to them, and I think those things should be acknowledged and addressed. But also, in something like a fiction workshop, I kind of think that at the beginning of the class you should give a blanket trigger warning that you may be reading things that are disturbing. I also don’t really think it’s necessarily good to tell people in advance what they’re going to face, partly because it makes them tense up against it and have a different response to the story. I also don’t know that trigger warnings are all that helpful. If you have something that’s a really serious issue, you probably need to talk to a professional about it rather than just being warned that it’s going to appear in a story so that you can avoid it.

The part of “Trigger Warnings” that seemed the most thematically connected to the rest of the collection was the experience of a double-ness. It’s paradoxically warning you and delivering a story at the same time.

Yeah, it’s working in two directions at the same time. It has that double-ness, so it’s very gleefully doing something. I don’t see it as making fun of those trigger warnings so much as making fun of the way in which people sometimes think about them or present them.

The persona is much more prickly than the Brian I’ve met before. [laughs]

Yeah, well I do see it as fiction. I see the narrator in that story as a frustrated student in a workshop, and he’s thinking about all this stuff, rather than it being about a professor or about me exactly.

Two major themes of the book are “error” and “imposter-hood,” and often they are elements that come hand-in-hand with each other. While reading Song for the Unraveling of the World, I couldn’t help but think of A Comedy of Errors and The Importance of Being Earnest, and then newer horror/thriller films like Enemy, Us, and Hereditary, where stories of imposters beget totally different meanings and lessons. When are errors funny and when are they terrifying? 

Well, I think a funny error doesn’t leave you dead at the end of it.

[laughs]

A lot of these stories, and a lot of my stories in general, are about people who assume that reality is one way, or that the world is one way; they act as if that’s the case and then they suffer the consequences because they’re wrong about it. In terms of funny versus terrifying—I mean, I do think there is often a humorous element in these stories, but it shades into darkness pretty quickly. It probably has as much to do with intensity as anything else. So there are a lot of stories where things are masquerading as something else—usually things that are not human masquerading as human in some ways—and that’s tied to this notion of people making mistakes about what the world is or what they’re seeing exactly. “Lord of the Vats” definitely has that in terms of the main character thinking they have a handle on what’s going on, but they’re being manipulated by someone that doesn’t technically even exist.

There’s the story “Smear” in which someone becomes obsessed with this thing that doesn’t seem to actually be there, or at least not in a way we can understand, but does still seem to exist in some regard. That sense of perceptual errors and misunderstandings of reality are always something I’m really interested in.

The error portrayed in the book reminded me of how if you think too hard about human error in any context, it seems like the thing that will kill you before anything else. It made me think of the 2009 Toyota recall of cars that would “accelerate on their own,” yet after investigators studied this phenomenon, it was concluded that this was just repeated cases of human error—people pressing the gas when they thought they were pressing the brakes. Moments like these make acts of human error feel like concerted attempts of self-sabotage, applying motive to unconsciousness by virtue of there even being a defined concept of the Unconscious. You get at this with lines like “she made the mistake of almost unconsciously…” in the story “Glasses.” Why are you drawn to this representation of error?

I’m interested in those moments where you know, or you semi-know, that you shouldn’t do something and you do it anyway. There’s a moment in a Patricia Highsmith novel called The Cry of the Owl at the end where a character knows he shouldn’t touch something and he’s about to touch it anyway. That’s fascinating to me; sometimes I think we do things that are against our best interest. Sometimes we do this because we actually don’t know any better, but sometimes we have all of these things that are subconsciously or semi-consciously screaming out to us not to do it and we do it anyway. I don’t know what this human trait is evolutionarily good for; maybe some people have it more than others, so it thins out the herd [laughs]. But it’s a very odd thing about humans, just our ability to act against or best interest even when we should know better.

I think the other thing is that knowledge is such a weird thing. We convince ourselves that we know the world or we know how things are. Often, we’re working off of incomplete or partial information. Often our instincts are fighting with what we see as our rational mind, and we don’t know which to listen to.

In the documentary about “Flat Earthers” called Behind The Curve, an astrophysicist explains how it’s common for scientists who gain a certain amount of training and experience become skeptical of their own scientific authority and often feel like an “imposter.” They compare this to something called the Dunning-Krueger effect, which is basically the opposite of a trained scientist feeling like an imposter—it’s an untrained person feeling like an expert in a field without any formal training. I mention this because your fiction often forces these polarities of imposter-hood together—characters genuinely investigating a scenario to try to understand it, and other characters hell-bent on shaping circumstances to fit their own limited perspective of their world. When and how did you start investigating these forms of imposters in your writing?  

I don’t know, it’s something I’ve been interested in for a long time. As a kid growing up Mormon, there were so many people around me who were so certain of things that just seemed ridiculous to me, in terms of spirituality and the intensity of their belief in the existence not only of God but in Mormonism’s careful explanation of the rules for how the afterlife works. At the same time I had a father who was a physicist who often would debunk things that were being said, though he wasn’t hostile to it necessarily. When I was in my teens, we went to Jerusalem and the guide talked about how “Here you breath the very air that Jesus breathed.” And my dad would whisper, “No, in fact, what’s happened is that all the molecules have dispersed. You’re just as likely to breathe a molecule that Jesus breathed anywhere else as you are here.” So there was this sense when I was growing up of this disjunction between people’s certainty and science, how those things did or didn’t fit together.

Also, the imperfection of knowledge is something that fascinates me. The fact that if you want to be certain about something, the more closely you think about it the less certain you become at a certain point.

This reminds me of the story “Song for the Unraveling of the World”—how the wall separates Drago from the sound of the song he assumes his daughter is singing on the other side of it.

Yes. He is at once certain that there’s no way his daughter could have gotten out of the house, yet he has no idea where she is. It’s like these two different realities have crossed. Or he may just be in intense denial about something he’s done. What I like about that story is that there are so many possibilities and none of them are good. [laughs]

What’s more horrifying to you: being switched at birth or being switched at mid-life?

Probably switched at mid-life. Well, I don’t know. I guess if you discover mid-life that you’ve been switched at birth you’d have a very different sense of yourself. But if you’re switched at mid-life, you’ve already lived in a certain way—so much of the way in which we understand the world is through a physical relationship to the world and the way in which our body fits into it, so a mid-life switch might be really hard. I don’t want either. Probably the second one is more horrifying, though.

I ask because of the story “Line of Sight”—a character is not only switched at mid-life, he becomes a sort of disembodied “pure” consciousness. 

It’s this transformation in which he is becoming something else and he doesn’t quite understand it, but also knows there’s a way out, and the way out is the way he got in.

In many of the stories, bodies act as shells or carapaces for different consciousnesses to leave and enter. This might only be a coincidence, but Kiki Kogelnik’s work exhibited in and on the cover of “The Speculative Issue” of Sublevel Magazine (housed at CalArts) reminded me a lot of the “vessel-hood” you depict.

Right. I hadn’t seen her work before I wrote “Shirts and Skins”. I think I wrote that story partly because I’d seen the Body Worlds exhibits, where they have these actual flayed bodies. One of them had its skin over its arm. It started from there, and then it also had to do with a friend of mine and his break-up story [laughs]. It all kind of tied together.

I’m also thinking of the story “Leaking Out”.

There are a couple of stories in which this notion of container and contained is being played with. In “Leaking Out”, there is this horrifying and sublime thing for the reader of not quite being able to know what this thing looks like and what it means.

Different types of paralyses appear in many of the stories—whether within bodies like “Lather of Flies”, or removal of bodies from consciousness in “Leaking Out” and “The Tower”, or being mentally paralyzed by a thought that limits the autonomy of a character’s growth or progression, like in “Menno” or “Wanderlust”. What’s interesting to me is that these forms of paralyses seem socially and spiritually induced, almost always by a being that feels half-real and half-imagined by the character who becomes paralyzed—the threat or act of violence is often adjacent to their actual demise (e.g. a mysterious streak of blood happened upon). What’s unsettling then is the continuum where autonomy, curiosity, dependency and a determined fate are not only braided together as forces of life but braiding us as people together constantly. What influences lead you to this tension between paralysis and movement?

A lot of characters are either literally or figuratively stuck in some way. In a story like “Leaking Out”, there’s a sense of not being able to leave a space. Lars keeps circling back to the house. I think it does say something about the way in which humans tend to run in circles, whether it’s obsessively thinking about something or obsessively returning to a place or a relationship.

I also think so many of these stories are about communities and the way in which an individual doesn’t fit into the community. They might not fit in as well as they think they do, or, in many cases, they know they don’t fit in but don’t know what to do about it. There’s a moral paralysis sometimes, but there are a lot of cases of physical stuck-ness or physical paralysis in the stories as well.

These types of paralyses are often far more terrifying than something like a brutal murder.

There is a helplessness to them, and with a brutal murder you at least feel like something’s happening. The thing that happens in “Song for the Unraveling of the World” is Drago can’t leave the house, he can’t find his daughter, he can’t do anything besides just wait. He’s stuck. The same with “Line of Sight”—that character’s trapped in this space he doesn’t understand; he just has to wait until he can see a glimpse of someone else, and then that’s his chance maybe to get out. In “Second Door” it happens as well. You have this unimaginable door that you maybe can or can’t open; you have this transformation that’s occurred where you can’t understand the person that you used to be able to understand, and you’re just trapped. In that one, finally, he tries to make something happen; I don’t know how well it works out for him though. It’s one of my favorite stories in the collection; I love the game of the dolls that they play.

This place of language and distortion is another source of tension in the collection. You see it in “Second Door” and it’s terrifying, but you also see it in “Lord of the Vats”—there’s a moment where one character sends a message to another and, at first, it’s a misspelling of “human,” but the misspelling and its correction is so sly—the horror there lives between what that misspelling really means and the actual experience of misreading it just as easily as the character who receives that message.

There are a lot of characters pretending to be human and there are little cues that maybe make you realize they’re not, and that’s one of those moments. But so much of the way we define ourselves or think about ourselves is through language—it’s very definitional, the way we use language.

Your story “Lather of Flies” and your novel Father of Lies—how did this happen?

It’s a deliberate play and a deliberate reference. In my story “Two Brothers” there’s a mention of two holy books called Fathers of Light and Body of Lies respectively.  I see the use of “Lather of Flies” as a continuation of that, as continuing to play around with it. And you know there’s that whole thing of flies and the Lord of the Flies and that being tied to Satan and evil. So it’s referring to about three different things at once, and I just like the sound of it: lather of flies.

I wasn’t going to ask this, but now I am.

Go ahead.

What do you think about creepypasta?

[Laughs] I know about creepypasta, but I haven’t spent a lot of time looking at the Reddit threads. But I know Channel Zero plays around with that and has made it into something different. I think it’s interesting, those little memes or things that circulate, those notions or ideas or whatever you want to call them. Yeah, I don’t know. I like the idea of them ok. They weren’t a huge inspiration for this book.

It didn’t seem that way; it was my “gift shop” question. Thinking more about the unexpected in your work—do you think you’ll ever write something like a romance novel?

I doubt it. I do feel like I’ve worked in a lot of different genres. Steven Graham Jones—who mainly is a horror writer but also plays around in a lot of different genres—one time got asked to write a horror story, a literary story, a science fiction story, and a romance. He managed to do it in a way that worked and still felt like him. So I think it can be done, but I’m trying to think of what the circumstances would be like for me to say “Yeah, I’m going to write a romance novel.” It’d take a lot for me to get there. My wife is a young adult and middle-grade novelist; she works more in kind of funny, quirky romance, I kind of feel like she has that covered for the family [laughs].

The epigram in Song for the Unraveling of the World comes from David Winters’s book review of Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story. The epigram feels like a hyperlink of sorts, and in other interviews you’ve given you remark on your books and stories as responses to movies and other books. What stood out to you about this review?

I love the phrasing of what he said about Davis. Weirdly enough, I was talking on the phone with him about five minutes before you got here. I identified with what he was saying and I thought it would apply as much to my work as it does to Davis’s. It was that as much as anything else. It’s more appropriative. But I admire her work quite a bit, and that’s a book I admire a lot.

Also an apocalyptic title.

It is, but actually a lot of her short stories are much more apocalyptic. But I felt like as a quote it captured one aspect of what my book was trying to do, so it was a way of giving readers one way into the book that could carry them forward.

For anyone who’s left wanting to head farther into the rabbit hole of non-corporeal consciousness and vessel-hood after reading Song for the Unraveling of the World, where would you send them?

You might look at something like Thomas Metzinger; he has a book called Being No One which makes the argument that we have re-envisioned the world within our heads and we interact with that model more than we do the actual world, and that what we think of as a stable self is a phenomenal self that is contingent and always changing. That might be a good place to start. Marleau-Ponty would be interesting as well, in terms of the way he thinks about embodied consciousness. After that it’s hard to know. I end up thinking about these things partly because of the way in which artificial intelligence seems to be developing, but also because we tend to think of consciousness as so located within a self or a brain; maybe it is, but more and more you start to realize how many of your actions can be predicted by a computer, or the fact that your “likes” can be predicted by a bot—what books you’re going to like can be fairly accurately predicted by an aggregator. I think a lot about consciousness and how it works and whether it’s transferrable or not. A lot of science fiction now seems to be about whether the self can be downloaded or a personality can be downloaded, and whether that would be the same as “you” or not. There’s a Greg Egan book that’s called Permutation City that’s about that; there’s a Ted Chiang novella called “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” about that as well.

I feel like I take a lot of science fictional ideas and make them go wrong. There’s often this kind of utopian impulse in science fiction, even in fairly dark science fiction, and I’m more interested in seeing how wrong things can go.

That’s kind of scientific in its own way though. The scientific process is about failing.

Yeah, you test your experiment and then you try to test it under as many conditions as you can—try deliberately to see if it will fail. I see fiction as a space that is about narrative and story—I like to try to tell stories that are exciting—but it’s also about trying to understand the way the mind works just a little bit better.

 

Giovan Alonzi’s writing has appeared in 7×7.la, Entropy, PANK, VOLT, & The Believer. At CalArts, where he completed his MFA in Creative Writing, his thesis was awarded the Emi Kuriyama Memorial Thesis Award & he was named a 2018 REEF resident. He currently teaches writing composition at East Los Angeles College & has taught creative writing in various parts of Los Angeles—from Loyola Marymount University to Barry J. Nidorf juvenile hall through WriteGirl’s ‘Bold Ink Writers’ program, as well as in other high schools and community centers. giovanalonz.com