by BEN MURPHY
Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2016.
Brian Evenson’s collection A Collapse of Horses is an experiment in incomprehension. That’s not to say that the narratives themselves are incomprehensible; rather, each of the thirteen stories depicts failures to understand. Whether withheld, absent, or simply beyond the ken of a story’s narrator, information and explanation consistently elude grasp. The result is an unsettling read that succeeds precisely because it elicits more questions than answers.
Among the uncertainties regnant in Collapse is the simple horror of being left in the dark. This is literally true for the unnamed first-person narrator of “A Report,” who is imprisoned and subjected to psychological torture on the basis of a mistake that he may or may not have made when filing a nondescript report for a faceless company. In contrast, the darkness of unknowing that is at play in one of the collection’s more muted offerings, “Three Indignities,” is actually the bright lights of an operating room, as an unnamed character undergoes a series of invasive surgical procedures that leave him wondering “what, if anything, was there left of him worth saving?” (59). But this Kafka-esque focus on immobilizing institutions also gives way to stories where characters act regardless of their uncertainties—usually to horrific ends. In “Bearheart™,” a brilliant George Saunders-infused homage to “The Tell-Tale Heart,” a husband murders his wife after the heartbeat of their tragically stillborn child lives on via a high-tech teddy bear. A similarly uninformed action plagues the collection’s weirdest story, “Any Corpse,” when, in a world where rotting flesh falls from the sky like rain, a man and woman separately and inadvertently request their own self-destruction at the hands of the nonhuman “furnishers” that scour the corpse-strewn ground. Whether one waits for further clarification or acts without it, Collapse suggests that ruin follows soon after the failure to know.
Despite this saturation of incomprehension, the stories remain haunted by partial traces of cause and recognizable explanation. Evenson’s stories hover between the horrifically absurd—those shivery tales that exist in the no-place of nightmare—and the terrifyingly familiar—those fears that we recognize with a shudder. Returning to “Bearheart™,” for instance, it is clear that we are dealing with maniacal murder, but the story also simmers with the more abstract and immanent dread of losing a child; “The Punish” depicts the revenge story of a violent sociopath, but it also evokes the subtle and corrosive terror of childhood trauma. But even these psychological expositions ignore the still more mundane explanatory mechanism at the heart of Collapse: head trauma. At least four stories deal with blows to the head, and the best example is the eerie, eponymous “A Collapse of Horses.” Here the narrator is tormented by a nagging uncertainty that he cannot shake—were the horses he glimpsed in a nearby paddock dead or merely lying down? Driven mad by this question, the man burns down his house and accidently kills his family; or perhaps he just thinks this is what happens, since the final paragraphs suggest otherwise. Left wondering and without resolution, the reader recalls that the man was, since the beginning, recovering from a “broken skull.” Perhaps the murder was madness, and this madness was in fact illness, the direct physiological symptom of nothing more supernatural than a work-related “accident.” Is this man a monster, or is he injured and impaired? Not knowing for sure is precisely the point.
Typically minimalist in diction, Evenson’s brief stories move quickly, not lingering to offer descriptive detail or backstory, and in many cases proceeding even in the absence of proper names, as most characters are identified only as “he” or, more rarely, “she.” And short even by the word-count standards of short fiction, the terse accounts are made even shorter by the desultory asterisks that break each story into an episodic series of fragments separated by white space. We might describe the stories in the language of bodily grotesque that is consistent throughout the collection: it is as if the narratives have been dissected of their connective tissue and sinew, each enduring only as so many bones scattered on the ground. Or, in terms equally welcomed by the book (and made explicit in the penultimate story, “Click”), it is as if the alternation between fragments and white space mimics a hospital patient fading in out consciousness, waking for brief lucid moments before the darkness wells up again. At times this fragmentation does seem like cheating: Evenson surely gets away with something by not having to connect narrative dots as his tales blinker in and out of consciousness. But of course, the feverish murkiness compliments the themes and anxieties that the stories have in common, as the incomprehension besetting characters is here redoubled in formal structure.
Evenson’s piecemeal assemblages ask us to reflect on the very vehicle he has chosen for his writing. After all, what is a collection of a short stories if not a series of fragments separated by white spaces? Perhaps this is why the weakest stories in the collection are those that edge towards too full a narrative: “The Dust” names its characters, and in the end these personalities are uninteresting and stale; “The Moans” spans years rather than hours or days and thus short-circuits consistency of mood. Falling short because they reach too far, these rare low points cease to matter as soon as a new story plunges us headfirst into uncomfortable questions. With Collapse we are better off with less, even if having less and knowing less is precisely the essence of fear at its chilling center. As the neurotic narrator of “A Collapse of Horses” puts it, “Not knowing is something you can only suspend yourself in for the briefest moment” (52).