It's All in Your Head

Brian Evenson
Windeye
(Coffee House Press, 2012)

Brian Evenson’s Windeye begins with the collection’s eponymous story, a tale that moves from the innocence of childhood imagination to the stark realities of a very adult mental illness. “Windeye” sets the tone for the rest of the short stories that follow: characters that know little or nothing about what’s going on, narrators that are more inclined to ask questions than provide answers, moving readers toward endings that only serve to solidify the rare statement of certainty that one of the characters—Harbison, in “The Moldau Case”—utters early on: “How could anyone be sure of anything?”

Evenson makes sure his readers stay interested throughout these impenetrable mysteries and their unsettled endings. He does this with an emphasis on psychology, not sadism, and by opening almost all his stories in medias res, he immediately takes readers into the heart of the conflict before providing any of the expository details (or lack thereof). Evenson also recognizes the genre he is working in, employing all of its generic expectations while managing to turn each of these signifying markers on their heads. The effect, often, is hilarious. At other times, it is chilling. The fact that Evenson can move from parody to paranoia and humor to horror in the span of three paragraphs is a testament to his ability as a storyteller, one that can make us laugh and shudder, moving with the same kind of erratic schizophrenia as many of his own characters.

“Legion” opens on the line, “This happened back during the time when I still believed, if it could properly be called believing, that humans were the sole repository for a person, and that there was only one person filling each repository, a single person crammed into each casing of blood and flesh and bone.” Evenson’s stories almost always embody this fascination with bodies, the way each piece can be disassembled and act on its own, as with that story’s various, self-regulating limbs, or the ways in which our bodies, and often our minds, do not act in conjunction with each other; the ways, ultimately, in which each fails us. “What is wrong with me?” more than a few of Evenson’s characters ask. The answer never arrives.

Evenson’s finest work personifies this gap in the aptly titled “Discrepancy,” which begins with a wife’s recognition of a discrepancy between sound and image on the television and moves to full-fledged paranoid instability and eventual madness, a sensory sieve, as if “there is too much happening in your head.” She begins to see discrepancies everywhere she goes, from the names of the two Indian doctors who treat her (brothers or duplicates, she can’t tell which), to the new co-worker (“Robert, he claimed his name was. Bob, he said, for her.”), until all her senses experience a delay, leaving her in a constant state of catch-up.

“Angel of Death” follows a narrator who is entrusted to record the day’s events, precisely because he is the sole member of the clan who knows how to write. Unfortunately, he admits on the first page: “The difficulty comes in knowing what is real and what is not.” What is real, for the characters in this story at least, is what has been committed to paper. The recordings range from the mundane to the meaningful—become more real than reality, until even death happens simply by describing it. Through all of his stories, Evenson may be commenting on the writer’s agency in creation, the writer’s role as gatekeeper of knowledge, but here, the parting words regard the writer’s agency in the process of death. “The Moldau Case” also revolves around two conflicting reports of the same case, the first report prefaced with a testament to the veracity of recording:

I write precisely for this reason, as a way of trying to understand objectively what has happened to date and what is likely to happen if I move forward. Will writing help? I do not know. Yet I still have faith in the report as a means of defining and clarifying the truth as a means of capturing on paper and holding steady and immobile the various motions and bodies that constitute an event.

All of this truth-talk leads to Evenson’s tongue-in-cheek “Knowledge,” a story in which nothing actually happens. Instead, it is all build-up and hypothesis, the potential plot of a detective tale, one that, as the narrator abruptly concludes, “I have still not written.” It is less horror story and more how-to, an Epistemology for Dummies. Throughout Windeye the one question that resonates more than any other is that ubiquitous inquiry of self-doubt: What, exactly, is wrong with me? For Evenson, as well as for each of his characters, it really is all in your head.

Contributor

Chris Campanioni

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