By Brian Evenson
Reviewed by John Madera
Brian Evenson’s work carefully navigates abundant, layered, cumulative sentences, sentences filled with recursive explorations, dynamic repetitions, and playful symmetries, with a kind of Spartan restraint on description and exposition, what Samuel Delany describes as “the stark economy of the tuned ear, the fixed eye.” There is nothing arbitrary in Evenson’s narratives, every detail is carefully chosen as if he were quietly building a bomb in some dark closet. This is not to say his stories are in any way mechanical but that every aspect works together so that it will explode in your hands at the intended time and place. And while the explicit potentialities are certainly interesting and gripping enough, it is the various subtexts, that is, the probing of murky psychologies, of spiraling contradictions, and its unresolved ends that keep me engaged.
Baby Leg, published in a limited edition by Tyrant Books, is another one of Evenson's sinister nested boxes: Kraus, disturbed by nightmares of a woman who “clomped about on [an] adult-sized knee and [a] baby leg, wielding an axe,” finds himself locked within a game of Sisyphean proportions. Much like that unfortunate king, Kraus’s life here is on infinite repeat. But the repetitions, unsettling as they are, result in no greater insight, no greater awareness: Baby Leg’s circumference, like Finnegan’s Wake’s and Dhalgren’s famous loops, is one that never closes.
As another member of Evenson’s vast panoply of self-doubters, Kraus suffers from memory loss, questions his own identity, and struggles to make sense of the fragments that remain of his fractured consciousness. He doesn’t know what is real, what is true, what to believe:
It’s not real, he told himself, but this was becoming more and more difficult for him to believe. If he could either see her as having two adult legs or see her walk on her knee and her baby leg, he would know it was real. As it was she was an anomaly, a strange anchor keeping the world, which felt tangible, palpable, from becoming utterly real.
Evenson himself is an inveterate, unapologetic doubter, well, at least in regards to truth. He once remarked, “Like my characters, I remain, dubious about truth, whether with lowercase or capital T. If it does exist, it is as much an affliction, a burden, as it is a state of mind.” Within the liminal states, the vapor trails, the sketchy traces traveled and trespassed in Baby Leg, no conclusions are drawn, save this: Everything is uncertain and that even if you have already flunked history and repeated it, you are doomed to forget that you repeated it, and will repeat it, world without end.
Kraus has difficulty distinguishing between his dreams and his memory, indeed, his “memory seemed mostly to have deserted him, if he ever had one at all.” When we first meet Kraus, all he can remember is “a trip through the woods, his missing hand aching, his stump wrapped in an old shirt, a gash on his forehead.” Throughout the novella we find him rising from fitful sleeps to a world where everything is as uncertain as it was before:
When he awoke he awoke shouting, and it took him some time to remember where he was. He knew himself even less than usual. His beard was full and thick and matted, and going a little gray. In the mirror his eyes looked to him as if they had been gouged out.
Later, he comes to a grocery store where he notices “a photocopied flyer showing a face very like his own.” After eating something, Kraus asks himself, “Had it been him? Perhaps. Lost, it said, and Missing. Other things had been written on it. If not his face, a face very like his own, except it had no gash in its forehead.” Suffering from some kind of dissociative state, he considered “keeping himself company,” and that
[c]oming down, it had been just him. Now it was both of him. What did this mean exactly? he wondered. Why would he think something like that? He was, he tried to tell himself, a new man now that he could eat, was becoming a new man. Maybe that was it, he told himself, maybe now he was not the same person as the person who had killed.
One of Baby Leg’s grislier moments is when Kraus chances upon a room with “a surgery table in its center, cabinets around the room’s edges.” Here he discovers a “drugged dog [that] was strapped down in the middle of the table, tongue lolling out, a tube running down its throat. Its neck had the fur and flesh peeled back to reveal a strange network of tendons and nerves, the throat lying throbbing, a pale larvae.” Never stated explicitly, these dogs are somehow connected, perhaps even symbiotically linked, to the “work” being performed on Kraus by Varner, the enigmatic “scientist,” and his minions. What this “important” work (or what Varner later describes as their “usual tricks”) is is never explicitly described. We do learn however that it involves the testing of some kind of perception and memory-altering drug, a drug that Kraus can somehow absorb large quantities of. Often things for Kraus don’t seem “natural,” are “slightly unreal,” and this confusion is sometimes felt by some of the other characters, especially when they’re talking to or about him. Evenson’s obsessed with eyes, with damaged vision, with blindness, and this obsession is again carried throughout Baby Leg; his characters doubt what they see, believe that there’s something wrong with their eyes, their feelings, with all of their senses. For instance, after being apprehended and drugged up by Varner, Kraus hazily sees Varner’s face:
And there, haloed in the fluorescent light the strange ghost of a face, like a pale white sheet with two black holes gouged in it that seemed to stretch and come apart and never quite come back together, and the figure made a motion and everything faded to a deep and shapeless red.
And then later, Lefort, in a moment of Tarantino-style ultraviolence, tortures Kraus:
Lefort lowered the cigarette until it was near Kraus’ right eye and Kraus could feel the heat off the coal on his lower lid. He tried not to move. The coal stayed there, too close to see, ashing over. Lefort moved it away slightly, tapping the ash off onto Kraus’ cheek and then brought it back. Kraus held his eye steady until it began to tear and then blinked, hearing a hiss as his eyelashes singed. There was the faint smell of burnt hair.
Kraus’ eyes go “dull” and Lefort orders him to open his eyes because “[it’s] not as fun if I don’t see you seeing it coming.” Kraus refuses, and instead, waits, “tense, for the cigarette to boil away his eye.”
The world Evenson creates in Baby Leg is much like the one in Yeat’s “Second Coming,” where the “blood-dimmed tide is loosed.” Indeed, its tempestuous, circular narrative, too, has a center that will not hold. Baby Leg is illustrated by Eric Hanson whose scabrous silhouettes mirror the novella’s violence and uncertainty, its uneasy existential disquiet. And Evenson’s personalizing each book with “bloody” fingerprints further unsettles. These additional layers notwithstanding, it is Evenson’s adamantine rendering of phantasmagoric imagery that remains imprinted on my mind. As Tyrant Books’ first release, Baby Leg sets a high standard for this press; its publication completes a powerful trio of 2009 releases by Evenson himself, whose Last Days and Fugue State were also published this past year.