The Big Idea: Brian Evenson
On the list of “two great tastes that go together,” the genres “detective mystery” and “religious fiction” might not be on the top of your list of things to combine — but then, you’re probably not Brian Evenson, whose latest novel Last Days does just that, bringing a former detective together with a very odd cult for the purposes of giving you, the reader, a hell of a jolt. What caused Evenson to bend these genres around each other? Here he is to give you the clues.
Books for me tend to start with a series of small gnat-like ideas which, if I’m very lucky, develop into a swarm and then evolve into a big idea. Last Days started when I found the first Library of America American Noir volume in a used bookstore about ten years back. I read James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and thought “Why didn’t anyone tell me to read this before now?” I read a few more Cains then moved on to Chandler, Fearing, Highsmith and others, all the time thinking vaguely that I might write something. I was gathering and collecting gestures, moods, and ideas. Then I read Dashiell Hammett.
Chandler has become so much a part of popular culture that even if you haven’t read him, he feels familiar. The amazing thing about Hammett is that at his best he doesn’t feel familiar. There are moments in Red Harvest that are beautifully brutal, other moments that are quite stark, stripped down in a different way than Chandler. You get the sense that Hammett is making his genre up as he goes, that almost anything could happen, and that he’s not interested in pulling his punches. The other books were buzzing in my head, but Red Harvest was buzzing louder. Then the cult he creates in The Dain Curse started buzzing too. Those two books seemed to be calling out to me to do something of my own, but I still didn’t have my big idea.
Then I rediscovered Philip K. Dick, who I hadn’t read for years, and loved the way he grafted noir onto SF in things like A Scanner Darkly. I stumbled onto Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, with Occassional Music (which combines hardboiled fiction and SF) and re-read Peter Straub’s The Throat (which brings horror and the detective novel together). The buzzing was louder now. When I finaly sat down to write all those ideas whirling in my head started to organize themselves, gathering themselves into a bigger idea, something that synthesized Hammett, genre-bending fiction, and my own interest in religious extremism. The result was the novella “The Brotherhood of Mutilation.”
I published that, was happy with the results, but almost immediately I found that I wanted to continue on. Sometimes what you think is the big idea is just a step on the way to a bigger idea, and that’s what it felt like in this case. The bigger idea, though, took a few more years in coming. I’d kept reading noirs and crime fiction. Fredric Brown, Dan Marlowe, David Goodis, Jean-Patrick Manchette’s beautifully violent novels, and Richard Stark all were leading me toward the bigger idea. Then I saw Odd Nerdrum’s painting “One Story Singer.” And then two friends mentioned separately mentioned that Ludwig Wittgenstein’s brother Paul was a one-handed piano player and everything started to fall into place.
As a whole, Last Days explores questions of free will and choice. It’s the story of Kline, an ex-detective who has lost his hand, who comes to the attention of a religious cult. The cult is basically a Christian group with one very odd tenet: they take literally the statement in the New Testament “If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off.” They’re an amputation cult: you move closer to God by letting go of more and more of your physical body. Their belief, though very odd, is also very genuine.
Press-ganged into solving a crime whose details nobody seems to quite agree on, Kline finds himself quickly in over his head, trying to negotiate a set of social rules that are completely foreign to him. An outsider in the community, he’s always at risk. He might be free to act, but he might also be a pawn in a power play that he can’t quite see. He may be making choices that will allow him to escape or the very choices he’s making may be things that have been scripted for him so that his fall, when it comes, will be all the harder.
The first part of the book raises these questions; in the second half, these questions become even more fraught in that cult members seems increasingly convinced that every action Kline takes, no matter how crazy or unpredictable, is predestined to have occurred and is proof that he has a special role to play. As he tries to keep one step ahead of his own death, he also becomes increasingly worried that they might be right, that his actions aren’t free but rather foreordained, and that in acting has he does he’s ceasing to be human. But whether that means he’s becoming inhuman or divine is a question he and the cult members disagree on. “What does it mean to act?” Last Days asks, and where do our responsibilities lie? If our choices are limited are we still responsible for them? If our actions are predestined are they still really ours? And even if they are, can we still live with ourselves after what we, out of necessity or out of fear, feel that we have to do to stay alive?
Read an excerpt of Last Days here (.pdf link).