Reviews of Lance Olsen's Freaknest and Sewing Shut My Eyes, plus Brian Evenson's Contagion

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by Lance Olsen
(Wordcraft of Oregon, 258 pages, $12)

Sewing Shut My Eyes
by Lance Olsen
(FC2, 143 pages, $11.95)

In the centerpiece section of his auspicious 1994 Knopf debut, Altmann's Tongue, Brian Evenson's linked stories of random cruelty by a ragtag army that may or may not be under siege made Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian look like a stroll in the park. But although there's a surface affinity with McCarthy, the down-and-outers Evenson's characters most resemble are Samuel Beckett's; the disengaged solipsist-wanderers in Molloy and some of the Irishman's short stories would be right at home in Evenson's bleak visions of the American West.

Altmann's Tongue also created a real-life back story of tragicomic dimensions: Evenson, himself a Mormon born and raised in Utah, got a gig as an instructor at Mormon-owned Brigham Young University?at least in part on the strength of the prestige of having his first book accepted by a New York publisher (at the time of his employment, he was the only writer on the BYU English faculty who had a book published under a non-Utah imprint). But Evenson's relentless depictions of murder, infanticide and sociopathology in general caused some of the school's queasier students to complain to the administration that something was morally incorrect about their new teacher. The result: a warning to the author that publication of similar work in the future could endanger his job, and a concurrent threat of excommunication by church elders. Evenson's response, after attempts at negotiation, was to bag it and find employment elsewhere?first at Oklahoma State University and (currently) at the University of Denver.

Evenson followed up Altmann's Tongue in 1997?and began an association with a small independent publisher, Wordcraft of Oregon ?with The Din of Celestial Birds, a striking collection of dark fables centering around the imaginary Latin American town of Labaise. The move of fictional venue from the author's own desert surroundings to the tropics comes as a surprise at first, but the product is a mature work, an interlocking set of tales of blood, supernatural vengeance and hallucinatory heat?like Garcia Marquez on really, really bad acid.

But if any representatives of Latter-Day Saints back in Utah read Celestial Birds and hoped Evenson had abandoned his stomping grounds fictively as well as physically, those hopes were dashed by his first novel, 1998's Father of Lies (Four Walls Eight Windows). In part inspired by Evenson's rereading of the crime novels of Andrew Vachss, with their concentration on issues of child abuse and exploitation, Father of Lies is at once a bitter attack on the way religious authority can be wielded to ignore and conceal the sexual abuse of children (in the novel, by the distinctly Mormonesque "Corporation of the Blood of the Lamb"), and a chilling psycho-thriller. After reading this first-person narrative of Satanically inspired obsession and obfuscation, I will never hear the phrase "The devil made me do it" again in quite the same way.

Wordcraft recently brought out another collection of short stories, Contagion, that shows Evenson at the height of his powers. "Two Brothers" won an O. Henry Award for its excruciating portrayal of siblings cut adrift, physically and mentally, after the death of a strict and Bible-thumping father. The title story, with its echoes of the compulsive cataloguing in Beckett's Watt, tracks the efforts of two men charged with following and recording all the variations of barbed wire in endless miles of fence in the midst of an unnamed and wasting pestilence. Throughout, Evenson's narrative is peppered with idiosyncratic word choices that heighten the stark atmosphere and arid humor: A character's broken leg appears as "a crubbed jag of bone"; the sun "beryls" the casing of a watch ticking down the minutes in "A Hanging"; the "blotchwork" of the "braincases" of ambulant zombies is examined in "Prairie." If you haven't already read Evenson, try it.

Lance Olsen, born (he says via e-mail) near a New Jersey shopping mall, escaped first to the Old West?Kentucky?for a higher education gig, then on a whim (he says) went for a job interview at U. of Idaho (Boise) where he fell in love with the scenery and "the simulation of a clean environment."

He's a prolific writer, with about a dozen books written and edited during the past decade. Olsen's first novel doesn't give much inkling of the course his fiction would take. Live from Earth, released in 1991 in Ballantine's Available Press series, is a straight-ahead narrative?an entertaining contemporary love-after-death fantasy, assured and funny, but easy to lose sight of in the flood of first novels released in a year.

Olsen's newest, Freaknest?his third for Wordcraft?continues the dystopian future history begun in his previous novel, Time Famine. It would be easy to plunk it squarely in the cyberpunk genre that began with William Gibson's Neuromancer: Olsen was the author, in his academic guise, of the first book-length critical study of Gibson. But while Olsen's not above cribbing his science-fiction moves from Gibson and others (the "freaknest" here is a group of youngsters, raised in isolation and sharing an uncommon bond that recalls the even hoarier conceit of Theodore Sturgeon's More than Human), the real star here is the author's way with a sentence: "Late one starless night, sky a luminous yellow-gray flush, Magda Karter stepped onto the back stone porch to blow her bubble-gum-pink nose, deep into another overtime shift in a lengthy necklace of them, and noticed the classical columns set into the sham marble blocks were blanketed with thousands of tiny dimples that reminded her, if she stopped to think about it a little, of the consistency of her own pockmarked face." Or another, at near random: "November shugged into December with all the enthusiasm of a univalve mollusk slinking across the floor of the English Channel on a crippled mucoidal foot."

The cumulative effect of this giddy onrush is a kind of readerly vertigo, making Freaknest a real rollercoaster in both style and content. And unlike some of the "avant-pop" authors he's fond of promoting while wearing his critic's hat, Olsen's not all surface-skating and showing off. There's a toughened sentimentalism here that keeps you rooting for his underdogs, even while suspecting that the author's not about to guarantee a happy ending.

Freaknest follows hot on the heels of Olsen's third short-story collection, Sewing Shut My Eyes, issued by FC2 this summer. The shortest prose story, "Cybermorphic Beat-Up Get-Down Subterranean Homesick Reality-Sandwich Blues" (with its vision of a reanimated corpse of Allen Ginsberg still making the rounds of poetry readings to keep his handlers employed), was one of the finest and funniest bits in the Unbearables' Crimes of the Beats anthology, and its inclusion here alone justifies the price of admission. But the most interesting pieces, and the ones I find myself going back to, are the collaborations between the author and his wife. Andi Olsen, a computer-graphics artist, creates hair-raising photo-collages merging flesh and technology?a bit like J.K. Potter's work, but denser?which Olsen then uses as jumping-off points for his prose torrents. The results can be hit-and-miss, but when they hit, it's truly disturbing.

That two writers as geographically close but stylistically disparate as Olsen and Evenson continue to be published is cause for thanking those independent publishers who haven't swallowed whole the notion that there's no future in marketing small press fiction. And that one publisher has provided a home for some of the best work by both authors might be taken as a sign that the notion is, as I fervently hope, untrue.

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