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Behind the Curtain
Brian Evenson The Open Curtain (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2006).
The twenty year old Kafka wrote: “A book should be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” Who better, accordingly, than Brian Evenson—a writer coerced into leaving his teaching post at Brigham Young University for having written unacceptably violent and dark fictions, and ultimately excommunicated from the Mormon Church—to write a definitive book centering around Mormonism. Evenson’s new novel, The Open Curtain, is a psychological thriller that deals with Mormonism’s clandestine practice of violent rituals and blood sacrifice, which, to be sure, echoes so many of our orthodoxies of today. Evenson hooks us from the very first page. The lead character, Rudd Theurer, is a troubled teenager growing up in the sticks of Utah who comes across a series of articles in the 1902 New York Times chronicling a vicious murder committed by the grandson of the Mormon prophet, Brigham Young. By gradations, the youth becomes obsessed with the past murder and, together with his half-brother Lael, explores its significance.
Soon the boy’s obsession begins to manifest dire effects. Blackouts ensue and, the most telling malady, an inability to distinguish the present and past. Unable to deal with his darker impulses and actions, confronted by the exigencies of his young life which includes a confining religion, a difficult home-life and the fact that he is young and more than somewhat psychologically unstable, Rudd does his best to escape his torments by inventing nonexistent figures. And it is just this which makes Evenson most interesting: how he takes the narrative into our modern day concerns, the past interconnecting and fusing with the present, reality with fantasy. It’s not long before his central character, much as in our current “virtual” worlds, is entangled in a labyrinthine maze wherein the blurring of all distinctions has taken dominant hold of his perceptions.
In a well-turned plot move, Rudd is found at the scene of a multiple murder, himself with minor injuries and a loss of memory. Lyndi, the daughter of the victims and a wonderfully etched character of adolescent loss, longing and separation, pushes to develop a friendship with the boy. She needs a connection, a moral ballast, someone to help her make sense of the meaningless death of her family. With adolescent single-mindedness she attempts to sustain and nourish Rudd, who besides having lost his memory has ostensibly lost a goodly portion of his very sense of self. But Rudd, because of his inability to deal with his inner conflicts, becomes increasingly more confused as the relationship develops. Despite his torments, or perhaps because of them, however, the youth does all he can to protect Lyndi from the ominous inexplicable tragedy that befell her family.
The Mormon religion, reeking with blood rites and sacrifice, with its concomitant cauldron of violence and duplicity, makes for an interesting narrative stew. And, almost authorially, Evenson takes full advantage, including, in the course of the journey, an exacting look at the Mormon wedding ceremony which seems, to this reviewer at least, more like a voodoo ritual perpetrated by an aboriginal tribe. Rather than bonding the two teens, the marriage takes us into a more deeply incestuous merging of embattled psyches as Rudd gives himself and Lyndi new secret names—names that match the killer and the victim of the hundred year old murder.
The writing is accessible, naturalistic on the highest level, and the imagery, depicting the various malignancies and altering states of interpsychic consciousness that Rudd experiences, is wholly idiosyncratic and yet clarifying. Indeed, very few contemporary novelists can take a narrative fiction into such dark and ominous places and still give the reader a plot line that keeps him turning the page in the proverbial manner of a best-seller. However he may have wrought a page-turning thriller, one would never wish to reduce Brian Evenson to the market-place species. The Open Curtain is written with insight, multi-layered characterizations and linguistic mastery, all of which makes for a completely original work.
Copyright ©2006 by Richard Kalich
Richard Kalich is the author of the novels The Zoo, The Nihilesthete, and Charlie P, recently published by Green Integer. Reviews of his book appear on this Green Integer website.