I received a proof of Brian Evenson’s Fugue State in the post from the US a couple of months ago, along with a bunch of other stuff Coffeehouse Press is publishing this year. I came to the Coffeehouse party pretty late as a result of Sam Savage’s Firmin but everything I’ve managed to get my hands on since then has me convinced that Coffeehouse know their stuff when it comes to kick ass fiction.
Brian Evenson’s Fugue State is a case in point. This is a collection of short stories, 19 in total, that flit across all manner of tropes and styles. You’ll find one story reminds you of Paul Auster, another of Murakami, another of Willy Vlautin, another still of someone like Jeff VanderMeer. There are illustrations by Zak Sally (formerly the bassist in Low, these days a graphic novelist of no small renown, probably best known for his Sammy the Mouse series). It’s a brilliant, mesmerising collection of short fiction, the kind of book you read with your face too close to the print (the literary equivalent of being on the edge of your seat).
Consider ‘Invisible Box’, the first story in the collection I read, which appears midway through the book (I have quite a bad habit when it comes to short story collections – I read them out of order according to either the length of the story or where I am – if I’m on a bus with ten minutes to my destination I’ll start a story I can finish rather than the obvious next one in succession). A woman sleeps with a mime. The sex isn’t great but, during, the mime places a box about her that, in the weeks and months following, remains about her, poisoning her sleep. The story almost-climaxes with the woman walking the streets at night looking for another mime to either kill or fuck (she can’t decide which).
Consider ‘Helpful’, a story concerning a man struck blind in an accident who comes to resent his wife’s kindnesses. Never has a final line (‘It would be an understatement to say that her reaction was not precisely what he had anticipated.’) hit home as powerfully as the final line of that story did (it’s the short story equivalent of when Jon Stewart says ‘BOOM!’ on The Daily Show).
These are merely two gems selected from what is a veritably jam-packed treasure trove of gems. Evenson has a thing about faces and faces changing (‘Bauer in the Tyrol’, for example, and ‘Desire with Digressions’ feature faces of fluctuating features) and bureaucracies – Evenson’s narrators are frequently mediated by representatives of faceless, shadowy organisations or haunted by ghostly shadows who may be pulling the narrator’s strings or may not even exist, may be figments of the narrator’s damaged mental health (such as we see in ‘An Accounting’, the award-winning ‘A Pursuit’ and the EC Comics influenced ‘Alfons Kuylers’). There are disasters and catastrophes ‘off-camera’, world-shaping illnesses that leave the almost-dead in ditches (‘The Adjudicator’) or forced to re-enact quickly forgotten actions over and over and over again (as in the Memento-esque ‘Fugue State’). One story – ‘Dread’ – is an out-and-out collaboration between Evenson and Sally, in which a man is haunted by a phrase he once read in a book he’d forgotten reading.
All told, then, Fugue State is an absolute must-read collection of stories. More than this, though, Fugue State is one of those collections of short stories that may be slipping beneath the radar (unlike, say, Wells Towers’ recent collection which appears to be the book of short stories du jour, the one collection of short stories that everyone in the literati has read this year), which makes it all the more valuable.
Any Cop?: Not only one of the best collections of short stories I’ve read this year – one of the best books, full stop. Essential.