Brian Evenson, Altmann’s Tongue

Posted by Laura Kremmel on November 03, 2011 in Reviews tagged with , , ,

Evenson, Brian. Altmann’s Tongue. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002. 978-0-8032-6744-2.

Reviewed by Laura Kremmel, Lehigh University.

“He herded them out in the madness of the midday heat, butchered the horses before their eyes.”

“Bone Job clawed his way through the smooth wood of the coffin lid, wearing his finger bones to the stubs.”

“Having sewn Jerry’s eyelids shut, Hébé found himself at a loss as to how to proceed.”

These opening lines from the short stories in Brian Evenson’s Altmann’s Tongue precede tales of broken and twisted families, meditations on death, derelict and dilapidated buildings, and violence, violence, violence.  Though not self-recognized as Gothic, per se, this collection speaks to the genre in the traditions of Edgar Allan Poe, Bret Easton Ellis, and Chuck Palahniuk.  Each story drastically differs in voice, tone, and subject matter, making the book difficult to categorize as a whole. All, however, seem to revolve around a physical exploration of the body, not always through sexuality, but by taking that body apart, sewing it up, watching it decay, and ingesting it.  It is this rather macabre subject matter as well as the meticulous, practical, and logical treatment of violence by many of its characters that makes reception of Altmann’s Tongue almost as interesting as the stories themselves.

Evenson’s first book, Altmann’s Tongue was published while he was a devout Mormon teaching in the English Department at Brigham Young University.  However, this is not the type of literature a good Mormon professor is supposed to produce….  Senior members of the department indicated to Evenson that he was not to write anything else resembling this first book if he wished to remain at the University and in the church.  Rather than take this advice, he left both, taking a teaching position at Oklahoma State University, and self-excommunicating himself.  He discusses this in depth in the Afterward as well as in this article in The Believer.

With this in mind, the text includes relatively few stories that deal directly with religion.  One in particular, the last story in the collection, is perhaps one of the most intensely Gothic. “Two Brothers” follows Theron and Aurel, trapped in their own home after watching their father, a religious zealot, waste away after a fall, putting all his trust (and medical treatment) in the hands of the Lord.  Mother follows Father after his teachings fail to save him and her from the madness of this event.  Decay from these bodies and any bodies that dare come near the house builds up around the two boys and they create a life with one another and with their faith.  As they explore their religion, their family, and their sexuality, their bodies begin to decay as well.   As he starts to channel his dead parents, Theron becomes “conscious of a strange kinship between himself and Aurel, and between the two of them and the dead, a kinship that made it difficult for him to keep always in mind who he was” (255).  As the living come to resemble the dead and the dead resurface in the living, this story gives new meaning to the doppelganger and the return of the repressed.  Another similar short story, “Bodies of Light,” also embraces this type of decay as the glue that holds families together.  It depicts a zombie-like description of a woman and her newborn, newly-dead baby, going through the motions of motherhood as if her child were alive.

A trilogy of short stories—“The Blank,” “A Slow Death,” and “Extermination”— jointly tell the story of a community within a fortress that takes its orders from a man the reader never meets.  From the first page, Thorne, locked in his room, slides slips of paper beneath the door which Bosephus claims only he can interpret.  Using this alliance with the absent authority, Bosephus’s power grows until he is killing his own people, locking them within the fortress, and ordering them to perform acts of violence and gore on animals and one another.  The setting of this story combines elements of fantasy with the Gothic feeling of enclosure and a cynicism for fanatical rule.  Its villain’s increasing awareness of the decomposition of his own society and his need to survive it builds up to the horrors of paranoia and ultimate isolation.  This story is one of the goriest, bodily reminders of the past glory of the community piling up waste-deep and becoming part of the environment as much as the fortified walls and constant guard.

These are just a few of the stories included in this collection, ranging from a single page to the seventy-page novella, which is perhaps more inclined towards a twisted detective story than a Gothic tale.  The Afterward includes some interesting commentary as Evenson then uses his own training in critical theory to analyze and explain the violence and gore of his stories (the epigraph, after all, is a quotation from Kristeva).  He writes, “So violence is depicted but then superseded by style operating as a kind of violence toward the reader: the two working sometimes concertedly, sometimes in tension, to create a world that feels at once stark and yet stylized, in slant relation to the actual world” (272).  Though certainly disturbing, I will say that, while reading them, it is also nearly impossible to look away.

Tiny URL for this post: http://tinyurl.com/5r86wju