Alfred A. Knopf (New York), 1994.
Suggested retail price: $22.00 (US)
Well, I for one am dying to talk about Brian Evenson and his book,Altmann's Tongue which I just finished reading, courtesy of fellowlistmember (and Santa Barbara University Ward Member) Eric Hirschmann,who, months ago, had the foresight to use his Inter Library Loanprivileges to order the only copy of the book in the UC library system. Though I have not officially contracted to review the book or anything, I do have a few thoughts about it (and the surrounding bruhaha) that I would like to post. Call it an unofficial review.
First off, I would have to agree with others who have read the book instating that it contains some of the most violent images that I have everencountered in literature: in the 27 stories and one novella thatconstitute this collection, we are introduced to a stepson who kills hisstepfather by shoving bees down his throat, a father who drives hisdaughter to suicide by tormenting her with evidence of his having abusedher as a child, and a host of characters who wound, kill, and maim eachother for what appear to be very flimsy reasons -- or for no reasonwhatsoever. I would highly reccommend that anyone who is disturbed bygraphic scenes of violence and evil simply not read Altmann's Tongue.This is not a book for everyone.
However, I would also stop far short from condemning the book completelybecause of this violent content. In my opinion, committing violence isgenerally an immoral thing, but writing about violence can often be a verymoral thing. When I encounter any text that contains violent imagery Igenerally ask myself two questions: 1) Is the violence gratuitous to whatappears to be the central purpose of the story, or is it absolutelyessential to this purpose; and 2) does the text (the author, the"impliedauthor," the "author function," or whatever catchy critical phrase onewants to use) accept the violence or condemn it. Generally speaking, Ithink thzat any text that supports or encourages violence (say, a Rambomovie or a Mickey Spillane novel) should be considered morallyproblematic. However, some of the greatest authors in our language -- fromShakespeare, to Faulkner, to Nabokov -- have written works that depict greatviolence and cruelty, not because they advocate such behavior, but becausethey wanted to show us how violence works from the inside, so that wewould recognize the impulse when we started to feel it ourself.
So, how does Altmann's Tongue stack up? On the first count, it does very well. I don't think that even the least sophisticated reader of Evenson's book could call the violence "gratuitous" or argue that his stories would have been just as good without it. In most cases, the violence IS the story. Take it away, and there is nothing. Whatever one may think of Evenson's purpose in writing the stories in this volume, I think that we must all agree that scenes of violence, cruelty, and barbarism are essential to that purpose.
Any moral evaluation of this collection, then, requires that we first try to decipher the purpose of the stories, and, as any literary critic knows, that is never an easy task, nor is it one that will produce any kind of agreement or consensus in any group larger than one. However, I think it is fair to assume, at least for the sake of argument, that Brian Evanson is not an inhuman monster who actually advocates the kinds of barbarity that he writes about (I met Brian once in the hall of the English Department at BYU, and he seemed like a reasonably nice fellow). If this is indeed the case, then we can safely assume that his purpose in writing these stories is something other than to try to win converts to some kind of strange, evil blood cult.
So what might that purpose be? The violence in Altmann's Tongue isdifferent than the violence that I have encountered in any other text ihave ever read. Some works support and glorify violece. Others reject itand show how devastating it can be. In Altmann's Tongue, however, theviolence is portrayed as neither beneficial nor disastrous: is itportrayed as inevitable. According to the peculiar logic of the charactersthat inhabit Evanson's moral universe, violent, terrible acts simply occurbecause they have to occur; that is how things work, no questions asked.
In the title story, for example, a narrator, after having killed twopeople, ponders over the fact that there are only two kind sof people inthe world: those who should be killed at once, and those who one "shouldperhaps kill, perhaps not" (13). These ruminations occupy most of thisvery short story, until the narrator simply flies away (Evanson's use of avery Latin-American type of magical realizm is a subject for anotherpost). In the story "Killing Cats," the narrator agrees to help hisneighbor kill their cats. No reasons are given, nor do any need to be. Ifwe are reading closely enough to understand Evanson's world, we know bynow that violent actions never need a reason. They are as natural asbreathing. in what was, to me, one of the most terrifying stories of thecollection, "Hebe Kills Jerry," one character tortures and kills hisfriend, again, for no reason other than that, in this world, that is whatpeople do. At one point during the torture, Hebe says, "You've beenexceptionally patient throughout this whole affair," and Jerry repliessimply, "What are friends for" (113).
The question at the center of the book, then, is "how does a society getto such a point that violence seems inevitable?" How can a communitydescend so far that they become, in the words of Julia Kristeva thatEvenson uses as an epigraph, "more and more incisive, precise, eschewingseduction in favor of cruelty.& .& . ." Such a question brings up an obviousparallel to the Holocaust, with the efficient Nazi's exterminating Jews aspart of the day's work, and Evenson makes this parallel explicit in theshort-short story (about half a page) "The Abbreviated and TragicalHistory of the Auschwitz Barber." In the few words that consititute thisstory, we are introduced to a barber from Auschwitz who claims to be nobarber at all, but a Bolivian businessman named Altmann. In this verycomplex story, Evanson ties the questions that he is asking to thequestions that many of our greatest writers have been asking since theHolocaust: how can fundamentally rational people become so desensitized to violence tht they commit horrible acts as part of a daily routine? What, if any, is the connection between logic, precision, rationality, and violence?
Anyone who reads Altmann's Tongue will be profoundly disturbed by itsimages. But I believe that, ultimately, this is what the author wants. Beneath the moral world of the book -- where terrible violence is normal androutine -- lies the moral universe that the author seems, at least to me -- tobe advocating: a universe where violence is still an outrage and wherecruelty is to be despised. Evenson wants to disturb us, and, I think, hewants to disturb us even further by showing us how far he has to go todisturb us with violence in a world where graphic violence already IS aneveryday occurance. By showing us a world where detached, morally distantpeople commit inevitable acts of violence, what Evanson seems to be sayingis that violence becomes inevitable whenever we allow ourslves to becomedetached from the consequences of our actions and the moral responsibilityof the systems that we support.
© 1995 Michael Austin