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April 3, 2009

Book Notes - Brian Evenson ("Last Days")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published books.

Ever since reading The Open Curtain, I have been enamored with Brian Evenson's writing. Last Days is perhaps his most visceral and unsettling book yet, a dark work of crime fiction Kafka would have been proud to have written.

The A.V. Club wrote of the book:

"At its best, Days is a grim, darkly hilarious riff on blind obedience and pointless self-sacrifice, often reading like the twisted offspring of Raymond Chandler and David Cronenberg. It isn’t for the faint of heart, and those expecting a more conventional narrative—i.e. one that answers the questions it raises, and reaches a clear resolution by the final page—should probably stay away. But for the adventurous, it’s a dark treat: a detective story where the hero becomes more unmanned with every mystery solved."

In his own words, here is Brian Evenson's Book Notes essay for his novel, Last Days:

Even in the context of the rest of my work, Last Days is a bit strange. It’s the story of a detective, named Kline, who loses his hand while on the job and who, as a result, comes to the attention of a cult that takes very seriously the Matthew’s admonition in the Bible: “And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off.” They’re serious believers, have very carefully thought through their doctrine, and have set about getting rid of bits and parts of their physical bodies as a means of trying to get closer to God. They want Kline to help them solve a crime; they’ve chosen him because, having lost his hand he’s “like them.” Kline has no interest in getting involved with them, but almost before he knows it, he is. And a moment later, he’s in over his head, desperately trying to get out alive and more or less intact.

After that, it gets weirder, then weirder still. Last Days is an odd take on the detective story, at once darkly comic and absurd and violent.

I tend to listen obsessively to music, both when I’m writing and when I’m not. When I was finishing Last Days there were two albums that I kept coming back to, probably because in both you get the impression that the musicians are working in an incredibly personal space. You feel like they have a logic that they’re working with that gives the work unity and vision but it’s not a logic you can share or even quite see. I wanted to create an effect something like that for readers of Last Days, a sense of falling out of the real world and into someone’s private nightmare.

The first album is Scott Walker’s The Drift (4AD). Until I listened to this, I didn’t think I’d heard Scott Walker at all, then realized I knew “30th Century Man” and discovered that he’d done the soundtrack to the movie Pola X, which I love. “The Drift” is an album that you’ll love or hate, and maybe both at once: the singing is unearthly and strange, the lyrics exceptionally and unsettling odd (for instance “I’ll punch a donkey on the streets of Galway”), everything becomes an occasion for music (he even at one moment uses meat as a percussion instrument, and at another moment seems to have built a track up around a braying donkey sound that appears deep in the middle of it). It’s an album that I become obsessed with for a few weeks and listen to nonstop, and then, exhausted, have to put it aside. But I always come back to it.

Three tracks in particular I seem to play over and over again: the 13 minute long and really varied “Clara”; “The Escape,” which has a moment about 4 minutes in which I find at once absurdly funny and incredibly disturbing every time I listen to it; and “Psoriatic”. Together the three of them reveal something about my book, but I’m not sure what.

The second album is Sunburned Hand of the Man’s No Magic Man (Bastet), which Jay Babcock and Arthur magazine got me listening to. Again part of the appeal is the feeling you get of listening in, watching someone’s personal, and probably insane, vision as they assemble something. It took me probably four or five listens to get involved in this one, but once I was in, I was hooked. What I love as much as anything are the use of found and slightly manipulated recordings about the Egyptian mythology on several of the tracks (“Every Direction”, “Stone Boat”, “The Twin Gates”). I became so obsessed with it that I spent a good chunk of my time last October trying to convince myself I should include a visual reproduction of a .wav image of part of “Every Direction” in lieu of an epigraph. Luckily, saner minds prevailed.

For Last Days the three No Magic Man tracks that are most important are the first three: “Every Direction”, “The First Degree” and “Flying Colours” as a kind of sequence and progression. I like how they both blend together and transform, and thought a lot about how they progress and how they use repetition, when I was working on Last Days.

Last Days itself mentions two pieces of music. One is ‘Hank Williams’ “Hey, Good Looking,” reworked to sound like a German cabaret number,’ which is a project I really wish the Dresden Dolls would take on some day. The other is Hindemuth’s “Piano Concerto for the Left Hand”, a piece commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein (Ludwig Wittgenstein’s brother) after he lost his right arm in the First World War. In addition to those, any novel containing an amputation cult probably deserves Pink Floyd’s “Be Careful with that Axe, Eugene” and Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand.”

I’d also recommend Echo and the Bunnymen’s “The Back of Love”, which opens “I’m on the chopping block”. Their “My Kingdom”--”I chop and I change and the mystery thickens / There’s blood on my hands and you want me to listen”--captures Kline’s trajectory across the book. (And the chorus seems a good mantra for the cult).

And I can’t resist recommending, for the last part in particular, three tracks. From their album Hell!, the Resident’s “Light’s Out”, particularly the screaming that comes in the first few seconds and the obsessive speeded-heart percussion of the first minute or so of the track itself (which becomes prominent again later). Follow that with “My Reason,” a simple but aggravated track by a great one-man band from Portland called Mattress, which gives a good sense of what might be going on in Kline’s head. To conclude, I think you get just the right blend of black humor and oddness in Brian Eno’s “Baby’s on Fire”...

Happy listening, and happy reading.

Brian Evenson and Last Days links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
publisher's page for the author
publisher's page for the book

A.V. Club review
Adventures in Reading review
Bibliophile Stalker review
Bookspot Central review
Fantasy Book Critic review
The Goalie's Anxiety review
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Hellnotes review
HTMLGIANT review
OF Blog of the Fallen review
Omnivoracious review
Portland Mercury review
Quarterly Conversation review
Shelf Monkey review
The Stranger review
Time Out New York review
Village Voice review
Whatever review

Graeme's Fantasy Book Review interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Electric Flesh
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for The Open Curtain

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Online "Best Books of 2008" Lists
Largehearted Boy Favorite Novels of 2008
Largehearted Boy Favorite Graphic Novels of 2008
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Why Obama (musicians and authors explain their support of the Democratic presidential candidate's campaign)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2009 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)

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