I tell you, brothers and sisters, the time is running out.- St. Paul, I Corinthians 7:29-31
From now on, let those having wives act as not having them,
those weeping as not weeping,
those rejoicing as not rejoicing,
those buying as not owning,
those using the world as not using it fully.
For the world in its present form is passing away.
The New Testament verses above were read today, the traditional Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, in my parish church and they comprise part of the apocalyptic comments of St. Paul in reference to the "last days." Pope Benedict XVI has proclaimed the period from June 28, 2008 to June 29, 2009 to be a special jubilee in honor of the traditional 2000th anniversary of St. Paul's birth.
These religious celebrations are mentioned here because they inform and add layers of depth to Brian Evenson's latest book, Last Days. Throughout this book, itself an expansion upon 2003's The Brotherhood of Mutilation (which comprises the first part of this novel), references to St. Paul, to his visions of how to lead a holy life and especially to his views on the coming end to the world, abound. Today in this world, there are those who take the words of prophets and other religious men so literally that we see such a self-effacement taking place as to make outsiders wonder what could move them to inflict such pain and suffering upon themselves and upon others. Evenson addresses some of those questions in Last Days, but as it is with trying to grasp the mentalité of those whose very world-views are so alien to ours, there are times where the narrative falters and the reader is left confronted with the raw, visceral "otherness" that has fallen across adherents to such extreme manifestations of religious faith.
Last Days begins with detective Kline, himself a recent victim to a severing of his right hand, being approached by a secretive religious cult that revolves around the passage of Matthew 5:29-30 referring to if one's hand causes one to commit sin, that such a member ought to be severed and cast off in order for one to remain righteous. Instead of telling this in a direct fashion, Evenson uses the first paragraph not just to foreshadow this first contact, but also to go beyond it and to hint at the meanings embedded with the story:
For the "they" involved, the Brotherhood of Mutilation, it wasn't as much Kline's loss of hand that interested them, but rather his unflinching resolve, his self-cauterization of the wound by use of a hotplate, more than his "heroics." But even more than that, Kline's description of the event, with his severed hand "suddenly becoming a separate, moribund creature," sets the tone for the rest of the story. Mutilation is not simply the loss of an integral part, but rather the separation of parts that may run counter to the needs and goals of an immortal soul. This I believe lies at the heart of the narrative, or at least at the heart of the Brotherhood of Mutilation.
It was only later that he realized the reason they had called him, but by then it was too late for the information to do him any good. At the time, all the two men had told him on the telephone was that they'd seen his picture in the paper, read about his infiltration and so-called heroism and how, even when faced with the man with the cleaver - or the "gentleman with the cleaver" as they chose to call him - he hadn't flinched, hadn't given a thing away. Was it true, they wanted to know, that he hadn't flinched? That he had simply watched the man raise the cleaver and bring it down, his hand suddenly becoming a separate, moribund creature?" (p. 1)
After contact is made, Kline enters a world in which initiates are referred to by the number of body parts lost, or rather by the number of mutilations. Rank, such as it is, lies within the number of mutilations, not in the degree of those mutilations. Therefore, a person who has lost his genitals and two arms would count only as a Three, while someone who had four fingers on each hand removed would be an Eight and thus have precedence over the Three. In scenes such as this, Evenson displays a rather dark humor, but it also serves to highlight the religious component of this Brotherhood. How is order of rank determined? Which is the Right and True way to proceed in affairs? Is Holiness obtained by the degree to which one has made a sacrifice (in this case, the voluntary mutilations) or by the number of sacrifices offered?
Kline is taken to a Twelve, Borchert, who asks him to investigate the disappearance and likely murder of Aline, the founder of the Brotherhood who has, like Johnny in Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun, lost as much as could be taken from his body and still live. However, being but a lowly One in the eyes of the cult, Kline finds himself stimied in his investigation of Aline's disappearance. In the scene quoted below, Kline and Borchert talk about a mysterious tape recording and how the cult's rules are caught up in it:
"I need to see them," said Kline.This scene is important not simply because it reveals Borchert's unwillingness to bend the Brotherhood's rules for Kline to do his investigation, but that it gives a subtle hint as to what the remainder of Part One deals with, the investigation of Truth in a setting in which all such questions regarding it have been caught up in a hierarchial web of dismemberment sacrifice, with power being granted to those who separate themselves from various body parts. As the mystery of Aline's disappearance unfolds, the setting becomes ever more macabre, with cult members being depicted with severed genitals, guards with only one eye, and at the heart of it, Borchert and his quest to become ever more holy...and his attempt to have Kline ensnarled in this pattern. Part One ends with the mystery of Aline solved and a brutal conflict between Borchert and Kline that reenacts in part the beginning of this tale.
"Them?" asked Borchert. "My dear Kline, who?"
"The people on the tape."
"Mr. Kline," said Borchert. "You're a one. You can hardly expect someone in the double digits - "
"I need to see them," said Kline.
"But Mr. Kline - "
"Something's wrong with the tape," said Kline. "With the questions. It doesn't all mesh."
Borchert looked at him, coolly. "I don't think that you should let the tape trouble you, Mr. Kline. Why don't you simply accept it for what it purports to be?"
"Because it's not what it is," said Kline. (p. 49)
Part Two, "Last Days," written five years after "Brotherhood of Mutilation," struggles to maintain the intensity of the opening part. While "Brotherhood" concludes nicely, "Last Days" often sputters to maintain the force of the narrative. At times, I felt a sense of burnout in reading about Kline's second foray into the world of the cultists, as too much felt like a sequel to a big action/horror movie; the body counts rise, the gore splashes, and the blood flows, but often at the expense of the narrative tension developed in the original. I liked Evenson's use of the Pauls, a schismatic sect within the Brotherhood, to serve as a focus here. Not only is there now an even more explicit connection with the the Gospel passage about severing those body parts that cause one to do evil, but there is a greater sense of doom hovering within these pages. Kline no longer is seeking to solve a mystery involving another; the focus has shifted to him and his dealing with revelations surrounding the cult and his own role within it. Kline is at once a character within the tale and a representation of ideas surrounding that tale. The conversation below between Kline and a Paul reveals much:
"You're Paul," said Kline.
"Who isn't?" asked the Paul. "Even you might well be Paul, were there not another role prepared for you."
"Who says I want to accept it?" said Kline.
"Surely you don't believe, friend Kline, that we have any choice in the paths our lives take? God is the only one who controls our fate. We are predestined from the beginning. You believe in God, don't you?"
Kline didn't answer.
"No matter," said the Paul. It makes no difference whether you believe in God, since God, so I have been led to understand, believes in you. And we believe in you as well, friend Kline. At first we weren't sure you were the one, so we watched. But now we're sure. From the moment you chose to go with their messengers to the compound, your fate has ground itself inexorably forward."
"We," said the Paul, and spred his arms wide. "Paul."
"I'm not the one, Paul," said Kline. "Whatever it is, I'm not it."
"But you are," said the Paul.
Kline shook his head.
"You made us certain when, instead of being killed by them, you extricated yourself wielding a sword of destruction. Metaphorically, I mean. By a sword I mean a gun."
"Like hell," said Kline.
"Yes, said Paul. "Exactly like hell. You harrowed them." (pp. 110-111)
Here, Kline's role has shifted from an investigator, a seeker of truth, to a vengeful quasi-angel of death. Such a role inflicts damage upon the psyche and Kline's transformation reflects heavily upon this. However, the narrative suffers as well, as with Kline becoming more of an initiator of violence (even as he himself is being tracked down by the non-Pauline cultists) than a seeker of knowledge, the tension between what is understood and what is happening falters. But perhaps it is fitting that in an apocalyptic atmosphere, that the original meaning of apocalypse, "revealing," comes to the fore. While the Kline that closes Last Days differs greatly from the one that opened it, the journey, stumbling as it does in places as the violent acts threaten to numb the reader's reaction to the horrific developments, ultimately is worth the effort. The world in its present form has passed away and those who were not weeping are now left weeping as time runs out.
Publication Date: February 1, 2009 (US). Tradeback.
Publisher: Underland Press