Friday, August 26, 2011

Douglas Messerli | "A Torn Curtain" (on Evenson's The Open Curtain)

by Douglas Messerli

Brian Evenson The Open Curtain (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2006).

Brian Evenson’s new novel, The Open Curtain, begins with what increasingly has become an almost predictable plot: a basically good boy—in this case the son a Mormon widow—at puberty begins to explore the past along with new ideas that gradually alter his personality. In this case the young Rudd uncovers a letter sent to his father by an unknown woman, claiming that he was the father of her son. Rudd’s father—who later committed suicide by slitting his own throat—denies any paternity, and when Rudd confronts his mother with the letter, she can only repeat the denial, claiming to have no knowledge of any such event.

The incident is forgotten for a while, but as some time passes, Rudd looks up the address written on the letter, uncovering his half-brother Lael. At first the boys, radically different from one another, do not particularly get on. Indeed, Rudd is frustrated by Lael’s lack of communication skills and, more importantly, his manipulation of Rudd as he maneuvers the two of them into increasingly dangerous situations. In one instance, for example, Lael determines that they drive Rudd’s scooter far beyond the point in which they will run out of gas and be forced to walk several miles in return. But it is precisely Lael’s going beyond the limits that both attracts and repels Rudd; being the psychologically weaker of the two, he cannot resist his brother’s entreaties. Rudd clearly feels a sense of near-powerlessness around Lael, with whom, as he rides clinging to him on the scooter, he seems gradually to develop an attachment that, if not actually homosexual, borders on the kind of relationship that one might compare to the famed Leopold-Loeb friendship, a love ending in a murder, explored from the various viewpoints of Hitchcock’s film Rope and Levin’s novel and play Compulsion.

It is not long before Rudd begins to lose faith in the church. An English class project for a research paper results in Rudd (and Lael, who joins his half-brother in later treks to the local university library) uncovering a turn-of-the-century murder of a woman, Anna Pultizer, by Mormon founder Brigham Young’s grandson. The murder, which implicates not only the young boy, Hooper Young, but his homosexual friend Elling, was also connected to a little known doctrine of Mormon theology—utterly denied by the church—of Blood Atonement, a doctrine that suggests when sinners have become so guilty of sin that they cannot be forgiven, a ritualistic murder (in which their throats are slit and blood, let to drain from their bodies) is not only justifiable, but that the murderer may be forgiven and awarded in the Mormon afterlife. With its mysterious story and its gruesome details, it becomes quickly apparent why two young Mormon boys, in a time of confusion and disbelief, might become fascinated with the tale; but the mystery surrounding the form of the murder and the relationship between Young and Elling attracts the boys in ways that might be inexplicable if Evenson had not carefully developed his story to suggest both their own relationship to one another and to their dead father. The books in Rudd’s father’s home library are marked, moreover, with marginalia on the very pages describing the Mormon Blood Atonement theory!

Before long, Rudd is having difficulties in school and, more importantly, in paying close attention to anything around him. He and Lael are somewhat involved in drugs, but what is even more horrifying are the long stretches of time in which Rudd later can remember nothing, periods which he describes as “blackouts” or “holes” in time. Part one of this sophisticated horror tale ends with the boys together on an adventure in the woods, with Rudd feeling “himself crowded out of his senses and into oblivion.”

The second section quickly shifts the action to the aftermath of a multiple murder of campers, their bodies placed carefully in positions suggesting a ritualistic act. There is only one survivor, a young boy whose neck has been severely cut. The daughter of the murdered family—who had stayed home during the camping trip—is strangely attracted to the survivor, a boy close to her own age, and watches over his comatose recovery. As the police are pulled away from his protection—the murderer still at large—the girl, Lyndi, pulls him into another room and watches over him until he finally awakens. The survivor is Rudd.

No perceptive reader observing the developing relationship between the daughter of the victims and Rudd can move forward in this tale without great discomfort, for we know instinctively that Rudd was in some way involved with the deaths. Strangely, we have no choice now but to hope that Lael—the evil twin, so to speak—is the guilty party, that Rudd will somehow be brought back into sanity. Rudd has, however, no memory of the events.

After a period in which Lyndi’s aunt encamps within the family home, hoping to cheer up her grieving niece, but having quite the opposite effect, Lyndi is only too happy to let Rudd, whose mother has forced him to escape his own home, move in with her; the two set up an awkward household outwardly, perhaps, suggesting a sexual relationship, but, in fact, consisting of a kind of brother-sister or roommate situation. Rudd is painfully confused, sometimes gentle and solicitous, clearly feeling the need to protect his new friend, but at other times he remains aloof, secretive and protective. He insists that she never enter his (formerly her sister’s) room uninvited. As time passes, the two grow further apart until Lyndi confronts him, ending in Rudd’s attempted suicide and his insistence that they get married.

The Mormon marriage ceremony described is perhaps one of the strangest passages in the book. As the couple, who have previously remained outside of church ritual, are taken through the various steps of the ceremony—the ritual washing, the awarding of a secret name, the various questions asked as they sit on opposite sides of a veil marked with symbolic slits in positions not unlike those in which Lyndi’s family were placed by their murderer—the reader feels nearly suffocated by being enwrapped in such ritualistic acts. The couple themselves seem about to flee, as Rudd, breaking with the ceremony, denies Lyndi the use of her “secret” name Rachel, insisting it is Elling—and, in so doing so, feels he has cheated the blessing of the church, has torn the veil.

But if Lyndi is merely confused by the event, we know that within Rudd’s mind the symbolism of that veil is interwoven with the events of both the 1902 murder and the murders of Lyndi’s family; and the two begin to converge in a way that becomes increasingly frightening. As Rudd and Lyndi attempt to begin life as a married couple, he retreats even further, ultimately moving into a kind of makeshift tool shed, the entrance of which he has now covered over in a veil—a real sheet that serves as a symbolic separation from the world at large. As Lyndi grows more and more troubled by the course of events, she explores the shed, realizing in the process that Rudd was indeed involved in her parent’s murder and discovering something that is too horrible for words.

The third section of Evenson’s unholy trinity relates a near-surrealistic series of events in which Hooper’s murder of Anna Pultizer, his determination to hide the body, and his attempt to send off her clothes in a large chest is played out again and again, as each time Rudd—living like a drugged man in a time warp—is coached by "Elling," actually Lael, apparently have returned. Gradually, the reader realizes that the seemingly murdered body is, in fact, Lyndi, still living perhaps, but bound and suffering as the boy enacts, again and again, the events from the distant past. When suddenly the deus ex machina return of Lyndi’s aunt interrupts this horrific passion play, Rudd refuses to let her enter, and Lael/Elling announces his departure. At that very moment, we suddenly are faced with the possibility that, in fact, there has been no Lael, no half-brother, ever in Rudd’s life (Lyndi has previously sought out the brother, who insists his name is Lyle—an incident repeated from Rudd’s first encounter with the boy—and that he has no knowledge of Rudd), or, even worse, he has been himself sacrificed to Rudd’s horrific myth. With the policeman in tow, Lyndi’s aunt gains entry to the house, but neither she nor we know what she may find. Even if Lyndi is still alive, we perceive that Rudd has lost his life to the demons of the past. We can only imagine that he sits somewhat like Psycho’s Norman Bates, wrapped in a sheet, living in a world from which he can never return.

Evenson has created a compelling horror tale that is not as much an indictment of Mormonism as it is a warning of the dark sides of all religions and the willingness to (con)fuse the power of faith with the power of controlling other people’s lives.

Los Angeles, September 21, 2006
Reprinted from The New Review of Literature, IV, no. 2 (April 2007).

Copyright (c)2007 by Douglas Messerli

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