Saturday, June 29, 2013

Mise-en-abîme in Brian Evenson's "Windeye"

What appears to be, in Windeye, is not what is in actuality. The result, which feels distinctly Brian’s or maybe Rod Serling’s, is a very intimate and jarring dissonance—a ringing in the ear which one locates just outside of the ear. A disembodied whispering over the shoulder.

He presents the reader with a mode of Pararealism—a twice displaced article that bears only a trace of its origin. Like finding yourself, your reflection, cascading infinitely between two directly opposed mirrors. Mise en abîme.

His is the presentation of a language, a matrix of interconnected signifiers which consistently evades the logic of reality as we live it and know it. So, in this way, what Brian presents in no unreal terms locates itself outside of or beside common perception. He presents a wilderness, a thing, a moment, a myth, skewed and spectacular and endowed with a certain alien quality that projects a distorted reflection of the reader.

Brian read this story to a small audience at Brown University just before the collection debuted and it was really that first scene, that first fragment that caught my mind’s eye, so to speak.

As the younger sister explores opaquely the exterior space of the house, fitting her small hand under the shingles, the older brother frames her experience narratively, sensually directing her thrill while he himself is thrilled by her reaction. It’s an uncanny denuding.

Looking back on it, many years later, he often thought it had started with that, with her carefully working her fingers up under a shingle as he waited and watched to see if it would crack. That was one of his earliest memories of his sister, if not the earliest. 
His sister would turn around and smile, her hand gone to the knuckles, and say, “I feel something. What am I feeling?” And then he would ask questions. Is it smooth? he might ask. Does it feel rough? Scaly? Is it cold-blooded or warm-blooded? Does it feel red? Does it feel like its claws are in or out? Can you feel its eye move? He would keep on, watching the expression in her face change as she tried to make his words into a living, breathing thing, until it started to feel too real for her and, half giggling, half screaming, she whipped her hand free. (1)

Influenced as I am with the work of William Faulkner and The Sound and the Fury especially, I asked Brian if he’d intentionally drawn some sexual, incestuous subtext between the siblings in the opening scene of Windeye. Of course he shrugged it off gracefully and I then felt like a pervert.

His response gave me the impression that it was not intentional, at least not in artifice. And, after all, a magician never reveals his secrets.

Written in the third person past tense, we as readers are already acutely aware that what has not yet transpired in narrative, has already occurred in time. This is a retelling, a secondary source. This creates an initial valance of distance. The narrative first introduces the physical space of the home. We then encounter the brother and sister in the familiar territory of juvenilia which is also already the poetic space of the uncanny—as both Freud and Bachelard can attest. “The German word 'unheimlich' is obviously the opposite of 'heimlich' ['homely'], 'heimisch' ['native'] the opposite of what is familiar; and we are tempted to conclude that what is 'uncanny' is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar.” (Freud) This interplay of interiority and exteriority, of experiencing an intimate space and then from the outside witnessing its temporality and finitude, is a common theme in the collection.

This is embodied in the interplay of the children. The relationship between the siblings in Windeye bears a universe of potential energy which finally crescendos in the little sister’s disappearance and the older brother’s subsequent lapse from normative reality.

Being not alive wasn’t like being dead, he felt: it was much, much worse. There were years too when he simply didn’t choose, when he saw her as both real and make-believe and sometimes neither of those things. But in the end what made him keep believing in her—despite the line of doctors that visited him as a child, despite the rift it made between him and his mother, despite years of forced treatment and various drugs that made him feel like his head had been filled with wet sand, despite years of having to pretend to be cured—was simply this: he was the only one who believed his sister was real. If he stopped believing, what hope would there be for her? (5)

Immediately after reading the story I wanted to trace the narrative arc from its origin in reality to its manifestation in fantasy and place a cogent reading on its oddity, a carceral interpretation of its final discourse with wind. “If he turned around, he would be wondering, would he find the wind’s strange, baleful eye staring at him?” (6)

The first, and maybe most important clue we get is the dedication, For my lost sister. These are without a doubt the first and last transparent words the author inscribes in the text (disbarring the acknowledgments). Although it's possible that the dedication too was in service of the story, but I doubt it (paranoia). The story Windeye revolves around the loss of a sister, which coincides with the author’s dedication, now making this, in my opinion, a highly personal narrative.

Biography is relevant to our understanding of this text in so far as what occupies the narrative is memory and perpetuity. If the ghostly, unexplainable disappearance of the story’s little sister coincides with the true loss by the author of a sister, then the link here is trauma—a trauma which is veiled and then mythologized so as to allow its presence, her presence, as memory, as story, to exist. Because if she never existed then, in some way, neither had he.  

And if the story is itself a way of remembering the presence of another (perhaps the author’s sister), then the trauma, the experience of trauma, finds its objective correlative (Eliot) in the figuration of the Windeye.

The Windeye (a portmanteau of Nordic origin from which we derive our English Window) itself is an artifact which wrestles with notions of opacity and our response to opacity—in this case a hubris of Gnostic satisfaction and pleasure which culminates in loss. The boy wants to know with certainty, with empirical evidence, what occupies the discrepancy between what he’s perceiving and what he recognizes logically as truth or reality.

That is:

There’s a window visible on the outside which has no discernable presence on the inside. The boy is looking at an object which presents as its function and general purpose the ability to see through it, but this so called Windeye (not window) resists, and insists on its alterity—a window which projects outward, like the gaze of an eye, and captures/holds/suspends what it beholds. The uncanny here, again reminiscent of Freud and his fascination with E. T. A. Hoffman’s The Sandman, replicates itself in uncertainty and anxiety. And the narrative concludes thus.

And he would set about describing it. Does it feel red? Does it feel warm-blooded or cold? Is it round? Is it smooth like glass? All the while, he knew, he would be thinking not about what he was saying but about the wind at his back…

Chances were that he’d be stuck with the life he was living now, just as it was, until the day when he was either dead or not living himself. (6)

This final sentence in its deceptive simplicity belies the character’s abyssal relation to time. It is an interesting example of paraprosdokian—from the Greek para (παρά) meaning beside, outside of, or against, and prosdokia (προσδοκία) meaning expectation. Consumed in what one may interpret as survivor’s guilt, the boy, now an old man, replays in his mind the young thrill of their experience as children. He has to remember, revisit, reinscribe their empirical instance because, “…what hope would there be for her [to live on]?” He admits his secret intention to continue visiting this memory until he is dead or not living. Hearkening back to his revelation that being not alive wasn’t like being dead…it was much, much worse. That one could be both dead and not-living, like Schrödinger’s cat, is yet another suspension which implies that he alone is responsible for keeping his sister from death, though she is not living. The conundrum, inherent in his mission of remembering, traps him tragically in a circular ruin (Borges).

The ruin of this final sentence falls farther, deeper, into anacoluthic distortion. Chances were that he’d be stuck with the life he was living now, just as it was… There is a fracture, a hanging conditional, a past subjunctive perhaps—already narratively couched in the past, his present is contingent upon what was and cannot be removed from this paradigm without inhabiting what is worse than death. Abyssal time.

In a way, Windeye is a sort of eerie reconfiguration of the Pandora’s box myth. What is ultimately lost is innocence and candor, the innocence and candor that comes with youth, with opacity. What remains is the injunction of narrative, belief, and hope.

—Presented at Université Rennes 2, May 21, 2015 
Colloque sur l'oeuvre de Brian Evenson