STATS: BOOK / BRIAN EVENSON / 256pp. / 2012
In a way, Immobility is beautifully simple: a guy roams around, trying to complete a mission. In another way, it’s maddeningly complex: who, or what, is this guy? Where is he roaming? Why? Does “complete a mission” have any actionable significance whatsoever? Can he, or anyone else, say or think anything that makes any sense?
“In a way you didn’t die,” learns Horkai, the man or former man condemned to this seemingly (and probably) abortive mission. “In another way, you died over and over again.” Years after an event called the Kollaps has decimated most of the earth’s population and his “ruined skin” has “sloughed away to reveal unblemished, hairless pink flesh beneath,” he awakens from “storage” to find life and death fused within him.
Faltering across a Utah-inflected hellscape, he embodies the world he’s awoken into, his compromised humanity and mortality a microcosm for an entire species’ inability to achieve either viable adaptation or lasting extinction. In limbo between the end of his world and some botched new beginning, he sees the line between the living and the dead, and between humans and monsters, expand into a teeming cusp.
The broken-record thought patterns of the undead who inhabit this cusp suffuses the novel with a horror that mounts and mounts toward a release that cannot come. The root of this horror, and the reason why it can’t reach a breaking point, is the post-Kollaps fusion of two mutually irrelevant conditions. The first is purely physical: something has happened to the bodies of the survivors, with those in Horkai’s state a minority among them. The second is purely cerebral: something has happened to language.
In essence, things have changed but words have not; language is no longer the right tool for the job it’s still being employed to do. As the novel progresses, Horkai finds that his crisis is not just his inability to deal with what he’s become, but his inability to describe it. As a “thick and semi-transparent” membrane grows across his chest, he’s desperate to know, “What’s on me?” The answer, of course, is, “Nothing is on you … That is you.” He can watch it grow, but can’t summon any verbal means of recognizing himself in it. “We’re neither human nor not human,” a fellow sloughed-away man tells him. “We just are … why can’t that ever be enough?”
Horkai tries to let it be, increasingly aware that it’s the only way out of his recursive suffering. As he yearns for the clean slate of rebirth, the novel fills with images of babyhood, from his hairless flesh to the way he gets woken up, put to sleep, and carried around like a baby, from the compassionate recluse who feeds him baby food to the way he accepts defeat “as peaceful as a baby.” But in the end he can’t tear out the root of language that has survived his zombification. In a world where the only choice is between paradox and nothingness, Horkai chooses paradox every time.
This paradox does not maintain itself; it relies on those who exploit it as a means of seizing power. Rather than trying to patch the contaminated but far from inert words that have survived the Kollaps back onto their vanished pre-Kollaps referents, self-anointed prophets and visionaries invent new referents and deploy them at will. Armed with language and unrestrained by any objective reality, they hold forth in minatory and incantatory streams: “Hives … Mules. Callings” – Horkai runs through some of what he’s been told, thinking, “None of it really made sense: different sets of ideas, different regimes of knowledge that should compete and contrast with one another,” but which have instead been forcibly combined into “a sense of community, a sense of duty.”
In Evenson’s The Open Curtain, a character remarks on how, in religious thought, “nothing came unmixed.” This is equally true in Immobility, where neither Horkai nor the reader can consider or experience anything without everything else flooding the thought matrix. As long as problems of language and problems of being cannot be treated separately, thought breeds madness and never boils down to a livable conclusion.
In terms of sanity, it would be better if the earth had been scorched. Barring this, the undead stumble around describing things that no longer exist and ignoring the things that do, in thrall to those who behave as if they’d been raptured into a new time of Genesis, the naming of things once again up for grabs. The dark fusion of pre-Kollaps language with post-Kollaps bodies perpetuates Immobility’s physical and cerebral cycle. Rather than through chemical fallout or contagious disease, the deadliness of Evenson’s world makes itself felt through this cycle’s crushing pressure.
“He tried to lick his lips but either nothing happened or something happened that he couldn’t feel.”