The Personal Is Apocalyptic: When Your World Unravels

On Brian Evenson’s Song for the Unraveling of the World

Ian Olson / 10.8.20

It’s become commonplace to see our contemporary moment described as apocalyptic or to warn of looming post-apocalyptic threats. But what exactly does “apocalypse” mean? In popular usage “apocalypse” denotes the end of the world. This is right insofar as the event of revelation always means the end of the world the recipient had previously assumed. But “apocalypse” and “apocalyptic” in New Testament theology have little to do with doomsday scenarios. This doesn’t mean, however, that it isn’t cataclysmic. For the apocalyptic is the unraveling of the given as reality is unveiled. This unveiling strips away the surface of what had been previously known, exposing what had been undetected, unguessed at, or dismissed. It is the end of the world, a personal Armageddon engulfing one life. And if that life is yours, then the scale of the upheaval in global terms is simply insignificant.

Paul the Apostle is illustrative of this, for the scaffolding of his world utterly collapsed at the apocalypse of Jesus Christ. At one moment Saul of Tarsus is resolutely committed to the destruction of the apostate community revering the crucified Nazarene; a moment later he is overwhelmed by the disclosure of this very Nazarene as something utterly Other. Horrifyingly, this Jesus makes himself known as one sent by the very God Saul has styled himself as serving and — in some mysterious, impossible to comprehend way — identical to that very God. All of Saul’s aspirations, all he has accomplished, all he has constructed an identity around, all of it dissolves as his former life is buried with the remains of a world in which Jesus Christ was not Lord. The real world dawns, and the horror is in the recognition of reality. 

Brian Evenson’s Song for the Unraveling of the World performs just this dismantling in story after story. From its opening tale, “No Matter Which Way We Turned,” six paragraphs of bewilderment and dread impotently petitioning a newly alien sky, to “Line of Sight,” in which an actor witnesses something looking at him through “a seam where reality had been imperfectly fused,” and ultimately with “Lather of Flies,” in which an obsessive fan searches the world for a film that may not actually exist, Evenson’s stories depict the porousness and hollowness of what we naively call reality as it gives way under the pressure of the impossible.

Throughout the collection Evenson’s prose is lean yet darkly lyrical. The musical effect of his language is decidedly minor, even diminished, moving through modulation from a seemingly straightforward scenario to the introduction of an augmented chord which insinuates an overtone of strangeness, calling that normalcy into question, before the hidden reality beneath that normalcy erupts and overwhelms that straightforwardness. Some of the best, most unsettling effects Evenson accomplishes lie in a narrator’s unexplained attention to detail: Why is this important? Because it’s all going to be thrown into question soon.

This collection’s plots don’t rely on pyrotechnics or grandiose stakes to achieve their effect; disruption and anguished reckoning with reality typify them instead. Evenson’s scenarios eat away at the given like acid, awakening us to the ghastly truth that the real is alien to us because we have habituated ourselves to the unreal. We build our lives upon the topography of the self-aggrandizing, the disenchanted, and the bogus to keep entropy and otherness away. The real is disharmonious with that topography, with the patterns we are all accustomed to as fallen creatures. The world simply isn’t as stable as we need it to be in order for the stories we tell ourselves to be true.

The only resolution on offer is to stop fighting against the truth, to accept the total and entire recalibration of your existence around this revelation of what the world actually is. But some of these characters experience the initial disruption, and on the basis of its ensuing disorientation, distrust the newly revealed reality. The dissolution of the world they had previously “known” isn’t instantaneous; it proceeds in stages, tearing away the façade bit by bit. How can the senses be trusted at all if what had been presumed to be real for so long can so suddenly be exposed as false? The ultimate doom of some of these characters lies in their failure to reorient themselves around the revelation of the real, in their attempt to deny it and return to what had once been “known.”

The dismantling of our well-ordered worlds — the revelation of the illusion of control, of predictability, of normalcy — is the primal horror in which all fear participates. We dread discovering that what we thought could be counted on is only a sham, that the cosmos is not, in fact, tuned to our efforts such that our good intentions yield good results. There are other forces, other agencies, other currents beneath the exterior of the world we presume upon. And not one of us is as buffered against these things as we uncritically assume ourselves to be: their ability to intrude upon and overturn our lives vastly outmatches our ability to maintain equilibrium. As the surface of the normal is peeled back we discover how flimsy, how arbitrary it was, how superficial our moorings really were this entire time. 

Where is the upheaval of apocalypse most experienced? Most keenly felt? In the moments that arise out of the fabric of our everyday lives as the security we take for granted is demolished. As the ground upon which we stand reveals itself as a door onto something else entirely, something evasive and uncontrollable. Here the strange asserts itself, strips away the encrustation of normality, and reclaims the real. 

Apocalypse is disorientation. We experience it as affliction, but we all stand in need of it if we are to be shaken awake out of the torpor of the prosaic. It can arrive in a mirror being held up to the truth of our living; it can arrive in the words, “You are the man” (2 Sam 12:7). We discover the things we have done — the persons we have been — have served this purpose, borne this fruit, brought us to this outcome: the path we have been on leads us here. This is the most horrifying thing, that all this time we have been deluding ourselves, and this is where it’s brought us.

One of the stories earlier in Song for the Unraveling of the World depicts this eerie banality with serrated poignancy. “Shirts and Skins” portrays Gregory’s unusual first date with a girl named Megan and how it passively gives way to a life with her, a decision he is unaware of having ever made. His agency dissipates to nothing as he begins to long for just a few moments alone before he must submit himself once again to her mastery. Ultimately, he knows, he will die and be free of her. How long until then?

The motif of a modern Western subject reckoning with the erasure of agency reoccurs in stories such as “Wanderlust,” in which the protagonist wanders the country to escape the suspicion of being watched. Eventually he comes upon a younger version of himself and realizes it was him observing himself all this time. The third person limited perspective painfully drives home the incompleteness of these individuals and the passivity that defines their existence. For me, at least, the stories of men who discover they have been driftwood tossed upon the waves of others’ agency are the most horrific.

The revelation of the real, therefore, isn’t an immediately joyful or liberating thing: often it is painful, confusing, and it jeopardizes the certainties upon which we had relied. New possibilities arise but only as our old hopes are shattered; our prisons are broken open, but these prisons are our identities, our communities, our expectations. But this desolation may just be the arrival of God. The same God who gave himself up to desolation to defeat the powers that threaten us, securing for us a new future, a genuine hope.

An old adage states that the personal is political. But now that uncertainty is unmasked as pervasive, now that our fragility is more apparent than ever, we are forced to pause and reconsider how strange our world really is. We must recalibrate in light of it, or our sanity will shatter, as the real intrudes itself and refuses to be ignored. Inauthenticity is global. And the personal is apocalyptic.