Required Reading is DoomRocket’s love chest, where each week one of our contributors goes crazy over a book they just can’t seem to get enough of. Intrigued to find something new? Seeking validation for your secret passions? Required Reading gets you.
By Andrew Stevens. X, the narrator of Brian Evenson’s The Warren, lacks memory and subsequently a sense of identity. Plus, X is unsure of how long they’ve been down in the dilapidated structure that is the warren. They’re isolated, save for a computer consciousness known as “the monitor,” a man outside who might be the last (and quickly dying) co-survivor, and a host of other voices within X’s own head, stranded in an underground wasteland that extends an unknown distance.
All of this intrigue serves as a reminder that Tor’s increasingly awesome line of original novellas have so much to offer us. (For another example, check out Victor LaValle’s Lovecraftian riff, The Ballad of Black Tom.)
Executed throughout its 100 pages with the grace and precision of a seasoned writer, The Warren ratchets up the physical and existential claustrophobia of its narrator, a confused individual confined to that network of dim tunnels. And we feel the pressure too. First person often works that way. At first, we’re familiarized with a certain “I.” The “I” we use to address ourselves. But then another “I” emerges from the gloom, lips pressed against our ears. Inevitably, there comes that moment—and Edgar Allen Poe pioneered this technique for American fiction, especially in fiction grounded in detection, horror, and the imaginative—where the reader begs the question… just who is telling this story?
An excerpt from The Warren:
How long has it been since a person left the warren and how long did he survive? I had asked the monitor earlier…
To my question, the monitor responded: Query: what do you mean by person?
I thought about this a long time and then asked, “What do you mean by person?”
It responded, Bipedal, an individual thought process enmeshed in a body, procreated through the fertilization of an ovum by a sperm and its subsequent development in a womb.
“Only the first criterion is relevant.”
Poe described his fiction as operating under the unity of effect. Every word inside a work should aim to produce a single effect in the reader, each sentence should be sharp enough to collectively cut to the bone. Evenson employs a similar technique with X, though this narrator is more Other than the psychotics that populated Poe’s fiction. While X can tell us so much about the warren while possessing the same curiosity we share, its dismissal of all human criteria beyond bipedal raises the reader’s sense of unease. But it also heightens a desire for deep knowing–a knowledge of self and identity beyond the narrative machinations. Readers should rest assured that the ultimate reveal satisfies the hunger for engaging reveals.
As X works their way outside to seek out the last survivor (marked “human” by all the criteria the monitor offers), they suffer a strange sensation in their exit from the more familiar passages. Weaving through stalactites of exposed wires and failed door seals found within the defunct facility, X climbs the ladder out. “Several pairs of eyes within my head flicker open, awakened by a movement that was familiar to them, from their own climbs to the surface years before.”
Later, X reflects:
The strangeness of that: the feeling that you, or rather I, are at once dreaming and remembering and simultaneously doing something as if for the first time. That terrible rapid construction of the world around you, but not as a new world; instead, as a world already known, already seen.
The greatest disruption is that X has only two forces to rely on: the man he seeks outside the warren and the dysfunctional (and sometimes obstinate) monitor, which leaves X, despite the quirks of his consciousness, increasingly alone.
The alchemy of horror and science fiction allows The Warren to thoroughly investigate the concept of isolation. The absence of human relationships that might otherwise serve as signposts through X’s wilderness manufactures X’s intense reliance on the monitor. Operating as a distilled version of late-night Google searches and internet scouring familiar to so many of us, the monitor serves as a poignant and relevant component to an otherwise distant — or alien — narrative.
Evenson couples technology with identity, complicating what might seem simplistic in summary into a memorable work of fiction. As the novella advances and the monitor refuses questions, X hangs an inquiry in the air that serves as the final unmooring of the dusty warren: “Which is more likely — that my memories are faulty or that something is wrong with the monitor?”
Tor/$2.99 (eBook), $11.99 (Paperback)
Written by Brian Evenson.
Cover Art by Victor Mosquera.
Cover Design by Christine Foltzer.