I’m a huge fan of Brian Evenson, an author whose works I find unsettling, thought-provoking, unconventional, and incredibly well-written in a way that’s hard to convey. At times coming across like some weird fusion of Edgar Allan Poe, Cormac McCarthy, and Gene Wolfe (to whom this novella is dedicated, which makes sense, given the massive unreliability of our narrator(s)), Evenson writes genre fiction full of fractured protagonists who don’t always understand themselves, grappling with themes of identity, morality, and religion, all while following his dark stories to their inevitable conclusions. More importantly, he’s not interested in holding the reader’s hand; Evenson is an author who immerses you in his characters’ heads deeply, only giving us the limited scope of the world that they can perceive, and expecting his reader to engage with the text to think about what’s happening and character motivations.
All of that comes together beautifully in The Warren, a tight science-fiction novella following a confused survivor named X and set in a post-apocalyptic world whose nature only gradually becomes clear. (Fans of Evenson’s might feel like there are connections to his previous novel Immobility, though reading that book isn’t necessary to appreciate The Warren.) But really, The Warren isn’t about its world so much as it is about its protagonist – or, should I say, protagonists. Because what becomes very evident, very quickly, is that despite his thought that he’s the last surviving member of his kind – and what kind that is, exactly, remains open to debate – there must be someone else alive in this world, because things keep happening that he doesn’t remember doing.
The exact nature of what’s going on with X doesn’t take long to become clear, but it’s worth experiencing it cold, the way Evenson intended, because only then can you start to realize just how meticulously crafted and careful the narration of this book is. Written with Evenson’s usual masterful, stark prose, The Warren makes its debt to Gene Wolfe clear, giving us a narrator who is massively unreliable on multiple fronts, not all of them in his own control. But despite these elements of confusion, what’s in doubt isn’t the plot or what’s going on, but rather, what it all means. Evenson uses the character’s existential confusion to address any number of issues – the nature of consciousness, what it means to be a “human” or a “person,” the construction of an identity – and plays with them in fascinating, thoughtful ways.
The Warren won’t be for all tastes; Evenson has never been an author who’s interested in answers and spelling things out, and even by those standards, The Warren is cryptic, giving you just enough to draw you in and leave you thinking, but never offering much concrete or decisive. If you’re fine with that, you’ll love this; for me, I admire the book’s refusal to give easy answers to questions that have no answers to them. And with Evenson’s crystalline prose, his complex characters, and the compelling confusion of his story, what you have is a knockout of a little novella that’s deeply satisfying for those who are up for its uncertainties.