Monday, March 12, 2007

BOOK: The Open Curtain, by Brain Evenson

The Open Curtain, by Brain Evenson
Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2006

Whenever I profess religious tolerance yet feel like being funny, I add, “Except the Mormons. They’re just nuts.” Somehow it feels safe in a way it never would making a joke about another religion. Partly it has to do with Mormonism’s geographical concentration; one is less likely to offend a Mormon outside of Utah. But, more so, it is Mormonism’s alien nature, its status as Other, shrouded in secrecy.

Brian Evenson’s The Open Curtain places the reader on the fringes of Mormonism, and the effect is a novel that feels of another culture, referring to a shared narrative and values with which most readers are unfamiliar. Yet, the book is less about Mormonism than it is about Mormons whose lives are transformed by the seductive and destructive powers of violence.

The Open Curtain focuses on Rudd Theurer, a Mormon teen whose father committed suicide years earlier. Rudd is the archetypical Object of High School Scorn, isolated from peers and increasingly distant from his overbearing mother, when two events converge to change Rudd’s life: the discovery of hidden letters of his father’s that imply an unacknowledged son by another woman, and a school assignment that leads him to the 1903 murder conviction of William Hooper Young, son of Mormonism founder Brigham Young.

The injection of these two narratives into Rudd’s life begins a psychological transformation, one that Evenson relates through a three-part structure of shifting perspectives that serves to delay discoveries and preserve the elements of mystery in the story. And it works. This is a novel supported not by evocative language but a taut and driving plot and a psychological exegesis of the notions of secrecy and violence tied up in the disputed Mormon doctrine of “blood atonement.”

Which is not to say the novel succeeds on every level. The female characters are shallowly drawn, including the one, Lyndi, from whose perspective we see the novel’s middle act. Lyndi’s motivations never progress beyond a fear of being alone. The only two other women given significant time are Rudd’s overbearing and self-deceptive mother and Lyndi’s bullying and self-deceptive aunt. Perhaps it serves as a comment on women’s place in Mormonism, but they come off as caricatures.

And, in fact, the only reason I’m willing to conjecture this last possibility is the author’s afterword. Too many graduate criticism classes have left me with a sour taste for overemphasis on authorial intent, but I make an exception here. Evenson explains how writing this book accompanied his separation and voluntary excommunication from the Mormon Church, but he goes on to explain his delicacy in relating Temple practices and his respect for the culture. As a result, the novel has a different resonance than it might have coming from a bitter ex-Mormon.

Coming an an afterword, it allows the fact of Evenson’s ex-Mormonism to frame but not define the book, and where it would have failed as a screed against Mormonism, it succeeds as a thoughtful story told at the fringes of that culture.

reviewed by Jim Jewell, 499 words



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