Brian Evenson, The Open Curtain
Publisher: Coffee House Press
2006, 223 pages, $14.95
a friend recommended Brian Evenson’s novel The Open Curtain with a promising quip about the protagonist: “They’re calling him the Mormon Holden Caulfield.” Questions that immediately sprang to mind: Who dares disturbeth the sleep of the great Salingerius? How might our modern cultural mess look to Holden? What’s the Mormon word for “phony”?
I’ll cut the excitement and anticipatory criticism off at the pass: Rudd Theurer is not the Mormon Holden Caulfield, and The Open Curtain is made up of much stranger stuff than a little, beautiful coming-of-age. It’s a book of secrets and claustrophobia, a sensory novel that finds an amnesic mind, lodges there, and starts describing rooms. It circles back on itself. It leaves clues pinned on characters and objects. Time loses meaning, things unravel, and young Rudd is a Mormon Billy Pilgrim (if anyone) in the middle of it.
The novel centers on the real-life 1902 murder of Anna Pulitzer-a crime eventually traced to a grandson of Brigham Young-and the controversial former Mormon doctrine of blood atonement, wherein certain sins are absolved by the sinner’s own death. The doctrine was repudiated by the Latter Day Saints (LDS) church in 1978 but remains a mystery and, as Evenson argues, a stain on the faith. The novel describes a ceremony wherein participants mime the ways in which they would be killed if they divulged temple secrets. Evenson notes in the afterword, “Changing the ceremony hasn’t changed Mormonism’s underlying violence; it has only hidden it.”
In this way and others, the book is a direct criticism of the Mormon faith from the position of a former insider (Evenson left the LDS church in 2000, while he was working on the book). The main character’s Mormon mother serves up verbal and physical abuse between church services. Lyndi, the love interest-who immediately becomes inexorably connected in Rudd’s obsession with the 1902 murder-is comforted by Mormon women more interested in gossip than in healing.
The most gripping aspect of the novel, however, is not the religious hypocrisy that Evanson points out, but rather the swirling sense of time, the sinking into madness, the breakdown. It is a novel of secrets, and when the curtains part and the dusty boxes open, the reader leans forward, impatient to see.
– Amelia Gray