Brian Evenson, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Joy Williams, Jorge Luis Borges

Brian Evenson “The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell” Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca “Chronicle of the Narváez Expedition” Joy Williams “Breaking & Entering” Jorge Luis Borges “A Course on English Literature”

In Evenson’s stories, it always feels like something is missing, like the characters need to recover what they haven’t realized is gone. His settings are empty landscapes, undescribed except to mention objects that advance or impede narrative progress.

At the dawn of Spanish imperialism in the Americas, Cabeza de Vaca also wrote about desolate places. The difficulty of traveling through landscapes of stagnant lakes and dead trees cut Cabeza de Vaca’s expedition from a force of 300 men to four hungry, cold, and desperate survivors.

Cabeza de Vaca spent nine years trying to make his way from Texas to Mexico City. Throughout his chronicle, one unsettling pattern repeats itself – soon after he and his companions arrive at new communities, those communities are overwhelmed by disease.

By the time the next Europeans reached the regions where he had traveled, many of the nations and languages he described had vanished. His chronicle is the only written record of these peoples’ existence – written by the man probably responsible for spreading the diseases that killed them.

Joy Williams writes about Florida, the place where Cabeza de Vaca’s ships first landed. Breaking and Entering has a mood that sometimes parallels Evenson’s stories – Liberty, the main character, wanders through her days talking to neighbors and watching the ocean, but something is missing. When her suicide attempt is revealed, it becomes clear that what’s missing is Liberty herself.

In his lectures on English literature, Borges said that pre-Beowulf, “sentiment for the natural world… does not appear” in European literature. He also claims that early Germanic literature never mentioned color.

Cabeza de Vaca described cultures that were exterminated because he witnessed them. Joy Williams describes pseudo-ghosts stuck in a living world. Evenson describes landscapes that prefigure a dead planet. Each of them takes away what was once there. If it took European literature hundreds of years to build a language of life, of color, of the natural world, these three books do the opposite – here, Western writers slowly strip life away, until all that remains are ghost people on a ghost world.

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