In the afterword to her recent novel, The Sentence, Louise Erdrich makes a number of reading recommendations. I’ve started working my way through the list. The first was The Hatak Witches https://www.carlrbrush.com/casting-spells-with-the-hatak-witches/. a And now, here comes Brian Evenson’s The Father of Lies. Jesus labeled Satan that way in the gospel of John, so you’d expect the novel to have a religious bent to it, and boy would you be right.
Evenson has structured the book in a fascinating way, ping-ponging back and forth among letters, delusions, therapy sessions, and savagery. Sometimes you feel you are in the hands of a novelist telling a story. Other times, you are in the mind of the protagonist in what you might call his “right mind” state. Then again, you are witness to the “right mind” state which turns out to be delusional. Sounds confusing? Yes. ExceptEvenson keeps us all straight somehow.
The aforementioned protagonist is named Fochs (pronounced “Fucks.”), who is a recently appointed provost of a religion or church order called The Blood of the Lamb. The adherents are called “Bloodites.” The opening pages focus on an exchange of letters between various church officials that leave the reader with bits of information but wanting more. There is mention of “The Fochs matter” without mentioning who Fochs might be or what the “matter” might consist of. The officials are insistent that the affair, whatever it is, be concluded immediately and kept under wraps. As the communications proceed, we are introduced to to a therapist who has been employed to help our provost rid himself of disturbing thoughts. Highly unreligious and immoral thoughts. The prime directive of the Bloodites is obedience. The male director commands the provosts, the provosts, all male, who have families, command their wives and children. Question the father or the director? Not done. Excommunication is the price to be paid for disobedience, and no one wants that.
As the therapy proceeds, the line between our provost’s disturbing dreams and reality begin to blur. Our therapist begins to wonder when fantasy ends and reality ends. It also becomes harder and harder for our provost to separate imagination from reality for himself. I’ll stop with synopsis here to avoid spoiling things. However, I think it’s worthwhile to look at the themes.
At the core of Evenson’s story here are the dangers of hierarchy and authoritarianism. If the central concern of an organization is to maintain control and image, if that, indeed, is the central morality, nothing else matters much. Since there’s no admitting that the object is power for power’s sake, the power is assigned to guess who? Hint. Name starts with a “g”. A capital “G”. So what happens when our provost and his cohorts become wrapped up in those assumptions and rules? It’s quite predictable, and it mirrors the institutions of our daily lives. We don’t protect the innocent and punish the guilty so much as protect our institutions and punish the whistleblowers. It took me about thirty seconds to think of a couple of such incidents. Maybe it will take you longer. Maybe two minutes, but you can do it. Go ahead. If you have a problem, turn back to The Father of Lies. The answer is right there.