Book review: The Smaller Evil, Stephanie Kuehn

Disclosure: This review is based upon a copy provided by the publisher. No other consideration was offered.

I have a fascination with cults, and their complex, interwoven social role. They’ve been part of humanity for thousands of years, reflecting a multitude of desires on the part of their members, and adroit manipulative skills on the part of their leaders. Many of us want to think that we are here for something greater, that there’s some kind of explanation for the world around us, that somehow we can contact the beyond, a greater part of ourselves. The idea of joining with like-minded people, creating an insular, private, safe world, becoming ‘elevated,’ moving beyond other mortals, clearly appealed to early humans every bit as much as it does to modern ones, given the number of cults that continue to exist and thrive, and the new ones arising every year.

Intentional communities can straddle a dangerous divide when it comes to whether they should be classified as cults or not. People choosing to pool resources and skills, living together and sharing common values, aren’t necessarily in a cult, but where does that line lie? With developing their own rituals and forms of worship? With taking on values that are very different from the society around them? With developing beliefs that do not appear to be based in reality, like being convinced that a comet is coming to take them away to be united with higher beings?

After all, I’ve been part of organisations that conduct private retreats, and have their own rituals and ingroup beliefs. I don’t think that any of these constituted cults, providing the freedom to leave, the ability (and encouragement) to think independently. Yet, some of the ceremonies and activities we engaged in might seem cultish to the casual viewer.

In The Smaller Evil, Arman Dukoff is recruited to join a self-help organisation by his friends, who convince him to come to a retreat in a remote area of the mountains. The reader sees warning bells almost immediately as he’s interviewed by the retreat’s director and conversations about being special, elevated, part of a unique new world, begin to develop. The high cost of the retreat isn’t necessarily suspicious (maintaining retreat facilities isn’t cheap), but the idea of progressing through various stages of enlightenment is suspicious.

Things start growing even more suspect when the organisation’s leader disappears and the attendees at the retreat find themselves on lockdown. The retreat’s traditions and rituals start to seem more sinister, the leaders emerging in the aftermath of the disappearance darker and more twisted. Arman’s peculiar relationship with a woman who works in the kitchens gets deeper and stranger, and he struggles to balance his anxiety and other mental health issues with what’s going on around him. He’s tasked himself with picking out the pieces of the puzzle, trying to figure out what has happened, what his role is, and whether he can get out.

The Smaller Evil features a classic unreliable narrator, because everything Arman talks about feels slippery, uncertain. The line between what happened and what didn’t is unclear, as he lies to himself and the reader, skips over scenes and information, dances around subjects repeatedly. There’s a sense of danger surrounding the compound, with Arman at the centre of that danger because he seems to be the only one holding on to key missing pieces of an important puzzle.

Books like The Smaller Evil can feel frustrating for me when they’re not balanced well, because an unreliable narrator can seem cloying and precious when done poorly, teasing the reader and playing with the text rather than telling a story. Arman works well as such a narrator because it’s only as you slip deeper and deeper into the story that you begin to realise something is seriously wrong, and that the story he is telling you is maybe not the whole story, is perhaps only part of what is going on and might in fact be completely made up.

The text demands that you pay attention, while also cutting at you with pervasive questions. What is real? What is not? How can you find the boundaries there? Will you ever find them? My favourite unreliable narrators of all are those who leave me on the last page wondering what I just read, if any of it was real, the ones who leave me at the conclusion of a story thinking that there are any number of valid interpretations and endings that could be scored into the story. Arman’s textual uncertainty and the strange, dreamlike story have this effect, pulling you through the fog and then leaving you there, groping for an explanation. What just happened? Will you ever figure it out? Does it matter?

Life itself is unreliable, with all of us telling the stories we want to tell and finding the stories we want to hear. Books like The Smaller Evil take this on to a lesser extent, and leave me wondering about my own unreliable narration in the real world, the outside world. Which parts of my own story am I ignoring, or presenting selectively to an audience with a specific goal in mind? How do I tell the difference between my own truth, and the fiction I have constructed?

Image: A Victorian Afternoon, Cathy McCray, Flickr