June 23, 2011

Blake Butler: There Is No Year

Posted in Butler Blake at 8:00 am by John Self

For those who like the novel to go to new places, I have just the thing for you; provided, that is, you don’t mind the new places looking quite familiar at times. There is much to distrust about Blake Butler: not least his attention-seeking blog title, and some of the contents of that blog which, for all I know, may be intended to sound like Kafka’s aphorisms, but come out more like mistranslated fortune cookies. Yet trustworthy people are interested in him, find this new novel “amazingly good.” It is published in the US by HarperPerennial, hardly a niche press, but has no UK publisher.

There Is No Year declares its credentials – avant-garde? experimental? – from first sight. Its squarish format, textual patterning, variegated pages and photographic inserts all declare, Look, I am trying to do something new. And after all, it is the trying that matters; but all this would be so much window-dressing if the pages contained a conventional story. They do not. This is a work, and a world, of repetition, threat, mystery, frustration and nightmarish illogic.

There is a plot, or at least a premise. A family – father, mother, son – move into a new house. ‘Home’ is not quite the word, as there is not much welcoming about it. The house rejects them from the start. For example, “when the family came to live inside the new house, they’d found another family already there. An exact copy of their family – a copy father, mother, and son. The copy family members stood each in a room alone unblinking.” This is perfectly representative of There Is No Year. The elements which challenge the family also challenge the reader: they look for a moment threatening and ingenious, then for a moment like the unedited flailings of an inchoate imagination. That conflict is key to the book, which challenges the reader in every way, including on the issue of whether this is the real thing or the emperor’s new clothes, on the expectations from a novel and what we expect of writers. Is it true, for example, that Butler wrote it as an experiment as quickly as possible, and what does that mean for our reading of the book? It shakes up expectations of the balance of power – and effort – between writer and reader. What value is the writer’s effort, it asks, and to what extent do we really approach a book independent of any foreknowledge? Read alone, any one of the short chapters seems brilliant, an unexplainable poem. Reading several, you might start to wonder if there is any point, or if this is just random imagery hammered out, however beautifully put. (“The grain in the glass in the windows in the frames in the walls in the rooms in the houses on the yards along the streets aligned for miles.”) Reading on, persisting, a wholeness begins to become apparent.

The reader might have the same ambivalent response to the book’s production. The pages graduate from shining white to half-tone grey, creating the effect that the reader is reading the book into the night as the light fades and the words melt into the background. It also startles the reader at the suddenly dazzling whiteness of otherwise ordinary pages. This modish and, y’know, zeitgeisty production is carried through to the content. Of the father’s job, Butler writes: “If asked he could not say for certain what the work was. Mostly all he did all day any day was look into a blank screen flush with light. Sometimes the father looked at porn or ads or sports scores, but mostly just the light.” Light as a motif is almost comically overused in literature – it recurs here in the prologue and epilogue – but you get the feeling that Butler knows when he’s riffing on other writers. The oppressive house, for example, most obviously recalls Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park, and elsewhere a long and gripping list of famous people’s deaths brings to mind David Markson’s This Is Not a Novel. Is this Butler’s way of telling us what this is or is not?

Such a declaration hardly seems necessary; There Is No Year fights the traditional novel at every page turn. It is not difficult to read – the language is mostly plain. But it is difficult to understand, perhaps even impossible, if by ‘understand’ we mean to infer clear and coherent meanings to the words. (To quote a very different writer, Douglas Adams, when asked what the message of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was, said, “No message. If I’d wanted to write a message I’d have written a message. I wrote a book.” Or if a more comfortable literary register for you is Nabokov, he made a similar disclaimer for his own work.) Yet one cannot say that the book lacks clarity or unity – the tone, events and characters are consistent throughout. Themes recur, particularly the disposal of things: the copy family, a hard drive, a mysterious egg, caterpillars which multiply in a mailbox, are thrown away, buried, destroyed. The writing can soar through its self-imposed limitations, as in this passage where the mother discovers an odd quality of the strange egg she finds in the house:

When she kissed the egg a tone would sound inside the shell. The tone triggered something in her brain that made her shake with vast orgasm. It erased all previous tones. Her body shuddered reeling, clobbered taut. The mother felt guilty and enormous. Her certain veins clenched into bouquets. It had been more than several years. The mother could hardly keep herself from squealing through the small house in the night – she had to bite a wooden spoon. She bit through it. She kissed the egg until her eyes went bloodshot and her brain swam fat with glee. The next day she could not stand up. Nor the next day nor the next. Her lower muscles scored and knotted. The mother hid the egg inside her nightgown. She moaned with ache late into the evening. The father went to sleep downstairs.

That last sentence shows the unexpected humour, not always subtle, that surfaces from time to time. (One chapter, about a menacing box which frightens the son, is titled ‘Another Fucking Box’.) It emphasises that all Butler’s tricks are in language. The short declarative sentences which make up the book, parsed individually are unremarkable, but put together frequently seem incomprehensible. The relentless alternation of banality and horror keeps the reader surprised, so there is no slack. Many novels have a structure into which the words are slotted, and the structure is there behind them and can be seen by the reader, occasionally (or frequently) becoming visible when the language slackens. Here the structure is the language, a web of words which has no recognisable form underpinning it. Butler understands the failure of language to convey any individual’s reality, as when the mother falters, observing that “By the end of early evening, the house felt mostly new. If not new, clean. If not clean, better. If not better, something.” Or when the father finds language failing him altogether. “Clordbedded ahst forb, said the father, alone upstairs.” We see from Butler’s ability to turn it on that when the language fails, it is because it needs to.

What There Is No Year does most impressively is to emphasise the importance of literature as a solitary experience, despite the attempts by book clubs and online forums to persuade us that it is a communal, collective one. Here the book is so uninflected and open that every reader will have a wildly different experience. Many will hate it, some will love it, and a few – count me in – will veer, settling on a positive response through the book’s sheer, wilful, beautiful difference.

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22 Comments »

  1. Lee Monks said,

    It’s a marvellous review but I fear this isn’t going to be for me. It looks – and sounds, in terms of it’s physical manifestation – lovely, mind.

  2. I like that last parra. When we had Crockatt & Powell there were plenty of events. We were opposite a second hand bookshop that had been there since the 70’s. They found it utterly bizarre that people would want to get together and meet authors or talk about books. For them reading was something you did alone or with another person who was reading something else and sat on the other side of the room…

  3. John Self said,

    Quite right too! Next thing you know, people will be starting their own online web-based logs to tell everyone what they think about books.

  4. Are you into some sort of meme to read books with enigmatic titles starting with “There” but not really finishing the thought?

    I can’t help but think in reading this review that I would admire the designer of the book more than I did the author — but that’s just me.

  5. John Self said,

    Ha, yes Kevin, in fact I did mention on Twitter at the time that I was simultaneously reading There Is No Year and There but for the and that it was giving me a headache. To which some wit replied, “There There.”

  6. I haven’t done any searching, but off the top of my head I can’t think of any other “There” titles. And I think “There now…” might have been a better response, but it is close.

    • leroyhunter said,

      From John’s own reviews: There Are Little Kingdoms….

  7. You had me at “avant garde” and “experimental”. The cover is just an added bonus. It’s added to my wishlist and will be bumped up to the top of my TBR pile.

  8. John Self said,

    Excellent, Averill. I look forward to hearing what you think about it. It’s one of the strangest books I’ve written about here, along with the likes of Europeana or Hotel Crystal.

  9. bookmunch said,

    I think I’m with Avril. I picked up Scorch Atlas a couple of weeks ago and it’s on my to be read pile. Without having read anything yet, I get the impression Blake Butler is a writer I’ll like… Once again, thank you John for keeping my ‘internal/mental/to be read’ list percolating…

  10. Sam Jordison said,

    On the one hand that sounds really annoying. On the other, you make it sound fascinating… Wonderful review. Am now intrigued.

  11. John Self said,

    That’s about right, Sam. It is mad, maddening and madly engrossing. I sent my copy to someone else as it’s difficult to get hold of in the UK (except through Amaz*n), but it’s the kind of book I’ve had a mild hankering to sample and skim again since I finished it.

    Bookmunch, I know you’re an Americana kind of guy (and better read in that sort of thing than I am), though this is quite a different kettle of fish, so I’ll look forward to hearing what you make of it. That goes for anyone else – I’m keen to get others’ opinions on such an interesting and (to me, within my own view) divisive book.

  12. Richard Wasserfall said,

    I came across Blake Butler last year with Scorch Atlas, and though I haven’t read this one, I think you get at something with your comment that his short chapters work as brilliant, unexplainable poems, but that over the long run, you begin to wonder… The relentless banality got to me and so did the relentless banality of his tweets so I unfollowed, but I would probably veer along with you to postive response

  13. John Self said,

    Thanks Richard. Perhaps it’s one of those where the experience of having read it is better than the experience of reading it.

  14. Simon T said,

    Fascinating review. I always like the idea of modern experimental fiction, but not the actual reading of it… especially when things are done visually or graphologically – hard not to feel gimmicky. But I love unstable houses in literature, so perhaps… perhaps I will try this. But I probably won’t…

  15. John Self said,

    You sound like the perfect balanced sample on this one, Simon!

  16. Nick said,

    I’m the sort of person who has to skim through a few pages of something in a bookshop before I can tell whether I might enjoy it or not. As this one isn’t in the bookshops I went to Harperperennial.com and there’s a big chunk of the book online. It looks quite intriguing, my fingers might even wander towards Amazon….

    Btw, John, what’s your take on the imminent closure of the Bookshop at Queen’s after 53 years?

    • John Self said,

      My take is the standard one, Nick: ‘What a shame’ etc, even though I’m rarely in South Belfast these days and so haven’t shopped there regularly in years. Having said that, the last time I was there a few months ago, I recognized several books in the fiction section which had been there since I was a student, and that wasn’t yesterday… So I think they probably had stock management problems which can only have contributed to their decline.

      I read Jenny’s proposal for securing its future, which I think is inspired (though admittedly risky as it would involve creating a whole new customer base and doing away with the existing ones, even those like me who buy four books there once a year), but it doesn’t look as though the management or owners have the heart for it. Still, presently they have a half price sale on, so maybe I should go over and pick up that collection of short stories they have that I’ve been putting off since my undergraduate days in the early 1990s…

  17. I finished reading Butler’s There Is No Year last night, and I think (but I’m not sure) that I think it’s a pretentious but interesting project. It’s ultimately meaningless (absurdist?) on so many levels, and while some might argue that this perfectly reflects our postmodern world, I couldn’t shake off the suspicion that Butler’s taking the mickey.

    I love experimental writing and think it’s very worthwhile, but it doesn’t always make for a very pleasant reading experience. Part of the problem for me was that I couldn’t ignore my need to create meaning out of chaos, so I spent my time desperately trying to find some coherence to the whole. What it most reminded me of was the bible – both in its use of language (you comment on the repetition, for example) and in the theme I detected threading the whole together – naming (and/or the lack of it), from the absence of character names to throwaway sentences like “You could not press Save on your MS Word files, only Save As…—unto all things a new name”.

    I’m not impressed with the design of the book as a novelistic feature – if that’s what it’s meant to be. It doesn’t contribute anything to the narrative or story (I’m resisting the urge to put those in inverted commas). But as a gimmick, the coloured pages, the fluid typography and the photographs are rather beautiful.

    What I also kept thinking was what a nightmare the book must have been to edit or proofread, and felt quite proud of myself when I did spot one definite typo. I’d like to dip into some of Butler’s other writing, but I won’t be buying any more, or investing a large chunk of my time reading him from cover to cover.

  18. [...] no structural innovation, no sense of exploration. Next to something like Blake Butler’s There Is No Year (published, incidentally, by a mainstream press), this is Catherine [...]

  19. [...] of its own for sheer eccentricity and oddness – perhaps challenged by Blake Butler’s There Is No Year, which narrowly missed my list. Sjon’s book wins by sheer force of charm and character. I [...]

  20. […] a field of its own for sheer eccentricity and oddness – perhaps challenged by Blake Butler’s There Is No Year, which narrowly missed my list. Sjon’s book wins by sheer force of charm and character. I […]


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