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.