by Blake Butler
In 2007, when Warren Ellis released his first novel, Crooked Little Vein, he talked about the strange tendency of some reviewers to mimic his writing style in their reviews. The result sounded strained, even pathetic, as though the review writers were trying to impress the cool new kid at school. But if you've read any Warren Ellis — beyond Crooked Little Vein — you know that his voice is singular. The man occupies his own warped corner of the universe, and he does not seem to care if you understand it.
Like Ellis, Blake Butler is the overlord of his own irregular literary land, and judging from some of the cover blurbs, the recipient of his own "emulations." I am not going to tell you to wear Butler "around your neck in wreaths" any more than I would construct some sort of awkward mescaline and Dr. Whiskey metaphor talking about Warren Ellis, despite my enjoyment of his "Good morning, sinners"-isms.
Most importantly, I am not going to pretend I completely understood what the fuck it was that I just read.
I am a stranger in There is No Year's neighborhood, and we barely share the same alphabet. I cannot promise a comprehensive review; I can only hope for an adequate one. Yes, this is a rather lengthy disclaimer to tell you that I am not the book's best audience, but I can tell you this — I am impressed with Blake Butler's ability to redefine what we typically consider "the novel." There is No Year is unlike anything else I have ever read.
A mother, a father and a son move into a house — a house for which the father cannot remember signing the papers, nor can he remember why this house, only the unrelenting desire to own it. They find an exact copy of their family, standing "each in a room alone unblinking." The copy family does not speak.
The father flicked the copy father on the arm there by the window in the kitchen — the window where so many coming days the father would look out onto the yard — the yard where once the copy family had surely moved and laughed and dug and thought and fought and seen the sky change color. The father watched the copy father flinch. The copy father's big ring finger had thirteen copy rings on. In the copy father's eyes the father could read his other's current scrolling copy thoughts:
This is my house.
This is our house.
This is where I am.
The mother disposes of the copy family the only way she can think to do so. From there, linear cause and effect cease to exist. The house undulates. There are rooms within rooms, holes within holes, hair and insects crammed into all crevices. The son has recovered from a mysterious illness, and the ensuing strangeness could be read as the metaphorical aftermath of that illness — Or, the house really does have them caught in an endless, haunted loop. I don't think Butler wants us to know for certain.
What Butler does appear to prefer is that we get sucked into his swirling imagery, lost in the same disconcerting way the family is. The father keeps finding the distance increasing between home and work, and work never lets him go. He is stuck doing an ill-defined job of which he cannot remember the purpose, only that he must keep at it or unknown bad things will happen. He is the wage-earner, the person in charge, the person "supposed" to do things.
Inside his car the father felt an awful feeling there was something breathing besides him. Sometimes right there on the backseat, strapped in, needing, shaped like him. He could not bring himself to peek. Through the windshield in his car out in the street among the houses in the light the father watched the car continue forward, scrolling, returning where he'd been again already — no sound — the years inside him itching, eating, and, outside, the years upon him soon to come.
The mother is perplexed by her child, periodically obsessed with mowing the lawn, prone to fits of cleaning and then fits of deterioration, and she is forever searching for a spark. Losing grip on sanity, she tries one thing after another, looking for that "thing" that makes everything better.
The mother had some idea of what she'd say when asked, if ever. Some homes had bells that shook her sternum, or would play a song she knew she knew. Some homes seemed to quiver right along, as would their home, leaning. The mother imagined herself inside each home's walls as she touched them — inside not sleeping, hearing herself at the door. At certain doors she tried the keys she'd crammed fat in her pockets, but in the locks they'd spin and spin.
The son is lost in his own world. His parents have trouble getting him to respond to their calls, and he sometimes feels as though ants are crawling inside his body. He can sit for hours watching the same spot, seeing worlds within worlds, until it all seems to vanish.
The son's flesh rolled between his small hands, doughy. He felt something spark between his teeth and there inside him. A little liquid dripped down from his ears. He heard whirring in his stomach like garage doors. The whole room seemed to squeeze. The son was tired. He was talking to himself. The room seemed to flutter in his eyelids, eyes behind them. The walls would lean or move. The carpet grew long. There was a boulder rolling above the bed. There were eyes on every surface. There was someone in the mattress.
The chapters are short, and the characters are never named. Butler plays with text alignment and line breaks, and even the page color changes on a black and white gradient. There are grainy and dark photos interspersed throughout, each their own version of nothingness and tiny points of light. The book itself, as an object, is part of the narrative, and that I really do like that. Typical page structure would not suit this story at all, and though I could not exactly tell you why one text alignment is used in a one section over another, it does contribute to the overall otherworldly tone.
There is No Year is a challenging read, to put it mildly, though its 400 pages certainly did not drag. However, readers looking for anything resembling a straightforward plot or a resolution are not likely to enjoy the book. The ending is only a designated cut-off point, the end of the exhibit. Butler's writing comes closer to performance art in some ways, the literary version of disorienting video installations, housed in dark rooms at the MOMA. It would be disingenuous of me to define this book in terms of "good" or "bad" — All I can tell you is that it's an experience.
Full disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.
This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.