Tuesday, January 17, 2012

"There Is No Year" by Blake Butler

"…and in the midst of all of this, from the outside, from neighor's doors or windows and in the street – from all but a certain very minor other angle there was no way for most to see what had gone on – you could not see that this wasn't one of many houses – from the street the house was fine – A-OK – today, tomorrow – on the walk the neighbours passed in silent indecision – what for dinner? glass or chicken? – though in the minute on the hour their skin went prickled near their teeth, they looked a second time in one direction, pulled their pets along to shit on somewhere else – that night they didn't kiss their sons or wives – they grew one more new long hair or felt a ticker in their thigh – only in their sleep then could they see what they had seen."

This is the sort of portentous, power-of-suggestion horror that made Blake Butler's "There Is No Year" a terror to read. Never mind that the volume itself is oddly shaped, developing physical discomfort in the reader from the get-go; and never mind, too, the disturbing photographs of blurred faces, blurred lights, and unidentifiable black and white matter interspersed throughout the book that impresses deeply on the subconscious. Butler's prose – which is a sort of constant decay, a man's thoughts cycled through a machine that endlessly repeats them while adding and subtracting words almost unnoticeably – is adequate alone to produce the sensation of scare, even if it never tells us exactly what is happening or quite what exists in the funhouse/haunted-house that is the book's setting. Just as his protagonists (the nameless Father, Mother, and Son) are constantly unable to recall things, unable to see, unable to move, so the reader is trapped by the inability to perceive totally into the book; and so, on the edge of things that are horrible – a videogame character trapped in an endless hallway begging the son for help, for example – we can't tell if these things are horrible because they have been written here, or because they have been written – perhaps slightly differently – somewhere inside of us before.

Impenetrability is the dominant theme that runs through this work, whether in the form of immense, endless, and inexplicable boxes, or of light that stuns and drowns, or of air that holds and restricts, or of questions that cannot be answered, or the book's underlying teleology – which the reader can feel there even if he or she cannot grasp it (perhaps because its existence is only the possibility of an existence – a hangover of expectations). And yet, despite the fact that the book is fundamentally holding out against the reader – and despite the fact that this holding-out makes it even more likely that a fallible human reviewer will be unable to adequately synthesize the (sub)conscious theoretic foundations of a work – I found "There Is No Year" to be philosophically simple. Namely, this is a book of existential alienation, bearing all the trappings of the dissatisfied suburban youth. This is a book where the ultimate horror is the Home and the Family, even if it sometimes branches out to thrash us in the horror of Work and the Coming-of-Age – which are really not so distant or out-of-place in a writing that fears domesticity.

For this reason, I doubt this book can speak to everyone. It spoke to me quite strongly, insofar as I am a product of middle-class suburban upbringing, and, socio-economically speaking, identify strongly even now with the complex of emotions, ideologies, and rebellions contained within that worldview. I don't know, however, that this book can be nearly as powerful to women – insofar as the mother character is brutally stereotyped, sidelined, effectively ridiculed, and appears infrequently – or to non-whites or people of working class backgrounds (who simply do not appear - although this may be blamed on the prejudice of my inner eye). Engrained deep within this book is a "first world problems" sensibility that, though it does nothing to lessen the horror during the reading, makes one question the book's potency at its end.

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