Apr/May 2011

Bleak House

Blake Butler taps into suburbia's gothic undercurrents

David Haglund


In an interview published in the winter 2010 issue of the Paris Review, Jonathan Franzen said to Stephen Burn, "I've never felt less self-consciously preoccupied with language than I did when I was writing Freedom. Over and over again, as I was producing chapters, I said to myself, 'This feels nothing like the writing I did for twenty years—this just feels transparent.'" Franzen added that this struck him as "a good sign"—an indication that he was "pressing language more completely into the service of providing transparent access to the stories I was telling and to the characters in those stories."

Blake Butler is the opposite of that. Editor of HTML Giant, "the internet literature magazine blog of the future," he published his first book, Ever (2009), with Calamari Press, and his second, Scorch Atlas (2010), with Featherproof Books—both tiny independent publishers that place a greater premium on formal innovation than the big houses. Butler's latest book, There Is No Year, is published by the decidedly nonindependent Harper Perennial, but his work hasn't changed much. Transparency, I feel safe in saying, was not his goal when writing, for instance, the following:

They purred secret sentences in silent rising spiral until the sky at last had drunk so much it sunk to night—the night not out of cycle but in insistence, demanded in the skin, the unseen smoke of body after body sewn surrounding until the mother, at least, could not see—could not feel the air even around her, or her other—could not feel anything at all—and in the dark the mother stuttered—and in the dark again the mother walked.

Some context: In this passage, the mother has just carried a duplicate—a quasi-human replica of some indeterminate kind—of her son (the "copy son," it's called) through a forest near her home and deposited this body in the mud, where it gives off smoke and dies a quasi-human death (or so it seems). The mother has already tossed the copy mother and copy father into the family pool and watched them drown. Together with her actual son and actual husband, the mother found the copy family in their new house after moving in. These uncanny presences trouble the family for a time, until the mother, in secret, kills them off.

Click to enlarge

A sculpture by Richard Hawkins, whose exhibition "Third Mind" is on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles until May 22.

This all happens in the first 20 pages of There Is No Year. What takes place in the remaining 380? Not a great deal, at least in the way of plot, which, traditionally defined, seems to interest Butler as little as linguistic transparency. (Late in the book, the father is briefly taken prisoner for some reason, but this episode seems like an afterthought.) The territory, though, is familiar; in fact, it bears more than a passing resemblance to the ground covered by Franzen in Freedom and The Corrections. We're in the American suburbs, visiting—thanks to Butler's close third-person narration—the psyches of a mother, a father, and their son, moving chapter by chapter among the three perspectives. The father has an office job, where he stares daily "into a blank screen flush with light" and occasionally checks sports scores or looks at porn. The mother spends her time at home, anxious and bored (she "knew she needed something, but could not think of what or how to name it, how to put her hands in a way that would bring that something closer or quell the ache"). The son suffers from a sickness seemingly psychological in nature (the mother and father have been instructed, "as a precaution," to discard everything that reflected his identity before the illness took hold).

A father bored at work, a mother lonely at home, and a teenage son depressed and going crazy in his bedroom—these are stock characters, really. Butler may be aware of this. At one point, the son watches on TV a movie he has seen many times before:

There was a family living in a house. There was a father, a mother, and a son. The family all looked tired. Nothing ever really happened. The father drove places and got lost and walked around the house. The mother mostly cleaned and worried. The son would stand and sit and stand.

That's There Is No Year in a nutshell. What's missing from that summary are the dark, surrealistic episodes that dot the novel: the copy family from the opening pages, the egg the mother discovers while mowing the lawn (an egg that, when kissed, "triggered something in her brain that made her shake with vast orgasm"), the buckets upon buckets of caterpillars the father finds one day in the mailbox. With its skewed suburban setting, the book recalls the movies of David Lynch (in addition to the caterpillars, the book crawls with Blue Velvety ants). At times, There Is No Year reads as though Lynch has remade Blue Velvet, his dark suburban character study, in the fuzzy and disjunctive style of Inland Empire—and converted it to text.

That description probably makes it sound like I enjoyed reading There Is No Year more than I did. Many of its episodes are half-realized. Take, for instance, a bit from midway through, in which the son discovers a package in his closet. Butler draws out this discovery with a long buildup: Inside the first package is another package, then another, until, in the seventh, the son finally finds something (the prose during this process of discovery is broken up, as it is occasionally throughout the book, into stanzas, some flush right, some centered on the page). The payoff in the package is a pile of photographs (not reprinted, sadly) of famous people made more famous by the ways they died: the first bassist for Metallica (bus crash), Bruce and Brandon Lee (a swelling in the brain—the nature of which has been much debated—and an accident on a movie set, respectively), David Foster Wallace (he's listed last), and thirty-nine others. The sudden influx of proper names—all the book's characters go without them—makes this section leap out. Adding to that effect: The first four people in the pile of photos—Antonin Artaud, Sharon Tate, Andy Kaufman, and Heather O'Rourke (the child star of the Poltergeist movies; she died at age twelve, a few months before the third film was released)—also provide epigraphs to the novel's four sections.

The problem is that the names just sit there: After Butler lists them, the book simply moves on. Together, the names do suggest a mood and milieu: suburban, slightly comic, supernatural, macabre. That mood unquestionably comes across, but once it's conveyed all that's left to sustain our interest—in the absence, more or less, of character and story—are the shape and sound of Butler's prose. And while the passage about the copy son quoted at the beginning of this review is, I think, a bravura bit of writing, many of the book's pages are a slog. Butler likes to wad his favorite Germanic and Anglo-Saxon words—scrunched, burped, blank, meat, grease—into sentences that bump and bounce across the page in a kind of grim, gothic singsong. "Inside the house the boxes rang," one sentence begins,

and heads made laugh and bees barfed buzz and long dogs barked and babies babbled, while inside his bulb the father began to shout a semi-prayer and the bulb zapped his skin and skull in hot correction and across it all there was a wind and no one would.

Readers thrilled by this passage—and I suspect there are some—should rush out and buy the book. But I grew bored. Occasionally a verbal invention wakes things up again—"a silence made of towns," for instance, or "long unblinking fields"—but the novel frequently relies on vague, repetitive descriptions of one of the three principal characters (they are rarely together, and the book has little dialogue) moving around the house, down hallways, and through doors:

When the light of each of all the sides was gone again in spinning, the light remained there still—it hung in gristle, caked in bones and teeth, in the ceiling of the nothing far above—in distance and in hours, doorways—reflecting air back at the earth—in all the dirt, and all the wonder—days in hours—years in days.

There is too much of this. (Sometimes in more ordinary prose: One chapter ends, "Certain tunnels went very deep. Certain tunnels ended in doors that led to rooms." Those tunnels and rooms never become much more specific.) There was also a lot of it in Butler's novella Ever, about a woman apparently trapped and dying in her house. In that book, the fixation on walls and hallways made sense, considering the book's obsession with internment. And the first-person voice and singular focus—well complemented by Derek White's abstract illustrations—gave the brief Ever momentum. Here, the third-person narrative is unsatisfyingly scattered, and the architectural tropes come to seem like a rut. The house of There Is No Year may, in some sense, be haunted, but the souls inside it remain frustratingly opaque.

David Haglund is the managing editor of PEN America, the literary magazine published by PEN American Center.

Advertisement