By Colin Herd.
There is No Year, Blake Butler, Harper Perennial 2011
At either end of Blake Butler‘s third book-length fiction There is No Year, there’s a page of six two-line paragraphs. On the face of it these strange and surreal short pieces of writing (they look exactly like poems, longish corridor-length lines) perform the functions of prologue and epilogue, setting the scene and sewing up loose seams.
From the prologue:
“For years the air above the earth had begun sagging, suffused by a nameless, ageless eye of light. This light had swelled above the buildings. It caked on any object underneath.”
From the epilogue:
“The light continued. Light ate light up, and shat light out, and light remained. Days rolled in the long blows of the hours hidden in spinning years and months and days.”
If all you read were these two pages, There is No Year would seem like a sci-fi novel about some kind of vaguely malignant, all-pervasive and ill-defined “light”. In fact, the result is more disturbing, and more quietly bizarre, even than that prospect. The 399 pages sandwiched between the prologue and epilogue give the impression of being uncontainable, spinning and veering off into the genres of poetry, interviews, and online chats, emanating and undulating rather than following a conventional narrative trajectory. You might get a clue by the strangeness of the language in that second extract, and the way it seems to correspond with the first: the way the word “caked” haunts both “ate” and “shat”; the “long blows” reflected in the “swelled”; the creepy use of assonance: “hidden in spinning”; the reverse chronology of “years and months and days”; the dynamic of contrast in the words “sagging” and “ageless” and the sibilance of those two words plus “suffused” “nameless” and “swelled”; the ambiguity of the phrase “the air above the earth” as opposed to the sky or space or atmosphere or whatever else that might be taken to mean, etc.
A family (mother, father, son – and simply called by those names throughout) have recently moved into a house, in which strange and bizarre things happen. Reference is made to an uncertain trauma in their past, an unnamed ‘illness’ from which the boy has suffered and because of which they’ve had to erase every trace of their former lives. The strange occurrences in the house include: a replica family occupying it and needing to be disposed of; hair collects everywhere; the TV set is fuzzy and resists repairmen by shrugging them off the roof or trapping their thumbs, then it starts changing channels itself; strange numbers and names appear in their phone book; there’s an ant-infestation; an orgasm-inducing egg etc.. The house remains thoroughly separate from the family. If the beginning of the book seems to take on aspects of the sci fi genre, it’s horror films that are riffed on, expanded on and altered in the main body of the novel. It’s hard to tell whether what’s being described is the family’s dream and nightmare life or their day-to-day life. If it’s their dream-life the novel gives a skewed, disturbing, reflective portrait of the family’s waking existence, and is all the more disturbing for that reason, the way it gives a sideways glance at severe psychological trauma:
“The father was naked except for a metal bulb around his head. Two tiny slits allowed him to see out. They were not slits for ears or nose or mouth. The father had gained weight. The men had fed the father through long weird tubes and turkey basters. He did not know how long he’d been gone. There were no official charges. He’d been fully reprimanded. He’d been made to solve crossword puzzles in a small translucent box at the bottom of a public swimming pool, through which in his mind he could see the chubby men and women in their slick suits holding their children while they peed.”
Nightmarish and humiliating, it’s a queasy fantasy, perverting and exposing the vocabulary and props of grinding parenthood and working life.
Butler writes about domesticity with a startling ruthless truthfulness, absurd and deadpan in one breath. There’s a tension throughout between the strange and the matter-of-fact: “The son’s phone was purple by most opinions, though sometimes it might appear blood-red or translucent”; “the TV had a name but no-one ever called it by it”; “when the mother woke the following morning her body was as sore as it had ever been. In her sleep she’d drooled and sweated like the son and there the fluids had formed a kind of crust across her body and the bedsheets and the air.” At one point, the son opens a package of what you might expect would be family photographs. There’s a headshot of himself: “The son’s autograph appeared at a slight angle across the gloss. The son’s autograph touched the divot in his image’s Adam’s apple. The son could not tell if his autograph was actual or stamped on. The son traced his autograph with his ring finger. Then he could no longer feel his arm.” This photograph is one of a pile of many photographs, all of celebrities notable for the bizarre or noteworthy deaths, including: Bas Jan Ader, the artist who tried to cross the Atlantic alone and disappeared presumed dead; the novelist Ann Quin who died while swimming at sea; Tim Buckley; Bruce Lee; Egon Schiele. The list of names is five pages long, with footnotes explaining the deaths – sometimes elliptically (“Charlie Parker died inside a body mistaken by his coroner to be twenty years older than it actually was”) and sometimes with clarity. The chapter has the Red Rum-like title ‘???EGAKCAP EHT EDISNI SAW TAHW’. It’s a genuinely chilling piece of writing, starkly interweaving celebrity culture, our fascination with death and conventions of the horror-genre.
Like much of There is No Year, this passage is full-blown weird and derivative all at once. But it feels unlike anything else being written. It’s as if by borrowing the mirror-writing so explicitly, plus indulging in this endless-feeling list of dead celebrities, plus the sort of mystery-novel unwrapping of the package’s multiple boxes to reveal the stack of pictures, Butler ramps up a technique of copying to such a degree that you get a kind of onslaught of images, an overwhelming, abundant and kind of grotesque set of images. At points, There is No Year mimics the look-away, inevitable and perpetual horror of gore films, and the thrill of those films too, a fraught pleasure and fascination with death.
Through his editorship of the blog lit-zine HTMLGIANT and the journal LAMINATION COLONY, Butler has been a powerful force in contemporary literature for the past four years or something, championing a wave of experimental, and innovative writing. There is No Year provides further proof (on top of his equally impressive, and stylistically distinctive previous books Ever and Scorch Atlas) that his own fiction is about the most breathtaking and exciting that’s out there.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Colin Herd lives and writes in Edinburgh. He is co-editor of Anything Anymore Anywhere. Poems have recently appeared in Shampoo, Streetcake, Velvet Mafia, Gutter and Pop Serial, and reviews in the blog of Chroma journal. His chapbook, Like, is published by Knives Forks and Spoons Press and his poetry collection, too ok, by BlazeVOX.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, May 25th, 2011.