Blake Butler – Sentences as an army of body snatchers: they will drill a hole in your chest with language and fill it with a decaying worlds
"Butler's inventive third book is dedicated "For no one" and begins with an eerie prologue about the saturation of the world with a damaging light. Suitably forewarned, the reader is introduced to an unexceptional no-name family. All should be idyllic in their newly purchased home, but they are shadowed by an unwelcome "copy family." In the face of the copy mother, the mother sees her heretofore unrealized deterioration. Things only get worse as the father forgets how to get home from work; the mother starts hiding in the closet, plagued by an omnipresent egg; while the son gets a female "special friend" and receives a mysterious package containing photos of dead celebrities. The territory of domestic disillusion and postmodern dystopia is familiar from other tales, but Butler's an endlessly surprising, funny, and subversive writer. This subversion extends to the book's design: very short titled chapters with an abundance of white space. Not so much a novel as a literary tapestry, the book's eight parts are separated by blank gray pages. To Butler (Scorch Atlas), everything in the world, even the physical world, is gray and ever-changing, and potentially menacing." - Publishers Weekly:
"A family lives in a house in which strange things start to happen (or—it’s a new novel by Blake Butler).
Love him, hate him or feign indifference: There’s really no other way to react to the work of writer/postmodernist/multi-hyphenate Butler (Ever, 2009, etc). For those who like their prose fresh out of a cleaner and more traditional wellspring, Blake’s writing can prove tedious at best and arduous at worst. But for those who lean toward writing that is more visceral, taxing or outright demanding of the reader, this might be the right cup of tea—see Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000), to which this novel owes some debt. The book concerns a family of doppelgängers so featureless that Butler doesn’t bother to give them names (or more accurately, likely purposefully washes them out to their elementary characteristics). So, the father, the mother and the son live in a house, just like the carbon copy father, mother and son had done before them. The father stares at a computer screen. The mother stares at her lined face in mirrors and thinks protective thoughts about her son, who suffers from a disease that nearly ended his life. The son goes to school, makes a friend and watches television with his family. It’s all presented in hushed, monochrome language that gives the whole enterprise a sense of menace from the beginning, even before Butler introduces the father’s paranoia that things in the house are changing without his knowledge. And then things do start changing.
A gruesome slice of familial oddity that demonstrates its author’s versatility." - Kirkus Reviews
"Butler keeps the reader guessing in his latest novel. A family moves into a house where another family lives—a lifeless, unseeing copy of the family. The family goes through individual psychological and paranormal experiences that make one wonder about the origins of the family’s demise—Is it the son’s carefully mentioned past disease? Some metaphysical demon in the son’s subconscious? Or does the newly purchased house cloak discontented poltergeists? Whatever the cause, each family member endures a private psychological hell that is disturbing in its authenticity. VERDICT This artfully crafted, stunning piece of nontraditional literature is recommended for contemporary literature fans looking for something out of the ordinary. Butler integrates unusual elements into his novel, such as interview-style monologs and in later chapters poetry-like stanzas. Also recommended for students of literature, psychology, and philosophy, as the distinctive writing style and creative insight into the minds of one family deserve analysis." — Jennifer Funk
Blake Butler, Scorch Atlas, Featherproof, 2009.
"Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas is precisely that —a series of maps, or worlds, “tied so tight they couldn’t crane their necks.” Everything is either destroyed, rotting or festering—and not only the physical objects, but allegiances, hopes, covenants. Yet these worlds are not abstract exercises, he is speaking of life as it is, where there might be or may be, “glass over grave sites in display,” and where we will be forced to make or where we have “made facemasks out of old newspapers.” The sole glimmer of light comes in recollection, as in: “a bear the size of several men... There in the woods behind our house, when I was still a girl like you.”— Jesse Ball
"There’s something so big about Blake Butler’s writing. Big as men’s heads. Each inhale of Blake’s wheeze brings streamers of loose hair, the faces of lakes and oceans, whales washed up half-rotten. You can try putting on a facemask made out of old newspaper. You can breathe in smaller rhythms. But you won’t be able to keep this man out once you’ve opened his book. Open it!" — Ken Sparling
"I am always looking for new writers like Blake Butler and rarely finding them, but Scorch Atlas is one of those truly original books that will make you remember where you were when you first read it. Scorch Atlas is relentless in its apocalyptic accumulation, the baroque language stunning in its brutality, and the result is a massive obliteration." — Michael Kimball
"Scorch Atlas is a collection of linked stories. Unlike other post-apocalyptic books this one doesn’t take place after the event and then mention it, talk about or allude to it. This book takes place as the event is happening. The characters don’t know what it is that is happening and the structure of the story, the writing style, the variety of forms used and the design of the book all collude to instill in the reader the same fear and confusion that they feel.
Scorch Atlas is like The Book of Revelations written in first person.
The design of the book is stunning. It’s got the shape of a travel guide and the entire thing is designed to look like it has been to hell and back. The exterior of the book is stressed, the inside has the look of wrinkled paper, is “stained” with water and blood and the edges of the pages are charred black. A book, as physical object, that survived the event. You’ll want to wash your hands after touching it. Big props to Zach Dodson the designer." - BSC Review
"Certain books cast light on our future selves: think 1984, Brave New World, Infinite Jest even, and usually in doing so, forewarn us of what dire circumstances we could be muddling our way into. Often times these tomes are moralistic in nature: stray too far this way and look at what could be in store. While Scorch Atlas does scrawl out a black ash of a future, it doesn't necessarily come off as a what could be, rather as a what will. And in times that dark, it reminds us of what last vestiges of humanity we need to retain to keep ourselves sacrosanct.
The stories contained within Scorch Atlas are about families. Homes. In a future riddled with doubt and unease. Where an unnamed cataclysmic event has rendered everything but survival moot. Diseases run rampant and houses barely stand on their foundations. The skies crack and blacken. Food is scarce and bodies distend and crust over. But even in this desolation, Blake Butler's characters still cling to things. To spaces. To family. "I'd make this world somewhere to rest in. He'd remember. We would not grow old alone," a mother says in reference to her bloated baby boy in "Want for Wish for Nowhere." Later, in describing her environs Butler writes of "the earth's plates snapping; the flies at the window cracking the glass; the stitch of rhythm in the incision of the earth sinking in itself."
The stories tend to coalesce around certain thematic strains. Even so, the pieces are rendered in such jagged glass craftsmanship that they retain their individuality like the whorls of separate fingerprints on the same hand. In "The Gown From Mother's Stomach," a mother devours anything and everything in sight to fashion a gown for her daughter through consumption and excretion. There is also mention of a talking bear. "The Ruined Child" is a diseased boy (a theme that threads through various of Butler's stories) that haunts the attic of his parents' house, a constant reminder to his father of his failings as a husband, father, human being. In "Television Milk" a mother is held hostage by her three, near feral boys who only allow her temporary release to feed them her breast milk. The boys range in age from just losing their baby teeth to being on the verge of pubescence. The pervading oddities and grotesqueries bring to mind the fiction of Brian Evenson or the filmic work of Harmony Korine or David Lynch. Still, nothing is done solely for the squeamish factor, rather, things are what they are in this twisted world and throughout, the people that inhabit Butler's stories still grope for their humanity. They fight for their homes. Their schools. Their blood lines.
Butler's writing has what the writer Gary Lutz refers to as "verbal topography." Words grind and froth against other words and while narrative momentum is still evident, reading the sentences for their acoustical qualities alone is worth re-reading pages the second you reach their end. The writing is visceral in a way that not only do the sounds of words playing off each other cause you to stir and gape, they have enough resonance to make you physically ill afterward. Try reading: "Her neck sat crumpled with the burden of her head. He moved to shake her shoulder. Gnats muddled in and around her mouth. The tongue, the meat, already rotting. She'd jabbed a kitchen knife into her stomach. Blood spread around her in an oval. Static seemed to gather at her face," without feeling your tongue swell in your throat.
Lastly, it'd be doing the book an injustice not to mention how beautiful the thing is as an objet d'art. Zach Dodson, designer and co-founder of Featherproof Books, truly outdid himself with Scorch Atlas. The edges of pages are dyed black, giving it a sinister, charred look from the outset. Short passages titled "Blood," "Light," "Gravel," etc. have appropriate splatters or blotches on the page, rendered deftly with Dodson's keen eye. The design truly stands up to the content and vice-versa.
In the same way that Infinite Jest, written thirteen years ago, presupposed communication being fragmented via technology, in particular, the internet, Scorch Atlas presupposes a bleak, dystopian future (although let's hope it's farther off than thirteen years from now) where people bloat and grime, the world is a cracked shell of its former self and families do what they must to eke out an existence.
In the future, when scrabbling through rubble for any sort of roughage to burn, I assume our progeny will come across Scorch Atlas and say, "Yes, yes, of course. This Butler, a seer." But let's hope for all our sakes, that future is far off." - Gene Kwak
"Reading Blake Butler’s “novel in stories” Scorch Atlas will disorient you. Its imagery is vivid, fleeting, and sometimes grotesque, and the relationships within it — whether familial dynamics or laws of physics — exist to be defied. And yet there’s an exhilaration to it — through the length of the slim volume, its cover designed to resemble an artifact from some unspeakable disaster, Butler balances these scenes from upturned life with prose that glides and disorients.
A quick description of Scorch Atlas would likely involve the phrase “apocalyptic,” but this isn’t the terse Armageddon of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Instead, Butler’s decaying worlds resemble the vistas of Steve Erickson in their dreamlike logic and those of J.G. Ballard in their sense of the subconscious eroding restraints mental and physical. Butler’s previous work, the novella Ever (Calamari Press, 2009) and the chapbook Pretend I Am There (Publishing Genius, 2008), also dwell in dissolving landscapes.
“People are stuck on what is familiar, everyday,” Butler says via email. “Degrading locales feel more everyday to me than the settings of most realist novels, where if sheets are dirty it’s because someone is fucking illicitly. I feel gross in most air.” It’s a sense of intentional degradation that has extended to the book’s promotion and even its shape: publisher Featherproof placed a limited number of “hand-destroyed” copies of the book on sale in the period before its release.
“I think it’s particular to the destroyed quality of Scorch Atlas as an object... the objective here was to make the book look like it had suffered its own contents,” says Butler. “If the book were about bike messengers, or about game show hosts with meth addictions, it wouldn’t really do much for the book’s aura for it to come beat to shit.”
The manipulation of the book’s text has extended elsewhere: an electronic collection of “remixes” is due from Featherproof soon. Butler views the remix project and the hand-destroyed editions as hailing from a similar place: “So much in the book is mangled, ripped to shit, and rhizomatic, I hope, and it only seems right to take that kind of material and let it be done horrid, beautiful things to.”
Both on his own website and his contributions to the literary site HTML Giant, Butler has discussed the evolution of prose and argued against complacency. The sentences in his own work twist and evolve, and there’s a perverse joy that comes from watching just how his paragraphs are shaped, of tracing their contractions and rhythms. Though given that the designs for both Scorch Atlas and EVER find design elements nestling their way onto the page and sometimes blending with the text, the question arises: is a book’s design inherently complementary to its language?
“So much authenticity can be added or taken away from a text based on how it is presented,” replies Butler. “It’s just a question of pleasing the eye and the mind, and this is not to say that a text can’t be strong without strong presentation, but it sure as hell helps: not only in the moment, but in helping extend the longevity of that object over time.”
For these works, that presentation came through collaboration. “I was lucky in both cases to get to work with designers (Derek White on EVER, and Zach Dodson on Scorch Atlas) who not only understood exactly what I wanted in the vague-ass way I’d say it (like, ‘Man, I really want it to look like someone got this smeared across their head, and like some gibberish symbols, and candy.’) and take that not only to the level of what I’d wanted, but way beyond it. Both of those guys are super smart and considerate when it comes to the idea of the book as an object, and in doing so created houses for text that in the end take the text to a whole new level.”
It’s with a discussion of narration — specifically, the fever-dream monologue of EVER — that our exchange ends. And it’s Butler’s closing words that encompass both his philosophy and his sense of experimentation: “I think that in order for [first person] to work, you have to earn it. You have to have a reason for a person to be talking to the reader directly, rather than just having the things be said. It’s more than voice, or characterization: it’s a tone, a mood, a parsing between the mind that is meant to be the generator of that language, and the way that mind communicates through paper. So much can be said without saying anything really, by attuning to the finer aspects of the way a language speaks: rhythm, grunting, silence, direction, in-jokes, white space, collision, accident, syntax, visual bumping, ouch.” - Tobias Carroll
"Blake Butler aims his telescope at the future, and if what he finds there and shows us in Scorch Atlas even approaches the truth, we can all only hope we won't be around to see it.
I'm reluctant to refer to this full-length debut as a novel, even as a novel-in-stories. It's more a tour, a guided circuit of a ruined world. And it's less post-apocalyptic than it is contemporary, less aftermath and more in the heat and squelch of a horrid, horrifying end. "I let my baby witness the swan dive of our destruction... the way the world had come to rash... and how the ground would split apart... the pastures of dead cattle already rotten... the mayonnaise on the sandwich no one would ever eat and the babies with their hair tongues like my baby here like mine." The people in this world, regular folks, moms and dads and kids, can't do much amid the chaos except let it unfold around them and do their best to stay afloat or uncut or breathing.
The sky is, throughout, an enemy — it rains soil and gravel and glass. "Above, the sky made bubble, blurred with humid grog." A sentence like that might come as surprise in other books. Not here. Scorch Atlas doesn't make its point with narrative arc or character development or paragraphs or even the lovely, terrible sentences. Instead, it's the heaping of words — mauled bubbled clods knotted clogged rot foam mold growth cragged bugged curdle boils lumps ooze gunk stung and on and on — that press on you, as if you were being buried, drowned, dissolved, as if you were about to swallow your tongue.
In "Television Milk," three untamed sons make their mother a captive. They tie her down and suck her breasts. "Tum — awkward and fumbly, just near an age he might have begun to dream of women — he took my nipple in his mouth with his arms crossed over his chest, eyes anywhere but on me." In "The Ruined Child," a mother and father drown their baby because "where once he'd had the father's features, his skin expunged a short white rind." The baby comes back, though, and grows to monstrous size, inhabiting the attic and prognosticating with a "runny mouth."
Although the characters have memories of a better time, hope does not spring eternal. Or at all. In "Caterpillar," one of the 13 shorts that precede each story, "wriggling ropes of segmented flesh" infest the world. Even the transformation into butterflies proves a horror: "In the end, the great unveiling: ten billion butterflies humming in the sun, fluttering so loud you couldn't think." Butler's integrity is patent; you never get the sense of gross-out for the sake of gross-out. (His vow that he'll eat his book, one page at a time, for you to watch on-line is another story: he pours ketchup and hot sauce onto a shredded page two and forks it into his mouth.)" - Nina MacLaughlin
"Blake Butler is part of a generation of authors who publish both in print and online as a means of entering a literary dialogue, paying respect to old ways by doing tremendous things with the new. Butler’s first novel and latest work Scorch Atlas is a hybrid work composed of fourteen separate and interwoven stories. The stories, told in prose form, flash form, and longer form, hit a nerve with their explorations of a pain familiar to us all—family dysfunction. “Upstairs the father watched the ceiling. He’d faked deep slumber through his wife’s long sobs.” Butler takes the all-too-common failures of family members in relation to each other, making them into a solid foundation for the triumph of the individual.
Fire is a major part of Scorch Atlas’s design, not only as a combustive event and metaphor in the narrative (“The house had caught fire seven times in seven months… some people used the term bad fortune. The mother’s mother said, ‘Y’all aren’t living right’”) but as an effective element of the book’s overall aesthetic. Pages within the binding take on different shapes, appearing torn, wrinkled, rotting, water-logged, or over-dry; various font sizes and styles are used throughout. Conceived by Zach Dodson, co-publisher and creative director of Featherproof Press, Scorch Atlas’s presentation adds to the reading experience. Performing as an ashen, crumbling work in our hands, the work urges us to push forward before it—and we—turn to dust." —Nicolle Elizabeth
"When it comes to Blake Butler’s writing, I either love it or I hate it. There is never a middle ground when I read his work and perhaps that’s a good thing because no matter what I’m reading from Butler, I have an intense reaction. I feel something. I have an opinion.
I did not know what to expect from Scorch Atlas, out now from Featherproof Books, and on sale for $10 so really, that’s a bargain. I didn’t know if it was a novel, a short story collection, fragments, poems, images. I knew Butler was going to eat his book one page at a time so I did worry about his constitution as book pages tend to be thick. I also knew you could order the book pre-damaged. I declined. I liked not knowing anything about the book. These days, we’re so saturated with information I often forget what it feels like to be surprised.
As I’ve mentioned before, I love my Kindle. It is convenient and useful and I’m totally into it but if ever there was an argument for the importance of the book as a physical object, that argument would be Scorch Atlas. The production values of this book set a new standard. As someone who designs (to call me a designer would be an insult to designers), this is the kind of book I wish I had designed. The aesthetic is so consistent and so well-executed that I could write an entire review on that alone. The book is taller than traditional books. It has a distressed look throughout like an old, well-used atlas. The interior pages look worn, wrinkled, soft like pulp. Holding the book with its slick to the touch cover is a tactile pleasure. I have rarely seen a book where so much thought was given to design and where design so effectively complemented the writing. You really cannot talk about the content of this book without a serious discussion of Zach Dodson’s outstanding design.
The fourteen stories that are the scorched atlas work together and individually. The stories feel the same and yet different. They are stories of physicality and human frailty and bodies and worlds given over to decay and blight. The ways in which the people and places in these stories are rendered are a grotesquerie but in the very grotesque there is beauty largely because of the strength of Butler’s prose and the depths of his imagination. There is a relentless obsession with the body, with fluids, with oozing, with homes and mothers and sons, with things that are bent or broken. Butler writes with a heavy hand in these stories. Every single word suffocates you both thematically and stylistically. The writing is tactile. It deliberately, profoundly engages the senses and more than that, it engages the mind, often in challenging ways.
Some might call the world(s) of Scorch Atlas apocalyptic but I would say the world(s) are dystopic because they don’t destroy life. Even amidst the bleak carnage, the rot, the melancholy and darkness, the world(s) of Scorch Atlas sustain.
Between each story, each turn of the atlas, is a vignette about a plague, a pestilence—glitter, glass, blood, caterpillars, gravel, dust, water, light. These horrors are detailed with well-crafted, dense and almost overwhelming prose. The ways in which these vignettes interrupted the narrative was, to my mind, very smart and I’ve found myself rereading them several times because in their way, they hold the stories they complement together.
As someone who loves the deliberate use of form in writing, my favorite stories were Damage Claim Questionnaire, Tour of the Drowned Neighborhood, Water Damaged Photos of Our House Before I Left It and Bloom Atlas but I could just as easily list the other ten stories. This book is a clear example of the whole as a sum of its parts.
Scorch Atlas is a fine example of experiment with purpose (writers, take note!), of world building, of decadent, detailed and innovative writing. This is a book that should be read, and widely." - Roxane Gay
"Can you love a book like Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas? I couldn’t read it over lunch, or before bed. I had to keep it at arms’ length. I would pick it up and read a story — each prefaced by a brief piece in which something, almost never rain, pours from the sky — and walk away again, the cadence of Butler’s sentences ringing in my ears. “The mother ate thread and lace for four weeks so that her daughter would have a gown,” begins one story. “Randall had a head the size of several persons’ heads — a vast seething bulb with rotten hair that shined under certain light,” starts the next. These sentences, smooth and disturbing, lure you in, leaving you unprepared for the rhythmic shift that occurs once the hook is set. Sentences shorten. Alliteration spikes paragraphs with hard sounds that struggle against the viscous, viceral descriptions that pour forth: too much water, mold, dark, damp; people growing rinds, their heads enlarged, their skin flaking; dogs at the door and nothing in the place where the ocean once shifted.
Scorch Atlas is a series of stories set in a ruined world. It might be a distant relation of The Road, but only in concept, and in that many of its subjects are families — and families who could not save each other even if they tried. A boy forgets his brothers, who slip under the mud that is the earth’s surface; a woman misses her son, around whom a fire began of its own accord (the seventh such fire in her house). In “Seabed,” big-headed Randall and a strange little girl walk to where the sea should’ve been. But Butler’s world isn’t so much post-apocalpytic as losing itself, drowning in an abundance of elements no one much cared for in the first place: mud, insects, sickness, death and the quiet, solitary madness that follows. In “Tour of the Drowned Neighborhood,” a narrator calmly, briefly describes the world that’s left for those who haven’t succumbed, alternately pointing out what’s there — “This is a picture window with no picture” — and instructing the reader to think of what isn’t: “Imagine shallow water blackout, heart attack, thermal shock, and stroke. The skies alive in color. No light, no sting, no sound.”
Butler’s stories wear different shapes — one like a fairy tale eating itself, an ouroboros of dead myth; one an insurance claims report; “Seabed” sitting in the middle of the book, almost hopeful — but every one accomplishes the unsettling feat of turning horror into poetry. The images are terrible, and the language is astonishing. Butler’s world is incredibly present, soaked in fear and transformation and uncontrollable forces of nature which, here, are deeply unnatural. Why, and how, would it rain flesh, ink, glitter? There’s no time or space to ask, only to absorb, and then try to shake it off, stepping out of the pages of this beautifully designed book (tinted to look ashy, rumpled and stained) and returning to the tidy, ordinary world where you may or may not sleep with visions of dead oceans and moving walls dancing in your head.
I can’t love Scorch Atlas. I think I fear it — its relentless and overwhelming vision, and the power Butler has to drill a hole in my chest with language. But Butler’s strange masterpiece doesn’t ask for your love. It demands your attention." - Molly Templeton
"I hold a copy of Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas and am caught in an awe of books that is rare and seldom overtakes us, happening only when we cradle these pieces of literature and understand that we are seeing something new, something different, something nearly indefinable, something that will change us and our literary perceptions.
The pages are frayed in mock-burns, crumpled in digital disarray and otherwise tattered by design, the genius of Zach Dodson / Bleached Whale, and the spine is scarred, the pages wet with an unknown substance and dirt gritting between chapters, the very real hand-destroyed effect of Blake Butler himself throwing this book into the street, standing on its edges, smearing its face with real-world soot. This, the magic of appearance, the wonder of enormously creative production, before we even begin reading.
With Scorch Atlas, Featherproof Books has made it so that we feel we are picking up a lost history, that we are reading into a broken past, that we are reaching inside a mirror of ourselves but the backing is gone and the image is shattered and what we see frightens us. To give a book such latitude, such design, it is to teach us not to forsake our words, to instead hold them tight and in panic, for they can change the ways in which we see.
But outside of the trippingly slick design aspects and the phenomenal aesthetic presentation of Scorch Atlas, what is it that makes this book hum, that brings it to a higher level of writing, of literature, that makes us see Butler as more than avant garde, as more than new, as a writer who is simultaneously challenging us and begging us onward? In part, it is this notion of interlocking-stories, and the way that a structure of this type creates something other-worldly, a factor of going beyond.
Scorch Atlas, a belated primer, or in the year of the cyst & tremor, or in the year of the worm & wilting, or obliteratia, or a bloom of blue mold along the backbone, or a slip of tongue in the year of yeast, or hide his eyes in the hive blanket, or ilblissum akviss noebleerum iglitt peem or ______________, or no window, or spoke into the soft skin of the mother, or want for wish for nowhere, or coma ocean, or goodnight. [from the title page]
The through-line of Scorch Atlas is of apocalypse, the degradation of the world through glass and static, dirt and floods, but the characters are mostly nameless, usually relegated to easy cultural nomenclature: mother, father, etc. and there is, as such, no exact or absolute protagonist / antagonist. Certainly Butler has set-up the book in such a way that weather elements and societal devastation antagonize each moment of the plot, and there is certainly as well a sense that the carry-through, the following, is of a narrator combing through rubble, the rumbling leftovers, but these are merely interlocked and not forcedly glued to one another. They are a notion, an idea, not forever pock-marked and immovable but malleable, tidal, rising in and out with wax and wane.
The day the sky rained gravel I watched it drum my father’s car. A Corvette he’d spent years rebuilding. He liked to watch his face gleam in the hood. He kissed the key before ignition. He read the owner’s manual aloud. When he lost the strength to stand he left the car uncovered in the street. Each morning I took a Polaroid and we tacked it to his headboard—a panorama of slow ruin. [from ‘gravel’]
The gravel here plays as detriment, as the chaos of loss, and it carries this one narrative portion into the other stories of Scorch Atlas, the relationship built not by the character of dad or the car pelted to dents, but the storms that wages above them all.
To interlock means that Scorch Atlas has, as Jesse Ball mentions in his back cover blurb, created a map, an outline, so that readers are merely led one point to the next, tangents included, rather than stifled and cloistered by a confining and burdensome absolute of narrative.
My family huddled hidden under one another in the house our Dad had built alone. The house where we’d spent these years together. The old roof groaned under the pouring. The Leaking basement filled with goo. [from ‘Bath or Mud or Reclamation or Way In / Way Out’]
Here too, like everywhere in this book, it is equally about the family as it is about the rain, the flooding, the bursting of clouds into mud or dirt or fragments of some other progressive decay. And the through-line of the family, at some point, becomes irrelevant. As we read it becomes less and less important whether this Dad, huddled in hiding, is the same Dad carving himself in the gleam of his Corvette. If they are the same, then we are given the story of this family, of this Dad, falling into abandon. And if they are different, if one Dad is distinct from another, one family separate from the other, it is still the story of fathers, of sons, of families pickled in these massive earthly abuses, wrecking with the landscape. Scorch Atlas is still and always the devastation, the debris, the remains.
This is a sharp and clever structural choice for Butler as well since stories of ruin most often are given the task of rendering each and every moment of the collapse in grounded footage – in order to convince us that this altered reality is somehow still our reality – but with the presentation here as interlocking stories, with no claim to explain or justify how / when / where, Butler is able to loosely weave an apocalypse together without stopping along each point to build readily definable expositional markers, which would inevitably undermine his purpose and clutter the book with unnecessary waste and immaterial moments.
She spread across the wrecked earth and refracted through the ocean to split the sky: a neon ceiling over all things, a shade of something new, unnamed [from ‘the gown from mother’s stomach’]
Scorch Atlas is a world of mold, a world of festering wounds, a world of hurt. Scorch Atlas is a carefully and meticulously distraught world of language, a trembled and shaken line of thought, a vibrant dead trance of phrasing, the measure of words put together all and in the right ways. Blake Butler has made something enormous here, in the reams of his Scorch Atlas, and if nothing else, we are simply destroyed by it, mistaking our skin for its cover, our blood for its damage, our eyes for its violent and broken images." - J. A. Tyler
"The 14 linked stories in Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas depict the fragility of the American family through relentless accumulation of apocalyptic detail. Parents disappear or are held captive by their children. Babies are born malformed and enormous. Homes are destroyed by water or fire or accreting dust.
In “Smoke House,” a sheet of plastic in a ruined bedroom serves as a wall “to keep the outside out or the inside in.” In “Want for Wish for Nowhere,” an instructional packet dispatched to new mothers claims that “there are holes in every home.” Butler’s collection is frequently concerned with outside and inside and with the prodding of holes in between, letting the chaos of the world’s end into homes and the chaos of homes out into the world.
The extreme subject matter and obsessively rendered syntax will evoke comparisons to writers like Brian Evenson and Gary Lutz, but Butler is an original force who is fearless with form. “Damage Claim Questionnaire” consists of answers to increasingly bizarre questions, from “How long have you owned your home?” to “Could you be doing something more?” “Tour of the Drowned Neighborhood” ticks off a list of things lost, while “Water Damaged Photos of Our Home Before I Left It” establishes a creepy dialogue between image and text. Scorch Atlas is something of a visual artifact itself. Designed by Zach Dodson, cofounder of the new independent press Featherproof, the collection has splotchy, dark pages that appear charred—as if it has weathered the fiery disasters it describes. The design is appropriately disarming, an apt part of the overall barrage by this inventive and deeply promising young author." —Kimberly King Parsons
"Right off the bat, Scorch Atlas asserts itself as, if not the coolest-looking book you’ve ever fanned between your fingers, on the short-list, interior and exterior alike. Trot it out to the right café or park bench, and people will crane to try to discern what you’re reading. Visually, its obvious allusion (though a Google search yields nothing), is to The Whole Earth Catalog, Stewart Brand and Company’s smorgasbord of utopian philosophy, architecture, how-to, eco-engineering, and millennial gadgetry. Butler’s novel is the shrunken-down, charred, dystopian rendition of this; the sunny geodesic domes never got built, and the remaining landscape, littered with strip malls and trailer parks, takes the brunt of everything a creative televangelist might portend falling from the sky and then some. The book’s physical appearance, courtesy of Featherproof Books, is inextricable from the phenomenology of reading it, its textured pages so intrinsic to the work of the work that one wants to imagine that in their absence the reading brain would intuitively project them.
But if the book was mere accessorizing, stylishly anti-stylish, it would be garnering only a fraction of the deserved attention it’s getting, stunning décor being all well-and-good, but the chef having eventually to deliver from the unglamorous, E. coli-bespattered kitchen. So another superlative—Scorch Atlas is quite possibly the most visceral book I’ve ever read, and in its uncompromising slog through muck and murk, boot-heeled in language, the book carves out a style which, once experienced, feels necessary. As flickering lights can induce seizures, Butler’s prose seems prone toward causing synesthesia; touch permeates and choke-holds all the senses, rendering images tactile, reinventing sounds, smells and tastes, even air itself, as palpable spatio-temporal entities.
Like Annie Proulx and the William T. Vollmann of The Atlas, Butler dredges something ecstatic from the material, holding his breath amidst grit and gristle and slime. Unlike Proulx, say, where such writing serves as vehicle for characterization--of both the denizens of hardscrabble places like Newfoundland and Wyoming, and the places themselves--Butler appears to be up to something more metaphysical. Characters and places are virtually interchangeable, leveled when the malls “filled up with sludge and the sun went hyper-violet and grass squirmed and the water swam inside itself.” Though the occasional proper noun crops up--Randall, Bill, Oklahoma--this is not a book whose characters will stay with you as individuals after you’ve put the book down. Rather, the book builds its cumulative force through language and image, the sort of thing you may find yourself opening at random to delectate in its sentences.
Butler is skilled at a variety of techniques but a virtuoso at the dense, thorny sentence whose species is delineated by Gary Lutz in his now-famous Columbia lecture, “The Sentence is a Lonely Place.” As Lutz suggests sentences ought to, Butler’s “are all vibrating and destabilizing themselves; no longer solid and immutable, they start to flutter this way and that in playful receptivity… the words swap alphabetary vitals and viscera…intermingle and blend and smear and recompose themselves.” In keeping with such a representational apparatus, Butler’s world is destabilized as well, a world where blood is more likely than rain to slosh out of the sky, and one “wonders how long” it will be before one’s own teeth become “the ones that rained down and ripped us open.”
The book’s storyline--think of them as fourteen scenes whose curtains are forms of precipitation--begins with elements as commonplace as today’s headlines. First, there is a water storm that sounds like Katrina multiplied by five, upon whose heels comes a disease that causes “skin cells [to] shower… from my soft scalp” and “patterns in my forehead.” Style and subject-matter are interfused already, as it almost feels as if there is a contagion of alliterative sounds. Butler writes, “She could hear her mother murmur. Her father, fraught but what he’d lost…ate while crying, mad or mesmerized.” Days are “back-bent,” a house burns repeatedly, “always under star strum.” Assonances, too, run epidemic: “loamy, coagulating,” “the house’s bug-hung panes”; at times I had the uncanny sense that I was reading Christian Bok’s Euonia, where pages on end deploy only a single vowel (Butler’s said in one interview that his sentences originate in his nose).
Most effective are when alliteration and assonance slam together, obscuring technique; thus we get “something gunky, runny, rancid,” or “some sour music box, cranked to crack.” It’s tempting to describe Butler as reveling in language like a poet, but the more apt vocation might be alligator wrestler, embracing resistance, taking pleasure in the spectacle of the sentences wrapping around themselves—no skimming here, folks. Seductive as it is, this style is likely to break out beyond these pages and into the works of other writers. A plea, though: let this not be another case like Denis Johnson, where legions of (often third-rate) imitators were spawned right down to the typeface used in Jesus’ Son; let the spirit of experimentation rather than an exact chemical titration prevail.
Vollmann’s own The Atlas, aside from its title, bears the closest kinship to Scorch of any I can think of. To its credit, Butler’s language often recalls Vollmann’s. Where these books diverge is in terms of Vollmann’s vast geocultural, stylistic, and rhetorical range. Wandering everywhere from Mexico City to Nairobi, from Grand Central to the Arctic north, Vollmann's work also treks stylistically from beat to Biblical, raunchy to mythical. There's no doubt that Scorch Atlas plays with form—there is a questionnaire about damaged goods, a “tour of the drowned neighborhood,” and a portfolio of “water-damaged photos”—but running through all of these is a remarkable consistency of tone and style. In a book where air is described as “sweat,” where “smoke and ash hung in streamered fuzz,” the very spaces on the page brought on by such formal play are welcome places to stop and breathe. Also welcome are the glimmers of humor, such as how the substitute teachers get sick and themselves require subs, as well as the occasional crossover into the mythical, as in the talking bear who ingests a girl and regurgitates her into the sky.
It is unclear what the implications of such relentless onslaught are for the society into which it’s been unleashed--as with all apocalyptic narratives, one is tempted to see in it warning and caution, like those signs that show a car in mid-flip to indicate a dangerous curve in a road. Unlike McCarthy's road, there's no quest to cling to round the bend, and unlike Delillo's Airborne Toxic Event, we cannot laugh or hold ourselves at ironic distance; we've become the event. Scorch Atlas leaves us floating in the “coma ocean,” and if there's a shot at transcendence, it is via an “UP that is on no compass.” Butler's language soars even if it takes us through a sky utterly marred, maybe beyond mend." - Tim Horvath
"Scorch Atlas contains fourteen interlocking stories, each one rendering some family relationship apocalyptic and imperiled. What at first may seem merely bizarre--especially given the shifting forms that provide much of the textual delight of the book--eventually becomes terrifyingly familiar. Butler excels at forcing the familiar through the a sieve of strange until it is stripped clean of its everyday banality, until it is once again made so fresh you can smell the decay it contains, until you can taste the despair that threatens to destroy not just his characters but also the dangerous worlds they inhabit." - Matt Bell
"Buy Scorch Atlas, by Blake Butler. Rip out your favorite story of the collection. Drop it to the ground and watch the pages flutter like ashen butterflies. Don’t worry, they won’t go far; the wind disappeared three moons ago, scorched into violet smoke by the sun.
Fall onto your knees and pray for rain. Push until grains of sand and bone are indistinguishable. When you lean your face back, burrow your fingers into the cracked earth like roots. Soak moisture from the ground, exchange water for blood.
Tear those pages into scraps and let them dissolve on your tongue like the discarded wings of cancerous flies. Swallow a handful of the bloody mud and feel it sluice down your throat. Follow chunk with chunk until your stomach distends, until the veins of your skin intertwine with print, until capillaries make intertextual connections and the only way to truly know what is inside is to watch the world disintegrate around you.
Don’t worry if you missed an inference: the story is still inside you, and in your hand is a shard of the mirror from mother’s room with which to carve, and on that rock your skin will dry quite nicely" – Nik Korpon
"Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas is, at first glance, a collection of linked stories. Whatever expectations that format sets up in your mind, this book is not what you think it will be. It is not a compilation of discrete stories sharing, perhaps, a common character or place. It is not a novel-in-stories (whatever that is, besides a marketing tool, but bear with me here).
Scorch Atlas is an artifact from a potential, horrific future. It shows slivers of lives of people not after an apocalypse, but during. These are not survivors’ stories. We are not reading these people’s stories after they’ve already come through the other side. They’re in it, right down in it. The ash and the water and the mud, the strange diseases that cause their skin to mold and bubble, that causes babies to grow rinds and pelts… Butler sinks us down there with them: ordinary people with ordinary lives, unable to make any more sense out of what has become of their world than we can. There is no “how” in this book, no “why.” There is only the sure fact that the world has gone to hell, with no end in sight.
Butler’s prose is precise and muscular. The imagery is unrelenting. The suffering of the characters is unrelenting. What makes it hurt more is also what makes it so very good: all the horror is grounded in love and longing. Each main character tries to hold on to what they can of the way things were before, and what they’re grasping for are other people, or their memories of other people. Of family. Central to many of these stories is the love of mother for child, the love of child for mother. It’s gorgeous, and heartbreaking.
I must admit, it hurt me at times to read this book. It took me longer than I thought it would to read, because it hurt. I’ve been accused in the past of being a bad reader because I am an emotional reader. So be it. I am an emotional reader. I want to have a strong emotional response to whatever I’m reading. If I can only feel it in my brain, I have little use for it.
No danger of that with Scorch Atlas. My god… this book.
I also have to say, Scorch Atlas is one of the most beautifully, thoughtfully designed books I’ve ever held in my hands. Publishers are worried about the whole e-book thing? Well, then we need more books like this. Books as objects of art, with designs that not just honor the content but actually add to the reading experience." - Dispatches From utopia
"The 14 linked stories in Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas depict the fragility of the American family through relentless accumulation of apocalyptic detail. Parents disappear or are held captive by their children. Babies are born malformed and enormous. Homes are destroyed by water or fire or accreting dust.
Malformed babies! Apocalyptic landscapes! Sounds awesome. And it was for about two, maybe three, stories. Then it grew tiresome. Maybe that was Butler’s plan all along, and if so, then bravo to him for making the reader feel as tired and downtrodden as the characters.
While I enjoyed the bleak settings of most of the stories, what I found most frustrating was Bulter’s syntax. I never understood why he would use more words, primarily prepositions, than necessary. For example, in the story “Seabed,” there is this sentence: “The men he’d spent endless nights with pounding shots with, fly-licked blood now flooding from their mouths.” I know it’s the editor in me, but damn I want to cut out that first “with.” I can hear the poetic structure of the sentence, which I find good up to a point. But when I start noticing style over substance, then I start to get bored with the story. Do writer’s really want readers to be bored with their stories?
Maybe Butler is more interested in wordplay, and if so, then I think some of these stories would have worked more effectively as poems and short plays. I think that sort of variety would have kept me interested, seeing as how these apocalyptic stories all seemed to run together, pages and pages of full-justified text.
In the end, I remember some of the story ideas, but not the full story. The ideas I enjoyed most are the mother eating lace to so that her daughter would have a gown and the children holding their mother hostage so that they could feed on her. My favorite story was “Smoke House,” because it was the most straight forward and the most tender in its telling of the pain of losing a child. It was the one story I got caught up in, not once thinking about the syntax. It was the one smooth item in an otherwise charred book." - pimplomat
Blake Butler, Ever, Calamari Press, 2009.
"Within the psychic architecture that is EVER, Blake Butler explores the way bodies swell and contract, going from skin to house and back again. And the way houses too shrink to fit us first like clothing and then like skin and then tighter still. The result is a strange, visionary ontological dismemberment that takes you well beyond what you'd ever expect." —Brian Evenson
"Blake Butler is a daring invigorator of the literary sentence, and the room-ridden narrator of his debut novella, EVER, nerves her way into a hallucinative ruckus of rousing originality." —Gary Lutz
"In EVER—as in, indicating any time in the past or future-light is entropic; "the sky could lift your skin off"; domestic rituals are anamorphotic mind fucks granting "no exit method"; and doors won't open even when you don't try. Articulating viscera, ever inside, Butler's narrative dispatches are enclosed between parentheses like unfinished houses, the pages opening out occasionally into exquisitely burnished fields of imagery. Much in the way minerals are pushed up past the mantle by core collisions, EVER reads to me like new evidence, delicate gear that allows us to glimpse a place we've always lived but still don't know."—Miranda Mellis
"Butler's debut novella is, above all, a playful text that repeatedly mines the tension between repression and expulsion. Superfluous brackets contain every paragraph, visually constraining the words, giving the proceedings a whispered, aside-like quality. Meanwhile, these snatches of subdued text are arranged seemingly randomly around the page, at times overlapping collage illustrations by publisher Derek White, imparting a restlessness that is amplified by sudden shifts in tone. Much of the narrative itself remains opaque, the writing for the most part consisting of stretches of abstract prose propped up by regular meter, alliteration, repetition, and wordplay: "The wind would wind my hair.... ripped with rashing." The female narrator relates a fragmented list of details about herself and her surroundings, some prosaic, others horrific: "The door in the floor in the sunroom changes colors with the weather. ... Sometimes at night I hear certain doors open and people come into my house." Her creepily indifferent tone lurches from singsong ("At first our local leaders tried to zone around the madness") to flat, mundane sentences ("Some weeks, I should mention, I would live off candy bars"). Something here, obviously, is very much not right. The obscure plot (as I interpret it) involves a supernatural kind of "fold" or "yawning" that appears in a neighborhood, distorting reality, and forcing the narrator to retreat inside her house, then deeper and deeper within the architecture that is herself--although her patchy evasiveness renders all related information and events questionable. The gothic/sci-fi angle and typographic experimentation ultimately births a text that falls somewhere between FC2's former Black Ice imprint and a grungier House of Leaves. A deceptively brief read, EVER proves ever disquieting." - A. D. Jameson
"Blake Butler is a giant Saguaro cactus. He’s just sitting out there in the desert watching things happen on Earth and in Earth’s sky. Sometimes David Lynch drives by and recognizes Blake from the last time David Lynch drove by. They exchange signs of recognition in forms like meteor showers and blank stares. Measured ground-to-apex, Blake is almost 13 meters tall. Blake takes up to 75 years to develop a side arm with which he taps you on the shoulder when you think it’s just you in the house. Bats feed on the nectar of Blake’s night-blooming flowers and pollinate the night-blooming flowers of other Saguaro. One day, Blake will get really hot from sitting around in the desert sun, and he’ll explode. It’s a myth that tarantulas come out of Blake when he explodes. What really comes out are sentences, perfectly formed and capable of nesting in your syntax for however long." - Evelyn Hampton
"Okay, last weekend my son had a 100+ temperature and infections in both ears, which made for an unpleasant couple of days. He was kind of zombied out on antibiotics and would only sleep if one of us was holding him. So we spent hours just sitting in a chair with him resting on our chests. I used this time to read Blake Butler's chapbook, Ever, and I have to say that if there ever was a book created to be read while holding a feverish baby against your chest, this is the book.
The language is incredible, as you would expect from Blake's work. I was interested, after reading and enjoying so much of his shorter fiction, to see what he would do in a longer work, and it's amazing how he is able to preserve the energy and bending and ticking that I've come to love in his fiction and maintain it over a longer span. It's crazy and original and the best kind of difficult."- Kevin Wilson
"Blake Butler is the editor of Lamination Colony and yesterday I got his book. I read it to my daughter last night (the night before I read her a book about "a girl named Dictee" she's very interested in the books on my night table).
Happpily this fine book fits very well into my narrow interests: rooms, buildings, boxes and the gothic imagination. And The Shining of course.
In The Shining, a large part of the pleasure comes from the tension between the very linear narrative of the horror story and the increasing presence of the hotel itself as a kind of alternative structure. The high point is of course when the mother is going kind of crazy running in the stairways and she sees the couple in furry outfits engaging in oral sex (or something similar). This for me is the moment when the story threatens to totally break down (with the mother): if she leaves the narrative and enters the ghosty realm of the hotel, the movie is finished. Of course, this is what happens to Jack Nicholson at the end when he dies.
It is not irrelevant that Jack Nicholson's character when spellbound by the hotel begins to write artsy novels: conceptual detournments of Ben Franklin. This is perhaps most obviously seen as a sign of his madness: when the wife finds his novel - that's when she realizes he's crazy (as if the book could provide evidence stronger than his very strange behavior!).
But today I think of the novel as sign of his desperate attempt to stick to the Ben Franklin scheme: a way to keep from giving into the ghosty imagination of the hotel structure. But the very repetitiveness of the detournment suggests he's already lost and becoming part of the hotel [unless he joins the Conceptual Writing Club and gains great "Fame"]. Something that is affirmed by his increasingly living with the ghosts. In fact killing the family seems a pretty trivial detail by the time he gets around to it. Here the narrative is an emblem of the world where things make sense, where things are done for a reason, the realm of causality. The hotel invites Jack to a world of excess that cannot be reigned in by the narrative.
This is of course also the realm of Poe - Ligeia kills her replacement and is reborn through the strange atmosphere of the castle. When Twin Peaks aired, everybody watched it as long as it was a murder mystery. When we found out who killed Laura Palmer, we stopped watching because it became about the Black Lodge instead of the murder mystery. The show lost its narrative umph. Perhaps that tension is what makes something a gothic text.
Of course, I love the black lodge. The Black Lodge (like its mundane double, the Great Northern Hotel) are of course both involved in the hotel in The Shining (all of them are also built on top of the mass-murder of native americans we should not forget).
"When you see me again / it won't be me" says the little man. In the Shining, the dead girls are twins. The hotel is the realm of cinematic tricks (doubling, "doppelganger!" etc). The body is distorted - becomes a cinematic body, both in terms of stylized/unnatural (Laura Palmer's weird gestures, the little man's weird backwards movements which are actually reversed/backward by movie technology) and "charged"(Breton).
This is my long introduction to Blake's novel because this is the issue at stake in Ever (that is where narrative ceases to function). What makes this novel very interesting in this context is that it seems to be written from the other direction - not a murder mystery that loses its narrative, but a narrative-less cinematic body-fantasia in search of a narrative. The speaker wanders through rooms and room searching for the murder mystery.
Great book. Perhaps the word "book" matters here - as opposed to film.
It also has neat illustrations by Derek White." - Johannes Goransson
"The narrative constraints of Ever – presumably a woman inside a room; that’s it – is a precarious way to write a novella. Without characters, plot arcs, locations, etc., language itself is summoned as a surrogate protagonist. The writer – thus reader – are both stripped of the typical arsenal of fiction; what is left is simply language’s ability to summon or evoke the most intrinsic visceral ‘truths’ of being alive, a collection of nerves funneled into a consciousness.
And that is, at heart, what Blake Butler’s Ever is about, a kind of timeless consciousness that is, remarkably and/or ironically, very relevant to a particular time: now – dispersed with cryptic evocations of some post-apocalyptic world, as in “[…] not that we knew the moon here anymore […]” Notice that Butler chooses the word ‘knew’ instead of the more likely ’saw’ or ‘had.’ This suggests either a cognizant or intuitive decision to focus more on perception than facts.
Light (even the shifty bracketed-text seems to flicker on the page) is used, I think, as a metaphor for consciousness. Early on, Butler establishes light’s residence in place of the brain with the brilliant line, “Behind my eyes the light went on.” (I got light-headed when I read that.) This has some objective significance, being that our visual world is this exact refraction of light. Butler’s use of it is not merely a romantic trope, but a way to juxtapose the ‘natural’ world (“Let there be light” Genesis-y stuff) and the unnatural ‘corrupted’ world (post-human), a world colonized by human endeavor and its architecture – which brings me his concept of ‘the house,’ Butler’s Barthian a la Lost in the Funhouse play-thing. Put simply, the ‘house’ is used to create a dichotomy with ‘light,’ representing the unnatural and natural world, respectively. The house – that which physically confines the narrator is the very same thing that launches and enables [her] hyper-solipsist narration. Ceilings, windows, and doors are mentioned in a frenetic way, unable to establish space or location. We get the sense of entropy happening, we just don’t know where: outside the house, inside the room, or — terrifyingly – inside the body.
Butler’s version of the body, relieved from any sentimental humanist tendencies, is both a parasite and subject to parasites; a mere host (some dot on a food-chain) for fungi, mold, and bacteria. Butler’s use of skin as some permeable sack makes it difficult to distinguish its edges. His fixation on body fat/lard reminds me of Joseph Beuys and his homeostasis concerns. For Butler, the body is not an entity, but an event.
I find the writing very ‘male,’ and the choice of a female narrator is peculiar. Perhaps Butler, given his penchant for boundary blurring, is supplying us some hermaphrodite text. Not trying to make a joke here, but while reading I kept on reminding myself “this person has a vagina.”
Light, house, body – a lovely triad by the way – functions (or dysfunctions) in the same manner. The vague motifs themselves collapse. Ever is an experiment in narrative entropy. (Not to be too gushing, but I find it more resonant than Beckett’s work of similar concern.) The result is something aesthetically brilliant and mentally nauseating. Ever is an important, enthralling read. - Jimmy Chen
"Ever by Blake Butler and Light Boxes by Shane Jones are two books of biting beauty and devastating disease. They are worm-eyes through protean fluff and flesh of the chimera on her jaunt through labyrinthine neural pathways. Some signposts have been staked in the badlands. Scavenger clues are uncovered from abysmal pockets. By the end of their beginnings, where have we been? Something about us is different, like maybe we have a third nostril sniffing from deep within our ear. Or the small bones of ears vibrating within our pupils.
For instance: I read these books and a smaller cauliflower sprouted from my larger cauliflower. I liked that. The smaller cauliflower then opened its wry mouth, embedded in one of its folds, and asked me:
What is ancient in us? What is cellular to the level of complete relatedness? How are we intertwined with the growth-pain of existence and the dissolving of the blood into hurricanes, tremulous streams, and bogs? How do we construct our own skin and then go about burning ourselves on mirrors? Where do we reside in the chiaroscuro of our own masterwork? Or the hatch marks of our naiveté?
These two stories are a chronicle of time unbundled from the clock. They do not tell their tales in a tick-tock; they murmur, pile up in snowdrifts, screech, inflate, deflate, crash and seep. They ooze connecting tendrils like mycelium at work within the dirt. Their rhythms are taken from life form: the dying-breathing world.
These authors have put their utensils into their brain-jars and scooped up spoonfuls of hypnopompic honey. And they've dribbled its viscosity over the waking world.
I would like to challenge the reader to create a sculptural knot out of the timelines for these two books. A brain puzzle that only the intestines can solve.
While reading these books, this mantra comes to mind: "You are not the knot you clearly are." These stories are formed by good knot tiers and undoers. It is a pleasure to watch their knuckles move. And to watch their timelines slip in and out of themselves.
(I admit: I fondled these books with intuitive hands.)
Meaning in these stories is not held up by mortal atlas arms. Meaning in these stories is all around, like fog, coating everything in a mirage that you can run your fingers through, like hair growing in an oasis. These books feel very felt if you make your skin out of fog and stay away from mirrors.
Because Light Boxes and Ever are contained fog, and fogged containment, harnessing something like the tension of ephemeral existence. The ache of that. The pain of the knotted mind wishing itself a seamless thread. Or the seamless thread knotting into grey matter.
Or the seamless thread burgeoning out into gossamer and burlap.
(I admit: after I read these books, I did a little jig in my root chakra because I planted these books deep down, in the dirt-stratum from where my cauliflower blooms.)" - Kim Parko
"Though it doesn’t exactly suit the book, I have to think about EVER in terms of plot, character, and (I know, I know) author biography. Talking about it any other way would require the use of color fields and degenerating tones, though, and that shit does not translate to the blogosphere.
Blake’s booknotes offer hints to EVER, which otherwise stands un-annotated as a series of rooms folding in on itself, a girl folding into rooms and finding rooms. Apparently he wrote it after the Atlanta tornado destroyed his house and he went to live at his parents’ house. He talks about the tornado here and it’s very clear the state he’s in that would give rise to a book like EVER. (I’m done talking about Blake like I am his biographer because he is my friend. The fucked claustrophobic nature [to borrow a phrase] of this book would make me curious about the author’s state regardless.)
EVER is all full of brackets, which suggests the open/closed roomlike/womblike construction of the thing. I thought of it in terms of HTML but a normal parenthetical kind of thing would work I think. Here’s a little bit:
[I could see the door still a little.
[I could -- still could -- see the door.
[Def.: door (n): 1. a thing I'd noticed.
[2. A thing through once I'd --
[once I'd -- been. ]]]]]]]
The brackets are important to the book, which is all about open and closed spaces and yawning chasms and riddles. I’m picky about layout and typographic tricks in fiction; if you’re not writing what you’d call a hybrid, anything beyond the traditional or slightly modified words and punctuation of your language are all you get, unless you have a very good reason, such as expressing the idea that a girl thinks in terms of small spaces.
There’s one part where the narrator is licking the bathtub and she tastes a layer of herself and a layer of Comet and a layer of her mother. That pretty passage is the book distilled; layer upon unsettling layer, intriguing even as it attempts at times to repulse.
Incidentally, when I was showing the book to a friend of mine, he flipped it over and read the Gary Lutz blurb:
[B.B.] is a daring invigorator of the literary sentence, and the room-ridden narrator of his debut novella, EVER, nerves her way into a hallucinative ruckus of rousing originality.
Semiotician friend noted, “ridden has two definitions, Lutz” and then I looked it up and realized that Gary Lutz Was Right—a phrase I would wear on a t-shirt if the opportunity was presented.
The deal with this book is that it offers a puzzle like The Exquisite but instead of dissecting reality, it dissects surreality as it wobbles in a frame of reality, which essentially turns you on your ass and shoves a prism up there. Needless to say, I recommend reading EVER in the bathtub." - Amelia Gray
"I've taken a lot of time to try and figure out what I want to write about Blake Butler's EVER. And I've come to the conclusion that perhaps there is no concrete way to talk about the book. Maybe that sounds like a cop out, especially in light of the numerous reviews floating around the internet ether about this particular book. But for me there is no real way to sit down and say a connects to b, with a minus of x here and an extra dose of y there, which leads me to conclude z about EVER. Just not going to happen.
So, here is a bit about the experience of reading this book. I read it at work. Probably not the best locale for its consumption, but alas, the only place where I am likely to get any reading done at this point in time. I took notes while reading. Something I've done only on the rarest of occasions. While reading I thought of Jorge Louis Borges. There's a labyrinth in Butler's words, and Borges was the closest I felt to a kindred spirit in those terms. In other ways the writing reminded me of Ken Sparling, because of the sparseness, as well as the mash of short short short short long, in terms of sections.
There is mastery in EVER, which as far as I can tell won't be doubted. There is abstraction in the way Butler puts words next to one another. Often this is quite successful, as in page 9, when Butler writes, "These days I sleep with steak knives, grow my nails out. I'm saving money for a gun." Or small poignant clips like on page 16: "I like to take pictures and hide the film." I wonder if these things pop into Butler's head at random intervals, and if he then writes them on scraps of paper or Post It notes. The fragmentary nature of this book, begs such questions from a reader who no longer knows how to look at something strictly from a reader's point of view, something I imagine much of Butler's audience can relate to.
But there are times where Butler's exploitation of language and word combinations are not as successful, dragging me back to the reality that a book is being read, thought about, not merely consumed. I felt this most startlingly on page 13 when Butler writes, "In mother's absence, our front yard never henceforth grew. Though in the bugs that came to grovel, grieving, smothered, well... well nothing." I was worried that early into the book to feel so jolted and removed because of a personal grievance with the writing, often such a moment can thwart my entire reading. Such was not the case here, for which I am thankful. But it was one of the moments in EVER where I was reminded as a writer and a caring/careful reader that experimentation, abstraction, etc. can only take something so far, that being experimental and abstract is a thin line to tread, one that is easy to fall off of. And while I enjoyed EVER I also felt that it was a reminder to myself to watch my experimental side, because while Butler doesn't fall off that thin line, he does stick his toes over it now and then, which was enough to make me wonder if he is throwing caution to the wind with his prose." - North Punk Press Reviews
"I Need an Opening:
Professor sits in office. Reclines like a (fill in animal), feet up on a file cabinet. Socks only: one blue, one bluer. Professor thinks, “This is what I did with my intellect, my drive, my abilities and efforts–snagged a job where I can sit with my shoes off in an office and nobody gives me flak; in fact they might say, ‘Oh you creative folks,’ and expect me to sit with my shoes off, to let the artistic integrity breathe out my toes…”
Light knock. Tentative, a shoe scuffling. Professor thinks, “Undergrad.”
Undergrad peers into door. She sits, glances about office full of books, action figures and artifacts, hot sauces and hotter sauces, posters and paintings, heap after dangerous heap of shifting papers…
“Creative people make piles,” professor says dryly.
(Professor has used this one before for the state of his office. It usually works, and really what is an undergrad going to say?)
Then undergrad mumbles something about The Twilight Series, zombies, allergies to carpet fibers, about her dad wanting her to work as a bank teller; then finally, “Do you think I can write?
Yes. Always. Whenever you decide. Etc. If one thing: Do you love sentences?
Blake Butler loves sentences:
“..my veins an atlas spanned in tissue.”
“Strings of night might gleam of glass.”
“At my feet now in the bath the book had swollen several times–so large it filled the whole blank basin–it sponged around my knees.”
I say these give Lish and McCullers and McCarthy and all those McC-motherfuckers a run for their syntactical money. Strong medicine and music, a thumping heartbeat meter, a thought and non-thought (that weird interstitial space) that makes lines of words flow like rivers.
I Explicate EVER In Rural Tennessee Jargon:
Where I was raised we called this type of thing a slap-your-grandmother.
“This is how you clean a shotgun!” my grandfather said and he grabbed my gun and shot it into the air. Like that.
Cathead biscuits. Like hose pipe. Gravy. Gravy. Gravy.
Wild as a peach orchard hog.
My grandmother would say, “Lause.” Not sure what that means. But, Lause, Blake Butler, I do think you drop a mighty fine EVER on us here.
My uncle and I used to fish all day and night on a railroad trestle in the bottoms of Carroll County, TN, and one day–I don’t know how, child-like fascination, true fun, leading to sensory blindness–a train “snuck” up on us while on that trestle (a bridge, folks,over a swamp full of swamp and turtle and snake) and we had no living choice, but to lose poles, lose tackle boxes, lose lunchboxes, lose snake guns–LEAP into the river of swirling blackness below…later that evening we dried out over a low campfire and caught bluegill and cooked their tails crispy and ate them like potato chips, like no potato chips you have ever known, and we were grateful.
Ever is a Starfire SL. Custom fly-dye motherfucker to the house. Fast, “curved obscure”, “a sense of time passed”. See, the new Star Plastic is grippy, resilient, and so are these words, my friends. Because EVER is a maze, a fucking head-throb labyrinth, but Butler gobbles up all the breadcrumbs along the way, he cuts your little red thread, the one you were going to follow back out the cave. Whoops, Butler just got your plastic wind-up flashlight and laughed at you for having a plastic wind-up flashlight (What’s next, a Snuggie?) and then said: “Ever thought of this?” before snapping off the handle and shoving it down your esophagus. “There was much they could break…” Butler writes on page 43, and damn if he doesn’t grab an ax, a pickax, a motherfucking “center of the earth of the earth” kind of destruction. Things Fall Apart. Things Fall Apart. And move… Like the Starfire, Ever has glide, that mysterious flow of words that will propel you down the tunnels, down the plumbing pipes, the doorways–into the walls. The walls of EVER: cold, gray, white and full, crumbling, crumbling within themselves, the null and void of “… the morning of no sun.”
Sometimes I felt pulled. Sometimes I felt pushed. But something about EVER moved me, forced me, brought me along, page to sentence to word. To word. A said, word." - Sean Lovelace