Sunday, 1 May 2011

There Is No Year, Blake Butler (2011)

My flippant twitter review of this book went something like:

A family moves into a house, weird shit happens to them for 400 pages. Some of these pages are grey for no apparent reason.

Yes yes, and Moby Dick is a book about a whale, as the joke goes. Yet the sort of reductionism being mocked in the line about Moby Dick depends on the book in question having more going for it than can be so readily condensed. I'm not sure There Is No Year falls into that category. A family moves into a house, weird shit happens to them for 400 pages. Some of these pages are grey for no apparent reason. That's the book.

I admit I may not have understood There Is No Year. If it is "about" something, then whatever it is passed me by. The weird shit that happens to the family could I suppose be read as an allegory of suburban malaise, in which case zzzzzzzzzz, or the modern condition, or whatever, but it doesn't seem to have any symbolic or metaphoric consistency. Weird shit happens, then some other weird shit happens, then some more, then (you'll never guess) the weird shit keeps on coming. I'll grant that some of the weird shit is distractingly, even frighteningly, weird. The why of it remains a mystery, however.

And look, I don't expect novels to conform to some weekend liftout standard of plot and theme and structure. Butler's earlier Scorch Atlas, a collection of short stories and prose poems loosely depicting an apocalyptic cataclysm, is one of my favourite books of the past few years. Everything in it - even the bits that were too obscure or dense to be fully understood, or too pretentious to be taken seriously - felt vital. The pages of that book are designed to look stained and forgotten, the book itself a relic of the end days it describes. There is very little vitality, conceptual or otherwise, in There Is No Year. Instead there are repetitive, tedious descriptions of weird shit, and some of the pages are grey for no apparent reason.

I wonder how I would feel about the book if it were 200 pages, or 100. I've tried opening it and reading portions at random, and it's amazing how much better they work in isolation. You get these bursts of weirdness, of odd juxtapositions, of Butler's unusual syntax and vocabulary. Over the long haul the good stuff starts looking less good, the tics and tricks start to grate. You get the feeling Butler could keep going, keep churning out this book until the end of time. Good for him, I suppose, but frankly it's a drag to read.

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