Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Primer for the Apocalypse
Blake Butler does not believe in metaphor.
I happen to know this because he told me so himself. This was in the context of a conversation when both of us may have had more than a little to drink, so he may have been indulging in hyperbole just to be provocative. Nevertheless, I believe my jaw dropped a goodish deal. For a writer not to believe in metaphor is akin to a contractor not believing in duct tape.
Having read There is No Year, Butler's creepy magnum opus, I realize he was not lying, not entirely; within the context of this book, metaphor does not exist. What there is instead is a collection of viscerally disturbing images that evoke - evoke what? A response, certainly, but not a meaning, and that's the point. Readers will be reminded of David Lynch's films, especially Eraserhead. Remember the song-and-dance number where a blousy Shirley-Temple grotesque stomps with squeamish glee on the giant sperm raining from the ceiling? There's a scene of similar gooey horror in Blake's novel; the Father (he is given no other name) finds his mailbox stuffed with caterpillars. At first he is careful not to harm them as he empties the mailbox - he has taken a notion they are his reincarnated ancestors - but the number proves damn near infinite, and eventually the Father is driven to scooping them out wholesale.
There is profluence - we do feel we're getting somewhere. Things happen. The Son gets to know a girl at school and is eventually invited to her house for a sleepover, and there is a growing container of something in the neighbor's yard. But no one after reading the first page would expect the traditional arc of rising action, climax, and falling action. Butler doesn't defeat these with coy maneuvers like say, Tristram Shandy; he disregards them utterly, with the indifference of a goldfish watching the weather channel.
Although Butler has no pet figures of speech, there are recurrences of certain image types throughout the novel. One of them is the paradox of language with neither speaker nor audience. The Son is writing a book, unaware he is writing, thinking he is playing video games, eating, masturbating. (One might sniff autobiography here, but I have a hunch if you suggested that to Blake, he'd laugh you to scorn.) Another of Butler's favorite images, which in fact might be the motif of the entire book, is what I would call the Infinite Hallway. A hallway with a series of doors, each opening onto other hallways, which in turn have another series of doors. Blake's novel is as full of these images as a mailbox with caterpillars, sometimes in the form of actual hallways and rooms; the house seems of indefinite size and the Family is frequently surprised to find unexplored rooms full of hair, rooms with mirrors leaning forward from the walls, etcetera. The Infinite Hallway also occurs in the Father's daily commute; a drive of indeterminate length that seems to grow longer each time he takes it, so that eventually by the time he arrives home, he's already late for the next day's work. A third favorite image has to do with human fungibility. (This is just a fancy word for interchangeability but it seems appropriate for its fungoid connotations.) When the Family arrives (even their namelessness suggests this fungibility) they find a copy family, exactly like themselves, but immobile, their mouths full of mold.
Taken together these images remind me of an essay, the author of which I forget, and which I won't trouble myself to look up, on the topic of Greta Garbo's veil. What the veil conceals, the essay concludes, is that is has nothing to conceal. Thus it is with Butler's imagery; by its very insistence, outre-ness, and refusal to coalesce into an allegory or familiar pattern, it tells us that experience is sometimes interesting, but never meaningful; our lives are a collection of absurd incidents. The doors of the Infinite Hallway don't hide anything except the fact there's nothing to hide. From here on out, it's all hallways. I'd contend, if you buy this analysis, that in spite of himself Butler has been driven to a sort of metaphor. (You see, Blake? You can't escape it.)
There's an unworthy and petty temptation on the part of traditional writers like myself to dis Butler's work, put it down to novelty and flash, call it pretentious. Certainly, the jacket blurbs do nothing to allay this temptation. A snippet from The Toronto Globe and Mail on the front cover says, "If the distortions and feedback of Butler's riffing is too loud, you may very well be too boring." This kind of are-you-cool-enough-to-read-this challenge makes me want to riff some feedback of my own to the Globe and Mail as well as the horse it came in on. But there's no denying Butler's created the real deal here, and There is No Year is not merely good, it may be - I dread using this word - Important. Nevertheless, it strikes me as a risky move, posterity-wise. If you gamble on metaphor being dead, that sometime around the turn of the last Century human nature has really changed for good and all, then either in the future, people will not consume the written word at all, or if they do, it will be greatly different than what even Butler has produced. The Family might be the subject of this novel, but they could never be the audience.
David Lynch, to whom I compared Butler earlier, later tamed the non sequitur quality of Eraserhead and applied his creepy aesthetic to more traditional narratives such as Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, and Mulholland Drive; whether Butler will do the same remains to be seen. In any case, I'm curious to read his upcoming book of nonfiction, due out later this year, on the subject of - fittingly enough - insomnia.