Book Review - Blake Butler builds something out of Nothing

The Atlanta author works his unresolved memories into an insomniac’s rabbit hole

Blake Butler’s new book, Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia, begins with a simple image, recalled from childhood: “When I was twelve, the nearby high school released a flood of pink balloons. ... Each balloon had a message tucked in its inside, I’d heard – handwritten dispatch penned in private by whoever blew it up.” The recollection ends with Butler today, still wondering what message was contained in a balloon that passed by his window, how the message might have changed him: “What those words inside me could have said, I wonder – where or what I would have gone or been today having them absorbed.”

It is a simple, clean memory – the sort that we all have tucked away in our heads – and Butler works his unresolved, longing hook so neatly into the pretty pink balloon that we almost don’t realize that it’s a lure, that he’s reeling us into an insomniac’s rabbit hole, “This kind of aimless mental spin ... stuck in inevitable fixation over nothing.” What then transpires in Nothing might be called a memoir or a book about the history of sleeplessness or, as the subtitle suggests, “A Portrait of Insomnia.” The book is surely all of those things, but foremost it is the candid illustration of a mind that works at thrilling speeds, making the synaptic leaps from family to art to dreams to the present moment in a way that is recognizably, undeniably human.

For those who have been keeping up with the 32-year-old, Atlanta-based author’s books (his latest novel, There Is No Year, was published just a few months ago), Nothing should feel akin to a revelation. By exploring his most intimate memories and solitary moments of sleeplessness, Butler is also handing over a key to the house of fiction he’s built. His ruminations on his artistically-gifted mother and dementia-addled father open a door to the familial obsessions that run throughout his stories. His careful consideration of writers ranging from the vastly underappreciated Clarice Lispector to the lasting impact of Stephen King’s bestsellers create a frame of influence and reference. In many ways, Nothing is a welcoming introduction to Butler’s daunting works.

All this comes, though, through the lens of the book’s ostensible portrait: insomnia. Butler tackles this subject with a bouquet of formal conceits: “A Condensed History of Night,” a sprawling monologue that largely meditates on a Facebook update, assessments of medical literature, and so forth. What emerges is something like an anatomy, organs and parts and pathways splayed and arranged so that we can see the body of his subject. Butler latches onto the fluid relationship between dreaming and sleeping, between mind and body, between wakefulness and death. As he chronicles his own relationship to sleeplessness, it becomes clear that, for Butler, insomnia is equal parts adversary and muse.

Flip around in Nothing (or any of his other books, for that matter) and you’ll see text scattered in odd blocks all over the page, come across run-on sentences that last for pages, and see pages where the footnotes take up more space than the primary text. It’s easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to prose like that, to describe it as “difficult” or “weird,” both of which are fine superficial descriptions of Butler’s style. Those who are willing to stick around past that first impression, though, will find that Nothing is endlessly surprising, funny, exciting, harrowing. There are some cues from the sprawling internal monologues of Nicholson Baker and the genre-defying non-fiction of William T. Vollmann in this expansive exploration of sleeplessness, but Butler is a writer unto himself. Simply put, you haven’t ever read a book like Nothing before. It’ll keep you up at night.

Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia by Blake Butler. Harper Perennial. $14.99. 288 pp