Cover Story - The diarrheic, incomprehensible, foul, ridiculous prose of author Blake Butler
A portrait of the artist as a young blogger
"The words he typed weren't words. Or, more so, the words had more words in them, collapsing, like flame laid into flame. The words inside the words kept the son from sleeping, even while sleeping." — There Is No Year, by Blake Butler
The House Where Blake Butler Writes
Blake Butler sits down in front of a computer in Marietta, the room dark except for a beam of afternoon light cracking between thick curtains. Staring into the glowing screen, he taps out a line into Twitter: "i want a computer i can hurt & not destroy, want my laptop to have feelings so i can pinch it, have it hear me when i call it piece of shit."
The door from that dark room leads to a hallway lined with quilts, bright fabrics patched into complicated patterns, sewn by Butler's mother and great-grandmother. The hallway leads to the kitchen, where Butler's father, L.D., sits at the table with a few pens and markers at his side, writing in a spiral notebook: "JA cuth slep. P – cords P P P P P P P P P." The letter P is twisting, turning, stretching across the page, the lines.
"What are you working on, Dad?" Butler asks.
"What I'm working on," his father says.
Blake Butler Had A Happy Childhood
The 32-year-old Butler grew up in this house. On weekday mornings as a child he would leave the manicured lawn, the swimming pool, the basketball court, and walk a couple blocks to public school. In the afternoons, his friends would walk back to the house with him to shoot pool, play video games or watch TV in the game room. Despite moving out almost 15 years ago, Butler returns to this house most days to be Blake Butler on the Internet.
Blake Butler Is An Author On The Internet
The Internet Blake Butler is a hyper-prolific author of discomforting, domestic fiction, whose always-fascinating, occasionally incomprehensible stories are littered throughout dozens of tiny literary journals; whose first two books — the story collection Scorch Atlas and novella Ever — were published by small, independent presses and blurbed as "a strange, visionary ontological dismemberment" and "a massive obliteration"; whose Twitter feed reads like a collaboration between William S. Burroughs and Shaquille O'Neal; who edits HTMLGiant.com, a blog claiming to be "the Internet literature magazine blog of the future"; who also edits or co-edits a string of other projects; and whose first book for a major publisher, the novel There Is No Year published April 5 by Harper Collins, seems both hopelessly out of step with commercial publishing and like a smoke signal on the horizon of the American literary landscape. There is something unwieldy about the Internet Blake Butler.
Some Differences Between Blake Butler and Blake Butler
Standing here in the kitchen, it's difficult to distinguish between the human Blake Butler and the Internet Blake Butler. Butler is boyish-looking for his age, with sandy-blond hair and stubble on his well-defined jaw. He appears this way on the Internet, too, though his looks are often obscured in shadowy digital photographs, dimly lit by the glow of his computer screen.
But then the human Blake Butler asks if anyone would like a glass of Diet Arizona Green Tea and his voice is just sweet and friendly in a way that doesn't much resemble the Internet Blake Butler who tweets "fed all my Frederick Barthelme novels to a white dog living in my kitchen Disposall & it shit out a single novel called Snazzy Erection" and "Forgot to get drunk as fuck before i ate this taco bell, tastes like sadness."
There Is No Year is set in a suburban home in unnamed suburbs, occupied by an unnamed father, unnamed mother and unnamed son. The setting resembles the house where Butler is now drinking Diet Arizona Green Tea with his mother and father, except there are no swarms of insects or oozing tunnels or curtains made of hair. None visible, at least.
"In a thirteenth dream the father woke and found himself above himself and inside his mouth he saw himself and inside that self's mouth he saw himself and inside that self's mouth he saw a window, and through the window the father saw another window, and through the window the father saw mountains, fountains, fortunes, beaches, gazebos, grease, disease, and the father found that he was laughing and the father crawled inside himself and turned around." — There Is No Year
A Few Words About L.D.
Butler's father, L.D., fell off a ladder while working on the house in 2001, which may or may not be related to the dementia he has developed in the years since. He does not recognize his wife or son. He talks to his sturdy, bearded reflection in windows. When introduced to a newspaper reporter, he said, inexplicably, "Yeah, I remember him." His ability to speak was lost entirely at one point, though he's relearned it through rehabilitation. Butler's soft-spoken mother, who gets a break from taking care of L.D. when her son is home, explains that she tries not to take the symptoms of L.D.'s condition personally. "He's still in there somewhere," she says, her eyes washing over, watery.
One Way of Saying What There Is No Year is About
Early on in the novel, the family finds another family living in their house, "An exact copy of their family — a copy father, mother, and son. ... Their copy skin felt like our skin. Their copy hearts beat at their chests." Later, the mailbox starts filling up with multicolored caterpillars, "The critters fell and wiggled on the concrete. There were hundreds of them stuffed inside the mailbox. There was no room for the mail." At the center of the novel is a box within a box within a box (and so on), each growing progressively larger than the initial box until "the center bloomed — bloomed out into a light — a light as large as many rooms." There is something very wrong in the house.
Butler's prose offers no explanations for these or any other incidents in the book; they are described in much the same tone that he lends to passages about driving to work or watching television. You could say that he's brought the logic of the Internet to bear on the physical world: where we have copies of ourselves existing alongside ourselves, where we are ceaselessly, uselessly cleaning our mailboxes, and where light can emit a world impossibly larger than the thing containing it.
An Attempt At Describing There Is No Year In Referential Terms
If Gertrude Stein wrote the script for a Kenneth Anger film set inside of a Norman Rockwell painting to be produced for YouTube with a John Cage soundtrack.
An Example of How Boxes Work
It is generally accepted that a box can only contain something smaller than itself. Basic geometry teaches us formulas to better understand this concept, but math is not really necessary for comprehension. Just try to put your refrigerator in your oven and you'll understand. The box we call a computer follows a different set of rules. You can open it and open it and keep opening boxes inside of it and the light will show you volumes that exceed the volume of the computer box.
This box contains the Internet Butler; contains Butler erratically shaving in a bathroom with aquamarine walls and speaking to a video camera: "I cut my neck right there. I'm not very good at this"; contains a college student burning a copy of Scorch Atlas while saying, "There is nothing honorable, nothing likable, nothing anything that anyone could look up to in your novel"; contains Dennis Cooper's blog, where the experimental fiction icon has been copying and pasting videos of Butler and excerpts of Butler and quotes from Butler; contains author and former HTMLGiant contributor Justin Taylor saying, "I have no idea what I'd say about Blake's book — it kind of stumped me, to be honest"; contains an interview on Bookslut in which Butler says, "I had these feelings of wishing I had a real baby I could hold in my hand and crush ... Writing has only ever been the only way I could beat the fuck out of the child in my mind and actually do it and actually do it and not have hurt anyone but myself"; contains the iconoclastic, minimalist novelist Tao Lin writing from New York to say, "In person Blake has been a calming, fun, kind presence"; contains Lin, Butler, Taylor, and others drinking pink smoothies and holding cameras in a kitchen while Butler screeches, "This is like the deleted scene in Pulp Fiction."
The box contains other things, like the founding documents of Scientology, and a man with his face obscured stroking an erect penis, and the complete recordings of Talking Heads, and a soldier in Afghanistan posing with the body of a farmer he just murdered like a prize buck, and everything published in the New Yorker ever, but why go on about it? This is not news to anyone. We carry all of these things on our cell phones and keep all of these things on our desk and bring all of these things into our homes and it doesn't bother us because we can keep it all inside of a box within a box within a box. We can say that outside the box is real and inside the box is not real.
Blake Butler On Realism
"Going to the grocery doesn't feel like going to the grocery to me. It feels like being attacked by dogs. I think all things are real, except for maybe what's considered real, realism. Anytime people try to confine life to this A-to-B story, that's just not how it feels, at all. Even if the action is A-to-B. Everything is bigger than those things."
Things Blake Butler Says About the Internet in Casual Conversation
"Fuck the Internet."
"I fucking hate the Internet."
Blake Butler Was A Fat Kid Who Liked Computers And Then He Lost Weight And David Foster Wallace Ruined His Chance Of Having A Career In Computer Programming
In the hallway with the quilts, the human Butler points to a framed series of school pictures, his body slowly growing like a balloon each consecutive year. Then, in the second to last picture, his body suddenly deflates and resembles the present Butler. At 16, Butler started running and counting calories. He lost 80 pounds. He still runs five miles every day.
He attended computer camp as a child. He recalls early, fond memories of playing with dot-matrix printers and how this all led to attending Georgia Tech to become a computer programmer. In 2001, he started reading David Foster Wallace, "I was in a review for a test in physics class and I was sitting there reading Infinite Jest instead of listening. My professor walked by and stood there next to me. He didn't say anything to me, but he was talking and standing right next to me and I could tell that he wanted me to pay attention. I got up and left and dropped the class and changed my major that day." This, it seems, is how he makes decisions. Butler wrote the drafts of four unpublished novels over the next two years.
Why Blake Butler Doesn't Write At His Own House In Cabbagetown
"I don't shit where I eat."
"Four Novels I Wrote While Trying To Figure Out What A Novel Is and Realizing Traditional Narrative Isn't Really My Pal" by Blake Butler
The Flood Backwards: About a guy who buys a machine that records his sleep to which he gets addicted and builds a house of TVs and stereos and dies from attaching himself to this machine and not sleeping and turns into human mush that breathes.
The Pupils of an Inflated Giraffe: About two brothers named Elevator and Escalator, one of whom is employed as a human lottery ball on TV and the other who collected mannequins and then starts collecting living human bodies when god tells him to build a vessel out of their house, in which they live with their 450-pound mother who runs a day care in it until she runs off to meet a trucker from a 1-900 who hits it and quits it and then she tries to kill herself with pills and overeating while Elevator tries to find her and bring her home to the house now full of abductees.
Yes I Am Aware That I'm In Hell: A father loses his job and convinces himself and his estranged son that he can get a new job at Disney World so they move there and the son is haunted by this presence in a restroom and the father explores homosexuality with the Disney employees and does drugs while trying to force his way into a job he can't get and yeah.
More Light: A man's wife disappears one night when he comes home to find all the lights in his house on and all the cabinets open but nothing stolen and he spends the next several dozen years looking for her circling the same ground over and over and teaching himself to eat himself.
Why Blake Butler Started Blogging
Tao Lin told him to.
"Trips on the Flop with Junk"
The only time the human Butler seems uncomfortable in conversation is when talking about his job. He writes about poker for an online gambling company, producing short, keyword-heavy copy. Butler started playing poker in college, where he was introduced to a circuit of illegal, underground games operated in disguised apartment buildings at all hours of the night. He says he quit playing when it felt like it was taking over his life. His advice for playing with heavy blinds or loose flops ends up on anonymous-seeming content farms, alongside links for pharmaceuticals and credit tips.
Some Other Ways of Saying What There Is No Year Is About
A third of the way into the book, we're offered a plot summary of a movie that sounds a lot like the book: "There was a family living in a house. There was a father, a mother, and a son. The family all looked tired. Nothing ever really happened. The father drove places and got lost and walked around the house. The mother mostly cleaned and worried. The son would stand and sit and stand. Other scenes showed the family together, going places, though these were rendered in black-and-white," and so on. This is an accurate plot summary of There Is No Year in the same way that "a man walks around Dublin" is an accurate plot summary of Joyce's Ulysses.
Threads of traditional narrative arc through the novel's many chapters — the son has some experiences that resemble a coming-of-age, the father's mind deteriorates, the mother turns inward — but Butler is more tuned into language and affect, tuned into the possibilities that words offer (and fail to offer) us. There Is No Year is, in many ways, about words, the ways we use them to try to make sense of our lives, the ways we can be overwhelmed by and unable to understand them, and the ways we find meaning through their placement on a page or a screen. The book's resolutions, if any, relate to language — the son's attempts at writing, the mother's sexually charged physical communication, the father's complete lapse of coherence.
Why Blake Butler Has Never Tried Drugs
"I don't know," he says. "It's like this is my acid."
Dale Peck On A Certain Tradition of Novelists
The controversy-courting, former New Republic critic Dale Peck once described the "esoteric strain of twentieth-century literature," a strain to which Butler certainly ascribes, as heir to a "bankrupt tradition ... that began with the diarrheic flow of words that is Ulysses; continued on through the incomprehensible ramblings of late Faulkner and the sterile inventions of Nabokov; and then burst into full, foul life in the ridiculous dithering of Barth and Hawkes and Gaddis, and the reductive cardboard constructions of Barthelme, and the word-by-word wasting of a talent as formidable as Pynchon's; and finally broke apart like a cracked sidewalk beneath the weight of the stupid — just plain stupid — tomes of DeLillo." Names aside, Peck's mostly vitriolic adjectives — diarrheic, incomprehensible, foul, ridiculous, formidable, cracked — are a lexicon for the ecstatic pleasures of Butler's prose. It runs over with diarrheic, foul flow; it bursts and cracks with inventions and constructions. The beauty of There Is No Year is in the discomfort and dis-ease of words.
"The father threw up on the ground. In the vomit, there were errors — strings not vomit, but language, light. The bunched up bits were writing something, words at once sunk into the ground." — There Is No Year
Something To Note About The Differences Between Blake Butler and Blake Butler
When he sits down at the computer to write, the screen reflects in his eyes and his head casts a shadow on the screen.