By Blake Butler



Harper Perennial
October 2011
336 pages


The longest I ever couldn't sleep at once was 129 hours, through the turning of the New Year into 1999. I was living in the ex–master bedroom of my childhood home, the same room, likely, where I'd been conceived twenty years prior. The house since then had grown—six new rooms added to its dimension in my preteens, boxing in more air around. My bedroom's only two windows faced a small work shed my father called "The Building"—for younger years I'd both feared The Building and somehow hoped to some day live inside it, in its small and gloaming light. Often, awake with nowhere else to look beyond my window, I would feel sure I'd seen someone there inside that other, parallel pale, watching from behind a glint of moonglow, there just as quickly gone.

This certain week inside that week I'd come down sick with mono. My face swelled and my body bubbled sore. Hard to drink or think or move mostly, in which case most similarly afflicted should be sleeping, and yet I, inside my room, could not turn me off. My brain, as if in cycling against the medical commandment, Get as much rest as you can, insisted each hour to stay cycling, drawing days on. I saw clocks even when I closed my eyes, drummed with the slow pulsating idea that any second might be the one in which my self's sound might finally become silent, slip to nowhere, become gone. Instead I saw colors, prisms, tunnels, smudging; the room packed full of eyes; the light sometimes from TV alone at 4 AM like a long and grossly narrow hall. I lay on the bottom half of what once had been a bunk bed, a thing I'd begged for years ago for Christmas though there was no one there to share it with, as if in the night I split into two and needed both, terrified by the way the room around me, in those hours, seemed as well to bore new holes in the walls.

Also visible from the room, via its two other glassy surfaces, were (a) the kidney-bean-shaped swimming pool where as a young child I nearly drowned, my mother having turned one moment in the light to look at something elsewhere and turned back to find me having somehow flipped facedown, and which in later years I would spend whole days of whole long summers underwater trying to hold my breath so hard I could turn hard myself inside and be thereafter able to walk beneath the nothing, breathing, in my flesh, though I clearly never did; and (b) through the small slit of window just above my bathroom's toilet, with one small latch clasp holding it closed, a view that mostly for most years would be obscured by brush growth from the plants that grew beside the house, obstructing the backyard. Only from certain angles and by leaning could you get any bit of sky inside that frame, and, when the bushes had been trimmed back, the right side of our next-door neighbor's house, where a very large man lived with his old mother—the two of them together inside that small, encrushed house for years with a lawn that grew up and over and would die. In that grass once I found a skateboard I rode until it made me fall and drew my blood out. I also found a black softball bat I would in some evenings hold against me when sounds inside the house and through the walls would stir, waiting for something to come out so I could crush it—something nameless—it never came.

For all those years and since then I've never seen an inch of the inside of the house of those nearest neighbors. I've seen only the mother and the man inside there come and go, mostly just the man, coming out to climb to stand inside the backyard and look at nothing, or once to get on the roof and fix the antenna to the TV. How in that time he's shirked the cells off of his body from at least 350 pounds down to near now around 220—a shrinking of self much the way I had, years before him, just next door—as if, in the years between, we'd shared a cyst, a giving-of into a void. How now, seeing him wobble from the garage door down the drive, I cannot help but imagine his home lined with that old meat, hung on the walls, a padding against light and outside sound there, he and his mother. Some days in his thin afternoons he comes out and stares through the fence at my sister's barking dog, staring hard and wordless into the dog as if to burst it from its center, to desist its barking sound.

Between these three exits from this bedroom there would be enough conduit-space therein that at any given hour in my night there could be something coming in or peering in into me without me knowing, and this does not include the vents, the phone lines, the eventual internet connection, the holes too small for me to see at all. These openings inside my room, without sleep defense image, seemed to stretch over all the air. By the third day of staying awake panels of color began to appear over my bed and beyond my doorway, floating scrims of ghosting color that would dissipate as I moved toward them in my flesh. Other times the color would form dots or ovals on my vision which then would bloom to globes or sink away. Space became not a system of dimensions but a kind of substance one could mold, if in the whole exhaustion feeling too far sunk in to manipulate even my eyes—thus, a twofold kind of shifting: seeing more and knowing less.

Around the house inside these changing I trudged from room to room through disparate hours of the night, crying through the hallways asking anybody, god or whoever, just to shut me down, undo my time. Standing in the kitchen on the far side of the counter from my mother in a late light and her looking at me, speaking, as if from several hundred years away. Less than the words she spoke then, I remember the sound that surrounded all the air around me and between us, the slight shake of my frame inside my frame, and of the frame of house around me, and the air around that, layers quaking, full of night. Sometimes back inside my bedroom again hours later, as if time had not passed, I'd get the feeling that all the doors inside the house, all houses, had come open, and anything then was able to go out or come in. There comes, in the carving out, a sight—a slightly buttered color and sound that makes the old rooms, from sudden angles and in their constant whorled, unfurling periphery of, an occasional translucent texture, new.

This can be, in the excess of hours, and as days flip brutally slower along in the manner of a single, quick, enormous day, a pronounced prance, an unwinding. The hours might extend to form new rooms hidden somewhere in the make of homes, deeper sofas, thicker books, wherein the earth, for all its air, seems as if extremely conscious of the presence of your you, as if returning, for all the ways you've walked and rubbed upon its surfaces, an objectless, surfaceless, hidden embrace. If anything, the slow down invites a silence, as if lying down while standing up. The brain taking the brain over. A raw relaxing. "In its early stages, insomnia is almost an oasis in which those who have to think or suffer darkly take refuge."* You begin to see yourself inside yourself—can almost see, as if from overhead, or in following your body down corridors, in halls, the way your shape reacts to what is set before it. You count the sounds that you give out—even if, at the same time, it becomes less possible to stop them, fix the slip of your control. The hours go on longer, but you milk less from them. There is sound. You might hear buttons getting pressed behind you, and yet, in turning, the air is there. An autopilot popping through the spine and frame meat that, in sudden heaving moments, comes back upon size—the moments others might, then, disappear into their sleep.

On the fourth day of full waking I saw inside my bedroom wall there appear the face of a small man. His forehead neon, bulged from the tan paint. His eyes empty in a gray way. His voice speaking to me in a language I sometimes still even now can hear: no words but in bloating, a kind of sound inside sound spreading out like an outdoor artificial light would in the mass sunlight of a day. This speech in my remembering, ten years later, sounds like nothing, though I can see the head, can feel the head still in my chest, and even feel the susurration of the sound waves pillowed through my chest in certain hours again awake too long in different light with longer bones—there is no word about the word at all except its speaking, saying nothing—a mode of color in woven tone.

For long hours in the colorless stretches I would stumble through the house or go on lying, cursing me and cursing god—both felt the same. My body moved still by my impulse but at the same time as if strung ahead by ghostly ropes, my brain aware and spinning but with someone else's speaking: heads inside of head. Just as there may seem shaken doors inside the landscapes, there become shaken doors with the flesh. A sudden urge to stand and move into the next room, the air there as if someone other had just left it, or is coming in. In the night there might be near the window the sound of speaking, or of doorknobs being turned. Notes to self appear in pockets, writings in the linings of the books. Or perhaps, as in my case, writing along the arms and hands—the body's tablet, ever-present—if coming out in syllabic strings impossible to parse from one brain to the other. These are truly separate brains—though brains encased within the same head, at some points overlapping, some remote. Someone not you pressing the buttons there between them, turning curtains, hanging new. Deletions suddenly appearing in texts you've written. From texts on shelves. As if living in a life full of deleted scenes, a disc cut from a room there buried deep—and at the same time not at all buried, but laid upon the light. New gaps then there appearing slowly between the uncovered stations. Time learns to pass not from A to B, but in a small series of loops. This hour might last a half of an hour, or a half of half, some fraction thereof and therein—the time expended, say, in sitting down behind the car's wheel to begin driving and noticing the new gaps appearing on the LCD—while this other hour, lying face up on the floor beside one's bed, the light overhead attached to some spinning ceiling fan, perhaps, light clearly disseminating from two spherical shapes hidden underneath a glassy dome, might last twelve hours. Clicking off in reams of quiet rope, bunching up inside the body in weird weak points, sudden soring. Where have I been all night? This kind of time continuity distortion also appears in the way of dreaming—some sleep scenes come on embedded in the head seeming to go on for a whole life, trapped inside there as if no way out, as if this is where we've always been, whereas other nights the light inside will seem to burn only several minutes and yet we will wake up into a new room, very dry, a whole night and then some having slipped off in disturbed duration. Relativity, in this way, is old—it is not so much a question of experience and how one feels it as an actual variation on a theme, the blink modes breaking up, becoming arpeggiated, shifting between modes—the way a record might be blipped back and forth between speeds, slurring the voice sound there, pulling the notes, making a new song out of something other, the music burned into black synthetic circles, replicated planes.

Eventually, inside of troubled sleep, the sleeping and not sleeping begin to feel the same. There is a heat—a lack of heat—about the air that seems to vibrate just around you, for the pockets of the house where you are not. The constant thought of the current moment leads to the next moment, killing whole long loops in serial blanking from door to door to door. For all those hours spent horizontal, faking, trying, I don't seem to remember breath ever going in or coming out. Some time in the hold you might stand and look out the window at the other houses, still and silent, most extinguished, probably no other bodies moving, all seem asleep. The houses in these times seem cowering, curled down against the earth under a sky that does not blink. The black sky, where from inside cities there are rarely constellation objects but the strong ones, the arcs of trudging object bodies trolling data in an atmosphere that smothers selves, where between these blips of passive wanting, most of the hours herein feel the same, feel not there or simply pausing, no time passed, no new song.

That year the New Year that year came and went in no mode—more awake and more asleep than ever both at once. I remember my girlfriend calling from a party as the date changed, surrounded by a screaming celebration, other cells, while against my face the phone hung on, a thick thing, like a face itself again with no mass, beyond my room, my body radiating heat in pillows, which when I lay down in sunk around me, mushing my sheets into moist curtains among which I'd lurch and flop. In some ways, the house around the unsleeping body begins to become another house. Oftentimes, among the slurring, the mouth might not even open, confining in the sound: sound meant to be ejected into others remains inside the self, banging in against the inner walls, perhaps in some soft spots causing distortion, puffing out of limbs or in small pockets. Imagine living on the backside of the flat face of a clock. The air at times like something remained in the space pressed out of a very old or very thin balloon. The way an aching might arise from lying wrong or on unforgiving surface, the muscles and flesh bumps grow hidden bruises. The reactions slower. The nodding dulled off. Knobs on knobs. Touching doors to make them open and therein finding not even the handle will make them turn. Even these qualities are hazy in their defining, as the closer on your touch the less it seems to want to grab.

By the time you pass out, hid in the bubble, the air of most any room has stretched so thin, become so familiar in its unfamiliarity, and vice versa, that the space is not quite at all a space, but some bit of cells remaindered after popping. It can be difficult to recall where the house and self end and begin. The sleep comes often like warm wax pulled to snapping—turned to two selves, neither aware of the other where it is. This does not mean there is a mend to the exhaustion—the broken sleep comes often shallow, paired as if right next to the old air—at once so black in needing caving, but caught inside the brain's grown in difficulty of differentiating the waking blank from at last again being buried in the self. During my worst modes I can't recall much ever remembering my dreams—the dreaming seems instead to cover every inch of time awake among that black mode—as if at last the space between waking and sleeping has turned inverted, impossible to split and gummed with blurring. The collapsed memory stores zapped, its compressed time warped forth as if no longer recording—nothing passing—something always ever not quite there.



* Colette.