Thursday
Apr142011

There is No Year

By Blake Butler



Harper Perennial
April 2011
416 pages
978-0061997426

 

Reviewed by David Cotrone


 

In my senior year of high school, I was late for my first appointment with my therapist. Stuck in traffic, I wondered how I would introduce myself. I wondered if I should start the conversation with an anecdote, something like how I used to go through my dad’s music when he was out of the house, how I found Neil Young Unplugged and played it on the stereo in the living room, how I sat in the middle of the floor, listening to Neil sing, "And in my mind I still need some place go," how I held my hands over my face, "Helpless, helpless, helpless, well, can you hear me now?"

I was, in this moment, sharing a space with Blake Butler. There Is No Year speaks to the stuff of deterioration; it is a study of yearning, relationships and connections, pain. There is a family — a father, mother, and son — all caught between searching for self and salvaging the remnants of each other. In this space, Butler writes as if he, too, is stuck, reckoning with the world’s substance: 

In the street the father spun around all of a sudden, to recall how the air felt.

Did this not evoke my own desperation? 

Days were weeks and weeks were days inside the father.

Was this not my body alone on the living room floor? Neil’s clamoring voice?

During the last drive he’d felt his eyes forcing themselves closed stuck on the highway, and for long distances with his eyes closed he drove and drove.

Eventually, I pulled into the parking lot, gave my name to the receptionist, was called into Jed’s office. "Really sorry," I said. I looked around, thought about his other patients, how they got there, if they were better.

"For what?"

"Being late."

"It’s okay," he said. "I knew you were on your way, that you would be here soon."

 

There Is No Year is a breakneck and bewildering experience, equal parts confusion and turbulence, wild chaos that is contained through sheer dexterity and might:

Inside his car the father felt an awful feeling there was something breathing besides him. Something right there on the backseat, strapped in, needing, shaped just like him. He could not bring himself to peek. Through the windshield in his car out in the street among the houses in the light the father watched the car continue forward, scrolling, returning where he’d been again already—no sound—the years inside him itching, eating, and, outside, the years upon him soon to come.

Some chapters are startling in their brevity, staggering in their impact. Take, for example, this chapter, "The Skin of God." In its entirety: "Outside, around the house, birds were landing on the roof. The birds could not stop shitting. The sun grew upon the white waste’s sheen, showing the shrieking sky back at itself." Butler does not write in chapters but in glimpses, quick moments packed with trauma and nuance.

When the characters of this novel, a family of three, come home to find replicas of themselves, the mother "[carries] her copy body…to the swimming pool." At the lip of the pool, looking at the water, the mother "[throws] her copy body [in], [watches] her splash down, [watches] it burp." And this is only the beginning of the family’s account. Soon after, the family of three put their house on the market, and they show their house to potential buyers. The house has seen pain, though. The house has seen loss. The mother "[shows] them where every night she and her husband [try] to sleep." In a voice that is fearless and also trembling, Butler shows us what it means for the living to escape their lives, or at least what it looks like to try. "God, the rooms [seem] smaller with someone else there looking, looking." It is impossible for Butler’s characters to escape themselves, to lose what they have built, to shake the claustrophobic, and it remains impossible, at least for a while.

There Is No Year is a bonfire of narration. To be honest, it is hard to say what this book is about, perhaps because it is so charged and surging with nerve and terror, perhaps because it is so absurd, because it is so real. About midway through the book, Butler supplies an index of public figures who have died (ex: Sharon Tate, David Foster Wallace, Tupac Shakur. While "Andy Kaufman died leaving the premonition in several others that he hadn’t," Ann Quinn "died while swimming out to sea." The index invokes reality itself, enters into conversation with those who have seen life and have moved on into some unknown void.

There Is No Year is overflowing; the final chapter offers, "The light continued… The skin would come and come and come." I would be lying if I did not say that I read this book in one sitting, that it was impossible not to, that it took me into its fierce world and spit me out, leaving me not only wanting to embrace these characters, but to run for cover. Butler’s work leaves me satisfied, wanting more, needing more, scared. The life of his characters is life in motion, life that is at once both tender and shocking. A family in decline, each member of this family coming to grips with themselves, with the world; this is Butler’s gift to us. Here, take it.