Glyph Atlas

Blake Butler


I closed the book. The book wasn't over, but I could not keep reading any longer. I was so weak I could no longer hold my head up or move my arms; beyond that, a sense of rising dread past every wall or corner of my household, not for what was coming, but what had not come. 


The book, like all the others I'd been reading, was a compendium of a series of individual works my father had tried to write before he died, his own battle with cancer finishing him off right around the time my mother's battle had just begun. He had never considered himself a writer, nor a reader really, throughout the long haul of his life, having spent the majority of his adult years shipped around by corporations suing the fuck out of anyone who sniffed a shade of their ideas. A phrase or image rendered the wrong way with specific intent would find you at the far end of a phone from my dad, his trademark heavy breathing filling the silences between the issue of his intent, which was: to return you into silence. Despite the ill nature of his work, he was not an unpleasant man to be around, if one that I never felt so close to; it always seemed like he was hiding something underneath his easy family demeanor, somehow always wearing too much clothes, or showing up somewhere you had been without him when you least expected. 

It was only after the tumors had ballooned throughout his upper body and begun expanding up inoperably toward his brain that my dad became overcome with the desire to type; and so he did so both night and day, propped in his sickbed with the glowing box placed on his lap. He'd turn the display light turned down so low you couldn't see anything on there from any angle except his, if even his, as try as I might to steal a peek when he would fall asleep in mid-sentence, with his pecking fingers still honed and primed over the keys, with the shitty eyesight I'd inherited from him I could no more make out any sentence than if they'd been transposed as bumps along the screen in Braille. 

And yet, in the last eighteen months of his life, with all the windows covered over in the back bedroom where no guest had ever slept, my father was able to output more than 15,000 single-spaced pages of writing, which amounted to more than seven million words, all of it spanning a series of three distinct documents separately saved and left untitled in the only folder on his desktop, the background of which was a picture of a human eye. 


We never figured out whose eye that was. It was not my father's, and certainly not my mother's either, or mine. It wasn't even clear if it was human or not, given as how it looked like no other eye I'd seen: the bizarre crystal hue of the iris, its impression slivered down to almost nothing by the massive pupil dilated almost to fill the entire center; the cornea sickly, sticky looking, almost gold. I couldn't stand to look at the image for more than a second during the period I was allowed to use the computer in the wake of his death, before it was confiscated by the police a few weeks after he finally succumbed, for reasons we would not be granted party to. If I hadn't had the foresight to upload all the writing to the cloud at once, creating the only known backups of the documents that I knew of considering that my father refused to use the internet and never once asked for blank discs he could not have procured then by himself, then all of it would been forever lost. 

I did not know then that there was a good reason for this undersight; that Dad had explicitly chosen to not copy the files outside his control, leaving them no way to survive him if he could help it, the only chance he had left to avoid what he must have foreseen as the inevitable resolution of his work. 

Regardless, without such reservations of my own, I had the printing and the binding of the only edition, as it remains, executed by a specific private vendor in black leather jackets with gold binding, as described by someone in one of the books my father (one of the countless protagonists, none of whom I can remember now by name), the total cost amounting to several months' pay, for which I would not be able to feed myself properly thereafter. 

It would appear I had no choice. 


The first of the three completed manuscripts that I began with was actually the last one, a fact that wasn't clear until I'd finished. It was also the first one he'd written chronologically, according to the date and time stamp of its last access, which also exhibited the fact that once he'd finished writing the document he'd never reopened it. 

By now I can only recall how the book began: with a description of my father beginning to write a book on his computer. The prose is simple, clearly rendered, if even elegant at times, displaying an intuition I had not been aware of Dad in his actual person. It seemed obvious at first that no one besides family would want to read the work; a document requiring some personal association on the life of the bearer to drive them forward into devourment. This was clearly, for instance, not a work written with the reader in mind, nor any other form of person there at all, beyond the unwinding resolution of this man to take up the business of his body, despite, or in spite of, its impending dissolution. 

And yet I myself could not stop reading. It wasn't even that I cared to understand him after the fact, or to tread deeply into the minutiae of his description of the pressing of the buttons as he typed, of the silence he'd felt overcome the house when he would relent even for a minute, the 8-page sentence contemplating the pale gray color of the sky above him through the ceiling, which I know he had not seen in years. 

It was more so that with each line, as I read it, I felt a tracking passage in my head; as if underneath the words themselves there was a space through which my brain, if not my body, was slowly moving, or being moved. Like the condition of the ground beneath one's feet as one might walk across a desert, or on concrete, I could feel a sense of continuing direction in the world, though certainly one in which I didn't know where I was going. The words were masks for something more, a distraction like a magic trick I was being incorporated into. 


Somewhere within the negotiation of that opening passage of the first work, itself spanning more than a hundred pages, the book's text beneath me changed. I can't describe as it was, because as I have mentioned already here above, I do not remember reading, though at first the not remembering was different than it would become. I felt my eyes passing over the paper, and the symbols printed there upon it going in, though the gap of time between the incurring and my brain's transposition of implied meaning, which had always held me just outside any book's world, continued somehow to grow thinner as it continued, until it was so thin it was actually negative. By that I mean I could feel myself beneath the book; not within it, but covered over, wound around with. I knew my body was still there, turning the pages, breathing, but the larger element of me, as in who I feel I am, was as much part of the landscape of the breadth within which language worked as the necessary imagination required to read at all. And even as I acknowledged it was changing, it kept changing; like it was learning how to lead me backwards in itself, disguising the very principle by which I had become included in its miragelike message so that I could continue to forget what was actually happening as it happened, and thereby, I later understood, to survive. 

Nor did I at this point at all maintain any sense of what the physical coordinates of this developing position entailed; it would not be until the second of the three documents, or books, that I began to be able to teach myself to transfer data back from where I'd ended up, a process that would necessarily fill my body with the same plague as both my parents; what I will continue to refer to as a cancer, though I also know now that that is not the extent of it at all; if only it were only flesh, like. 


Much of the reading of my father's life's work happened without my knowledge. 

For instance, I only knew I had finished with the first chronological volume (the last of the series) only because I woke up repeating the last word. 

Or that is what I believe I must have been doing, as I was also sitting with the massive book propped open to the last page on my lap, with my ring finger touching the last phrase of text there, which without my glasses on looked indecipherable: iuer

But out loud, into the air around me, I was saying: Open

I couldn't tell how I'd gone on so long without the lenses over my eyes; everything was a blur even alive and up close, much less the tiny crabby font my father had used throughout the work, which I had stuck with for the printing despite the inherent impossibility to casually enter. 

Also, I'd pissed and shit my pants. And I seemed to have chewed through my bottom lip a bit and some of my tongue too, the meat of the rind of it split and splayed, running shining blood all down my clothes, and back into my throat, almost choking me. 


How long had I been sitting there doing the reading? It remained unclear. But I knew it felt now difficult to stand, the weight of the book on my lap seeming somehow crushing against my thighs, pinning me beneath it. I seemed so brittle, so pale and wretched, the room around me whorled to colors, cells.

Nor could I recall anything specifically about what it was I had read, despite how I could remember certain words emerging from the mass of what I'd allowed in: millions, for example; visitationspersona

Millions of what? Visitations from whom or . . . what? Whose persona? I could not so well recall the original context of these phrases as well as I could sense among them whole absorbed passages of passed thought, like the peaks of a mountain range buried in sea; and in each of the words within them there submerged, other scapes of speaking that even my original passage across them in inception had not derived. 


Worse, even when I put my glasses on, finding them buried in my hair that now seemed much longer than I remember ever wearing it, I still couldn't make out much better the room or the book. All the text just looked like gibberish typing, sprawling on forever in imitation of actual language: ldkj ieui4u 7yeruyejh ijhdlkjkldkf. Even the first passage of the book now, which as I said is all that thereafter I could clearly remember, had turned into the prattle, making it unreadable to anyone remaining.


Several months passed between my reading of the first-composed (last) volume, and the second-composed (second to last). It wasn't so much that I was avoiding it, but between then and now life had gotten in the way. My mother grew her sickest somewhere in there and required much of my attention. The plague had gotten in her lungs, and somehow in her head, making her face change and her voice erode away, her body so feeble from the waist down that she couldn't move. I washed her and I changed her and I fed her and I prayed, the words in the prayers after having read my father's first book seeming all wrong now, sliding out from under me in glass; escaping. 

When I had to leave her, through the daylight, to return to my job to keep us both alive, my mother spent the hours in my absence taking up where I'd left off: that is, reading ahead of me in my father's work, despite my reservations; in fact, I'd hid the copy from her as long as I could, and yet then sometimes coming into finding myself telling her about it, bragging to her about it, suggesting. 

And once she knew, she would not stop. It made sense that to read and understand the work of her dead husband, for which he'd abandoned her, is what she only wanted, in the end, to understand; though she could not actually speak to say so for herself by this point. I could tell it by the impression in her eyes, which persisted even after how when I would place the current volume across her lap she'd writhe and shudder, drool and try to scream; the screaming grew only worse when I tried to take it away again. And she used her very hands to turn the pages on her own, the only actual physical motion she displayed in those last years, I could tell, as when I would return home she'd be hundreds of pages deeper, all of it sheen to me, as a bystander, avoiding allowing anything that was to come for me as a reader myself in the near future to be unveiled before its time. 

It would all come to me when it could come to me. 


My mother died the same day she read the last page of the third book. Or that is how it appeared, though she had had her progress marked somewhere near the middle of the second volume for months then by that time. She refused to let me take the book or turn the page back even when it clearly made it easier to breathe; the only way to breathe. Her convulsions had become so intense that it was all she could do to lay there in ongoing agony, as if frozen solid, the look on her face like something wailing cast in plaster. 

I'd thought I'd found her dead like that many times, only discovering she was still conscious, in a certain sense of the word, when I would try to lift her. 

I was already also by this point taking my own sets of medications, which made my judgments blurry and only worse as time went on, all without a son to care for me eventually as I did her. I didn't give myself the time to think ahead to fear my own coming fate. 

I didn't think of anything but what was right before me. 

Finally, then, my mother didn't have the strength even to convulse; she could eventually not stop me from taking the book back, placing it where it belonged on the shelf in the room where my father had written it, and where I now slept. 

I had the phone against my face arranging for the coroner to come when my mother turned to me and said her last words, in some ways as well the first words I could remember ever having heard aloud from anyone not in the grip of the machines. 

It cannot end.


Following my mother's passing and burial in the plot beside my father in the plots they'd purchased for themselves in the national archival arena following the Blue War, I began to read the second (second to last) of my father's books. 

Unlike the first book, I can't remember how the second book began. This one was less pages than the first volume, but also seemed to have more words crammed in on every page. I had to hold my head down so close to the printing, dragging my face along beside the other words where they would touch my cheek and rub. I remember that it employed the same language as the ending of the first had, such that I could understand it in the present if not now when looking back, and I can remember the feeling of beginning the reading, and again moving in onto the blurring. 

There are particular passages I can recall; or more so images within those passages that would emerge above the others, but as I try to iterate them now, I find the language flooding out from underneath me. Each wants to come out only as a burble, as the rhythm of my choking as I try to remember how to stand. 

And yet it is what happened to me therein and thereafter that most survived: that is, as I proceeded deeper into the text, I could begin to see myself as from beyond myself; not above me, but somehow removed. 

I watched me reading on that first day for what seemed more hours than a day has. Because the windows in the room still remained covered, I could not actually verify the time, but nor could I break the passage of my reading when I wished to, despite how I was still as much me from beyond me as I was within. 

I watched me turn the pages with my eyes closed, each time as if to break the idea of the world outside the ream of its own voice. It had a very particular sensation, the condition of reading: like a long low wind set far away and yet approaching across a landscape of disintegrated presence, full of our screaming. 

What is more difficult to describe is how I was still reading the book when I saw myself come to the last page. I watched me close the book and stand, then I walked out of the room into the next room, leaving this removed part of me behind. And I continued to feel the sensation of the reading, the circuit of the wind blown ever closer, gathering dust within its form, not louder but wider somehow, deeper somehow. 

The amount of time that my body was gone from the room was even longer than the period of reading felt. No other sensation carried over from the narration beyond where in my body I could feel the time between us caving in, time counting double on each side. The language in the book now was as like water, filling up all throughout my missing space, overflowing where it left no other choice. 

When my body returned to the room, I was significantly older. My hair had grayed and grown down over my face. There was a deep wound on my neck where it looked like someone had stabbed me, though the mark had already healed, if crudely, the result of shoddy surgeon work. I was wearing my father's clothes, the same black silk shirt and leather pants he'd insisted on wearing throughout the last years of his life, and so the ones he'd died in, which I also thought had been the same we'd buried his body wearing. I could see now where stains from blood blotched the thighs and stomach of the garments, mine or someone else's, I could not know.

I had a ring on every finger. 


Then I was inside me once again. The book was closed. My hands seemed gnarled; they seemed like mine, but in a world where mine meant someone else's. 

I opened the book again and saw the language all turned again to mush, endless unintelligible symbols that gnashed and bashed around inside me, doing real damage now, beyond mere flesh. All I could remember was all I've told you.  

And yet by now, as had my mother promised, I knew I could not stop, nor did I even want to.


The beginning of the third and final book (the first in the series) was a symbol, not a sentence. It seemed to rise up out of the page against my face, its slick black sheen prismatic almost against the stock white paper, itself somehow wider than it should be. 

The symbol was, in no better certain terms, a blotch, mistakable perhaps as an ink spill via printing error, had the book not been printed digitally, I knew. 

The symbol would change shape depending on how and when I looked at it. I stared into its surface for some time; perhaps even longer than I'd already spent reading the second volume as I recalled it. I cannot remember any of the forms the symbol took beyond the way it seemed to learn to wrap around my face, constrict my head within it. And there within that I could see the longer stretching walls of its one form, where within it from the void of it, all other symbols became cleft. 

I kept waiting for the urge to turn the page to occur upon me, to feel the splitting of myself again in two as I had in the middle volume, though the longer that I waited, the more I knew the book would learn how to say what it had always meant to say; the awaiting text not ever there until I turned the page to see it. 


The cancer, if that is indeed what it was that had taken both my parents, spread through me rapidly in coming days. Because I was not eating or drinking, because of the book, its inclination to take me over from the inside accelerated, assumed new circuits, circled places in me where I still remembered who I was and systematically eliminated them, repurposing my flesh for its pursuits. 

In this way, I began to understand how the act of reading was exactly like the act of writing; and the act of writing was a life, one lived not parallel to flesh, but splitting through it. 

What any word said was only the beginning of its intentions for me, and for every other eye the word had entered, and appeared. 


I began this section of my document by stating that I closed the book, but that actually could not be true. I am still reading the book as we speak, as I am speaking; the book is not closed. 

I am the same age as I had been when I began. 

Wherein as I awaited the turning of the pages, any instant, it was not my flesh that did the job; not you or I or any other, but what had been described therein between us in our wake, a phantom space within which the sickness had already learned to spread as information, story, to claim our fate; one wherein seeing was still not believing and vice versa; whether you are actually receiving this or not; however old or ill you believe you are, however silent; as language fills the space of all there is.


I see myself stand and walk to approach the covered window of the only room I've ever known.

I see me pull the curtain back and move to press my head against the glass and look out upon no daylight. 

I see there is no world there. 

There is no glass, no land, no size. 

At last, I am not reading.

You are reading.