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There Is No Year: A Novel by Blake Butler

There Is No Year: A Novel

by Blake Butler

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I recently came across a box of teenage memorabilia, which included a folder of submissions to my high school literary magazine. I can’t remember if we had anything as egalitarian as an editor—this was one of your hippie, noncompetitive schools with an ultimate frisbee team and a working farm on campus—but I was on the magazine board for three years, and saw a lot of fiction and poetry come and go. Obviously more came in than went out, and whether or not submissions were supposed to be returned I still have a pile of them, many years later.

I was a bit surprised, on rereading, at the proportion of experimental, nonlinear, free-verse writing to straight up fiction and poetry… and then, on second thought, not surprised at all. Infatuation with the Beats and a total lack of formal training gave birth to a stack of bad On the Road knockoffs, bad Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell lyric imitations, and bad magical realist modern fables. The operative word being bad. And from what I can tell, that kind of thing was replicated in high schools all over the country—for all I know, all over the world. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Adolescence is a time of chronic embarrassment: zits, weird hair, squeaky voices, boners, surrealist writing. What’s a shame is that all that awful stuff probably turned off a few generations of cultural consumers. Whether out of embarrassment or free-floating literary trauma, I’m guessing it ruined experimental writing for a lot of us. I know it did me, for many years. And if readers don’t make the effort to move past that—if I had never been urged to move outside my own comfort zone—they’re missing out on some interesting work.

Blake Butler’s new novel, There Is No Year, is a perfect example. It’s the strange tale of a family—a father, a mother and a son—who move to a new house, and what happens to them. From the start, Butler lets us know exactly the wobbly ground we’re walking on, setting up a series of familiar tropes from dream sequences and horror movies: strange rooms multiplying within the house, a TV that changes channels randomly, hair in unexpected places, lots of bugs. And at the same time, what emerges is a portrait of a family dynamic that’s perfectly comprehensible, even while viewed through a series of reality-warping filters and—another of the book’s recurring themes—mirrors, looked into from odd angles: the parents, conflicted in their feelings for each other but stuck firmly in their love for their son; and the son, taking his first steps outside the family unit in search of love and a life of his own. Beneath the trappings of surreality, all are recognizably ordinary.

The story is full of doppelgängers. When the family first moves in, the house is occupied by a copy family that has to be dealt with. And when the mother puts it on the market, the couple who come to look at it remind her of, perhaps, younger versions of herself and the father, people who could conceivably turn them into a copy family—the woman, pregnant, wears a bridal veil and the man’s pupils “resembled little stickers, the kind placed on placards when art is sold.” The house itself is one of the story’s main characters, sprouting rooms and feral grass, like a bad marriage incarnate. And some of Butler’s best dark humor emerges in his portrayal of the nightmares of homeownership; the sequence of the father crawling through the house’s ever-constricting ventilation system made me laugh with familiar horror. There is a scary gazebo, and several types of infestation:

"Some certain kind of insect had laid its waste all through the foyer, the stink raising the temperature in the room by several degrees. Grasshoppers in the rice cooker. Roach babies in the sink. Wormy blankets burped by spiders—enough to wrap your head. Termites bundled in a jacket. Chiggers in the coffee grinds. Beatles in the grease and vents and elsewhere, waiting to awake. Insects so loud they could not be heard, obliterating words."

In the same way that the best of the abstract expressionists were solid draftsmen first, it’s clear that Butler is a good writer and knows what he’s doing. However he chooses to play with language—and the book reads very much like a series of spooky minor-key jazz riffs—his narrative still operates within rules, and the writing is strikingly lovely even as it’s often grotesque:

"From the mother’s throat, instead of voice now, up through her chest there came a key—another key that opened nothing—smooth teeth—each further word a key and key again, their metal raining from her mouth in exclamation to click against the ground—and in turn to turn to further birds there, bursting, one and another, a white excrement, alive—each bird flying right after the other straight up and head-on into the thickening awning of the sky."

He plays with the whole notion of belief as well, taking off on flights of murky fantasy and then just as quickly bringing the story back to ground. The result is unsettling, as it’s obviously intended to be. There Is No Year is a roller coaster ride of a book, a well-paced scary movie, and that’s a large part of its pleasure:

"The son had told the mother about the ants. He said it over and over again until finally she lifted him up and led him through the house to see how all was well, nothing was there, not a thing, no ants. Not even one. Nor inside him, she said. Never."

This is very much a novel about perception, and, reinforcing that emphasis, the physical book is quite beautiful. Much care has been taken with the rich paper stock in varying shades of gray, the setting and justification of the type, and the images—black-and-white photographs of things glimpsed from the corner of an eye. The way in which light changes is part of both the narrative and the reading experience, and Butler’s use of the surrealist model to play with form all around makes it into a holistic affair.

In those long-ago literary magazine meetings, I remember that discussions tended to veer conveniently away from style and ended up trying to figure out what the author was really saying. That our confusion was in fact a reflection on style, or lack of it, mostly escaped us. There Is No Year, for all its murky flights of fantasy, is an unambiguous tale of domestic life, family ties, growing older, growing up. And it’s a story of a—perhaps the—writer:

"The son would think he was languid in front of the television watching some kind of program about trucks or swords, designed to ensnare young boys’ attention, but the son was actually writing the book. The son had also mistaken himself for eating dinner, painting pasta, laughing, and brushing his teeth while he was actually sitting in his closet with the door shut and his fingers typing into a very small computer he didn’t know he had."

This is one of the best stories of artistic germination I’ve read in a long time. Giving it up to the weird narrative, letting the imagery in without fighting it for logic, gradually builds an extremely rewarding, complex portrait. Late in the novel the son sees an older version of himself, “already balding, multi-tattooed from head to foot, carrying a book.” But the pleasure in recognition—of ourselves, our alienation, our beloved creative others—belongs entirely to the reader for most of the book. Ultimately, the son does get it as well, although maybe with a little less delight:

"and the son saw what he made, he saw the texture of the ejection, of the words burped from several selves he’d held in hives, layers wished and crushed and in him, and he felt the words spread through the room expanding, felt the words burst back into him and through and through and out of the room, words worn on paper, wet and endless, a flooding ocean at his knees, at his chest, his neck, his head, gel gumming up his nostrils and in the air vents, in the air itself—and then the son again could not breathe—and the words slushed and slammed around the son as massive slivers, blubbing up, and the son rose off the floor inside the rising, and the son tried to swim and kick as best he could, the language welling in his head and stomach, stretching his legs and muscles…"

Understanding moves slowly in There Is No Year; it accretes, adheres, flows with a certain viscosity. Some of it is sluggish, and some of it is uncomfortable. But for the reader who’s willing to play along with Butler, there is a lot to uncover and have fun with, and some truly out-there writing—in the best sense of the term—to experience. ( )
  lisapeet | Jan 4, 2014 |
There Is No Year: http://t.co/AfZExdn

Wow. I'm not sure I can even fully articulate my disappointment in this book - and in having spent the last week reading it. Huge waste of my time. ( )
  drewsof | Jul 9, 2013 |
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)

So perhaps it was the microscopically small expectations I had going into Blake Butler's admired yet reviled full-length literary debut There Is No Year that made me enjoy it a lot more than I had been expecting; after all, this experimental haunted-house story and Grand Future Of The American Contemporary Novel has been trashed by readers and critics much more than it's been praised, and I also have to confess that I'm not much of a fan of Butler's popular litblog "HTMLGiant," which I find just much too pretentious for my personal taste. But it turns out that Year is a much different thing than I had been led to believe, and something that regular readers of this blog will be instantly familiar with; basically, it's the most high-profile bizarro novel in history, and if Blake hadn't taken the time to cultivate the New York MFA industry crowd before writing it, it would've come out with a cheesy Photoshopped cover on Eraserhead Press just like all the other bizarro novels I've been reading in the last few years, and it would've had its 75 readers or whatever and Butler would right now be out on the road with Patrick Wensink and Amber Dawn and Eric Henderixson and Ian Woodhead, scraping and hustling for a living, instead of being the star author of the newly artsy-fied Harper Perennial and being feted by the New York Times and all the other wonderful things that have been happening to him lately.*

And so in a way, this makes this the greatest thing to ever happen to the bizarro genre (or "gonzo," or "The New Weird," or whatever term you want to use), because it's like a giant booster shot of validity to all the books that fit within it; and now when these authors are sending out emails and trying to book appearances with all these McSweeney's-loving lit hosts across the country, when describing their books all they have to say now is, "…You know, it's like Blake Butler," and the hosts will say, "Oh, Blake Butler, well, then, come on by!" But that said, let me also confess that I only ended up reading about half of this before putting it away for good; because much like the superior House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski that Butler liberally steals from honors in pastiche style**, no matter how intriguing this kind of writing is, a little goes a long way with most readers, and while I found 200 pages of this to be almost perfect, the 450 pages of its actual length turned out to be way too much. But the good news is that it's easy to read just half of this book and still be highly satisfied with it, because for those who still don't know, there is no real plot to speak of, the aspect that has inspired most of its criticism; it's instead an unending series of exquisitely beautiful prose-poem micro-stories, something like 300 of them that are each only a page or two long, which much like Nathaniel Hawthorne at his best are much better at establishing a creepy, unsettling mood than in conveying an actual three-act plot. A long as you keep all these things in mind, there shouldn't be any reason that a genre enthusiast wouldn't really love There Is No Year for what it is, instead of despising it for what it isn't, and it comes recommended in that specific spirit.

Out of 10: 8.2 (but only if you read just the first half), or 9.7 for bizarro fans

*And I want to make it particularly clear today that I do think that all of Butler's recent successes are wonderful, no matter what I thought of the book in particular; although he and I have never met, we have a ton of mutual friends, and according to them he is apparently a quite gregarious and hardworking fellow who deserves all the successes he's recently been having. I guess I feel the need to specifically mention this today in particular because, after reading up on other online reviews of this book in preparation for my own, I was really dismayed to see just how many of them are in reality these thinly-veiled screeds of naked personal jealousy from other wannabe intellectuals, hundreds of them all along the lines of, "Wish I could string together 450 pages of nonsensical sentences and be called The Future Of The American Contemporary Novel." No matter what the quality of any particular work, I always think it's a shame whenever an author has to deal with a deluge of petty jealousy from the public masked as analytical criticism, simply because he's found success where others haven't; and so I just want to make sure that people don't lump my own criticisms in with the rest of the haters today, even though like them I found this novel only so-so in general.

**And well, okay, technically you could argue that both books actually rip off Steven Spielberg's Poltergeist in the scenes where they overlap; but that's a snotty cocktail-party discussion for another day. ( )
1 vote jasonpettus | Nov 15, 2011 |
I found this book very compelling even though I had no idea what was going on for most of it. I usually enjoy postmodern/less traditional books, like this (House of Leaves, one of my favorites, seems to be in the same genre), but There Is No Year just gave me a really hard time.

I think I may go back and study up on my theory a bit before trying this one again. ( )
  Abbsalah | Aug 25, 2011 |
A very strange book that starts out feeling like a haunted house tale but quickly turns into something different. It's never entirely clear what is happening, and there are probably multiple interpretations. Are the family's experiences meant to be read as literal experiences? Are they hallucinations, dreams? Is the whole thing a metaphor?

I found the book as a whole both compelling and bewildering. See my review at Shelf Love. ( )
  teresakayep | May 9, 2011 |
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"A wildly inventive, impressionistic novel of family, sickness, and the birth-wrench of art, from a deeply promising young author"--

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