Saturday, April 30, 2011

2011 Reading List Monthly Update: April

Books completed in April 2011:

"Shoplifting From American Apparel" (Tao Lin) 4/1/11
"Franny and Zooey" (J.D. Salinger) 4/7/11
"The Failure" (James Greer) 4/8/11
"The Gospel of Anarchy" (Justin Taylor) 4/16/11
"Dhalgren" (Samuel R. Delany) 4/21/11
"There Is No Year" (Blake Butler) 4/25/11

2011 Reading List total:

1. "Welcome to my World" (Johnny Weir) 1/12/11
2. "Cold Hand in Mine" (Robert Aickman) 1/14/11
3. "The Mechanics of Homosexual Intercourse" (Lonely Christopher) 1/20/11
4. "Illuminated Shadows" (James Champagne) 1/20/11 *
5. "Eat When You Feel Sad" (Zachary German) 1/23/11
6. "The Marble Index" (James Champagne)
7. "Brigit" (Andrew Champagne) 2/15/11
8. "Gravity's Rainbow" (Thomas Pynchon) 2/25/11
9. "Demons by Daylight" (Ramsey Campbell) 3/4/11
10. "Neuromancer" (William Gibson) 3/7/11 *
11. "Don Quixote" (Kathy Acker) 3/16/11
12. "Snow Crash" (Neal Stephenson) 3/31/11
13. "Shoplifting From American Apparel" (Tao Lin) 4/1/11
14. "Franny and Zooey" (J.D. Salinger) 4/7/11
15. "The Failure" (James Greer) 4/8/11
16. "The Gospel of Anarchy" (Justin Taylor) 4/16/11
17. "Dhalgren" (Samuel R. Delany) 4/21/11
18. "There Is No Year" (Blake Butler) 4/25/11

*= book I've read at least once in the past

currently reading:

"Star Maker" (Olaf Stapledon)

Monday, April 25, 2011

Mini-book review: Blake Butler's "There Is No Year"

Blake Butler frustrates me. While undeniably a talented young writer, with a knack for creating both disturbing imagery and evocative and atmospheric sentences, I've yet to read one of his books and end up walking away feeling 100% satisfied. I came across his "novel-in-stories" Scorch Atlas during the summer of 2010, while vacationing with my family in Philadelphia, and when I first began it I thought it was one of the most incredible apocalyptic novels I had read in awhile, a stunning and even breathtaking murky glimpse at a world in which all logic had suddenly gone out the window, a world suffering through a number of surrealistic apocalypses, with Butler, like some sort of necromantic magician, conjuring up scene after scene of dazed people numbly trying to cope with a new civilization in which everything was rotting and decaying, a sort of textual recreation of Max Ernst's Europe After the Rain, if you will. At least, that's what I thought about the first 100 pages: the 52 pages that follow seemed to jettison the horror and clarity of what came before them and in their place was just a lot of free form imagery and tired stabs at experimental writing (for example, one page consisted of a few terse sentences interspersed with hundreds of parentheses repeated over and over again). In the end, it just wound up leaving me feeling disappointed, a missed opportunity.

I kind of feel the same way about Butler's newest novel (and major publishing debut), There Is No Year (Harper Perennial, 2011). Like Scorch Atlas, there isn't much in the way of a plot or a story. The novel can best be summed up in this manner: in a world suffused by a sort of vaguely described light, a father, mother and their sickly son move into a haunted house and weird things happen. It's a flimsy set-up that somehow Butler manages to stretch out for 400 pages, whereas I feel it probably would have made a more effective novella or short story (as it is, the whole "house-within-a-house"/"house that's larger on the inside than it is from the outside" feels like it's been done to death before anyway: Borges tackled the same theme in a lot of his short fiction, as did J.G. Ballard in stories such as "The Endless Space" and "Report on an Unidentified Space Station"). I thought the first 230 pages or so were quite good, thinking that maybe this was how a book like Lunar Park should have been written (another novel dealing with a family experiencing weird phenomena in a house that may be haunted, albeit told in a more conventional, less flashy style). But after that tedium started setting in as the book just dragged on and on before "ending" with not much of a bang. While the book certainly looks great, with its gray pages and its blurry photographs, this just seems to serve as a mask to cover up the "been there, done that" nature of Butler's themes. It doesn't help matters that the main characters in question (none of which are named) are such abstract stick figures that it's hard to really give a damn about them and the bizarre things that happen to them, and after awhile all of the unrelenting weirdness starts to become banal and routine, all of it written in Butler's blank style. I'm kind of curious as to how he feels about his own work: there seems, to me, to be a lack of passion or emotion present.

This isn't to say that the book isn't enjoyable, as like in Scorch Atlas there are some effective and disturbing scenes and images, such as a scene where the son plays a video game that finds him trapped in a level that never ends. But as the book goes on these interesting scenes start to become few and far between, and it just doesn't seem to add up or cohere into a successful whole. If one views There Is No Year as an illogical and choppy nightmare set in the form of a novel, one might be tempted to see it as a literary success, but as a friend of mine (Chris Stamm) recently noted in his own review of the book in question, "one man’s bad dream will almost always be the same man’s dull tale, no matter the amount of typesetting tomfoolery."