Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). Dew is also a regular reviewer for Rain Taxi Review of Books. His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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They’d be watching Trading Spaces and the set would make a sound and the screen would blip to channel 48, a station that ran live feeds supplying info on local traffic and weather. Each time the blipping happened, the cameras seemed stuck above their very neighborhood, their street. There in the center of the screen they could see their little house with the blood red room with the strange pattern and the mold.
The American domestic drama—studded with brand names, franchises—is here reconsidered in light of ubiquitous digital voyeurism, hyper-exhibitionism, and the encroach of pornography. The next thing the cable connection does is splice in something from adult pay-per-view, grunts and whines and bodies slamming into each other, skin rubbing skin. There is There Is No Year: a father and a mother and a son and a haunted house, though the term is archaic, quaint. Heather O’Rourke shows up a good deal, gets mentioned, lurks around the edges of the experience of reading this mesmerizing book. Whatever Heather O’Rourke is famous for, it also involves a box of light, glowing.
Here there are insects, some creepy counterfeit people, more insects, photographs with nontraditional qualities, the semi-famous dead in annotated lists. Teeth, or their absence, recur throughout. The father crawls through holes in his house. There is a hive. There is another hive, lists of dreams, hallucinations, terrors. There are chapters with titles such as “THE MOST FREQUENTLY PLAYED SONG ON THE SON’S COMPUTER BEFORE THE SON ERASED THE CONTENTS OF THE HARD DRIVE AND BURNED IT AND BURIED THE COMPUTER IN THE WOODS,” which details how “This song’s title appeared in the son’s iTunes browser as a trail of mangled digits or a blur. The son could not view the details of the track.”
A ghost story is a political or a psychological tale: we hear about the dangers of the Serbian borderland, the bloody history of eastern Tennessee, or we hear something closer to the individual bone, an anxiety about relationships, mortality. Adolescence is a general fulcrum for narratives of the paranormal. Butler gives us something in this tradition, a consideration of the insulation of a contemporary America where citizens have withdrawn behind windows to stare at screens. When people are together, they are alone in the dark. Dream and scrolling text message become undifferentiated experience. Here is a world flickering with “light of books without pages— / light of paintings without paint— / light of dance without limb— light of speech without lung—.” The arm that works the remote control, Butler tells us early on, is also the arm that masturbates its body.
There Is No Year is a creepy and beautiful book, reminiscent of Bret Easton Ellis, particularly the tonal horror of Lunar Park. Early we see the father “peeping through glass” as he wanders, street to street. “He’d seen so many bodies fuck,” during such walks. “In one house he’d seen someone reading about a father at the window in a book. All the houses touched by wire. The grain in the glass in the windows in the frames in the walls in the rooms in the houses on the yards along the street aligned for miles.” When the nameless dread that drives the sense of narrative here begins to weigh upon this nameless father, he dreams of spaghetti and beach towels and sex and library books, video games. This element of the nightmarish—dream logic, absurdity overlaid atop an inescapable, visceral panic—is one of Butler’s real strengths; he can toss us scraps of grotesque micro-narratives, wormy and infectious images:
The air was flaxen then—was rubber, then was wetted, then was cream. The air was nothing. There was all—some thick black crap crammed in around his head. The son began negotiation. He found that with his sharpest teeth—more knives—he could bite in and to and through the nothing air. The son bit & chewed & swallowed. He saw a crack of light. In the light there was some of somewhere.
The book itself is a big lightweight thing designed in shades of gray, punctuated by vague and, at times, unsettling photographs (page 348 is plain spooky). There is the feel of newsprint to it, the textured pages, and sometimes a need to strain your eyes as the pages darken. What an organic object, something you could bury in a hole in the backyard and dig up later full of beetle larvae. While the characters in the text “must attend to” “this box that gave the light out,” typing or otherwise monitoring. “The sequence formed by the son’s button pressing caused a small black square across the screen. The black square covered a certain section of the long room’s pixilated ceiling, around which the other pixels went slurred and glitchy.”
The repeated appearance of insects—“insects so loud they could not be heard, obliterating words”—seems, like the books design, a kind of anchor in the fleshly, the physical. Meanwhile the television cuts to a surveillance station or people read cries for help as they scroll across a computer screen; a great deal of writing goes on, real and dreamed, and people watch films wherein they appear along the background or people discover boxes full of photographs or people light up a video game screen with explosions or people riddle over an unidentified iTunes track. The insects—which are fairly vague, a kind of trope—are less terrifying than all this technology. Even the hive bugs, their hives, are somehow small and understandable, simple, whereas this constant light, these boxes, this technology keeping everyone alone yet watched and watching—this is the anxiety Butler is able to tap at, in the sense a sadistic dentist might tap at a rotten tooth, tap out a little ditty, a line or two of Morse code, playing around with the sound and the pain, the expectation, the agony.
To hold this book in your hands, open its gray pages, and read about a world of glowing screens, shifting channels, a disquieting world of simulacrum, backlit and droning—this experience of reading becomes, itself, a kind of voyeurism, like standing on a sidewalk looking in, past dark glass windows, to the interior of a neighbor’s house, flickering and mysterious.
Official Blake Butler Web Site
Official Harper Perennial Web Site