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There Is No Point July 18, 2011

Posted by The Typist in books, literature, New Orleans, Odd Words, Toulouse Street.
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OK, I didn’t get to Richard Brautigan last night to relax myself to sleep.

Foolishly, almost against my will, I picked up Blake Butler’s There Is No Year again instead.

I just don’t get it, the compulsion to read this odd book.

And I just can’t stop.

I do think I see the point, the banal evil of a malignant brick ranch on Tree Street, Anywhere U.S.A., the possessed possession; the random television, the fixation with the sterility of the bathroom, the frozen mirror family (the house’s last victims, or a vision of the future), the father’s endlessly expanding commute and descent into madness, the demonic boxes; the fractured syntax, meandering concrete pages and footnotes, the methodical plotlessness of this modern House of Usher.

Like the house in the story the book is magnetically compelling. I’m trapped and can’t get out until I reach the end, unless I fall into one of the cracks in the continuum that open up in the walls of the house, unless I am swallowed by one of the haunted boxes.

The book itself is like its contents, a thing: the varicolored pages in shades of grey, the intermittent abstract plates of largely black, the typography wandering like the characters around and sometimes along the edge of the page. I struggle to describe the text, or rather what it is like to read the book, and the compulsion to read the book. Horrorshow: my eyes peeled wide against my will, the compulsion is the need to know what is that bright ring of light in the fatal video.

The book is flat: not just the pages, but the text itself in that young, post-modernist voice of post-Carver K-Mart realist sentences in which most emotion must be inferred. There is something lurking just beneath the text like the demonic spirit of the house, not precisely the ghost of the author who leads a conventional life, spending his days writing as his parent’s home and helping to care for his father in dementia. It is a thoroughly modern text in the sense that a “scriptor” is not essential, but instead the book is a scrying glass in which each of us can read the context of our time, the numbing drudgery of daily routine and the monstrous overload of information. It is the same context that lead me to praise the poetry collection The Cloud Corporation by Timothy Donnelly so highly, as “the Howling Wasteland of our generation.” We are in a period in need of it’s Wasteland, and it’s Howl.

The compulsion to finish the book is of a part with what I think motivates the text. I was discussing anhedonia with a friend, who pointed out that alcoholics frequently experience it when they quit drinking. I’m not an alcoholic but struggled with this condition, as did someone else close to me. I was diagnosed with depression, but I often wonder about that diagnosis. I wrote on ToulouseStreet.net a while back about an article discussing depression in writers, David Foster Wallace in particular. The article suggested depression is a more common condition of the introspective authorial voice in our heads. Anhedonia is listed as a symptom of depression and I wonder lately (partly as a result of There Is No Year, and also the novel OH! by Todd Shimoda which I just finished and will write about soon) if anhedonia is not the natural result of a thoughtful person living in the 21st century, looking too closely at the conditions around us, like a Christian finding an Aramaic fragment suggesting the Apostles left in disgust, following Commander Judas into the hills to fight the Romans, leaving Him to wander the streets of Bethlehem as a mendicant beggar, often drunk, sleeping in doorways. Perhaps in our time the life examined is the life not worth living, unless that examination leads to some action to change it even if that action is as seemingly unproductive as a literary novel.

When I suggest emotions in this book must be inferred I mean a text infected with anhedonia, like much modern, experimental literature, like so many people staggering from task to task through the rows of cubicles, and home to digital satellite numbness and to bed.

It is an imperfect book. There seems too much repetition of situation and theme. Perhaps a novella would have been enough, but I will grant that perhaps hundreds of pages were necessary to give the proper result, like a full course of antibiotics. When I heard Blake Butler read from his book Kerouac came immediately to mind. The novel was written in an extended session lasting just over a week, the endless scroll bars of word processing substituting for the teletype role. And it is in a sense that sort of book, the outpouring of the subconscious of a young writer attempting to capture the spirit of the milieu in which he lives. Unlike Kerouac, we don’t get the pleasant, adolescent fantasies of running away to the Beat circus but instead a nightmare, the malevolence of 21st century life erupting like an abscess on Jim Carroll’s arm.

I struggled at first with that K-Mart Carver style, which only works when the story and characters are strong, that often taught scene in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love in which the aging of the characters and their slow descent into drunkenness is perfectly captured in the simple passage of the sun through the room’s window. It is called K-Mart realism for a reason and it is an even greater leap to render the unbelievably fantastic in simplicity. Given the inherent strangeness of what goes on the in the book, that’s a large task. I think in the end Butler mostly succeeds, that the book is not too long and the repetitiveness is a part of the structure, that the flatness of the syntax and characters is a part of the intent and effect. It is in the end not so much Book as Text, thinking of a long discussion of a theory of poetry that requires the reader’s participation in completion, a text not merely left open to interpretation but requiring it, the reader decoding meaning in the way we might try to solve a mystery novel a step ahead of the author. There Is No Year is no Finnegan’s Wake, but it’s going to require your attention. And possibly (God help us) a re-reading.

It’s a difficult book to recommend, the YA syntax of the current set of chic young literati meets a Belaño-like young Borges on a bad acid trip. Still, I could not put it down once I started it. All the dark thoughts about the world we put aside for the sake of our sanity pouring across the page like spilt ink come creeping out like the strange behaviors of the house that is the only setting but not a setting, instead a character. I can only caution you that once you start you may not able to put it down, that if you do read it and you’ve settled yourself into a comfortable life in a brick ranch house with your spouse and children you may find yourself woken by voices in the night or develop a justified phobia of doorknobs.

You have been warned.

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