[Riverhead Books; 2020]
It is probably accurate to call Blake Butler a “stylist,” although what his fiction offers is not “style” of the kind usually signified in discussions of literary writing: we find little evocative sensory description, few flourishes of figurative language, not much careful balancing of sentence types and lengths to achieve a “poetic” rhythm. Although his new novel, Alice Knott, at first seems somewhat more straightforwardly expository, soon enough we begin to get the kind of serpentine prose we have come to expect in a Butler novel, as when Alice seems to overhear her own thoughts in a synesthetic rush:
And when I looked in search of any world that might remain, I saw the sound of all time become broken, open everywhere around, the glass of endless windows, mirrors sight on sight, which through its rupture of my perspective I could then begin to hear another kind of speaking, the loudest, thickest voice I’d ever felt, comprised from all the people I’d ever known, each of them speaking at the same time, their choir brutal and unrehearsed, spreading through me with its sick yearning. . . .
As the novel progresses and Alice seems to lose control of her perceptions altogether, this sort of overflowing discourse becomes even more pronounced. (Readers of Blake’s previous novel, The 300,000,000, will surely find it familiar.) Such a sentence as this might be called “meandering,” but it is not so much that the language rambles — indeed, Butler’s prose conveys the impression that each turn of thought is syntactically appropriate and exact in meaning — than that it is actively engaged in an earnest effort to attain precise expression, although in Butler’s case precision does not involve specificity of detail but the proper level of abstraction. This does not in itself make his prose style less effective, but it does signal a different conception of “style” and requires a different kind of response from the reader.
The more abstract language arises in part from the emphasis Butler gives to depicting his characters’ states of mind, their processing of experience, rather than external activities rendered from outside or in addition to subjective awareness. This strategy has become even more acute in its stylistic ramifications in his most recent work, as both The 300,000,000 and now Alice Knott focus on characters whose mental status is questionable to begin with and who are to one extent or another portrayed as increasingly unstable as the narratives in each novel proceed. In effect, the reality of their uncertain cognitive states is evoked realistically — not by artificial devices meant to suggest mental breakdown, but by translating it into language that approximates it as accurately as possible. Thus even though The 300,000,000 presents the “thoughts” of both of its protagonists as already expressed in writing — in the case of Gretch Gravey, the putative serial killer whose actions are the foundation of the novel’s psychedelic narrative, in a notebook found at the scene of his crimes, whereas Flood, the police detective, leaves behind a heavily annotated case file — it is writing clearly meant to reflect these characters’ disordered way of comprehending the world.
Butler’s style seemed to embody a different sort of ambition in his earliest work. Although still often accumulative and elaborate, the sentences in books like Ever (2009) and Scorch Atlas (2010) seemed more crafted for their sonic effects in the “consecution” mode of writers like Gordon Lish and Gary Lutz, as in this passage from Ever, Butler’s first published book:
Meanwhile, in the outside during certain weeks the air would fold. The light comprising certain sections of certain rooms would burst or bubble. Strings of night might gleam of glass. The dirt would swarm with foam. . . .
These early works (including the novels There is No Year (2011) and Sky Saw (2012)) are somewhat more plot-oriented, at least in the sense of focusing on things that happen, although the “things” are often bizarre and irreal. They do introduce images and motifs that will continue to be central to The 300,000,000 and Alice Knott, in particular dysfunctional families and creepy houses. But the emphasis over the course of Butler’s published fiction has shifted from an imagistic sort of surrealism to, paradoxically, perhaps, a form of psychological realism by which the often hallucinatory images and phantasmagorical actions are presumably accurate renditions of the characters’ mental states.
However, it might be said that in The 300,000,000, at least, such a description of the novel’s method is complicated by the extreme unreliability of its narration. Not only are there two different sources of plot and perspective, Flood and Gravey, but we have Gravey’s account only as a part of Flood’s “report,” and within the case file itself there are annotations appended, additional information purportedly given by a number of the boys living in Gravey’s house, his acolytes or accomplices, as well as brief notes added by Flood’s colleagues. Thus the point of view is dispersed among a variety of characters, and finally there is no way to definitively determine either that Flood is actually Gravey’s creation, a part of his presumed psychosis, or perhaps that Gravey is in fact a figment of Flood’s imagination, a product of his own psychological breakdown. That this dense (stylistically and structurally), 450-page novel might finally be just an elaborate fever dream (although whose fever is unclear) is actually one of its most oddly compelling features.
Alice Knott isn’t, it seems to me, as formally elastic in this way as The 300,000,000. It is more directly a representation of mental instability, and for that reason is less engaging than the previous novel. Although there are hints — sometimes more than hints, as when Alice is whisked away by a mysterious man who tells her, “At this point, non-vital visibility is all but locked down, at least until the system has regained stability” — that Alice is a subject in some sort of cognitive behavioral study or experiment, they are vague enough that they might be manifestations of the noise roiling around in her head. When, at the novel’s conclusion, we are shown a video in which an aged Alice Knott is seen lying on a table, wires connecting her head to a video monitor relaying images of her life, the scene seems less a revelation that the novel we have read may be a video projection of the confusions swirling around in Alice Knott’s mind (or maybe one that creates such confusions), or a confirmation that video/digital technology has come to control our very powers of cognition, than simply a continuation of the novel’s dramatization of the turmoil within, of the dislocations of memory and perception that seem to define Alice Knott as a character, now perpetually on display.
There is even some ambiguity about the character’s exact identity. Is she in fact “Alice Knott,” the apparent wealthy heiress whose priceless paintings are being stolen and destroyed, the act of destruction being circulated in a viral video that begins to cast suspicion on Alice herself as the possible perpetrator? Or is she really “Alice Novak,” an artist whom, we are told, Alice Knott closely resembles, and who seems to the sort of artist who might undertake a video incineration of a de Kooning painting as a form of performance art? (Alice Knott watches a news broadcast reporting Alice Novak’s suicide, at the scene of which “several dozen” of her own artworks are discovered “burned on site.”) The same uncertainty holds true for Alice Knott’s memories of her own family: Does she really have a brother named Richard who is a convicted serial killer? If so, why can she not at first summon a memory of his presence, and why in the subsequent memories she does finally recall is he such a blurry and fluctuating figure? Did Alice in fact have two fathers, one who disappeared and became her “unfather,” and one who suddenly shows up at some point after, but whom Alice never really accepts as genuine?
Yet finally these unanswered questions only mark the novel more firmly as a portrayal of psychological disturbance. The discontinuities and the ultimate disunity of Alice Knott’s consciousness may make her seem fractured and adrift, but that may indeed be her condition, however removed from ordinary conceptions of character that might make her. More broadly, to the extent the novel subverts expectations of unified character, the radical displacement of Alice Knott’s personality allows Butler ultimately to present a sort of synoptic vision of consciousness at large, even though there are of course peculiarities in Alice Knott’s life story and circumstances that provide the vision with specificity. But it is here, at the intersection of Butler’s style and the heterodox psychological realism he invokes, where the most severe problem with both The 300,000,000 and Alice Knott. Butler’s treatment so strenuously seeks to evoke the erratic awareness of the characters with its sinuously articulate language that, at the length at which such episodes of streaming memories and distorted perceptions are presented, Butler’s prose simply becomes wearisome.
This problem is less acute in The 300,000,000, its extended length notwithstanding, because Gretch Gravey is such a creepily compelling character, although Flood’s manifold excursions into a phantasmic netherworld in the novel’s second half do indeed eventually begin to pall. In Alice Knott, however, the practice does not adapt well to the novel’s protagonist, who is not exactly an uninteresting character but such a nebulous one that neither her family drama nor her status as a wealthy art patron (if that is indeed her status) really rise above the generic, however much the discontinuities of memory and the ambiguities of her present circumstances render her story inscrutable. The story itself is not interesting enough to be a satisfactory substitute for a protagonist who consistently stimulates the reader’s attention, particularities of plot notwithstanding. This is not to say that Alice Knott holds no interest as a character, just that such interest is not especially well-served by Butler’s stylistically elaborate form of psychological realism.
Alice Knott begins in a much more restrained style that more or less directly relates the robbery of Alice’s art collection and the ensuing video showing the destruction of de Kooning’s Woman III. The art heist/media frenzy plot continues as a kind of side show feature for a while (leading to fears of an art-despoiling “plague” that eventually draws in a concerned President of the United States), but by the novel’s end this subplot has largely faded away in favor of almost exclusive focus on Alice Knott’s deteriorating state. In this way the novel is similar to The 300,000,000, where by the narrative’s close Gretch Gravey’s alleged serial killings are clearly no longer part of the story and attention is likewise given over to Flood’s descent into a maelstrom of delusions. Still, the specter of Gravey’s deeds and his mysterious muse, “Darrel,” take possession of Flood’s being thoroughly enough that Gravey continues to be a presence in the novel, while whatever initial salience cultural attitudes toward art is meant to exhibit in the story of Alice Knott finally seems obscure.
In both novels, a central conceit that does help to bring additional unity and thematic implication to each is the interaction between the main characters and their homes, which manifest themselves to the characters in a physical way that might recall the emblematic setting of the venerable “old dark house.” A preoccupation with homes and houses is evident in almost all of Butler’s fiction, and almost always an uncanny and at times even sinister atmosphere pervades these houses, sometimes going beyond atmosphere to, indeed, supernatural transfigurations that appear to corporeally embody the psychological conditions of its inhabitants. Flood finds himself trapped in the soulless underworld concealed beneath Gravey’s death house, encountering only phantoms conjured by his own mind. Alice Knott has never felt entirely comfortable in her house — even though (perhaps because) it is her childhood home — and finally the geometry of the house seems to shift around her as if in response to her own shifting memories.
This focus on Americans’ precarious relationship to “home” may be the most singular element in Blake Butler’s work so far. The effect produced in The 300,000,000 is frightening, if ultimately exhausting. In Alice Knott, the motif helps add resonance to the novel, but as well the limitations of Butler’s now habitual formal and stylistic maneuvers are beginning to seem more apparent.
Daniel Green is a literary critic whose essays and reviews have appeared in a variety of publications, both online and in print. His new book, Beyond the Blurb, has just been published by Cow Eye Press and his website can be found at: http://noggs.typepad.com.