Friday, June 3, 2011

Review of There Is No Year by Blake Bulter

So what is Blake Butler's There Is No Year? The cover says it's a novel and as far as that term goes, I would have to agree. But it doesn't have what many would consider a plot. There are events but one event doesn't necessarily follow from another, and in terms of what happens there are only barely the beginning, middle, and end of basic storytelling. Nor are there really characters. There is Mother, Father and Son, and these entities are loci for events, thoughts, and emotions, but what surrounds them is so abstract and the traits of these entities so fluid, that we don't connect with them they way we connect with entities we consider characters. In some ways, it might be most productive to think about There Is No Year in terms of modern epic poetry as opposed to in terms of prose fiction. Whatever label the reader might use to get an initial grasp on the work, There Is No Year is brilliant.

The easiest comparison with a recent work is with Mark Z. Danielewski's masterpiece House of Leaves and, whether intended or not, the influence is positive and strong. Along with the use of text layout to contribute to the experience of reading (Not that House of Leaves has a monopoly on that narrative technique) the houses in the book, are fluid entities; trickster architecture, bending, warping, misleading, changing, not so much as entity possessed by a demon, but as the demon itself. Like House of Leaves, the relationship between the people and the space is radically different in There Is No Year, than it is in most other fiction. But our relationship with space has changed, and this isn't just another “The Internet Changed Everything” point. The internet is a part of it, but so is radio, TV, phones, cell phones, cars, trains, and airplanes. To “live in Boston” means something very different now than it did 100-200 years ago. We relate to the space that surrounds us differently than we used to and we are just now beginning to intellectually and emotionally explore that new relationship in literature.

Though a fluid relationship to space may be the most overtly interesting theme in the book, the lack of a traditional plot allows Butler to explore a wide range of themes and ideas, from death, to literature, to the body, movies, language, and family. At its best, the different chapters and passages of There Is No Year flow into one another like individual poems in a collection. One might not continue the events of that which directly preceded it, but intellectual explorations are sustained and intensified regardless of what is technically happening in the story.

A few moments highlight the quality of There Is No Year. The chapter called “The Son's Book” first hints at the quality of the novel. The footnoted list of the dead in a long chapter called “In a Daze the Son Remembers the Black Package He'd Up Till Now Ignored or Forgotten or Somehow Just Not Seen,” explores our fascination with the celebrity dead, while playing with the notion of encapsulating character in the moment of death. On page 277 Butler breaks up a bracketed phrase to brilliant effect toying with the conventional physics of reading. Finally, in a chapter called “Inside,” Butler uses punctuation marks, mostly commas, to represent dust in the light, footnoting the marks to en-language the dust, without disturbing its visual presence.

But the greatest storytelling success of There Is No Year is the emotional import he is able to imbue his un-characters with. Most of the time there is an emotional distance between readers and fictional entities like Father, Mother, and Son. As in Lydia Davis' work, rather than being characters, figures like that are usually vehicles for exploring human thought and behavior. It is just hard for us to feel something for characters without names. And yet, there is a tenderness to There Is No Year. We are concerned for Father, Mother, and Son when they are in painful situations. Even if the events aren't conducive to communicating a particular emotion, we feel as though we should feel something about them. And in a story that uses so few traditional narrative techniques, this is a storytelling triumph.

Perhaps the other work There Is No Year most closely resembles is the Cool Memories series by Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories collects notes, phrases, images, and ideas from different parts of Baudrillard's life, presenting, in some sense, the detritus of his intellectual efforts. There are passages in Cool Memories that are as brilliant and beautiful as anything else Baudrillard wrote. In a strange way, the very disconnectedness of the passages allows for an accumulative yet fluid global writing experience. And though There Is No Year is more overtly cohesive than Cool Memories, it still manages to create those accumulative, fluid themes. In a sense, There Is No Year is more about the thoughts and emotions of the reader than anything that actually “happens” to the characters in the book.

Innovative or experimental literature (or something) is in a strange place. The names of the past two great avant gardes, modernism and post-modernism, have trapped contemporary practitioners of radical fiction in a nameless, movementless, nebula of action. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it makes it hard for critics (at least me anyway) to talk about global patterns in literature. Something is happening in literature but what do we call it? What kind of literature is House of Leaves, The Way Through Doors, I Hotel, The Complete Works of Marvin K Mooney, and There Is No Year? A review of one work doesn't provide space for even scratching the surface of the question, but if There Is No Year is part something bigger in fiction, that something is exciting.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Josh,

    You wrote: "There Is No Year is more about the thoughts and emotions of the reader than anything that actually “happens” to the characters in the book." <-- The world is one big projection test.

    This post really made me want to go out and get a copy. However, the stack of books will keep my busy for quite a while. Maybe for Christmas...