There Is No Plot (and That’s Ok)

04/27/2011 4:00 AM |

There Is No Year

Blake Butler

Harper Perennial

Let’s not kid ourselves. I don’t understand half of what Blake Butler is getting at, and neither do you.

This is by design. Or, perhaps more to the point, necessity. Butler’s new novel, There Is No Year, is little more than an account of a suburban family’s daily goings-on, but told through a prism so disorienting and estranging as to make what would be the unremarkable details of their lives feel almost terrifyingly weird.

Butler is the founder and editor of the literary blog HTMLGiant, and the book reflects that site’s experimental bent. It’s characterized by incomprehension, the family wandering through their home like primitives caught in a world outside their understanding. Reading it is like stumbling across a dollhouse tableau built by a toymaker with a serious taste for psychedelics.

The story works by erasing boundaries, blurring the lines between characters and settings, stretching inches into miles, minutes into years. The family’s universe is impossibly elastic, their house ever expanding and contracting, they themselves entering and exiting bodies and copies of bodies, diffusing through the shells, crusts, carapaces that contain them, bleeding out into the world.

And then there is the world bleeding in. “For years the air above the earth had begun sagging, suffused by a nameless, ageless eye of light,” begins the novel. “Each day the light grew gently thicker, purer. Each day still felt the same. Its presence rode in ridges on the faces of the hours and in silent hair all down all arms.” Everywhere the family is confronted by this sort of flattening, anonymizing onslaught. Ants infest their house, eating holes in the floorboards, carving patterns in the painted walls. Words infect the son’s body, turning him blue and swollen. These are people being erased by information, their squawks and bleats subsumed in a ceaseless flood of language and symbols.

If this sounds to you like some grand metaphor for the internet age, well, you might be right. The book’s blurring of forms is so pervasive and wide-ranging, though, that it seems less an account of a world disordered by any particular agent and more a basic statement about the necessity and frailty of the tricks—naming, dividing, categorizing—our minds use to let us live.

There Is No Year isn’t a work that’s especially long on plot. A relationship of sorts develops between the son and a girl at his school. The father’s ever-expanding commute morphs into something of an epic quest. At root, though, the book is less a narrative to be puzzled out than an object to be taken in—a sort of Blue Rider painting masquerading as a novel.

Individual mileage with this will vary, of course. Aggressive opacity as a literary strategy has never been much of a crowd pleaser, and there are occasionally points at which you wonder if Butler has any more of an idea than his characters about what exactly is going on. Lurking amid the obscurity, though, is a strange, intense vision of the world. The great pleasures of the novel are the moments —and there are many—when this vision rises unsuspected from the page and grips you by the throat.