I started reading Blake Butler’s first foray into non-fiction, Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia, when I couldn’t fall asleep one night. This is unsurprising. I have my own troubled history with sleep, and so I’d been keeping the book on my nightstand, waiting until one of the nights that I lay there and lay there and lay there, head buzzing and heavy on the pillow.
First impressions? This is a smart, painful, insightful book about insomnia, but also about the body, the family, technology, anxiety, art, and the clutter of the modern world. It’s a mirror into the deeply troubled mind of anyone who’s ever been abandoned by sleep. As anyone who suffers from insomnia knows, the brain does a dance that cycles through anxiousness, depression, guilt, and despair–and a black, cold sort of emptiness at the end of it all. Butler does an admirable job of describing this, in a way that makes an old problem nightmarish and newly familiar. Moreover, I was surprised, as i read, that more reviewers haven’t commented on how obviously this book informs and explains so much of Butler’s novel, There is No Year. But more on that later.
We spend the majority of Nothing in Butler’s head–a swamp of information, much of it useful, much of it the mire of modern technology, the “busy brain” that we suffer from in the noise and clutter of hive life today. The internet always at our fingertips and our information jets never turned off. Butler’s frequent cry throughout the book: How can you relax?, is not just a question for himself, but for every human who finds themselves in this carnival of the mind, filled with spinning, blinking lights and sounds that could be laughter or screams.
Butler, lucky for us, spills out his own personal carnival onto the pages and lets us get a good look at what the trance of waking life entails for him. He invokes Hegel, Lispector, Artaud, Kant, Walmart, Chat Roulette and the Lunesta Butterfly. At times, he channels Nicholson Baker, parceling out bits of information and taking on the weight of history for us. He’s sometimes very funny, and sometimes, often, very serious. He veers from despair to giddiness to panic to numbness in the search for sleep or something like it.
Everyone’s sleeplessness starts somewhere, Butler reminds us. (My own, I remember began when I started having vivid nightmares layered over reality at age four or five. I didn’t know it at the time, but these were lucid dreams, something I still suffer from.) But Butler might as well have said our struggle with existence starts somewhere; the first time you can’t sleep and you’re faced with the black reality of loneliness for the first time in your life. Indeed, Nothing often takes an existentialist tone, and Butler at one point quotes Beckett directly: “we go on.” And of course we do. How dreadful that can be.
Nothing is a sad, strange, lovely, painfully open book, complete with a history of sleep and Butler’s lack of it. It’s a rumination on our own uneasy existence in the world, on the darkness that scares us and the darkness that saves us. In the end, and finally, it is a book not about sleep but about obliteration: the ‘nothing’ of the title. As Butler writes:
This is what we want from sleeping pills. Lights out, mind out, exit. Obliterate the room. No option. Help me forget me. Under the reign of endless choices, we want none.
Nothing is sort of a sideways prequel to to There is No Year, the mirror behind those inked pages, the room on the other side of the door. The repetitions, the patterns we make to fill the dark, the patterns that endlessly repeat and that paper our lives, the way we shift and grow and change and yet stay an odd, static copy of ourselves, caught in time—all of these themes are so clearly drawn out and storifyied in There is No Year. Butler’s words in Nothing could be an oblique description of There is No Year:
Of course there are the countless houses in countless films, their innards reel-to-reel with captured air—homes in the backgrounds, homes in horizons, rooms in videotapes and snuff tapes and webcams—houses replicating their long walls around the air for every minute, on and on into the year; even when the house itself is torn down, its confines set in some way where we will breathe.
Butler’s novel has just such a waking nightmare feel to it. I recognized it as soon as I first read the book, and I just read it again after I read the memoir to make sure it was there and yes, yes it was. At the same time, there’s something extremely specific and all the more terrifying because of the soft, odd focus, the nightmare feel of the book. It terrorizes you with the sharp light of technology as well as the soft walls of the womb. Behind the darkening pages and the sometimes slurred and damaged words lies a nameless, bright horror. Life? Death? The thought of “we go on” and on and on and on? The tyranny of the brain? Butler quotes Artaud in the novel in what might be a clue to the source of the nightmare. He fears the cannibalism of living, the deep guilt it causes and the numbing we impose upon ourselves in order to cope.
In There is No Year, A family moves into a new home and finds copies of themselves already living there. They throw the copies out but the house itself continues like a bad dream, with rooms that go nowhere, rooms in always darkness, rooms full of hair, walls that seem to speak, dumb waiters that change the object they carry. Slowly we learn a little about the family, the son’s long terrible illness, the father’s attempts to protect the family as the house is swallowing him bit by bit, and even the book the son is writing that will swallow him, too.
Blake does a lot with numbing, contemporary culture, tv and chain restaurants and neon footballs and fingernails and suburbs and hidden hurts in homes. Our lives become stores in strip malls. At one point the father asks the mother, in a scene right out of a Christopher Durang play:
Do you want to go to McDonald’s? he said. Do you want to go to Chili’s? Do you want to go to Outback? Do you want to go to Miami Subs Grill? Do you want to go to the Container Store? Do you want to go to Sharper Image? Do you want to go to Hooters? Do you want to go to Chi-chi’s? Wait, Chi-chi’s is out of business. Do you want to go to Kenny Rogers Roasters? Do you want to go to Denny’s? Do you want to go to Great Clips? Do you want to go to Taco Bell?”
The processed world in all its forms looms large and banal in Butler’s writing.
The gothic nature of the book does not exclude the modern dark and lonely trappings of the Internet, of chat rooms and obsessive online searches and email chains and cell phones and video games. This, again, is reflected so clearly in Butler’s own experience as he writes about it in Nothing. Sleep, electronic death, the information age, busy brain—all play a role in the low hum of dread that lubricates the book. That hum of dread makes this such a strange and convincing horror story. Butler and Brian Evenson do deep-undercurrent-of-dread better than just about any other living writer, I think.
The doppelgänger is also an old and deep source of fear–a part of the uncanny valley where we meet what is not quite ourselves. The evil twin, the pod person, the empty copy, the clone–all inspire not the kind of shock or gotcha fear that rolls off of your back after the jolts wear off, but something much deeper, a fear that seems half buried in the black mud of the subconscious. This is the kind of fear Butler trucks in–the fear that eats at the soul, that never quite resolves or materializes, that rots the core of a person until they are soft and shapeless, changelings in their own skin. It’s our deepest, primal fear, the fear of the not-us, the fear of becoming the Other. Of losing ourselves completely while continuing to walk and talk and stand and sit and look just like ourselves–albeit maybe with a metaphorical mouthful of mold.
Of course the language here is Blake’s signature, thick and completely original and often startling. Finding a new way to say everything that makes everything a new thing. A good day become a day where “no one was coughing. There were no bills. The sun rose in the morning and felt warm and not oppressive.” Or the amazing mystery of the book the son is writing, described like this:
the son’s book contained all things./The son’s book enmeshed the threads of all events or lights or hours that had every happened or would happen, or were happening right now./The son’s book contained the wing meat contained in birds once thought extinct, and that meat’s aging, worn to none./It contained a diagram of long forgotten burned or buried cities and how to enter thorugh their last remaining eyes, how to stay in there in that belowground and, of new duration, live.
Gorgeous stuff. And it makes me want to read the impossible book the son is writing.
Appropriately, this description is given to us even as the son is about to open a package he’s received. This language is a package for us, strange and oddly lovely, an almost philosopher’s stone of a book that contains everything within. Through the son we learn of the struggle to create art, the emergence of something beautiful and better and aliveout of the muck of living. Butler also brings high and low language together, pop and myth alike: he describes a sky “as if someone had dragged the universe into Adobe Photoshop and bucket-filled the sky a nonexistent color.” In synthesis with the shape of language is the unique shaping of the type, the setting of words on the pages, the shading and spacing–all like poetry in many ways, a novel with the added freedom of poetic form.
There is No Year is not just a critique of modern life, nor just a horror story. It is a novel of love, sadness, mourning for the family and the dead truths about life. It is a novel of relationships and loss, of things we can’t control, relationships we didn’t ask for but which haunt us just the same, like poltergeists in the wrong house, love’s dead and bloated corpse turned sour. We get the sense that these people are already dead, done, gone, just stuffed husks and corpse sacks. Is it too late for them? Does Butler think it’s too late for all of us? It seems to me, there is no year because there is nothing. It seems to me that There is no Year is nothing so much as the survivor’s scribblings on the wall, left as a shout, as a warning, as a sign that he was there, and a person, and alive where there was death all around. Or maybe he was just awake when everybody else was sleeping.