Book Review : Blake Butler - Nothing (2011)
Fear then seemed a product of itself - as if I was afraid precisely because I did not know what to be afraid of, or of the silence of the air demanding something soon to come, I can remember feeling crippled in the idea of drifting into the nothing of the space between the planets - no sound, no oxygen, no object but in the incidental drift and fixed massive centers among the billioned grid of light defined by its absence for unindexed, countless miles - toward what but nothing - nameless.
People like to say there is no measuring unit for art. That artistic tastes are entirely subjective. It's not entirely false, but there is one thing good art always does: creating relationship. Whether it is creating relationships between audience members (the way television series do nowadays) or between the artist and the audience, art that fails to create them is bound to soon be forgotten and lose however little worth it once had.
Making good art is become insufficient though, for the increasingly more sophisticated and demanding audience of the information age. People want to know creators and feel closer to them. It's a double-edged sword because there is a distance between the creator and its creation and the former isn't always interesting or nice. It's one of the reasons why I was interested in reading Blake Butler's insomnia memoir Nothing. I wanted to know what kind of person wrote such brilliant and tormented novel.
That question wasn't really answered in Nothing, but I had a pretty great time anyway.
Blake Butler suffers from acute bouts of insomnia. I've been insomniac myself since I was twelve years old, but it is laughable compared to Butler's affliction. He's been sleepless sometimes for days, once for 129 hours in a row. That's five full days and nine hours. How crazy is that? I don't know if Nothing was an attempt to exorcise that demon who just won't let him sleep, but Butler maps back is relationship to sleeplessness from exhaustion-induced delirium back to childhood night terrors that left him so petrified he couldn't even recognize his own mother at night.
I'm sure you can imagine, it's not as straightforward as I'm making it to be. If I could give you an emotional equivalent to reading Nothing, imagine the strangest episode of The X Files you've ever seen with a Radiohead soundtrack. It's about as close as it gets. Blake Butler's relationship to his house is completely deformed by his sleeplessness. There are doors behind doors, holes inside the house inside holes inside the house, hallways of variable geometry, etc. It's impossible to know if these architectural modifications are allegorical or the result of exhaustion-induced hallucinations, but they gave the book a jagged edge. It's a memoir that has always one foot outside of reality.
The more you progress into Nothing, the more folds you discover. There is an encyclopedic aspect to it that is both intellectually fulfilling and endearing. Insomniac people are typically obsessed with doing something productive of their time and Blake Butler's no different. The information gathered for this book is probably the result of many sleepless nights too. Butler discusses the self, time, the night, nothingness, etc. He gives the complete philosophical panorama of insomnia. There is no desire to get better. No documentary process. Blake Butler wants you to appreciate the scope of what sleeplessness feels like. Nothing more.
When I'm not sure what to think about something I've read, I like to read customer reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Some of the Nothing reviews are hilariously hostile. Carmen gave it one star and said: "He teaches you nothing and keeps waxing poetic." A user named Kerfe gave it two stars and said: "Why can't Blake Butler sleep? Because he's way way way way way WAY too self-involved." Many readers were FURIOUS that Nothing offered no solution to insomnia or at least immediate validation to its audience. I don't know what these people expected out of a book called Nothing that name dropped Gilles Deleuze, John Cage and Anton LaVey on the back cover, but I got pretty much what I paid for .
Did I enjoy Nothing? Sure, it was eerie and original, and I could relate to the surreal landscapes of Blake Butler's mind as someone who lives inside my own head a lot. It had genuinely moving allegories too, including one about a balloon caught in a tree at the very beginning that reminded me of David Foster Wallace on his best day. There was a lot to like about Nothing and a lot left to interpretation. I'm a big picture guy. Understanding things is important for me and Nothing left me frustrated a couple times, but in the end I asked myself: where else am I ever going to read things like this again?
Nowhere. Blake Butler uses fiction and language to break the barriers of perception and create bona fide new imaginary landscapes. It's why he is a celebrated author and Nothing delivers exactly that.