Book Review : Blake Butler - Scorch Atlas (2009)
I've always been vocal about my admiration for the work of Atlanta-based author Blake Butler. He wrote books such as There is No Year, Sky Saw, Anatomy Courses (written with my favorite internet movie critic Sean Kilpatrick), Ever, a memoir on insomnia called Nothing and a certain novel titled 300,000,000, which I still can't shut up about two years later. The book everybody talks about whenever Butler is discussed, though is a novel-in-stories titled Scorch Atlas, which he published in 2009 with Featherproof Books. It definitely is more accessible than other material I've previously read from Blake Butler *, but where does it stand in his tormented and thoroughly unique legacy of existential terror? Well, let's get into it....
Scorch Atlas is a string of stories about nondescript families suffering through ordeals of similar nature, notably a plague that deforms bodies and what seems to be a catastrophic hurricane. The nature of these are never revealed or even researched. They happened and it's all there is to it. People are dealing with the horrible consequences. An interesting (and very Butleresque) wrinkle to Scorch Atlas is that it's not clear WHO is suffering either. Names and dialogues are scarce in the book. The families are often referred to by their traditional role in the nuclear unit: the mother, the father, the son, etc. It's something that also came up in Anatomy Courses, which was published three years later. The people in Scorch Atlas are suffering through ordeals than have no control over or understanding of.
My favorite story in Scorch Atlas ended up being Water Damaged Photos of Our House Before I Left It, where an unnamed narrator is taking inventory of distorted memories of a previous life swept away by the flood. The surreal nature of the photos juxtaposed to the maniacal care the narrator is filing them with creates such a strange and compelling emotional tension that makes the story instantly compelling. The Disappeared also worked a number on me by the way it depicted the hostility and tyranny of normalcy. The vision of the gym teachers forcing the father to shoot free throws to prove he's a man and the surreal way society ostracized the suffering family like they were toxic waste instead of trying to help created the desired shocking effect. If you guys are fans of film director David Lynch, these stories will undoubtedly interest you.
There were several other stories in Scorch Atlas which had fascinating elements to them. Damage Claim Questionnaire explored the inherent tension between the two most common verbs in the English dictionary: being and having. Television Milk, one of the most talked about stories in Scorch Atlas, is one of the most terrifying portraits of domesticity I've ever read. It also explores the frail nature of reality perhaps better than any other stories in the collection. There is a proliferation of mothers in this book. The narrators of several stories are themselves mothers and it never is the soothing and life-affirming experience it is supposed to be and it perhaps is best illustrated in Want for Wish for Nowhere, a body horror story that you mind will unfortunately not let you forget anytime soon.
I know nothing even remotely similar to the experience of reading Blake Butler. It's like visiting a different planet that mirrors your most intimate fears. Parallels with the writing of Cormac McCarthy have become a cliché for reviewers, but it feels pertinent for this book. Both writers share the same alien quality. It doesn't speak directly to you, but there is a terrifying and inescapable truth to his vision. I've interviewed Butler earlier this year and while the conversation left me with many other questions, reading Scorch Atlas made it clearer to me how his vision evolved from witnessing the apocalypse to actively ushering it in 300,000,000. I didn't think I would ever say that about Blake Butler's writing, but Scorch Atlas is as good as any introduction to his writing. I enjoyed it like I enjoyed anything he's ever written, including his dadaist tweets.
* If you want to challenge yourself with something difficult to read, try this.