Book Review : Blake Butler & Sean Kilpatrick - Anatomy Courses (2012)
* A big thank you to "Lord" Matthew Revert for providing me a high quality version of his gorgeous cover artwork on short notice. *
Stop acting like my pussy is an ambulance for the world.
The Declaration of Independence defines the American Dream as follows: "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Two hundred and something years later, people are still arguing about the definition of happiness, writing Facebook posts about happiness being a journey rather than a destination, but it can more or less be defined like this: "finding financial and emotional success doing what you love." It's a definition most people would agree on, I believe.
It is why most people can't ever be happy. The idea of doing what you love should be an end in itself and any pre-conceived thoughts of being rewarded for it will handicap the result, especially when art is concerned. A corrosive little tome like Blake Butler and Sean Kilpatrick's Anatomy Courses would've never existed if it had been created to make any money. It is not even meant to be loved by many people. It is though a broken and jagged looking glass through which reflect an entire universe of possibilities for contemporary American literature.
I want to preface this by saying your interpretation of Anatomy Courses is probably as valid as mine. It's a pretty chaotic book and I believe that most of what I'm going to discuss was not planned by the authors. It simply just emerged from their work. So what is Anatomy Courses exactly? It's a series of maybe fifty or sixty surreal and violent portraits of an American family. What happens in them doesn't make much sense and the imagery is grotesque and terrifying. I don't think there even is a story there. At least not in the conventional sense. I liked to think of the chapters as "courses," which is going to be an important notion going forward.
There is four characters to the family in Anatomy Courses, all unnamed. The father, the mother, the infant daughter and the unnamed narrator, whom I liked to call: the son. I believe this is a key notion in the book. That the narrator is an actual character of the book and not just a silent observer. The son is a symbol of rebellion and Anatomy Courses is very much an act of rebellion against American literature. Blake Butler and Sean Kilpatrick are invading the lifeless default setting of contemporary American literature in Anatomy Courses. They ARE the son. They are both authors and protagonists of their own well-orchestrated freak show.
Given that my American avant garde culture is very slim, I cannot think of a more aggressive and power display of power of the English language. It's the entire point of the book, really: showing that creativity cannot be tamed by the same boring and repetitive ideas that control our very lives. That literature should be an escape and that words can offer mimesis, catharsis or whatever-the-fuck-you-want. It's a very angry and liberating book. It's difficult to love in the same way you'd love your favorite novel, but I find great comfort in knowing I'm not a slave to Jonathan Franzen's America.
Another interesting wrinkle to Anatomy Courses is that it illustrates the very limits of what it's trying to do. For example, it uses a lot of medical lingo. The word "abortion" among others, tends to come back every now and then. It is one of the ugliest words I know and not only because of what it represent. I find the very consonance of the word monstrous. Butler and Kilpatrick use it in every possible way: it's action, it's an accessory, it's a living thing and just went its use is supposed to reach its most horrifying form, it doesn't. Because I've represented that word in so many different ways that I can't really see it the way it was intended to be for maximal effect.
I don't think it was necessarily a flaw of Anatomy Courses though. I just think Blake Butler and Sean Kilpatrick didn't try to play God on the page and kept honest about what they did. By deliberately showing the limits of language, they kept Anatomy Courses immaterial. It's a very shocking book, but it's also just text: a jigsaw puzzle or a sandbox for two pumped up writers on a demolition spree if you will.
Anatomy Courses is a disorienting little book. I was very much in the dark about it until I've read a review comparing it to grindcore music, which got my gears turning. This book is gross and horrifying, but it's born out of a rebellious and ultimately positive place. Blake Butler and Sean Kilpatrick illustrated how language can help overcome the intellectual tyranny of ideas. It's some straight out Orwellian stuff if you ask me: when you keep recycling the same ideas, it becomes impossible to invent anything new except through a creative and volatile use of language. The fate of Anatomy Courses probably is to remain widely unread, but it's already a massive success only for existing. Every time it will subvert a mind to the inherent power of language, it will win. So here's a syllogism for you: Anatomy Courses foreshadows a new, healthier American Dream and it is most certainly worth your attention.
There will be a before and after though, please understand that before going in.