AUGUST 1, 2020
A TEXT CAN’T CHOOSE its context. A novel may take years, while behind the author’s back the history that hatched its first drafts shifts radically. Blake Butler, for all his prodigious gifts, couldn’t have foreseen the sick and violent moment that greets Alice Knott, his latest novel (his third or fourth, depending on what you term a novel). Yet the narrative resounds with the Sturm und Drang of summer 2020. There’s mention of a “plague,” masks against infection, and shuttered cultural institutions. More than that, a widening riot of destruction drives much of the action. We never visit battered downtown Minneapolis, but there’s no shortage of smashing, looting, and conflagration. Alice Knott even recalls the fortified bunker under the White House — especially since the hideout, in the novel as in DC, provides little protection from a world falling apart.
Overall, the correlations feel uncanny. Among the highlights are scathing parodies, speeches from a “bloated” chief of police and a “squinted, arthritic” president, note-perfect in their vapidity and jingoism. The president even delivers his address from one of his “vast vacation homes […] in the Caribbean.” Yet such moments of clear emotional connection are rare, as this Knott proves too bizarre, its rhetoric too baroque, to function as some potboiler ripped from the headlines. Neither COVID-19 nor police brutality figure in the narrative; Butler’s concern is with the nature and value of art, and the related mystery of individual identity. What wild hair of personality finds expression in creative effort? And do the artifact and its maker exist unplugged from history, the IVs and monitors of society and economics? Such questions even occur to Butler’s president, who speculates about “whatever little slice of your own life you feel you’ve taken charge of.” Testing that slice, risking its eradication, most preoccupies this novel, though as I say, the reading never feels like lab work. Rather, sentence after anfractuous sentence comes alive with the unconscious chatter “filling the fray of […] thoughts,” the buzz of “infested imagination.”
For me the style packed a delicious wallop. I was seduced by touches like Alice’s meditation on her lonesome childhood: “[N]ot even an imaginary friend, much less an actual friend whose shape withstood the imagination’s long decay.”
Much later, as climax takes the form of comprehension, I was wowed by Alice’s recognition that she’s less a self than an amalgam: “All her family had ever wanted for her, and all anybody ever, was to have the unnavigable immensity of being at last pulled down so tight around her that there was nothing more for her to do but let the others have their way…”
And one more — I loved the echo of Butler’s old hero Beckett: “[T]he only place I’ve ever been is here, forlorn but not alone, without a grave, waiting for my body to find a way in to what the light had promised.”
All in all, such turns of expression in themselves amount to a remarkable accomplishment; still, I shouldn’t overlook a more accessible pleasure of the text. Alice takes us through the looking-glass, to Wonderland. The title character in fact presses her face against a mirror, and could be said to pass through, at a key point in her late-life self-discovery. Even before the woman begins to wrangle with her enigmas, however, the narrative both fascinates and confounds. The opening pages seem to lay out a heist caper, as the great Willem de Kooning piece Woman III disappears from the vault of the “aging heiress” Alice Knott. But then, in an untraceable video nonetheless posted everywhere, the work is incinerated: obliteration as performance.
These pages are among the most straightforward, as are the few other passages outside Alice’s perspective, all having to do with similar vandalism. The madness proves contagious, as people all over the world start destroying any masterpiece handy, from Botticelli to Louise Bourgeois. That’s what brings the president on TV; the wider breakdown recalls similar fictional devices, among them the way one murder leads to many more in Butler’s last novel, 300,000,000 (2014). Also, a reader thinks of J. G. Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise (which turns up in Butler’s acknowledgments) and of Destroy All Monsters (2018), by Jeff Jackson (a columnist for Butler’s Fanzine). While both stories sketch a descent to barbarism, however, they keep the ugly business gritty, hyperreal. Alice Knott, even when the subject is crime, veers into the surreal. The original assault and the many copycats all entail some element that’s simply impossible, raising questions I can only call knotty.
For answers, naturally the authorities first turn to Alice herself, and thus what immediately follows the de Kooning’s desecration provides the woman’s background, standard stuff in the hands of another author. Butler’s brief chapters, however, don’t look standard. Devoid of ordinary quotation, their paragraphs do without indentation, each set off instead by white space. Each might be an artwork on the wall of a salon, calling attention to the artfulness of phrasing and word choice. But Butler’s run-ons make room for both qualifiers and intensifiers, tending to undo whatever thought they’ve been developing. For instance, while still more or less in Alice’s teenage point of view, we understand she had a wretched excuse for a family life, but when she herself grasps what’s going on, finally, the epiphany turns blurry:
[S]he slipped into a continuously developing resignation, feeling just lost enough inside the world to concern herself with only what she could discern directly with her own senses, however uncertain or predisposed anything seemed under the continuous smudging of her existence as it was, while at the same time, in her foremost mind, to more and more distinctly never accept anything in full …
Flannery O’Connor declared, in her famous essay “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” that the art form is “concrete”; nothing else, she insisted, was so “fundamental.” Yet Blake Butler, though a fellow Georgian, has no compunctions about kicking over the woman’s grave, as well as slapping down roughly 10,000 other workshop leaders. He revels in abstraction, his Not-Alice on a ramble through Nebulous-Land. Therein lies the great challenge for a reader, the feeling that we’re getting nowhere, that whatever is achieved in one paragraph goes to pieces in the next. Yet this quicksand of story, its glimmers lovely but slippery, manages improbably to generate suspense. A plot emerges, a classic: the protagonist goes on a quest for her origins.
The hooks are planted in the opening chapters, as we learn of Alice’s original father and stepfather, neither named (though for the latter Butler uses a fine neologism, “unfather”), and of the damage done by the later man. Contributing to the dysfunction is Alice’s mother, who seems deluded and may be drugged. Then there’s the brother, whose name seems more like a placeholder, Richard Smith. Indeed, this brother’s all over the map; at one point he’s dangerous, a murderer, at another just an unstable kid in an awful home, and at still another just a figment of his would-be sister’s imagination. Later in the story, when Richard comes back to the family’s looted mansion — well, is it him? His business card only creates more confusion, and when he talks, he’s “speaking in the mute.” At one point, his face melts into goop. By that time, too, Alice’s own identity has clouded over. Beyond the looking-glass, she might’ve become a museum-quality artist, one with a similar name, orchestrating some multi-platform performance piece. If so, that would at least explain the woman’s art collection, by no means limited to the de Kooning. As for “Alice Knott,” homeschooled in a disaster of a family, wouldn’t she lack the sense of self, let alone the accounting skills, to amass such a collection? Even if she has, God knows how, come into some enormous inheritance.
Befuddled by all this and more, less of a detective than a diarist recording her dreams, the protagonist stumbles over more and more traces of a vast but obscure corporation, rather like Trystero in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. The outfit has an unsettling name, Void, and to judge from what Alice can turn up, that emptiness has been with her from early on. As its presence in her life develops, it sketches yet another pattern among the shadows across her ransacked home and experience. Perhaps she’s caught up in neither a performance nor a quest; perhaps she’s just a lab rat in some longitudinal experiment investigating that persistent mystery, the individual identity.
So, this text’s many elements come together, all while retaining their fluidity. Alice may arrive at the gloomy perception that contemporary experience is a “living misery at the ragged end of an era in which humans had imagined fertile purpose, exposed emotion, even pride” — or then again, the insight may be just another fluttering tentacle of rainbow-stippled hallucination. What’s amazing is how all the uncertainty puts a reader under hypnosis, one in which we enjoy momentum and perceive a whole.
Such masterful manipulation owes something to Butler’s long familiarity with many of these materials. In Alice as in all his novels, there’s no escaping the house, at once wearily familiar and painfully disorienting. Even in a limo, his latest main player finds herself in such an edifice, claustrophobic and yet with tinted windows multiplying her reflections into infinity. The space, that is, feels a lot like all the other settings this author has explored, in fiction that so adamantly rejects conventions it’s rather a miracle to find the work on a commercial house. EVER (2009), a novella by most measures, was the exception, appearing on Calamari Press, and it also featured a wandering Alice who wafts through alternative modes of existence in an amorphous enclosure, formerly her home. As for There Is No Year (2011), it made the HarperCollins roster, but this happy break for the author in no way softened his outlaw tendencies. The novel took place in another bruising funhouse, while presenting something like a Kabuki drama missing a scene or two. Its stunted central family went nameless throughout, and was troubled by its own “unfather,” as well as a brother and mother: an imitation threesome who occupied the same few rooms. Then, too, the narrative raised questions about the use of art, anticipating this latest, just as 300,000,000 anticipated the new book’s widespread violence.
Three hundred million was the population of the United States, about 10 years ago, and the novel opens in the murderer’s house, which is projecting a slasher movie that plays across all of off-its-rocker America: “Enmassed dreams of the dead hold up the lattice of [the country’s] unnamed landscape.” But as much as there is to admire about the 2011 text, with its Final Girl, a ghost but a survivor, drifting through the wreckage her killers had once called home, that story lacks the coherence that settles ultimately and miraculously over this one. Insofar as the book feels of the moment, summer 2020, it reflects Butler’s own sensibility. His constant worrying at what’s genuinely personal, struggling to detach it from the endless play of light across wall and screen, strikes me as an undeniably contemporary project. To read him, to join in, is to enter an “unnavigable immensity.”