The characters in Blake Butler’s novel There Is No Year are straight out of a sitcom: a luckless father with a boring desk job; a no-nonsense mother who represses her sexual urges; a precocious son who’s going through an awkward phase. The setting is straight out of a horror movie: a new house where strange, unexplained phenomena drive the family mad. But the book itself is unclassifiable. Butler undercuts the horror aspects by making them too cerebral and disjointed to scare anybody. And he undercuts the sitcom elements by veering toward absurdity, like when the father tries to console to the mother by taking her out to dinner.
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 result is a profoundly creepy book. It’s also a sublimely beautiful book, where things like this happen.
She mowed the yard in wicked zigzags, reckless with her aim. The mower devoured her newer flowers—begonias, ivy, mums. They were dying anyway. She ripped up one long sod piece, spurting mud on the walk. Underneath the sod, the insects hung, spaghetti.
A typical chapter begins: “The next time the father went to get the mail he found the whole box fat with caterpillars.” Disgusted, the father scoops the caterpillars out with a bucket. But, as in a nightmare, they keep on multiplying. He eventually sprays them out with a large hose, and their blood soils his lawn. Of the caterpillars, Butler writes:
Some were a color the father could not think the name of, though somehow it reminded him of a stretch of land for sale somewhere in Nebraska. The father had never been to Nebraska.
Can you be reminded of a Nebraska you’ve never seen? Butler loves to do this—to present an idea, then make it impossible or untrue. A TV room is full of “some color not a color.” A glitchy phone displays “digits that weren’t digits.” Butler wants us to have a thought and then banish it, leaving us with a deleted idea, something that is both wrong and gone. This may be the influence of Gilles Deleuze, the philosopher whose name is embedded in the URL of Butler’s blog. Deleuze argued that things are not defined by their inherent qualities, but rather by how they are different from all other things. It’s the awareness of what a thing is not—rather than its internal qualities—that enables us to see what it truly is. Butler tends to describe what things are not. He also likes illogical lists—“mountains, fountains, fortunes, beaches, gazebos, grease, disease”—and impossible permutations: “The egg became a prism, became a thought, became a gun.” There may be a philosophical agenda here, to disrupt and destabilize the way we classify the things around us. At the very least it’s a literary motif: Butler has accomplished the somewhat counterintuitive feat of writing a 400-page novel about absence, emptiness, and deletion.
It’s also about language. Specifically, the failure of language to describe things as they are. In There Is No Year, characters don’t remember their own names. Any pattern—in the wallpaper, in the dirt, in the stars—will inevitably be read as an indecipherable text. Even the son’s hunger for a roast beef sandwich is described as his stomach “writing words along his flesh inside him.” Butler is frustrated with the limitations of language, even as he warps his own language in new and exciting ways. When the son thinks hard, his “forehead wormed with flexing meat.” When the father learns something, his “brain blew fat with wrinkle.” It’s thrilling to hear Butler repurpose these parts of speech: “worm” as an intransitive verb, “wrinkle” as a mass noun. He’s not afraid to create nonsense.
Froth hung in long ropes from his mouth. Blossbit ein bord cloddut, he said, choking. Cheem cheem murd bot. Loif oissis oissis oind.
I entered Butler’s made-up words into a website that tells you what language you’re looking at. Sometimes he’s approximating Bosnian or Croatian. Other times it’s more akin to Tagalog or Norwegian. In any case, Butler won’t be confined by the boundaries of written English.
All of which is bold and stuff, but it means fuck-all if the book isn’t a good read. There Is No Year is definitely a challenge. About 250 pages in, when I began to curse the endless imagery of boxes embedded within other boxes, I turned to a chapter called “Another Fucking Box.” And it would be another 100 pages before I reached the “Box of Boxes” chapter. I knew the story was reaching some kind of endpoint when characters began to wretch violently and cough up keys. That’s about as obvious as Butler’s symbolism gets.
But I don’t know of anyone writing today who’s better than Butler at making language dangerous. Each sentence is a skateboard trick on the lip of an empty pool. The examples I could cite wouldn’t make sense out of context, but in the margins of various pages I had epiphanies like, “this has no meaning but it makes perfect sense,” and “words are as real as objects.”
The horror and the sitcom of There Is No Year come from the same place—the fact that life is made of language, just like it’s made of hair and houses and eggs and puke, but we hardly comprehend language at all.
The father threw up on the ground. In the vomit, there were errors—strings not vomit, but language, light. The bunched up bits were writing something, words at once sunk into the ground.
– Brian Hurley