The father and the mother sat close together without touching. They weren't sure which way to aim their heads. They remembered recent rooms from other buildings. The house still felt so new. (p. 3)
In the nights before the new house, the father walked up streets peeping through glass. He'd seen the light in other houses. He'd seen people in their beds - sometimes moving in the darkness to the bathroom or the stairs. He'd seen so many bodies fuck. In one house he'd seen someone reading about a father at the window in a book. All the houses touched by wire. The grain in the glass in the windows in the frames in the walls in the rooms in the house on the yeards along the streets aligned for miles. (p. 5)
Outside, around the house, birds were landing on the roof. The birds could not stop shitting. The sun grew upon the white waste's sheen, showing the shrieking sky back at itself. (p. 39)
Some stories are straightforward narratives. They establish protagonists, antagonists, settings, and perhaps a theme or plot. Conflict may be either externalized or internalized. The prose flows like a river, or it drips slowly, word by precious word, until it penetrates the wall of the reader's consciousness and finds its way to that vast subconscious sea of symbolic understanding. There is something powerful about the written word, especially when it is double distilled and purged of extraneous elements. Raw, visceral texts spread their literary mess all over the place, leaving us to attempt futilely to clean up the mess. Love those type of stories?
If so, Blake Butler's third book, There Is No Year, might be one of the most potent literary concoctions that involve house as metaphor/dream/nightmare to emerge after Mark Z. Danielewski's awe-inspiring House of Leaves. It is a novel that defies any simple, concise explanations. Each reading, I suspect, will be vastly different from the initial. Already, I see certain patterns emerging as I flip back through the text that I did not encounter when I began my first, feverish read barely twenty-four hours ago.
There Is No Year deals with a nameless father-mother-son trio who move into a new house. Strange things (and associations) began to occur. Told in short, pruned sentences that rely on associative descriptions rather than metaphors to create surrealistic images. The family soon encounters a copy family, identical to them except for the mold that takes the place of teeth. There is a growing sense of horror, contained in memorable sentences such as the following: "There the knocking became pounding, became shouting, became bells - a chime the house had held inside it, somehow, since it had been built, a human sound." (p. 115) There is something odd occurring and we just can't quite figure it out, as it loams on the outside looking in, while we at the center of the interpretive circle try to puzzle just why that barely-discerned entity is lurking over there, making us queasy and curious.
The whole novel, divided as it is into four parts of nineteen sections (some of which are barely more than a sentence or two or perhaps a poetic fragment), brims with a spectral force that attracts us even as we might do a double-take over a certain egg or a particular curtain. The house, while it might not be as supernatural as the one featured in Danielewski's magnum opus, seems to be simultaneously a concrete entity and a representation of something more universal than a single family's plight. There appear at times fractured mirrors that cast back images of our own lives, our own dreams, our own nightmares. Butler does not explore these possibilities as much as his narrative contains spaces wide enough for us to fill in the gaps as we may see fit.
Some might find this to be a bit much, but I cannot help but to marvel at what he has created. Using a mixture of disturbing scenes (the footnoted section on the photographs the son receives a little over halfway through the novel might be one of the most chilling things that I have read in years) and short, staccato passages, Butler has crafted a novel that will linger long in the reader's mind and even longer in her subconscious after the final page has been turned. Not many narratives prove to be the stuff of which dreams (or nightmares) are made, but There Is No Year might be one of those rare examples. It is one of the most original, disturbing, moving novels that I have read in 2011 and it certainly will be part of my annual Best of Year reflective essays. Highly recommended for the intrepid.