The Darkest Fits of Light: on dwelling in Blake Butler’s de-compositions

May 30th, 2010 by David Rylance § 36

“To dream of an enterprise of demolition that would spare none of the traces of the original Big Bang.”
– E.M. Cioran[1]

“What can we know of the world? What quantity of space can our eyes hope to take in between our birth and our death? How many square centimeters of Planet Earth will the soles of our shoes have touched?”
– Georges Perec[2]

“Those were stretched days, croaking. I don’t know what about them broke.”
– Blake Butler[3]

1.

In the pressing world of Blake Butler, everything is kept. And yet all things, it appears, may suddenly go missing. A word or a city; a room or a limb or a limit: a family or a stranger or a memory or a life. Toward the end of Ever, Blake’s first foray into the novel’s thorny terrain, the narrator comes to a room crammed to bursting with all the bits of her body she ever left behind. Here she finds lashes, flakes of skin, scissored off pieces of nail, snot, spit and the crust of sleep, blood, shit, hair, vomit and, of course, pus and dandruff. “This certain room was made of me. Parts of me, at least, of my expulsions, my teeming refuse – all my ruin,” the narrator notes, in her off-key and hauntingly deliberate voice.[4] The body, which is known to fall away from us in waste at every minute, to depart in discharge throughout our every day, to shed, age, be groomed and hemorrhage, in this disquieting passage, comes home to roost. All the remaindered excess, through time cast off, turns up back inside again, like a brood of kids come home for supper. At first, this inability for anything to go away would seem almost classically Freudian, save for the fact that it is most definitely not the narrator who can never let anything go, who would, indeed, prefer nothing else than for this detritus to do its proper duty and leave. Far from a desire of the ego to hang on to everything, then, it’s the litter of the body itself that sentimentally – and sinisterly – will not release the narrator, that makes a ‘certain room’ to house her and all her layers within. Ruin makes a room and that room is reunion, a burgeoning nest. Though this girl is without mother and father, her body is no orphan. The hoarded heritage of her remains live to tell the tale to her of who she’s been. Whether she wants to know it or not.[5]

Compare to this the abrupt and contagious vanishings that populate Blake’s precarious world. The way things tend toward the suddenly missing. Not only refuse but disappearances teem. If all manner of items are improbably retained, they are likely to reappear without clear cause after a gaudy dissolution, or to abruptly withdraw into ether even as you’re just becoming sure they’re essentially there. But other, more obvious things unexpectedly disappear in Butler’s books as well. In his aptly titled starter story to Scorch Atlas, ‘The Disappeared’, it’s society that’s gone AWOL, loosely speaking – or at least all the social’s symbols. “Each night,” we’re told, between commercials, the news showed reams and reams of disappeared – pigtailed teens and Air Force pilots, stockbrokers, grandpas, unwed mothers. Hundreds had gone unaccounted. The missing ads covered milk cartons on every side. The government whispered terrorism.” (SA, 25) Terrorism, certainly, seems as accurate a name as any for whatever obscure force would prey on the elite (stockbrokers), the lionized (Air Force pilots), the innocent (pigtailed teens), the paternal (grandpas) and the moral scapegoats (unwed mothers) without any differentiation whatsoever of the internal moral discriminations we thrive on making between them. However, the term, as with the time in this novel of stories, is out of joint. To call upon terrorism as culprit in this mysterious context is a type of agential reasoning wedded to the older ways, an attempt to resuscitate an obliviousness to the dissolution of the system, to frame the crisis in familiar terms. And it doesn’t work. As we see, what would once have been a vengeful bawl bellowed by the state is laid bare here as a wistful whisper, a disquieted plea. Far from terrorism, if any word from the domain of political theory applied here, it would likely be revolution, for the reckonings in Scorch Atlas are insurrections of the very dependability of space-time itself. Or a terra-ism, if you will – in that the dimensions of time and space take on the seismic, plasmid qualities of continental collisions, of earth uplifted and sky displaced, of molten lava molting land. At the start of Ever, the narrator describes to us a landscape of catastrophe that lies beyond her door, a realm in which the environment literally opens wide and engulfs the objects that exist within it, carries them off:

Meanwhile, in the outside, during certain weeks the air would fold. The light comprising certain sections of certain rooms would burst or bubble. Strings of night might gleam of glass. The dirt would swim with foam. Sometimes there’d be forewarning – a small eruption, more luminescence, an ache or hum of heat in rising steam – though you couldn’t recognize the warping till you’d lost a hand or head. I mean the sky could lift your skin off. The air would shift like some fucked puzzle. Whole bird flocks might be witnessed flying, say, into the ridge over the field of refuse stacked sky-high behind my house, and then those birds would disappear or become fire or melt away to sludge. [E, 8]

If in ‘The Disappeared’ the vanishings happen away from anyone’s sight, with the narrator in that tale attempting to track down, in ever more curious places, the whereabouts of his mother, in Ever they could not be more spectacularly situated. People, light, evening, animals, earth, and other assorted objects besides are gobbled up by sudden warps in reality – as though the very possibility of existence were becoming erratically but systemically infected, ingrown into itself.[6] But, whether disappearance happens behind our backs or before our eyes, whether ‘the birds disappear or become fire or melt away to sludge’, what is common to each event is the inexplicable deprivation of the thing, its being wrenched from its reliance on the medium, on the air, that it is in. In this way, disappearance takes on a vastly expansive quality in Blake’s work, indicating not only a removal of what was once dependably there but, rather, an unbinding of dependability at all levels, greater and smaller, solar, cellular and beyond. It should not surprise us, therefore, that we find in the course of ‘The Disappeared’ that the plague of the missing is slowly accompanied – then eclipsed – by a plague of a more somatic kind, a physical sickness that inflicts cysts, rashes and boils, that causes teeth and hair and flesh to rot off and fall away – a sort of exterior layer of decay to the disappeared interior layer that comprised the first sweep. Yet, what is characteristic of this new wave of affliction is that it is not viral in any familiar sense of that word; instead, it is as if matter were becoming encrusted with a vast inflammation that denoted its consumption by itself. Similarly to being eaten by the atmosphere in Ever, vanishing takes on a different, fuller meaning, not just an absence but a presentation of their absence, you might say. Thus, the narrator in ‘The Disappeared’ observes: “The seething moved in small creation through the cramped halls of our school. Popular kids got it. Kids with glasses. Kids in special ed. Teachers called out absent, then their subs did. Sometimes we were left in rooms unmanned for hours. There were so many missing they quit sending people home.” (SA, 27) To be among ‘the missing’, by this point, is to fall prey to a very visible fate, so that going missing is itself no longer a valid reason to stop proceedings, to send people home. And as this turn of events suggests, what is also ultimately subject to disappearance in Blake’s writing is the logic of disappearance itself, for – in lockstep with deprivation – there is a palpable sense of occupation in all this vanishing and decomposing, of space itself moving in to embody the area it takes, of the Real demanding room. This, then, returns us to the kept: for what we may notice is key to the apocalypse that tendrils through these novels is that it is, if nothing else, a compilatory event, that it has come, as in a scorch atlas, to cartograph our dispossessions, to emboss them on the skin of things, to build a room, a total body, of our afflictions around us, to map all of our inside agonies out. To territorialize our tenanted graves.

2.

To a large degree, the immersive power of Blake’s writing derives from his artful construction of apocalypse as a consuming, spending force. And to really understand this, one must look to the prose itself. “To write”, Maurice Blanchot once wrote, is “to trace a circle in the interior of which would come to be inscribed the outside of every circle” – at least in theory, in the attempt.[7] Blake Butler’s writing partakes of the logic of such obsessive interiorisation of the outside, so as to do justice to the outside which is coming apart within it. In a brief but deeply thoughtful review of Scorch Atlas, writer and editor Roxane Gay notes the unusually deft anti-elegance to Blake’s voice, the way it absorbingly weighs upon the reader: “Butler writes with a heavy hand in these stories,” she remarks. “Every single word suffocates you both thematically and stylistically. The writing is tactile. It deliberately, profoundly engages the senses and more than that, it engages the mind, often in challenging ways.”[8] What Gay gestures so crucially to here is the unusually inundated atmosphere of Blake’s novels, as well as their often stifling lack of air. The engagement she identifies in the books lies in the way the writing crosses the senses of reading and leaves us without the clear sense of a resolved writing pattern, a perfected formalism, even as it maintains a distinct, vibrating, incantatory line of vision. Blake’s writing is distinctly achromatic. It is outstanding not for its effortlessness of verse but for its remarkably structured plod and thud. It pulls off remarkable maneuvers in tightly quartered bounds. Blake’s prose is sonorous, a susurration, yet it is decidedly anti-musical. It is often percussive, alliterative, rhyming but, in all of this, always arrhythmic, even occasionally flat-footed. If it contains the stateliness of a McCarthy in the processions of its words across the page, it bears little trace of that author’s obsessive search for an elegiac absolute which would render every word so declarative and unentangled in its phrasal self, so formally urn-like and immaculate, it transfigures language into landscape. Butler’s words are more a process of bumping between walls, a stumble-about each sentence’s cloistered path. Deliberately and emphatically strung together, they bob with ballast. They do not merely move but often slump or stagger along. Given that he crafts a style that pulls against the idea of eloquence, the inner orbit Blake nonetheless creates to hold his method together is nothing short of astonishing. It is as though the writing had swallowed its own force field, which now bulged inside out from its interior. And through this, the writing – and the apocalyptic imagery to which it is so far so inextricably wedded – leads us inevitably to the theme that informs its ingesting architecture, its slow metabolism, its body-distorted sequencing.[9]

In a very recent interview, Blake explains that his own private history has been marked by an encounter, early in life, with a body that grew beyond aesthetic bounds. “I was a fat kid,” he says. “I lost 80 pounds between 10th and 11th grade. I am in good shape now, but I haven’t stopped obsessing about keeping normal sized since. People think I am crazy that I keep talking about feeling large, though I only tell certain people. I am fat inside to the death.”[10] If there were a single sentiment to sum up what it means to dwell in Blake’s de-compositions, it is surely this: “fat inside to the death”. Fat, as metaphor, points to both sides of the dichotomy elaborated above: on the one hand, to relentless disappearance and obsolescence (of energy, of form, of food, of self) and, on the other, to insatiable, seemingly eternal keeping (of same). It is a fullness that cannot exist (so it’s always made to seem) except obscenely, an expansion in capacity that simultaneously recedes you in facility. Thus, spiriting appetite, we can say that, in its qualities, in its devices, the writing fattens its text. Which is to argue, more concretely, that the feeling of invasive occupation we experience in Blake’s novels – the style’s eddying eating-up of everything everywhere – thrives, aesthetically and conceptually, on a type of fat principle.[11] In the poem Insomnia Door, a grocery-list styled poem devoted to the relation between fat and the future, Blake (who the poetic ‘I’ doubles for on this occasion) starts out with two propositions:

1. Every moment that I sleep I’ve fought for with my entire body.
2. God still insists on waking me up every other hour.

Alongside the hauntological impact of his early weight gain, which plagues him still, Blake has also spoken in interviews of his chronic – and continuing – insomnia.[12] As we can see from the opening to this quasi-autobiographical poem, the struggle for sleep is signaled from the first as somatic, an effort that involves the ‘entire body’. And given that it is ‘God’ – as an über-abstraction intimate to everyone; indeed, perhaps the very seat of mental obsession – that keeps waking him up, it would be reasonable to infer, thereby, that the body is on the side of emancipation here, involved in a battle to expropriate itself from the grip of a mind that refuses to relent. Insomnia, then, in accordance with conventional understanding, would be an attempt by the body to de-mentalise, to give itself over to the materiality of its material state, a battle in which every bit of the body must fight against the unceasing mind to seize its rest. In turn, the ‘insomnia door’ of the title would hence be interpretable as something like the space of the self’s exposure to the sudden return of the old, vertiginous and supposedly debunked split between mind and body. But not quite. For although the poem is, indeed, entitled ‘Insomnia Door’, the spatial referent –door – does not lay its emphasis on a doorway, so much as a door itself, the physical thing. To think of the door as a material obstacle – to think that one might be kept awake not by being trapped in the liminal space of the doorway but, rather, by being positioned before a door that can potentially open – is what this poem cleverly imports under its more straightforward schematic in which insomnia would signify the no-man’s-land between body and mind. In actual fact, the insomnia door must be understood as a spatial metaphor of blockage, an obstacle to an escape not for Blake but for some other thing else that wishes to get in to him. And it is with this that fat in the poem comes to assume its proper significance.

By item eight in the poem-list, Blake is telling us that he suffered a reign of “fat terror” in his late childhood and adolescent years, a period in which he was ridiculed and stigmatized for his growing body’s growing size. The play in the phrase ‘fat terror’ on night terrors appears deliberate and it already gestures to a tie that between fat and sleep, a tie that then becomes overt when the poem states, just a little later: “I slept so much better as a fat child.” So it is accordingly that the body which struggles later to free the mind of its hold on it is also, seemingly, aligned with the other prospect that worries Blake – namely, returning to the abject conditions of weight gain. Yet, it would be a fatal mistake to abridge the equation here and conclude that it is fear of fat that keeps Blake awake, or that the body is campaigning to grow, uncontrolled. Rather, as we are clearly told, it is God that is keeping the elder Blake awake. And this causes a curious turn in the logic. If sleep came easier to the speaker when he was larger – in those early years before his thinner, sleep-deprived self writes now – it is inferred that God, at this younger juncture, was also less demanding, was not waking him ‘every other hour’. The question that arises, then, is: why? Why does God deny the thin poet his sleep? How would this presence of God relate to the fat body and the insomniac mind? By way of an answer, perhaps we might suggest that the very reason that sleep came easier to Blake as a fat child is because this interrupting God – the God that disturbs his current sleep, that haunts his head – this God was once inside of him. Thus, the fat of the fat child is not just simply fat: it is symbolic material, rather, of the Spirit of the Saviour itself – with all the contradictory and uncomfortable consequences such an amalgamation of these two ideas entails. God, accordingly, had crawled inside Blake as he passed through puberty, like a backwards baby, and, as a result, his body bulged. But to understand what this means exactly, we need to wade into the poem further still. Moving on, the speaker recalls the uneasy dreams he had as an infant, before growing into teenage enormity. Like Blake, the poet has suffered from sleep problems in his early childhood too:

23. Constantly recurring dream as a very young child in which I lay paralyzed in my bed, an enormous boulder lodged in the ceiling and rolling toward me in slow motion.
24. Always waking with the boulder just inches from my face.
25. Further research revealing this state was most likely hypnopompia: an intermediate consciousness occurring during waking.
26. Consciousness in which hallucination and sensing a presence are common.
27. What presence; when what where; who what this thing lodged in my ceiling.

In a straightforward sense, the boulder in this sequence is a symbolic presentiment of Blake’s impending weight. But, closer scrutiny soon divulges that this boulder is also more than that – as the poem itself explicitly suggests, in summoning up the diagnostic category of hypnopompia to describe the dreaming that the young Blake experiences less as a state than a condition. In hypnopompia, hallucination (or that which is not real (at least at this point) – i.e. the fat) is conflated with the consciousness of an actual external presence. It is an intermediate conscious state (not a sleeping state) in which objective data and phantasmatic invention become ‘common’. It is not a figment of the state of dreaming, therefore, but a form of insight divined in the blur of waking. And while the hallucinatory boulder is clearly indicative of the weight that will torment him throughout his adolescence, we must conclude that the actual existing presence that is common with it – though left unnamed – would almost certainly have to be (as Blake’s petitioning yet non-interrogative questions to it amply suggests: “What presence; when what where; who what this thing lodged in my ceiling.”) none other than God. The confusion between the apparitional fat and this manifest presence, consequently, comes to suggest that his body’s loss of its ability to maintain skinny borders as it matures is, in some key way, the product of this God’s colonisation of it via the boulder. However, once again, this not to argue that fat and God are held in a strict equivalence by the poem. Rather, as this passage shows us, fat, properly understood, is the deterioration in the speaker’s capacity to filter creation from his body and it is this very deterioration that is the actual external presence; that is God.

Speaking from the perspective of a body’s integrity, then, God is something of a nightmare. The young Blake knows this and is terrorized by the encroachment of His (de)creation. Meanwhile, if the teenage Blake sleeps better with God within him, we can suppose he does so because creation has set in and the nightmares have moved out: that is, it is waking, not dreaming, life that is now so inversely awful (as the shaming at the car show amply displays). Beyond this, however, there is a sense in which the adolescent Blake sleeps better precisely because the terror he is subjected to in reality induces within him a kind of somnambulism:

10. Once at a car show with my parents an MC called me on stage to play along in his joke routine. He asked the question ‘What do you do for fun?’ and as he leaned down so I could speak into the microphone, he whispered a suggestion: ‘Eat.’
11. I said ‘Eat’ into the microphone.
12. The audience cackled wildly.
13. Afterwards my mother asked me why I’d said it. I said I didn’t know.

Here, the speaker’s actions are communicated as a sort of unconsciousness (‘I don’t know’), a numb puppetry in which the sham of his autonomy (“…he whispered a suggestion: ‘Eat.’ / I said ‘Eat’ into the microphone.”) is jerry-rigged by the MC to encourage everyone else in the sense their own self-sufficiency, as only humour can, to roil in their laugh (“The audience cackled wildly”). It seems, in that case, that God works his fat puppets to dissuade his thin ones from thinking they are as subject to His corroding command as they are: their will, unlike these compulsives, is free and so they go on in their slavery. The fat are, thus, in a sense, anti-parables, veiling the truth; they shamble along in the prurient worship ritual that is the cruel presentation of how they present. There is more to this, however. If God comes across as a veritable monstrosity of malice by this logic, it is not because the poem lays blame for the speaker’s fat on a divine intelligence, or holds God responsible for its humiliation. For, while God is certainly to be understood as a dark force in Blake’s novels – and while the principle of deterioration, which has traumatized – and widened – the young Blake, is indeed what the crowd witnesses, and mocks, in him – it is the crowd itself that turns this deterioration into a divinely decreed fate. Simply put, the deterioration principle (God) is manipulated by the law (the word of God) – that is, deterioration into creation (such as Blake’s weight gain) in its manifestation is subject to a kind of quarantine, an administration by exterior regimes of repulsion and scrutiny that stigmatize and stare at it. This discrepancy between the nature of God and the way this nature is brutally administered informs the terror the young Blake’s experiences as he observes the approaching boulder that threatens to annihilate his face. It also explains the weird fatalism of his weight gain, not only the fact he is unable to prevent a deterioration of some kind but also that this deterioration is made to feel like his unassailable destiny, that decay has become the law of returns. On this count, it should not surprise us that somnambulism is a theme that crosses the divide between Blake’s early years and his teenage obesity. Indeed, as the poem clearly indicates, sleepwalking did not arrive with his weight; he also did this before, as a thin child, in the time of his hypnopompia. In this period, the sleepwalking is one of a series of disruptions in his sleep – he also suffers nightmares, sleep talking, disruptive sounds – so many things he’s moved to remark: “More active maybe in my sleep than I often am in waking.” Through this whorl of actions that seem to trump waking agency, sleepwalking – as a metaphor – evidences a direct relationship between this earlier time of troubled dreams, in which the law is only still setting in, and the later horror of its infliction upon the body. But, crucially, if young Blake’s sleep is marred by a tempest of disruption, this takes place even as he tells us he was dreaming of “the dream me”, which is “a clearer me”. Immediately, it becomes evident that this dream self – far from the promise it portends to be – is, in fact, connected directly to the fat terror to come. In its abstracted perfection and clarity, it is the very model of the law and it demands deference. One need only sleepwalk one’s way toward it. There will be no consequence, if something goes wrong. Sleepwalking – submission to the law – we are told, absolves one of any account for one’s actions: “35. If the walker commits a criminal offence while asleep, the defence of automatism may be available.” And yet, if the sleepwalk through law toward the dream self promises to absolve one of agency, of exertion, of guilt, we find its true face manifests itself in reality, at the car show, as a horror picture of all those things. It leads, that is, one right into the very clutches of the law’s verdicts, as one becomes not one with the law but, rather, the legal-sanctioned criminal it demands stand guilty before it. The sheer stigmatic terror of being a body that eats, that has autonomous desire, comes to be a nightmare of a body that is seen only through eating, that grotesquely longs to become wedded in illegal, unholy marriage to the groaning candy-flavoured body of God.

42. Candy my one irrefutable, perfect lover.
43. Whose breasts and brains will never malform.
44. Who would wait forever by my deathbed, regardless.
45. Candy marriage still not legal in 50 of 50 American states.

The very reason that the marriage to candy must be ‘illegal’, here, is precisely because it exposes the law of worship itself as unseemly, unholy (and, in this sense, it echoes gay marriage’s quite emphatic threat to the idea of a sovereign tie between family and heterosexuality, that union can mean many uncomfortable things). This over-identification is precisely what the fat are guilty of: their shamed acknowledgement that, in this system, ‘candy’ will, indeed, be just about the only thing that would be guaranteed to ‘wait forever by my deathbed, regardless’, that can only be promised to always be there, since it is the very definition of a treat that is not sufficient in itself, that lures one on toward the illusive satisfaction to come. To be so honest about this truth, however, comes too close to it, brings too much into the open the fact that sweets are all that the law may offer (which, incidentally, even ruins the licentiousness that would make candy itself a promiscuous treat; instead, it is the only morality allowable). And aligned with this:

46. Also not legally possible: marriage to one’s dream self.
47. The becoming of one’s dream self.

The dream self is revealed to be unrealizable, unattainable even in any kind of directly binding union. However, note the language used here: it is not simply against the law to become married to one’s dream-self but rather not legally possible under the law, despite the law’s solicitations that only it may deliver such a thing. In this sense, when Blake loses his weight, God, you might say, is cast out of the temple. His weight loss is a heretical act, a bucking of the fate that has been designated for him. That is to say, the body’s internalization of the spirit of God was not at all a salvation, but a sort of possession, and the diet was therefore a sort of impious exorcism. Nevertheless, post-fat – and, it should be added, the question of just how Blake managed to escape the clutches of weight gain is left undetermined, something of a mystery, one gathers, even to him – there is a mental turmoil that occupies the space of the evacuation, a sleeplessness that bespeaks the lurking possibility that God should come back in – make him grow once more. The poem ends:

48. Willful confinement to the hypnopompic state.
49. The boulder above me, still proceeding.
50. My mom forever just down the hall.

The state of insomnia, in this formulation, comes to be defined as willful confinement to the hypnopompic state. If the young Blake experienced hypnopompia in a kind of paralysis, and succumbed to it via sleepwalking, the Blake of the present – after the weight gain – is returned to hypnopompia as a state of critical awareness, is intentionally confined to its condition of hallucination and sense. He has given himself deliberately, that is, to the deterioration of the logics of the law itself – or, in other words, has come to a gnostic understanding that deterioration, in its truly sacred sense, must never be submitted to an administration that promises a moral life can somehow negate it. However, if a certain equilibrium and maturity is achieved at this junction, insomnia is also a displaced name for weightlessness. It is an exhaustingly secular state and, like the secular, it cannot quite determine how it got free of the sacred or, for that matter, even now discern how free it really is. To willfully confine oneself to the hypnopompic state is also not legally possible, because the hypnopompic state is meant to be a confused and credulous cognition, a mind blurred by sleep trying to make sense of real world stolidity, and it is this confusion and credulity which the law depends upon to successfully stake its authoritative claim. In introducing criticality and detachment to this state, one finds that it keeps one agonizingly awake. So it is then, that one is left with insomnia as a sort of incredulous hypnopompia: it too confuses hallucination with external presence, distorts reality, but in a more freeing if nonetheless still excruciating way. Importantly, the Biblical reference that structures this poem is not Edenic – it is not modeled on an expulsion from paradise – but rather constructs itself on the allegory of the rolling away of the stone from Christ’s tomb. If, at the end, the boulder is still proceeding, if the pleasure of sleep beckons despite the cruel law it entails, the tomb is empty. The body of the Father in the Son is gone. There is no body. Insomnia is the empty cave where salvation once slept and in which we now wait, fearful of, expectant of, resistant to the divinity’s ever-immanent, apocalyptic return. Yet, the poem finishes not with this ambivalent image but with reference to the speaker’s Mother: who has featured recurrently in the poem as the source of comfort from his night terrors, dubbed ‘the real you’, the only thing that could assure him when he was young, and now. The final twist in this complicated piece is precisely the fact that the law of the Father has ceded way to the love of the Mother – in other words, that the new secular regime in which Blake finds himself so coldly and tiredly cast is one where his mind, far from being his enemy, keeps watch over him, prevents bad sleep, like his mother ‘forever just down the hall’. If this risks translating autonomy into being a mommy’s boy, such alignment of independence and maternity seems to be entirely and unapologetically in accord with Blake’s vision. In Mairéad Byrne’s amazing poem, ‘Downtown Crossing’, a challenge is thrown out to all sons and daughters – though especially sons – who treat women all their lives as their designated caretakers:

A cup of coffee can be a mother.
A cigarette can be a mother.
A blanket can be a mother.
A wool cap can be a mother.
A coat can be a mother.
A booth can be a mother.
A warm grating can be a mother.
You can be your own mother.[13]

Blake’s writing’s vision of care for the self takes this last admonition as a call to alms. From the love it has learnt from his mother, who protected him, who watched over him when it mattered, Blake’s writing assumes its own responsibility. You’ll be in pain, you’ll find it hard to sleep, it says at the end, but you don’t need the Father. The mother has shown you. The waking life can give. The mind can be a mother to itself.

3.

In a postcard biography dedicated to Butler, author Michael Kimball writes: “Blake still thinks of himself as the fat kid and he writes to find out what is inside him. This is one explanation for his tremendous written output. Another explanation is his insomnia, which allows him more conscious hours than most people are allowed. Blake is never fully awake or fully asleep, though, and the normal often becomes strange. But Blake keeps giving us everything that is inside him. It’s not pounds, but it’s a different kind of weight.”[14] In Kimball’s eloquent reading, Blake unpacks his body of the weight that is no longer in it and the weight that, consequently, still is. Writing itself is a sort of colossal unbinding of the body’s tendency to overfill. And if his insomnia allows him more conscious hours than others are granted, such sleeplessness also means he is not entirely within the realm of reality any longer: he is never fully awake or asleep and the normal often becomes strange. While a weight, not a romantic thing, quite hard on the mind and bad for productivity, as Blake has noted in an interview on his sleeplessness, insomnia nonetheless gives him more hours, more mind-time, more time of life. His resolution to himself, to others, in Kimball’s view, is thus to use this time to give everything that is inside him, no matter how obscene or unwanted such a giving may be. It is, as such, “the different kind of weight” that spurs this obsessive giving – even if no one should be there to accept or want to receive it – that we must turn our attention to now.

In the section above, I posited a distinction between God, in a metaphysical sense, as being defined in Blake’s texts as the very principle of a body’s deterioration into creation, and set this against the word of God, or the law, known through its effort to administer such deterioration to its own evil, exploitative ends. While such a dichotomy would seemingly look to preserve God from the taint of corruption, from worldly things, from the word, it is actually rather an insistence that the inevitability of the world is God, that God is the very atavism in which one cannot keep reality out. And while such a distension of an object by reality is undoubtedly a severe and destructive thing, its unbinding is actually on the side of truth, of freedom. For Blake’s prose, this deterioration principle is something of an inspiration, in that it offers him a method perverse enough to articulate a series of explorations that look to counter the sheer proliferation of atrocities and catastrophes in the world today. So it is that the decompositions of his novels may again be dubbed terroristic, but a divine terror, in the sense that it uses the techniques of the law to obliterate its ends; it radicalizes deterioration to show what the law entails; in keeping with the holy work of God, it deteriorates deterioration too.[15] The trap, however, in corroding corrosion, is that it will lead one into a restoration. In this, we find the fate of Cormac McCarthy’s most recent writings, which have wound up stretching their fascination with ashes and emptiness to a worship of the craftwork of the urn they’re in. Nonetheless, unlike Cormac McCarthy’s quite conservative sense that the end is thereby fated, or rottenly ordained, the disasters that litter Blake’s books are presented as the outcome of real earthly logics, logic which are mobilized in his unreal prose against their very logicality, in order to turn them inside out, bring home their palpable consequences, expose their putrid architecture to the black and beating sun. Instructive on this count is a recent interview with 3:AM Magazine, devoted to the release of Scorch Atlas:

3:AM: In Scorch Atlas the planet is fucked, people are rotting, their surroundings decaying. Would you say the dissolving landscapes are more a J.G. Ballard sense of apocalypse rather than Cormac McCarthy?

BB: Honestly, the word ‘apocalypse’ doesn’t occur to me when I think about Scorch Atlas. I don’t think of the book as the world’s end, or the end times, or the coming of something. I see it walking down the street. I see it waking up and drinking coffee and hearing cars go by the window. It’s, again, about light, and bodies, and intersections of those, the present, more than something foretold or forthcoming. The subtitle of Scorch Atlas, which only appears on the title page inside the book, is ‘A Belated Primer’. Every hour is grotesque. In those hours, as those people in the book do, it’s more about finding a way around or inside the mud and fucked rain than it is fearing it welling up or coming down.[16]

What is intriguing about this response is precisely its circumvention of an apocalyptic logic through its insistence that the ruin it portrays is categorically already here. The purpose is not to tell the future but, rather, to tell the present. And more importantly, the work is not a thing of fear as it is ‘more about finding a way around inside the mud and fucked rain’. Although Butler studiously eschews any strongly articulated political philosophy, it strikes me that what he wishes to avoid more than politics per se in his writing are the readings of the standard political compass – which is itself a profound political commitment. In a recent thought piece, theorist Mark Fisher has argued that the brewing threat of ecological disaster, of worldwide catastrophe in general, must not be thought of as something that might happen without preventative action (the capitalist realist do-nothing cliché in which one needs to ‘act on climate change’ as an exercise in ‘risk management’) but must have its consequences brought virtually forward, in order to feel their real impact now. If we are to shake off the sense of predestination to world disaster and to actively make it counter-factual, Fisher insists we must work to culturally create (not just idly imagine) its immensity as a thing which has come to pass. As he writes:

The standard tactic of capitalist realism in relation to eco-apocalypse is to work with the stupid ingenuity of the Symbolic. Here we might think of Lacan’s famous example of Holbein’s Ambassadors. Capitalist realism keeps attention on the ephemeral plenitude of wealth and social status, containing the nullity of ecological catastrophe as an anamorphic blot at the edge of vision. It has the advantage that such an operation is already routinely at the level of individual psychology in respect of death, whose repression is no doubt one of the ‘falsities’ that, according to Nietzsche, is necessary for life.

So one tactic is to stop imagining eco-catastrophe and Realise it – which is not to say bring it about, but to act as if it has already happened. This is the intriguing suggestion from Jean-Pierre Dupuy which Zizek takes up, most recently in First As Tragedy, Then As Farce. The only way to prevent the catastrophe, Zizek and Dupuy suggest, is to project ourselves into the post-apocalyptic situation and think what we would have done to have avoided it. In other words, we must act as if what is in fact the case – the inevitability of catastrophe – is the case. The simulation, the as-if, is necessary in part because the Real, here as elsewhere, cannot be confronted directly, and can only emerge in the form of a fiction. The shift to the question of ‘what would we have done’ has the benefit of circumventing the capitalist realist/ postmodernist foreclosure of the old modernist-Leninist question, ‘What is to be done.’ An anti-capitalism need not be imagined any more than the end of the world has to be: it is Realized in the encounter with the fictional-virtual-Real of inevitable apocalypse.[17]

‘To act as if it had already happened’: what are Butler’s explorations but this? And what’s more, in full satisfaction of the act, what else do Blake’s writings do but carry it further, to the literary point where it is indeed no ‘play-act’ at all but an actual immanent reality of the ruined world? In this exact sense, I would argue that Scorch Atlas (and to a lesser extent Ever, in the disastrous atmosphere that provides background to its interior tale) may be understood as the first serious authorial depiction of capitalist-driven climate crisis, the first attempt to imagine the affective immensity of what global warming really means. Of course, while it would be reductive to read Butler’s work as some mere encoding or point to point allegorical tale on capitalism and socio-environmental disaster, the air of this frame is abundant in the book, in the focus on ruined and scarce food, on fucked skies, on inundations and sudden evaporations, on the blight of every land and sight. And it is precisely the air of the air – the composition of the uncanny and often evil enclosures of our lives – that is the work’s most substantial theme. It is obsessively focused, as Blake himself has said, on how light and bodies and objects come apart and how they coalesce in mutant climates, sucked-up atmospheres, torn-down wholes. In other words, the aesthetic drive of the books is not to polemicise, as such; but it nevertheless deliberately dovetails with an abstracted and detached eye that painstakingly amplifies the affective dread the realisation of a world like this enacts, that forces upon us the brutal awareness of our inability to envisage the breathtaking costs of our contemporary political passivity. Or, as the narrator of ‘Dust’ flatly states, “I learned to breathe in smaller rhythms. The incubated heat swelled so high outside you’d sweat forever, then more dust. Eyes encrusted. Nostrils clogged. One night, finally, the roof over my living room succumbed to all the weight. Somewhere in there, under all that dander, I often would regret I had not been.”(SA, 30)

In his forthcoming novel, Blake devotes much thought to the paradoxes of predestination, how to act out when faced with the precession of our lives before us, how to achieve re-destination in the face of fatal wear. As he writes early on, “Most days the day was always over before the day began” (TINY, 73) and this foreclosure of the aperture in which we are able to figure out another way to act – in which, in this novel, our copies are already at home before we are – is precisely the problem his work looks to deal with more broadly. Although he deploys several methods for re-casting this deadlock – xeno-humanization, occultation, bacterialization, to pluck exotic terms for a few – let an identification of two of the most pronounced of his strategies, for now, suffice. Perhaps one of Blake’s most ingenious and powerful strategies for circumventing the problem of a systematic elaboration of our lives before we live them is what I would dub obstructification: to take the lock on one’s life and extend the very logic of the lock into the resistance to the lock, to take its very flawlessness as the very grounds upon which an obscene challenge can be thrown out and a sudden epiphanic reorientation achieved. In the middle of Ever, the narrator retreats into her bathtub, beaten back by the mounting annihilations outside and within, soaking in a kind of regressive retreat from the ever-more threatening catastrophes that are inexplicably ripping the world up outside her house, and taking her apart bit by bit as well. As she floats there, she feels the full press of despair weigh down upon but, rather, than stew on the tableau of despair, in the standard mode of recent apocalyptic fare, this full influx of despair leads her, without alleviation, to an unusual, defiant conclusion:

[Who am I kidding – what could matter – what could be wanted of me now – what that hasn’t been already had so often over –]

[and yet I’ve never sickened – not for any

[Take the lot (E, 43)

Surely what is so remarkable about this passage is the way it strikes such a profoundly thrilling note without verging into upbeat recuperation – the sort of soul-killing restoration to the 'bright side'. Here, the narrator levels her eye on the impossibility of emancipation – the sense there’s nothing left in her for this suppurating system to take, nothing that it already hasn’t soiled and seen, nothing that has not been had ‘so often over’ – precisely in order to take a sudden twist into an astonishing challenge spat in the eye of the world’s bad faith: fuck the remainder, 'take the lot'. But, of course, the very fact that the system of ruin refuses to take the lot is precisely because it is unable, because it relies on her persistence to sustain its own pernicious want. And this, in turn, overturns the proposition that it has already had everything within her - for it needs what it’s already had so often still. For all its seizure of all that seems to be inside her, there is something it still covets to claim anew: the fact she’s "never sickened – not for any", the fact, that is, that she continues to possess the capacity – in her frustrating immunity to total enclosure – to diagnose the system’s ills, to obstruct its total control over obstruction. The irreducible core of colonisation is precisely that it cannot do without an apparatus of control: even when it outsources its management to the subjects themselves: to be certain it is in complete control, it must be sure to surveil the system of surveillance. The blind spot is thus to be found not in the exterior it denies exists as such but, in the fact, the denial comes from somewhere above, indicating the exterior must exist. Precisely because of the very existence of the total gaze, there must be a system of sight – an ideological apparatus, that is, of implanted seeing. So it is, then, in the wake of such realizations, Ever’s narrator abruptly graduates to the next section of the novel. She finds herself sucked down the drain of her tub to wander through a series of rooms (including the room of total body referenced above) which elaborate the architecture of the mechanisms that seek to ruin one’s autonomy and to de-autonomise ruin.

In Scorch Atlas, meanwhile, we can pinpoint another method of aversion, another wormhole in which the writing works to circumvent the conditioned destiny the current climate imposes upon us: a method I will call critical amassment. This technique abounds across Blake’s books but it can be discerned most plainly in the anti-realistic amount (and category) of disasters that structure Scorch Atlas’s inner worlds. Key to the atmosphere of destruction is this novel is the sheer accumulation of crises: beyond the thirteen elemental inundations that bridge the tales (assaults by water, dust, gravel, glass, caterpillar, static, teeth, ink, blood, manure, flesh, glitter and, finally, light), there is also disappearance, contagion, military murder, telekinetic fire, hurricane, catastrophic subsidence, infant death, mutation, being eaten by animals, oceanic evaporation, suicide, glutinous rain, quicksand topographies made of mud, sky lesions, a massive wall overtaking the earth and total flooding of the landscape. In this embarrassment of disasters, which move between the naturalistic (floods, hurricanes, landslides, etc.) and the outrightly paranormal (static storms, weird warps in reality, extraterrestrial growths, etc.), the immensity of catastrophe inspires not awe or even fear so much as anxiety and exhaustion. In the section 'Bath, or Mud, or Reclamation, or Way In/Way Out', the narrator encapsulates the overall tenor of the way we come to feel about the desolated worlds of Scorch Atlas and where they leave us:

Other shit began to happen. Behind the sky, I saw ______. The clips of drips of dropping muddle, scratching the face of everything in long bolts as flat as the back of my hand. And zapped in groggy columns things were melting out of nowhere, big rungs of hung gob spurting from sections overhead. And the skewed lobs of architecture and landscape bowed in rhythms clogged with problems, no repetition. I could hardly stick a foot straight; I was, like, wobbly hobbling through the dead grass. There was everywhere to walk now. Everywhere and none at all. I could feel my fiber peeling – my blood spread thin – my pupils slurred. (SA, 124)

For all that this novel stands in the tradition of American apocalypse literature, what apocalyptic text ever included such a descriptive shrug about its events as 'other shit began to happen'? Or, for that matter, offered a sort of careless ______ as its insight into what stood 'behind the sky', behind the events unfurling? Intriguingly, the very stockpiling of catastrophes renders them so massive an obliteration that they even obliterate their own sense of massiveness, replacing the rapture of such events with their entropy: ‘'I could feel my fiber peeling – my blood spread thin – my pupils slurred.' Great culminations become ‘clips of drips of dropping muddle’: there is no annihilatory sublime. And what’s more, this multiversal disasterscape also delivers freedom – the alleviation of the earthly condition – not even as horror, as such, but in a way that is directly and mundanely connective to our current static state: 'There was everywhere to walk now. Everywhere and none at all.' In this sense, the critical amassment achieves its effect by negating a critical mass; it is exactly because of this that such a seemingly fantastic vision of ruin – crossing between the supernatural and the natural, aggregating so many different zones of disaster at once – could feel so incredibly visceral and believable without simultaneously thrilling the mind. Its sheer saturation of the frame connects it to the very lethargy and stupor of the now. Thus, far from an escape into some sort of monumentalism of destruction, this anti-realistic concentration of ruin perfectly zeroes in on our inveterate inability to actually picture the end, to consider its lobster. It’s in this act then that the true momentous dismay and the oppressive compulsion to want to avoid disaster that the inevitability of apocalypse should spirit into us (but doesn’t) is recuperated in the form of an apocalypse of such total immensity it could never come telling us that we risk facing not the impossible but the all too possible. So it is also, therefore, that across both Ever and Scorch Atlas, the common thread that wends the writing is the characters’ collective sense of melancholy retrospection, their haunting desire to have done different ("I swear some of this pulp has vision, heartbeat, teeth": SA, 149), coupled with allegorical insights into the chance there is for difference, even in this insupportable wasteland: "Randall woke later to the touch of something crawling in his hair. He sat up quick, with fists clenched. The girl lay across from him with the transistor. In her sleep she’d turned it on. The signal came in clearly, broadcasting the same soft-sunned song he could not place – throbbing and monotone and wordless. It sang out from the tiny, salvaged speaker from everywhere at once." (SA, 91) And if this inexplicable refrain seems supernatural, if its presence in this terrain appears to be the work of extra-human forces, it is because the paranormal is precisely the subject position we need to assume to achieve salvation today: we need to become the impossible exhortation, that which bleeds through its tiny salvaged speaker into a universal imperative – not grand but throbbing, monotone, wordless – we cannot resist. As the final words of Scorch Atlas insist, "Imagine home. Some homecoming. I will move into those lost rooms, wet and depthless, and I will sit against the wall. I’ll sit with the wall and watch the years unwrap a second span. My head. My lips unwrapped and chapped wide open. My colors spilling later in the reek. Somewhere sandwiched solid something. Zeroes. Greased. Goodnight. Hello." (SA, 152) Greasing the zeroes, saying goodnight, will supply the hello, the new opportunity, a second span, some homecoming. "I’d gone past numb and into neon," the narrator remarks in Ever (E, 44). It’s time we went there too.

4.

"When one has finished building one's house," Nietzsche once observed, "one suddenly realizes that in the process one has learned something that one really needed to know in the worst way - before one began."[18] Any overview of Blake Butler’s writing would be remiss if it did not touch on the topic of houses: of home lives – the lives we live in them, the lives they live in us – and of the unheimlich. More than a motif, houses occupy a key architectural crux in all of Blake’s books to date, as the sort of structure which uncannily encloses within itself both intimacy and estrangement. Houses double as a sign for a domestic encirclement around bodies, wherever they go. When outside objects enter their field of feel, not only does the object take on oddly invasive or propinquitous properties but the entire field distorts, sickens, or illuminates, for the field itself is the real inexplicable phenomenon that surrounds the characters in the texts: “This thing, it had me in it, and I could not make us unpeel.” (E, 32) In a similar way, one’s environment tends to always be an enclosure – a room of a sort, even in the open – although wormed with all sorts of entries and exits that, however, do not ease anxiety, since other things seem to have mastered far better than one’s self. Indeed, the sense of incarceration in the books has much to do with the fact that the characters are trapped not in rooms with no way out but rooms with ways out that they cannot nearly begin to comprehend how to locate or make use. Inhabitation is thus a deeply precarious state in the texts, one subject to almost continuous damage, yet – what’s worse – never quite a complete eviction. If Blake’s writing develops many methods for overturning determinism, it does not thereby embrace an uncomplicated autonomy or redemptive agency. In fact, what does seem to motivate the characters of his text is a sort of willful mesmerized exploration and a hauntingly persistent and quite touching faith in the concept of care. Toward the very end of Ever, having walked through room after room behind the scenes of her home and life, the narrator comes a room of windows that allows her to see all the rooms she’s been through, as well as a shifting kaleidoscope of outside scenes: “rabbits, black wheels, bunting, massive nests of broiling breast, chicken wire, foreheads, long strips of skin culled from underground – all of this packed into a single pixel, pulling the sky down – another minor speckle on the grief.” (E, 92) The windowed room is the veritable centre of the architecture of surveillance, the room of rooms, and it allows her to see almost all. Nevertheless, what she cannot see is the surrounding structure of the windowed room itself. As she remarks, “One thing I could not see through the windows was the outside of the house – at least any walls or roofs or grass or driveways or the yard, or any of those other things one might find when looking inward from the outside, even now.” (E, 93) Therefore, while the narrator finds herself in the nerve centre of the novel, the point at which all its distensions may be held in view at once, the unity that is the house itself is still unavailable to her. Crucially, though she is in the very interior of the interior, has taken up the site of surveillance herself, she is locked out of the house: she cannot identify this space as home, which, far from coming into clarity through pushing toward the most inner core, derives from the reverse, from ‘looking inward from the outside, even now’. In this sense, home only truly becomes home through a defamiliarizing gaze, one in which the home can be seen from outside and its dominance recedes, making it the world we’ve come to know, rather than a world without an outside. Precisely because of this, although the windowed room shrinks around the narrator of Ever until it finally crushes to the exact size of herself, leaving before her one window through which she, at first, she thinks she could see nothing at all, but then discovers, in the cryptic penultimate phrase of the novel, she could “see a – see”, or, in other words, that she can see the sight of sight itself: she can see that the scope of sight is itself, even when squeezed to the very edges of her particularity, even when there are no doors to the outside, what universalizes her, allows her to attain to the exteriority of seeing herself in a house, looking out – a gaze that is not surveillant but speculative. Home, then, is not in the person but the peering, the ability even when inside to look in from without by looking at the sight of sight itself, and the way this turns people into peers. Strictly speaking, the knowledge that gaze at the gaze lies in us out there and, in its very alienation from embeddedness in one’s life, is what brings that life into focus and carries it home. It is in this sense that we can interpret Nietzsche’s aphorism as not so much commenting upon the futility of building one’s house altogether but rather the futility of finishing it and, moreover, the fact this futility is now built into the structure itself, which can no longer be abandoned, even though if we had known before we would never, ever have started building it. As odd as it may seem, for Blake, home is home precisely because it entails such a futility: the idea of a home is impossible not because domestic intimacy is unreal nor because homes mean one must settle down but rather because all houses are labyrinths of dwellings and because there is no one floor upon which people dwell. This is not a recuperating thing (no more than Nietzsche’s remark is an uplifting insight) but it is this exhausting prospect that taps into the very (terrifying) notion of freedom. Home is thus the line of sight one follows through the confusion and violence and not a definitive circle, locality or space.

Such a connection of sight to home is significant as it takes us, by way of conclusion, to the very antithesis of home in his novels: something blinding: namely, light. Certainly, light is both the most sublime and most sinister of elements in Blake’s novels, a thing to which the writing returns and returns in a sort of traumatic repetition. If we identified earlier a dialectical logic of disappearance and manifestation in Butler’s writing, it is light which comes to represent the simultaneity of each, the unity of the double that they represent. In one respect, light is distinctly hostile in the worlds of Ever, Scorch Atlas and There Is No Year: it impinges in an annihilative way on all efforts to preserve or make better, to keep or go forth. In Scorch Atlas, it is the very last of the plagues which interlude the text – the summation as well as the culmination – and, awash in its de-atomizing destruction, the stricken narrator asks: “What where would function in such luster? I’d nearly given up.” (SA, 146) As such, light undoes co-ordinates, all our earthly ‘wheres’. Its inundation obliterates home and overwhelms sight. And this is not a joyous unity but rather the radical deprivation of the subject from unity with anything, as all the visible world is torn away. But it would be too simple to consign light to a position of evil in the writing – or, more accurately, it is not evil only – for it also entails in its devouring the chance for a re-reckoning, a re-reckoning that one has been denied by the order of reality right until the cusp of the end. To put it another way, light is the very zero-point of deterioration in Blake’s books but it also illuminates a sudden radical clearing in which one is reduced to nothing but the outside of one’s self. If light, to cite the words from William Gass that open Scorch Atlas, will ‘empty your head through your ears with whistling sunshine’, it reduces consciousness to the absolute cranial form: the skull that is the self can suddenly be thought. It obliterates one, that is to say, into pure ethics. Or, to put it another way, as Evan Calder Williams writes, “The time of near-dead light, and the longest shadows, cannot be made into no light. You need high noon for that.”[19] In his forthcoming novel, the book opens (and closes) with a philosophical coda on the ontological role of light. Here is the opening passage:

For years the air above the earth had begun sagging, suffused by a nameless, ageless eye of light. This light had swelled above the buildings. It caked on any object underneath.
This light, unlike most other light, outside itself could not be seen, could not be felt impressed upon each inch of air and body. It had no length, no temperature, no speed.
Each day the light grew thicker, purer. Each day still felt the same. Its presence rode in ridges on the faces of the hours and in silent hair all down all arms.
At night the light would be called dark. Among the dark the people staggered, aligned upon the air with hidden halls. In hidden halls they bumped and built their homes.
Each of these homes, no matter how small, held at least several different outlets, doors, and bulbs. In each home, as well, several people, each fit with further holes inside them too.
Through these holes the light could enter, thereby: naming, thereby: age. Inside the light and homes the people made more people. The light, unlike the people, went on and on. (TINY, 4)

To begin to unpack this sequence, it is crucial to first note that light takes on a quite specific characteristic in the first three lines, one we have already witnessed earlier: that is to say, weight. Later on in the same book, the father has a series of dreams, in one of which wear, weight and light are linked together: “In an eleventh dream the father felt very tired, though in this world tired meant obese, and obese meant made of light.” (TINY, 67) If, as we noted earlier, God is assigned with the deterioration principle that obesity (inability to filter out creation) represents, light is, unsurprisingly, another name for God. However, the light is specified as taking the form of “a nameless, ageless eye” and God is not without a name. In this sense, what light might be thought to be more accurately is determination, a thing for which, of course, we have a word that may act as a name (Fate) but not a name that acts as a unique specification of an entity, a theonym, as with God. If we adopt this synonymity between light and determination, the properties of the light take on an immediate, chilling transferential effect: this light cannot be seen outside itself, it lacks all means of measurement, it is unable to be affectively apprehended, to be felt “impressed on every inch of air and body” despite its weight, it grows denser and more sheer by the day even as each day feels the same as the one before. The light, we are told, is also what is called dark; the light enters through the holes in people thereby naming them and historicizing them; the light orders all. Reproduction takes place within the light but, unlike the people, the light does not reproduce itself – it simply forever persists: even reproduction dies before it. Add to this the people who stagger in the night version of light and are aligned upon the air – which is suffused with the weight of the light – in hidden halls – concealed or buried entrenchments which, in their alignment, comport with the air and thus the air’s suffusion with the light. In these entrenchments, people collide and build homes. And the homes contain outlets, doors and lights – the apparatus of freedom – and the people themselves are fit with holes inside of them. The light names and historicises them through these holes – thus, oddly, turning the gaps in them into the coordination of them. Holes are in that sense not ways out but ways for the outside to come in. The unfreedom of everything here reaches its immaculate height: the ontological role of light is to render the world not only inevitable but, beyond even that, irrevocable. Yet, there is one sign of alternativity that glimpses through in this sequence. This light, we are told, cannot be seen outside itself “unlike most other light”. In the press forward of the passage, these other kinds of light seem undoubtedly lesser: in the sense that they can be seen outside themselves, it would at first seem they are superseded by this light that cannot be seen outside itself, as something which encloses them. Yet, if this light is unable to be seen beyond itself, this must also mean that it is not visible to itself as light beyond itself. It cannot detect its outside, what might be happening beyond its own shine, because it insists no outside is. In other words, if it cannot be seen outside itself, if it wreaks its havoc in very inability to see through the thick of it, nevertheless outside itself it cannot see: it has no self-reflexivity. That is to say, it is unable to incorporate a conceptualization of itself into itself.

In a section in ‘The Limit Experience’ entitled ‘Always Light, Meaning’, Blanchot notes that the phenomenological removal of the psychical from the status of natural causality (that is, the dethroning of the mind as the model of all cosmic law) also entailed a resort to intentionality in order to understand how sense could be; things, thus, take on their integrity via their very ‘thing-ness’. As he writes, “it is intentionality that maintains the empirical and the transcendental within a powerfully structured relation – an alliance that is essentially modern, that is to say, explosive. As a result, the empirical is never in and of itself the empirical: no experience can claim of itself to be in itself knowledge or truth. And also as a result of this, the ‘transcendental’ will find itself nowhere localized: neither in a consciousness that is always already outside itself, nor in the so-called natural reality of things (which must always be suspended or reduced).” Precisely because of this paradox, determinism is oddly divested of its own determinates. Fate, we could say, is fated to have no foundation: it can be neither the horizon of the empirical nor the transcendental – or even be some powerfully structured absolute connection between both (as Fate would need to be) – for any such connection would depend on imputing to it a sense of designed intention that would turn it into a mentality: the very thing the appreciation of a world which functions beyond the human mind as its model has just debunked. The very existence of other lights, then, that can be seen as lights outside themselves, although located within fate, are fate’s dark spot. It cannot account for how they can be seen outside themselves (how these lights can be seen within light unless there is, in fact, a meaningful darkness) without forsaking its status as an unconditional absolute – or, that is, without becoming undone in its fundamental integrity as fate. The possibility of sight from without that illuminates thus derails a fate which encloses all sight within its own blinding light. Blanchot: “Phenomenology maintains – it is true – the primacy of the subject: there is an origin. This origin is light, a light that is always more original from the basis of a luminous primacy that makes shine in all meaning the summons of a first light of meaning (as Emmanuel Levinas says it so magnificently). Phenomenology thus accomplishes the singular destiny of all Western thought, by whose account it is in terms of light that being, knowledge (gaze or intuition), and the logos must be considered. The visible, the evident, elucidation, ideality, the superior light [clarité] of logic – or, through simple reversal, the invisible, the indistinct, the illogical or silent sedimentation: these are the variations of Appearance, of primary Phenomena.”[20] If phenomenology posits the origin of the subject in a light that ‘makes shine in all meaning the summons of a first light of meaning’, and if this light of light is the ’singular destiny of all Western thought’, it could be added that this other variation of Appearance and Phenomena – the invisible, indistinct, illogical: the dark – is against destiny. And these errors in light are not simply obscurities but, rather, signs that the lights need to be seen outside themselves: that, in other words, can (and must) be looked at from the dark. These lights within the light – and their ability to be seen in themselves outside themselves – are not just human minds but, more accurately, the language, or the expression, or the skin, or the membrane of things (each of which are variants on the same theme in Blake’s novels): they are the excess of destiny which will not be stayed by fate and which, themselves destined, will come and come and come, though fate will always try to erase them in its light. They are, that is, the dark places which arise in the light of fate when one looks out from the darkness of fate’s disavowal of possibility and gleans how the lights of phenomena are configured in fate. And these dim insights into the configuration of reality, these darkest fits of light, simply put, may be understood as the sight-structures we come to call our homes. The ultimate aim of Blake’s writing is to invite us in to vision, this uncanny shelter, this dispossessed dwelling. Or, as St. Augustine wrote to God in his Confessions, and which can be applied to all of us, as seers searching: “My soul is like a house, small for you to enter, but I pray you to enlarge it. It is in ruins, but I ask you to remake it. It contains much that will not please you to see: this I know and do not hide.”[21]

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[1] Emil Cioran, ‘Meeting the Moments’, Anathemas and Admirations, trans. Richard Howard, New York: Arcade Publishing, 1991, 151.

[2] Georges Perec, ‘The World’, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, New York and London: Penguin Books, 2008, 78.

[3] Blake Butler, ‘Water’, Scorch Atlas, Chicago, Illinois: Featherproof Books, 2009, 20. Hereafter cited in text as SA.

[4] Blake Butler, Ever, Nairobi/Detroit: Calamari Press, 2009, 95. Hereafter cited in text as E.

[5] The consequences of such keeping – such strange, compulsive collections – not only feature in but actively structure Blake’s second novel, Scorch Atlas in the layers of catastrophe that interleave the book’s stories. Disaster aligns itself into categories of material that assail the book. Rather than a flood or wind or fire, water becomes a hostile and annihilating force, as does dust and light. But beyond the elemental, glass, insects, static, teeth, manure, ink and glitter also become inexplicable cascades – they inundate the earth in their respective sheets. Of significance in this is the implication that what is raining down upon creation is not simply a messianic apocalypse but the entirety of its history held, breached and catastrophically returned. On the rain of gore in the interlude ‘Blood’, the narrator remarks: “Though we refused to call it that – we swore not to acknowledge the innards of our fathers as they sprayed down in spectacle upon us – it woke us quickly from our visions.” (SA, 104). Here, what the people refuse to see – a vision from which they refuse to be awaken, even as they are forced rudely awake – is that this disaster is not pure exteriority but rather the ingrown horror of the past having nowhere else to go, raining down now in ‘spectacle’ upon them. This, indeed, is the informing logic of all the ‘innards’ that fall throughout the book, as all are the compositional blocks that compose the social for us: that we waste, and that we find to our horror, here, that all that waste has been kept somewhere else in tally. The disaster, for Blake, occurs as the bursting outward of a collection run out of its capacity to any longer collect. It rains the ruin of the sublimation of history down upon us. As the narrator of ‘Want For Wish For Nowhere’ whispers so aptly: “There was something ever coming, I said inside me, and it does not have a name.” (SA, 56)

[6] The capacity to viably exist, that is to say, is congenitally subject to a kind of infection or contagion. However, it would be a mistake to assign to this pathological propensity the shamanism of an epidemiological model, as though the deracination of reality were transmitted by a certain refusal of persons to abide by particular rational-moral logics, or a set of ‘responsible’ personal practices, much as the discourse around HIV/AIDS, for example, continues to perniciously and misleadingly hold. In truth, the contagious nature of decomposition cannot be traced back to any distinct transmissible spread; rather, it is conceived as a type of generalized biodegradation of the very ability of things to sustain in their integrity, as though the world were a peach left out in the sun and the rain. So it is, for instance, that all of Butler’s novels exhibit such a special obsession with mold, which is not a pathogenic agent, like a virus, but the product of atmosphere. Moreover, mold is a micro-organism that derives energy for growth not from photosynthetic conversion (and, in so doing, creating its own food supply) but, rather, from siphoning it from the organic material in which it exists. Mold, then, has no predication as such – it spreads through spores, yes, but it exceeds the idea of some means to avert it buried in the mode of transmission. Instead, it embraces the disturbing inexorable preying of time spent persisting in the world, a preying that is known to us as decay. If, as we shall see, Blake has very clear notions of culpability for the destructive scenarios and disasters that litter his works, if he will have many critical insights into the neglect and exploitation that encompasses our contemporary social systems, he also insists that catastrophe will be both immensely larger than that and, perhaps even worse, microscopically smaller. In Blake’s forthcoming novel, There Is No Year, the mother realises that she is always out of control: “Even when she stood and watched the room in a long mirror she knew things happened every time she blinked her eyes.” (Blake Butler, There Is No Year, New York: Harper Perennial, 2011, manuscript copy, 24. Hereafter referred to in text as TINY.) The sheer teeming transpiration of things – from the subatomic level to the interstellar – beyond the sphere of merely human action – finds one in a position of precarity (and mercy) without yet having done anything at all. It is precisely for this reason, as shall be shown, that the deliberate callousness of our attitudes to environment, to time, to one another are such immensely problematic things in Blake’s world and weigh so heavily on his characters. Perhaps there is nothing more unconscionable than systematically destroying a world bizarre enough for you to be able to inhabit it at all.

[7] Maurice Blanchot, The Infinite Conversation, trans. Susan Hanson, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1993 [1969], 79.

[8] Roxane Gay, Scorch Atlas, Reviews, PANK Magazine, September 10, 2009.

[9] To digress for a moment, we might also tie the unusual construction of language in Butler’s writing to the writing’s sublated understanding of sense and sound. Frequently, throughout Blake’s novels, the meaning of a sentence will be subordinated to its conductive frequency. It is not that sentences do not make sense – on rereading their interpretability is quite clear – but rather in the first approach, in the progression of reading, they tend to garner a meaning more as sound. Take, for example, this passage from Blake’s forthcoming novel: “When she arrived in or at some small exact place, the mother set the copy son’s soft copy body down. In the mud, the light around his copy body began bending – the mother basking briefly in that fold – the son set underneath her old and getting older, his copy skin turned mirrored, bright. The son’s holes among the bending gave off a thick dark smoke – smoke rose in burst toward the sky – it rushed in rising as if to bend that surface also, wanting, only soon to disappear there somewhere high above, the tendrils birthed and blown away to unseen, sunken – diffused through holes in holes in holes – rips the sky had hidden in its years on years and days on days. The copy child and mother went on still there beneath it, frying, one breath fed back and forth between. They purred secret sentences in silent rising spiral until the sky at last had drunk so much it sunk to night – the night not out of cycle but in insistence, demanded in the skin, the unseen smoke of body after body sewn surrounding until the mother, at least, could not see – could not feel the air even around her, or her other – could not feel anything at all – and in the dark the mother stuttered – and in the dark again the mother walked.” (TINY, 16) Here, referentially obscure phrases like “holes among the binding”, “rushed in rising as if to bend that surface also””, “blown away to unseen, sunken”, “in silent rising spiral until the sky at last had drunk so much it sunk to night”, “sewn surrounding” and “the mother stuttered”, while, on closer inspection, they are quite able to be evaluated for meaning in themselves, nonetheless attain to a sense of automatic affective decodability at first reading, a sense of sense that is activated through parsing their meanings into sonic impacts of bump and run and rhyme. Yet, critical to understanding the effectiveness of this technique is not the rather musty stock notion that appeals to the senses may succeed in signification at points where the simple ‘sensible’ work of words cannot immediately reach. In Ever, the narrator tells us, frankly: “I would admit to sensual elaborations but I can’t be sure that this was that. As you know or may have heard there are often not the words for sorts of things in which you feel as if something about you is not the same, or might be in the midst of shifting, or. The floor in the hallway inside the front door was dark and made of wood. It had a seamless finish. See? I could slither on it. I could be.” (E, 33) In this conceptualization, ’sensual elaborations’ are not what account for that thing we know or may have heard – that ‘there are often not the words’ for what is not the same in one, or what might be in the midst of moving, or even to account for all the things it may end up missing, as is attested by the sentence’s hanging ‘or’. This diagnosis, however, proceeds suddenly to take note of the ‘seamless finish’ of the floor. On this surface, the narrator notes, she can slither; she can be. Such a seamless finish does not resonate with Blake’s own writing at all which – while consummately artful – often has the feel and consistency of exposed architecture. But, as the passage makes clear, the surface is one on which the narrator can ‘be’ and in its work on the level of conduction – what Blake dubs in his newest novel “the buzz of black transmission” (TINY, 233), there is a disruption of such slithering, a metastasis of the seamlessness of the finish into an interruption of being. In Scorch Atlas, the intrusion of sound (here, in the form of rain) is signalled in the first chapter as something which prevents rest: “The drum woke tones deep in my ear. I couldn’t sleep right. You never knew what might cave in.” (SA, 20) And as this passage suggests, far from allowing a free movement through the text, the work of sound is to create an insistent anxiety about the fragility of one’s grasp of the prose (and of the reality it discloses), a percussion (or ‘drum’) which is the rumble of never knowing what part of it might give next. In essence, then, the work of the aurality of words in Blake’s writing is not so much to supply sensual reconnaissance to take us to the realms in which the substantive content of word may not travel but to activate rather an insomnia in the reader, a wide-eyed inability to simply lull one’s self into the language, for it often falls out of rhetorical eloquence to reinforce its meanings, or, for that matter to simply ‘go’ with it, as it crafts its thumps and drums into a peaceful susurration that lures one past the edge of vital sense, then commits one to an obsessive return to what just went by in order to figure just what the last thing that one read – the last collapse triggered – internally meant, and why it was one didn’t – or couldn’t – see it coming.

[10] Melissa Broder, We who are about to Diet: Blake Butler, We who are about to Die, April 28, 2010.

[11] Although the aim of this essay, evidently, is not to offer a diagnostic exploration of excess weight gain, it is worth pausing here to make a qualification and a further point. In contradistinction to what the prevailing and highly vindictive body stigma would have us believe, fat is not at all a matter of greed, or of lack of self-control, or even – in what has become a sympathetic-persecutory weight loss mantra – the outcome of an improper ‘relationship’ with food. Rather, fat (in its non-genetic mode) is a matter of a dysmorphic disorder in one’s sense of obligation, a mental and bodily disruption in the measurement properties of the appestat and, thus, what one feels bound to eat. To put it another way, to be unable to control one’s body weight involves not a deficit in willpower exactly or, alternatively, a certain willful refusal to control one’s eating (note that anti-fat phobia accuses the fat of wallowing in both simultaneously) so much as it is connected to something far more intersubjective and environmental: namely, a dissolution in (and fossilization of) the customs of fulfilment that habituate the lines between appetite and satiation, between outward and in, that define the difference between the very relation of eat to ate. For the fat person, and I speak as one myself, the urge to eat is also a directive to complete, to take in a totality of a thing as though if you could only eat enough of the food before you, you could be done with it, at last, and with appetite itself. Of course, there’s no doubt that the act of eating provides pleasure for the overweight – there’s gratification in the feeding – but the procedures of eating are always and absolutely miserable. One eats in secret or tries to conceal one’s amount of food or becomes simply exhausted by the compulsion and unable to struggle anymore against it, consigning one’s self to shame and exposure, as though the body were a conveyer belt designed only to feed its mouth and all its other activities foolish forgettings of this key, embarrassing fact. In this state, what comes into crisis is the very capacity for capacitation to quit, for appetite to find its fit. Far from what we would understand as overindulgence, the fat find there is a breakdown in the very meaning of what it is to indulge: every eaten thing is unable to become its own discrete event; its enjoyment is surpassed by the mechanics of its consumption. This also goes some way to explaining why it is that those who suffer chronic weight gain find they are unable to determine a clear policing line between eating until one is full and eating until one has no more room. And, indeed, such supplication to the edges of capacity, for a moment, becomes a very important thing in a scenario where there is too much of a body that can never get enough. Equilibrium, ever so briefly, is achieved, and is over almost as soon as the eating. In such a vicious circle, it stands to reason food becomes more than a lure; it becomes a preserver, the break in the loop it re-links. Or as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has written (with all the ambiguity of one locked in the embrace of lifelong weight gain), fat becomes ‘the muse’: “It meant that every person, all her life, who ever / stinted this muse one crumb / threatened (they didn’t know it) her survival. And every single hand that ever fed her, saved her life.” See Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Fat Art / Thin Art, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1994, 4.

[12] See, for instance, Elizabeth Ellen, Insomnia, an interview with Blake Butler, HOBART, July 28, 2008: “Obsession, I guess, could be fingered as the number one cause of why I don’t sleep.”

[13] Mairéad Byrne, ’Downtown Crossing’, in Catherine Wagner and Rebecca Wolf (eds.), Not for Mothers Only: Contemporary Poems on Child-Getting and Child-Rearing, New York: Fence Books, 2007, 213.

[14] Michael Kimball, We’re Lucky There’s Blake Butler, Michael Kimball.com, August 13, 2008.

[15] In a blog interview with poet, Rauan Klassnik, Blake has expressed his distaste for the tedious, self-regarding tendency of ‘good’ fiction to endlessly tell us what it is to be human. As he remarks, “So much of what you hear when you hear people in certain circles talk about ‘what fiction should do’ is that fiction should talk about ‘what is human.’ To me, what is less human is the idea, like god, that you can make these big dashing remarks and consumptive poses in text and language that are meant to direct you to ‘the heart of the matter.’ The heart of it for me is, most days I don’t feel my body. I don’t know where I am going when I know where I am going.” See Rauan Klassnik, Blake Butler ‘Ever’ – Interview: Question 2, Holy Land, December 2, 2009. Intriguing here is the argument that the seemingly secular obsession with triangulating the meaning of humanity assumes in itself the mantle of an extra-human presumption that the question of humankind is one that will take us to the heart of the matter and, in doing so, supposes, simultaneously, that, at the heart of the matter, humans are even there to be found. Alongside fundamentalism, perhaps one of the most prevalent, obnoxious and outrightly obscurantist forms of religious belief at work in the world today is what we may call liberal agnosticism. The liberal agnostic believes in God like a fetish – the ritualistic entanglement, the strict moral codex one must obey, the sacrifice, is abandoned to accommodate the lifestyle capital demands even as there is a breathless sentimentalist attachment to some ‘life after death’ or world beyond this one, the feverish ‘humanistic’ belief in which thus forestalls the substantive obliteration of God from one’s belief system which would otherwise be the logical extension of the erasure of the impediment of God in one’s everyday moral life. This, of course, is not to embrace the liberal-atheist argument which contends that one may simply remove one’s belief in God by an act of deliberate and conscious designation, as though belief were itself only and always a matter of rational choice (cf. Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, etc.). Indeed, the very advent of the dominance of the liberal agnostic as a solution to Nietzsche’s proclamation of the (symbolic) death of God proves such an interpretation conclusively untrue. For the liberal-agnostic, the reduction of God to Godlet is a sort of erasure of the tyranny of religious belief from one’s life, even as holding on to some version of it becomes treated all the more as a real value rather than what it obviously actually is: a sort of ’smart move’: an insurance policy, a hedged bet, that operates analogically to the astonishing narcissism of the liberal-atheistic logic which – in its retraction of God altogether – nevertheless immediately pivots on its heels to supply a divine horizon of meaning to the human Himself. Although Blake is a believer in God, he crafts a very distinct refusal in his books to fill in substantively what God is, up to and including whether God is really good. All that he will say of God is that his presence can be felt in the ineluctable impingement of the world upon a person and in the subtle erosion such impingement occasions, the way in which it deprives one of one’s mastery over the very co-ordinates that one depends upon to even muster up beliefs of what God would be like to know. As he tells Klassnik: “Growing up in the South, and particularly Georgia, is funny because religion is so embedded and social that you tend to forget about it. I’ve never been a religious person in the way of that, though I do believe in god, and I believe in things outside of human comprehension. What its function is is for whoever, though: why people spend all their earthly human time trying to consecrate ideas of something they by definition posit as unknowable is to me in a way profane. I think god has to be a funny motherfucker. I think god has to know what he was doing when he put shit inside us humans.” I would add here that the very humour Blake believes to be a quality of God derives from the fact that the ’shit’ God put inside humans is, in essence, God. That God is, in other words, all that it would be impossible by any traditionally worshipful lights for him to be. This joke is grounded in what Kant would call Evidenz – not empirical evidence, in the Lockean sense, a sort of external proof of God’s objective existence, but rather an intuitive certainty – an immanent standard of measurement and realisation – that effulges a sense of conviction in itself. The world’s inevitability despite religious efforts to quarantine and conduct behaviour, the deterioration of bodies, the shit inside us: these are the traits that are beyond human comprehension and which testify to a work of God for Blake. Importantly, too, what we witness in Scorch Atlas and Ever – and what is taken to its highest pitch yet in his forthcoming novel – is the wider way in which the principle of deterioration’s deterioration applies not only to humans but to every object in the writing’s field of vision, up to and inclusive of the envisioning field of the writing itself. Birds, air, land, insects, cells, rooms, planets, chemicals, light, kinetics, weather patterns, lawnmowers, so on and so forth, are all subject to odd distortions and torsions in their proper function and integral reality. The world itself becomes a constantly fluctuating version of Heidegger’s broken hammer. So it is then that Blake’s theological sense may be formulated as something like the unbounded universalism of nothing’s sanctity from confronting the objective condition of itself.

[16] Susan Tomaselli, Blake Butler: A Belated Primer, 3:AM Magazine, March 2, 2010.

[17] Mark Fisher, Post-Apocalypse Now, k-punk, November 29, 2009.

[18] Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future’ [1886], Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans.& ed. Walter Kaufmann, New York: The Modern Library, 2000, 413.

[19] Evan Calder Williams, Notes Towards Two Figures of Darkness and Stupidity (Based on Two Phrases with Substituted Words), Socialism and/or Barbarism, May 10, 2010.

[20] See Blanchot, ‘The Limit Experience’, The Infinite Conversation, 251, for both quotations.

[21] St. Augustine, Confessions, London and New York: Penguin Books, 1961 [A.D. 397-8], 24.

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