Sunday, September 9, 2012

Review of "Nothing" by Blake Butler

       There are a few things I'd like to get out of the way before I review this book. First: I haven't read any other reviews of Nothing as of yet so I am completely ignorant as to the book's reception among professional and amateur critics. I'm not trying to include myself or revolt against any mass sentiment for or against Butler that may be out there. Second: I've been trained (at the undergrad level) as a scientist and have some experience reading professional science writing so when I read any science writing I tend to compare it to professional research journals, text books, etc. This may result in my being overly critical of the sections of Nothing which touch on the science of insomnia. Third: I've read one piece of fiction by Blake Butler (Anatomy Courses) as well as his stuff in Vice and on Twitter all of which I have enjoyed but I haven't read either Scorch Atlas or There is no Year. I do intend to read those in the future, at some point. Finally: if you happen to have a rebuttal to this review, or think I missed something crucial please let me know, send me a comment or whatever. I'd be interested in hearing others thoughts about the book.
        Nothing is part "memoir", part "history" and part fictional account centered around Blake Butler's experience with insomnia. Each of these modes is interspersed throughout the book and each has a separate flavor from the other. Chapters will switch from one to the other with little warning and this breaks the book up well, gives it a sort of hyperactive quality though sometimes the switch can be a little jarring. The memoir sections were by far my favorite and I thought them the best written. Blake has an excellent way of portraying his subjective experience through idiosyncratic language (more on this later however) and puts you right in his shoes, experiencing the frustrating agony of insomnia first hand. One section approximates this (I think) with copious footnotes, the eye brought back and forth from text to footnote as the wandering insomniac mind from restless thought to restless thought. Butler has very strong feelings about how society, the ubiquity of media, our relationships with each other, and technology interact and makes his opinion known often. His views are nothing terribly new (computers pull us apart, the amount of information we are surrounded by is staggering, etc.) but he is convincing and it is always good to get perspective on the effects the internet has on our lives. Butler's family is always held at arms length in the book, his mother, father and sister making appearances but never becoming full characters. A little disappointing, as I found myself curious to learn more about the relationships Butler has with them and how this influenced his insomnia. Reality and dream frequently mix and the memoir can shift into a strange dreamlike tone without any warning.
       Unfortunately the strict memoir sections are far fewer than they should have been. Other parts of the novel are taken up by a look at the "science" behind insomnia and the treatments for it. Toward the beginning of the book Butler recounts a history of theories and treatments for insomnia, interspersing them with other inventions that occurred around the same time:
         "In 1949, Egas Moniz wins the Nobel Prize for popularizing the lobotomy. We further customize our homes. Ranch-style homes become popular for their open floor plans and larger windows, allowing in more light. The first U.S local TV station opens in Pittsburgh."
He goes on an on listing inventions that could be related to insomnia but often are not. I found this to be the first of some very tedious and entirely unnecessary sections. It is obvious Butler did some research into the science behind insomnia but it ultimately comes off as amateurish. He also places similar to this one a few times in the novel, one simply lists drugs another website names, and I  found them serving no function other than to up the number of pages in the book. He also seems to give much greater weight to discoveries and thought from earlier in the century while making little to no mention to recent thinking, of which there is a considerable amount, aside from huckstery online treatments. Obviously Butler is not a science writer, and  I appreciate that fact, but I strongly believe that if you are going to address the science you should do it thoroughly and do it well or at least hand it off to someone that will. Butler does none of these things. He also quotes frequently from other writers but often I had trouble connecting the quote to the surrounding text and there is rarely any explanation as to who these people are, or why we should care what they think. Perhaps one of the most inexplicable parts of the book was that Butler felt it necessary to explain to us that the Disney character Goofy is a "man-dog" but then assumes we all know who Johannes Gorannson is, and that we should be interested in his sexual tendencies.
         The other aspect of Nothing that I found endlessly frustrating was Butler's writing style. Butler is obviously a devotee of Gertrude Stein and her methods of writing. Stein is an excellent and varied artist from which every writer could glean some tool with which to enhance their own prose. She is also flexible enough to be capable of writing groundbreaking experimental verse such as that in Tender Buttons while also being capable of writing more straightforward prose such as that in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. But always she uses a style appropriate to the subject matter. Butler uses a nonstandard writing style in his memoir sections and while it could be argued he is approximating the "dream logic" that occurs in the areas between waking and sleeping during insomnia I found myself alternately cringing and lost far too often. Some sentences are simply incomplete, others ponderously overwritten. Butler seems deathly afraid of using certain words multiple times (or even once) but injects words like "meat", "flesh", "gloam", "troll" and "waddle" at seemingly every opportunity and subsequently beats the words to death, the repetition numbs the words leaving them bereft of any meaning. His obsession with how air interacts with objects, endless attention to the shape and nature of our homes and his repetitions of "[an object] within [an object]" is completely beyond me. I figure it has something to do with literary theory, though I may be wrong, in the end I just had no idea what he was getting at. While being difficult or obscure in literature is certainly not a bad thing by any means, in the past when reading "tough" books I would often go back and carefully parse what the author was getting at, if  I felt there were rewards to be had. I never got that feeling with Nothing and after attempting to decipher a few sections just gave up and glossed over them. I eventually eased into his style but toward the beginning I honestly considered setting the book down and letting it be, something that  I haven't done for years. This is such a shame as the concept and content of the book is very promising and is almost defeated by the "unique" writing style.
       The book concludes with Butler interacting with a confusing and malicious simulated text-based role-playing game which torments him and leads him through his home to himself. It was a nice ending to the book, a summary or prototype of that ever too common pre-sleep activity here wandering over into nightmare territory: the normally docile computer taking on the self-defeating, illogical feel of insomnia. It does not explicitly "bring the book together" but does provide an appropriate cap to the memoir. I was really looking forward to reading Nothing (perhaps one of the reasons I was so disappointed with it) and as I mentioned above am looking forward to reading Butler's fiction in the future. I found the book to be prety tedious and without many rewards, though I could see those interested in experimental writing styles or literary theory really liking this.

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