Sunday, December 16, 2012

Review of Sky Saw by Blake Butler

   If you read my review of Nothing Blake Butler's memoir detailing his experience with insomnia you might wonder why I even bothered with Sky Saw. I found Nothing to be overwritten, pretentious and without focus. You may think I bought Sky Saw out of masochism or a sort of desire to trash a writer who has become successful.
        Butler, from what i can tell, is a writer that has found his style, revels in it, milks it for all it is worth. Revels in its iconoclastic and polarizing voice. He regularly achieves glowing critical response from a range of sources and literally multiple videos of people burning his book. The style Butler uses in Sky Saw and Nothing at least (I haven't read his earlier works There is No Year, Ever and Scorch Atlas) can at best be described as dream like or nightmarish. Logic for the most part seems to be absent, though over time an internal logic appears to form. There are images, or frameworks for images (liquids coming out of a character's mouth, eyes other orifices, endless travel through dark ominous hallways or rooms, descriptions of light and air within a character's organs or body) that reoccur and form a fairly large part of the novel. In fact if I were to place a novelistic element that 'drives' much of Butler's writing it would be imagery over anything else.
       Having said that let me come out and say I enjoyed Sky Saw vastly more that Nothing. I've come up with two possible reasons for this: 1 Butler's style in all its bizarre imagery is simply suited to fiction rather than memoir or 2 I needed to 'warm-up' to Butler's style (I strongly recommend not forming an opinion just based off one of his books). Realistically my change of heart is due for a certain extent to both of these reasons, though Butler is by no means the first experimental or transgressive writer I have read so I figure his strange style alone shouldn't be a huge turn-off for me. In a certain sense I find Butler very Lynchian in the way that he has these ideas, tropes almost, that he adores and juggles around, mixing and matching in his books, looking for new and interesting ways to combine them to achieve a variety of results with a minimum of range. This, I think, is one of the reasons you have these videos above (and no surprise here): Butler not only writes very differently from others but seems to take the opposite approach to novel writing that many other writers do. Where many serious novelists attempt to touch on the entire range (or at least a very broad range) of the human experience Butler takes about two handfuls of objects, images and emotions (terror, despair, confusion...that's about it) and sees how much life he can squeeze out of these. It is almost as if he has created a new sort of minimalism where, rather than attempting the greatest economy of prose he has achieved economy of ideas. What is impressive is that he pulls it off.
        One of the recurring images is that of large white birds which either live in or are created from the bodies of the characters. They have an ominous presence and are described as being very large and menacing. The scene in which Butler introduces these birds stands out to me as a particularly strong passage:
       They kept coming up out of her in a chain, all gushing and aflutter-silent-each one imprinted all through and through their gristle with a word, one word for each all written in their linings and down the contours of their suits, the word and word again all densely textured.
      The construction of these birds as words is one of Butler's tricks and he uses it again later in the book where another character finds himself in a room where every object is denoted by it's text (apologies, I am deeply ashamed at having it sound as if semiotics has anything to do with this). Bringing the medium into stark focus (as if Butler is saying "Remember! You are currently in a world created entirely from words! Don't forget!") is again reminiscent of Lynch (and Jodorowsky for that matter) and acts as a rebuttal to his critics which complain that Butler's works don't make any sense, or aren't coherent. We become so used to narratives that map easily onto our world and many writers create works that easily do this even when there is nothing that requires them to. Butler's refusal to step in line, his decision to push his literature to its very limits, is unsettling to many and here he is laying it out to you "These are just words and I can do whatever the fuck I like"

         Sky Saw does have a narrative which acts to give the scenes or images a grounding within the novel. There are three characters here, a father, mother and son. The Father has left, or is taken from the mother and seems to be imprisoned. The mother gives birth to the child near the beginning of the novel and we watch him grow very quickly. They seem to live in a fairly standard dystopian world (the character's names 'Person 1180' for example reminded me of Lucas's first (and in my opinion best) film THX-1138) with individuals walled off from each other, even distant from themselves. I found it useful to not worry about the plot too much, one could try to put it together on subsequent readings, but as I mentioned earlier the real meat of the thing is basking in Butler's images. I found the beginning and middle of the book strong though it seemed to taper off at the end, as if Butler got tired of the novel.
       Journeys are a recurring element of the novel and, while I won't read into them too deeply there was one part of this that struck me very deeply. Toward the end of the novel the father returns to his house after wandering for years and finds that everything has changed. The house, his face, have become different. Not only this but the father is living in the same house as the mother and son but is described as not being able to interact with them, as if they exist in a different house all together. While I don't want to be too presumptuous this sounds remarkably close to Butler's descriptions (elsewhere, and quite excellent reading might I add) of his experience with his own father's dementia. I found reading this (fairly brief) section in this light to be an enlightening and heartbreaking account of what dementia might feel like to the person inflicted with it and, if this was Butler's goal then I consider the execution of this passage to be on of the more deft and heartfelt in my entire experience with literature. If this was not Butler's intention...well then I'll pretend I'm a post-structuralist for a day and follow my reading regardless.
      I'm not going to go out on a limb and call this a great novel, but it certainly is very good at many points. I think the trick to reading Butler is not to worry too much about putting everything together, and rather than attempting to bend the novel to fit your mindset or preconceptions just relax your mind and let the book shape the way you think for a little while. In a certain way Butler writes in a simulacrum of English: it looks and sounds and pretends to be English but in reality is a language entirely his own which one must learn first before attempting to parse one of his novels. If you find it boring or frustrating or maddening just put it down for a little while and pick it up later: Butler has crafted something quite interesting here and it is worth reading and enjoying.

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