Monday, December 24, 2012
The Deleted Era: Blake Butler's "Sky Saw"
After finishing my reading of Sky Saw, Blake Butler's newly published novel, I went back and looked over my review of There Is No Year. I was (and still am) amazed by his writing; his short stories and samples are some of the most profound, emotional, and daring pieces of writing I've read in quite some time. But after finishing one of his complete works, I felt like I had missed something, as if the novel had built up such a careful examination of characters and mystery that ended on an unsatisfying note. In the original review, I wrote: "Butler is a masterful storyteller who is intentionally audacious in his forms and philosophies, but there's an unnerving wonder as to whether he built the work up so much that it collapses under its own weight." To reiterate: I didn't dislike the book at all, and I still consider him one of my favorite writers. I was excited to learn about the release of Sky Saw and bought it immediately when it was released. I'm a firm believer in emotional states or a specific time periods affecting how one responds to a piece of art, be it a book, a film, or a painting. That said, I noted quite a few similarities between the two novels, but my immediate reaction to Sky Saw was pure satisfaction. Perhaps I had a better idea of what I was getting into, but I think the more appropriate explanation is his execution.
Sky Saw takes place in an undefined time period and, in a nod to There Is No Year, follows the actions of a woman, a man, and a child living in a mysterious world of repressed memories, totalitarian forces, and horrific acts of nature. In short, the meticulously detailed world and actions are nightmares in the most definitive sense--there are no explanations, fantastical happenings are presented as everyday occurrences, and the reader moves from one detail to the next with trepidation and dread. Butler's writing emphasizes small details within a vast network of intentional confusion.
"In the pockets between shrieking, Person 1180 read aloud. She read the book she'd found wedged among the folds of the long curtain in the hall just after Person 811 left, a date whose definition she could no longer remember, nor did she know why they'd chose to hang the curtain there--the only thing it hid was flat white wall, marred with no windows. The book was the same size of the book that you hold now. The front page had an inscription handwritten to Person 1180 by someone with an illegible signature, in bright blue ink that stung her eyes:
READ THE CHILD THIS BOOK OR HE WILL SUFFER
The text on all the other pages had been printed in a code, or in a strange language she did not recognize--babbly syllables and glyph fonts, planar symbols and number reams--and yet when 1180 passed her eyes over the lines and let her voice go, she felt the syntax easing out. Her reading voice was low and burnt and came up from her linings, something old and rhythmic as it passed. Doing the speaking in this manner juggled color in her lungs and made her woozy, a kind of crystal glass around her face (Butler 13-14)."
The totalitarian forces in the book could be part of a government, but sometimes appear simply as mysterious entities. This isn't a novel like 1984; the controlling bodies aren't given any backgrounds or motives. The real emphasis is on the exaggerated, sometimes horrific events that the characters endure. Some of these are grotesque births that the mother deals with, a collection of children conceived and birthed in a myriad of ways and circumstances. Butler doesn't present any of these scenarios for the sake of shock value--he's using fiction to open possibilities within these unsettling depictions. Some might be tempted (or even right) to describe his writing as experimental, but he has such a careful eye for detail and imagery, and sometimes the "experimental" tag is too easy a designation. There are no standard plot points, but the paragraphs and chapters are undeniably great works of storytelling.
"The mother now had given birth twenty-two times since the father's exit five days prior. Each time the span between the births decreased. The pregnancies were swift and brutal. She expelled her paste in gush and crumbs. The warblings of her and the babies' bodies both boomed through the empty rooms around them. Sometimes the mother felt she could have named the ancient human names of all the men that made her bigger, despite the blindfolds, the ice and biting--she could taste them in the branding of her flesh--a permanence mostly lost on the ejections.
Person 2030 had been 811's, who like the mother had descended from two bodies rendered during DELETED ERA. This child--the only one of hers that had thus far survived behind its eyes, held in its cruddy back and black saliva--had been the reason the father left, she knew. Though he'd not expressed this so directly--he'd said nothing really, just been gone--she could tell he'd despised the baby for shucking off his image, for already beginning to grow old. The air had seemed to buzz between them.
The other births after 2030's were a different matter, following a similar structure to the system of her aging, if reversed--one for each year, young and coming, if all crammed into such a short amount of time--the same spiral cut procession seen in all things, of all things one after another--new infants bloating in her as if in instants, spooling ropes on ropes of breathing cells. She tried to hold them in but they came out (Butler 29-30)."
Alongside these daunting bodily actions, nature comes into play as well, sometimes combining to create an unsettling bond between humans and nature. In the world of Sky Saw, life goes on despite the unknown and the changes rendered to anatomies and physiology. Humanity and nature sometimes become one, and it's difficult to tell where one begins and the other ends. As with the other passages, the emotional qualities and visualizations take over, and while the work as a whole is intricately patterned, the reader becomes drawn to the singular moments and how they unfold.
"The mother vomited a bird. First there was one bird, then there were many, their tremble rummaged up her middle, from her throat. They scratched her cheeks and pore meat with their clawing, her O-hole stretched wide as it could go. Enormous birds, she saw, as white as nowhere, thrushed with feathers matted in a gel. 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, though the mother could not read the words as they emerged--she could not make out the letters or what about them, or their presence there at all. Each bird's word was its own word for it alone, though all their screeching came out of them the same, brief and lame and hellish (Butler 59)."
Throughout the work, Butler inserts pages and pages of seemingly free-verse prose, poetic ruminations and statements that manage to guide the proceedings as stripped down versions of the more standard paragraphs. The form is different, yet the emotions and evocations are the same. The sample I'm citing is taken at random, but when matched up to the citations featured above, it's not hard to tell that they all come from the same work. Again, these seem like random stanzas, and while they're beautiful in their own right, the feelings presented are crucial to the mysteries surrounding it. One of the blurbs on the back of the book called Butler "the 21st century answer to William Burroughs," but I'm not sure that's a proper designations. Granted, my last attempt at reading Naked Lunch collapsed halfway through, but these words aren't meant to be some edgy drug haze. Butler is creating a fantastical world unbound by natural laws.
"It with our old names imprinted on it peeling
The sky wide with bodies hung from it in troves, fat pock-marked purses of slopping people
Colors not of how the skin had been in living, but the current state of their decay
Some of the bodies' globes glistened picked apart by gobs of sight and gnats grow fat off of the black-blistered ankles charred apart and caking pink (Butler)."
While Sky Saw is very, very different, I noted similarities to There Is No Year. Therefore, why did I enjoy the newer work more than the old one? I feel like the 2011 novel had too many sly hints to a concrete plot, as if an explanation was forthcoming at the end of the purposely vague horrors of the people and the house. Sky Saw has the potential to seem like it is heading to a standard climax, but I very quickly found myself enjoying the prose as it unfolded, not expecting the unnamed characters to be marching toward any sort of "reveal." The revelations are the actions and happenings themselves--the reader is often just as (intentionally) confused as the characters. I know some readers who still prefer Butler's writing in smaller doses. His stories and excerpts are some of the best works I've read in the last two years, and arguably the most original. This new work won't appeal to everyone--Butler has been criticized for his occasional repetition--but there's no denying his visions. I've read far too many stories lately attempting to be unique, edgy works. In the midst of his mix of forms and fantastical scenarios, Butler strives to move the reader via sadness, wonder, or genuine shock. For all the seemingly improvisational and quickly-passing pages, the lack of a resolved plot is set aside to engage the reader's senses. In short, Butler's fiction achieves what a lot of writers hope to do, and in extremely memorable fashions. Sky Saw has been making the rounds among independent literary circles, but with blurbs from the likes of Time Magazine and Publisher's Weekly, it's possible that his work will reach bigger audiences. At the very least, it's a great example for people who claim there's nothing left to read.
Butler, Blake. Sky Saw. Copyright 2012 by Blake Butler.