A novel is a funny thing to promote. We expect its pleasures to come from its messiness and minutiae, the feeling of too many things being put into it. It’s hard, then, to excerpt or to present fragments stand-alone, and a novel certainly can’t be hacked up into highlights like a Hollywood preview. Yet how to give people a taste of the thing? Harper Perennial’s Cal Morgan thought up another way of doing it for Blake Butler’s There Is No Year. Over four nights in four different locations, a slew of writers and publishing types gave a “marathon reading” of the entire novel (416 pages.)
It was less of a marathon, one man’s heroic feat of endurance, and more a relay race, in which each member of the team carried the baton of words forward. Each night Butler, a lanky, somewhat boyish man, closed out the reading—mic held too close to the lips, sometimes pleading, sometimes hamming it up. Other readers gave the text different voices—male and female, hasty and measured, rhythmic or conversational, some with a slightly quickened pace, like a student reading a long passage aloud in class, others more casually, somewhere between appreciative and reverent.
Butler, a cofounder of the literary blog HTML Giant, writes in a style that might be called suburban experimental. It’s a physical and cultural world drawn from whitebread Americana that winds up being defined linguistically rather than sociologically. Cookie-cutter people live cookie-cutter lives in cookie-cutter houses—we know this. But Butler gives us a copy family, physical to the point of eroticism, inhabiting the house an unnamed family moves into. There’s a father, a mother, and a son, and there’s also light, and hair, and holes. Proper nouns are pretty much confined to brand names. Anthills and beehives, a severed head and the furniture in the house all seem to have much richer existences than the humans. Doubles proliferate, from another linked house to a girl who looks like the son but whose similarity he cannot recognize. We get a sense of the possibility of narrative and the opacity of texts, all oriented in a familiar cultural space that’s maybe less limited than we thought.
Zack Friedman Something about the idea of a “marathon” reading of an entire novel rather than a few (hopefully) “representative” excerpts intrigued me even before I knew much about the book itself—it seemed unnecessarily grandiose, or something you’d do for an established classic rather than a new work. Where’d this idea come from, and does it possess any significance beyond being a fun thing to do?
Blake Butler To be honest, I was kind of taken aback by the idea when it was first suggested to me by my editor at Harper Perennial, Cal Morgan. The idea of people being subjected to language (my own language in particular) over such a stretch, having never heard any of it before, seemed like it could either be nightmarish or something else. I wasn’t sure what the something else was. But ultimately I’m always down for a challenge, and Cal is always so meticulous and wise with his planning that I believed ultimately it would at least be an anomaly in the field of promotion, like something Kaufmanesque. And things went on, Cal’s orchestration, plus the idea of bringing in a series of friends that all have their own energy and reading styles and delivery methods, really made the whole thing, I felt, a unique experience. I like the idea of it being a reflection of more of myself and what I am engaged with than simply the book itself, a kind of outlaying of the Internet and pervading space the book hopes to gather. And the support and response from media covering it made it seem like, if nothing else, people noticed we were doing something strange. I’m down with strange.
ZF What was the experience of hearing your work read aloud by others in public like? Did it feel like a marathon—need some Newman’s Own lemonade? Any impressions to share?
BB I’m usually pretty over-aware about taking too much of people’s time with my own projections, and I really felt ready to feel “Oh god, I’m really ransacking these people with myself, can we just stop reading and like, roll around on the floor?” But really the book’s format of many short scenes flowing in an interior energy seemed to couple really well with the series of people coming to read each in their own ways. The shift was quick enough that that creeping feeling that we were dragging on never welled in me, and I hope that was true for others. It was really an amazing gift to hear so many excellent people giving their own shape to what I’d written: I felt really blessed and honored by it, and of course curious and excited to see how they’d say things I’d always thought of in another way. It kind of added a whole other layer to the book in my head. Drinking did help that, yes. The last night I’m told I almost knocked over a bookshelf at powerHouse Arena.
ZF It’s hard to talk about the book in terms of plot, but insofar as things seem to happen, they are driven by presences: the “copy family” haunting the house the father, mother, and son move into, the mutable or animate quality of the house, the head the father keeps in a safe that demonically educates the boy—things which seem like they shouldn’t persist in being where they are but do. Does this allegorize anything for you, maybe about being a writer? Are there certain doubles, doppelgangers, and duplicates you’re afraid of or that keep popping up? Where do they come from and what can you do about them?
BB I wrote the first draft of the book kind of in a daze of ten days, letting each image eject itself from the one prior, and in a mostly sleepless state. As a result, a lot of the landscape and presence in the book seems definitely a reflection of what I felt flooded by, if in a more psionic way than directly linked to where I was. My father at this time was in the midstages of dementia and I was living with my parents after my apartment had just been hit by a tornado, all my stuff in boxes, so really even the act of writing and being was fraught with this silent claustrophobia, every inch loaded. That terror seems to have just poured out of me even though I was really just sitting in a room: I think that still feels like every day to me, even on days when I am calm. The most terrifying terrors for me are those that have no name and often not even a face or way they manifest themselves; they are just there. It makes common objects seem to have two heads: the bed, one’s clothes and skin, other people. The more you let yourself begin to acknowledge such ideas, the more loaded it becomes. This book, and the writing of it, is maybe a direct manifestation of mirroring all that air and trying to put a hole through it and see what’s on the mirrored side there. I have no idea what you can do about them but in this case I typed them into a machine.
ZF In one section read the first night we hear of the boy’s book, a collection of impossible texts. The book is functionally infinite and has a list-like or anthology quality. This section struck me as a commentary on online writing, and the description emphasizes the computer, but perhaps these are my preconceptions based on your background, and certainly the idea of an impossible book has many modernist predecessors. How do you think the Internet changes how we think about this Borgesian mode of writing?
BB The Internet itself seems kind of one large book to me, one that writes itself, using the thoughts of all those that come across it. In this way it is both common and base, and exquisite, and insummable, and nothing, and too much. The Internet lets everybody shit in the same hole, forming Shit Mountain, in which we all get a little deeper buried until we’re over our heads. And yet by that time we’ve learned to breathe shit, so we can keep going, until we really die in the shit. Writing when you’re surrounded by shit is an act of terrorism, and an act of cowardice: cowardly terrorism. It’s the only thing that keeps me getting up.
ZF Let me run a few associations I made while listening by you: Ben Marcus, for the feeling that family is a linguistic idea rather than a biological or social one, in that supposedly simple or clear relational terms are actually deeply complicated and arbitrary and generally messed up; David Lynch, for taking this fairly anodyne surface depiction of American domesticity that comes from all sorts of well-defined genres and using it to introduce the uncanny; DeLillo, for a vaguely dystopic surburbia described in distanced sentences. How do these sound? Who am I missing?
BB All three of those heads are supremely important to me. I read all of DeLillo the first year I began seriously reading contemporary fiction, and in that way he is a base of some sort for me. I recently reread Mao II after ten years and it was interesting to see how certain affects he uses made sense and seemed in my blood and how others I could not remember at all and how some felt so foreign. Ben Marcus, I think, is one mostly unmatched in his ability to create senses of historical and magickal affect in sentences as machines, like a kind of manual that projects itself, that creates its own reality around it. Reading writing like Marcus’s is part of what assassinated the idea of metaphor in life for me: the reality, as it is created, is as true, or even truer, in its supposed irreality, as it dictates its own space as it is uttered, rather than simply following along. If there’s anything powerful in writing to me it is this anti-mimicry, a kind of channeling, that forms new heads out of old skin, in terms that force you to bend yourself to them, not the other way around. Lynch does this as well, with image instead of syllable, which is another important aspect for me in writing: so much enthusiasm and stress is placed on the idea of the sentence, but really the trip from word to word is no more important than the trip from image to image, and from motion to motion. You can babble speech all day and if it has no anchor, no way of knitting, then it’s just a quilt, rather than a mummy wrap. I want to be eaten.
At the same time, too, I am influenced by objects and being beaten as I am by any art. I need carpet, subwoofers, fingernails, ice, teeth, white noise, brain damage, loathing of sunlight, wire, machines. Each of those is its own artist.
ZF What can you say, from your own experience or that of others, on how the Internet affects contemporary literature? Is it more part of the background, something that winds up in people’s work because it is such a part of everyday life, or, for people concerned with language, something that forces you to pay close attention to its linguistic elements?
BB I think the Internet affects people now not necessarily because it is everyday, and always there, but because it is an infection. It’s like an organ of the body in all of us that we all have to share, like the Mall of Kidney. It’s fucking disgusting, and it’s too late. I can’t remember the last time I masturbated without an Internet connection. It is what I wake up to and what I go to sleep to. It is everybody’s mom and spouse and stepchild. It is alive. One day it will be taken from us and we will miss it more than we did whatever dead thing, I fear, as a people, even in its being almost nothing. Every day the same sites saying the same words and yet refreshed and refreshed to nothing else and the archive of all this junk we said and what we got off to and what we ordered and what. Sometimes I imagine the relic of what all our Twitter feeds will read like on the last day, this little screaming flood letter that is still just 140 characters in the same frame as what they are today. And then, no more. That’s exquisite to me, and the worst.