Nearly every review I’ve read of Blake Butler’s There is No Year struggles to frame the novel by immediately likening it to some other story rather than viewing it on its own terms. The novel is like Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey, it is like Bartleby the Scrivener, it is like the more avant-garde bits of Faulkner. And yes I’m now guilty of this kind of evasion as well, opening a piece of misguided literary criticism by discussing the book’s reception instead of the book itself. Yet I would contend that part of the novel’s brilliance is the way it forces the reader to bring in similes and outside references to account for the truly disconcerting shit going on here–plot-wise, language-wise–to throw up artificial distance between you, the reader, and the way the book makes you feel. Like the doomed characters in the book, we are forever circling around meaning and it is entirely our own fault we can’t close the gap.
You can choose to view the plot as surreal as most have done, to view the Father, the Mother and the Son as the inhabitants of some kind of postmodern haunted house or you can read the words literally and try to imagine all of this actually happening. For me, the second route is infinitely more rewarding. Because even if these strange occurrences aren’t real (however you wish to define that word), the emotional state it puts the characters in are. Does it really take the Father all day and night to drive home from work or is he just that alienated from his family by his job? Is the Son actually all bruised and sore and diseased or is this just the way we feel entering adolescence? And if the emotional state of the characters isn’t of prime importance then certain our reaction to their plight is, right? The way they make us feel has to be real, no?
When we break down the strange, lulling language of the book into its component parts, we’re left with catalogs of verbs and nouns that are relentlessly repeated. Things bleed and swell and grow and bark and eat. They look. There are worms, dogs, caterpillars and ants. Boxes, bulbs, houses, mirrors and copies. There is an awful lot of hair. Almost everyone feels their hair growing. There is a dreadful physicality to these words, a kind of surface level obstruction. Again, its less important that the mailbox is literally stuffed full of wriggling caterpillars and more about what this might mean. Some kind of disconnect with outside world? A reflection on stuff gumming up our means of communicating with one another? Because if that frustration is what Butler is going after the way he employs his language succeeds in driving it home.
Some have commented on the dire lack of character development in the novel. This, too, is missing the point. You can count on one hand the number of pages where more than one of the primary characters are together and (kind of) interacting with one another. There is so much separation, so much isolation that nobody can develop. Or at least not much. Stunted, hamstrung, they replicate the process of the reader who, if they thought they were going to read a book where ‘A’ needs ‘x’ but ‘B’ stands in her way so read along to find out how ‘A’ overcomes ‘B’, secures ‘x’ and achieves ‘y,’ then they are sadly mistaken. In There is No Year there is no ‘x’ to be had, just need. Nobody is ever going to achieve ‘y’ or overcome ‘B’ because ‘A’ and ‘B’ don’t even know which way to turn their damn heads let alone speak to one another.
Reader frustration is a good thing, a sign that the book is working because make no mistake about it, this one of those books that is trying. For 99% of the reading public ‘an author/book trying’ will mean the ‘an author/book is being pretentious.’ I’m sure that if I could wade far enough through all of the similes and “it’s like this or like that” in the other book reviews I’d eventually come to the part where Butler is given the obligatory backhanded compliment. “Immensely talented but…” “The ambition is there but he’s not yet in full control of his skills…” Something to this effect. Which is utter bullshit. The language in this novel is watertight, not a word out of place. Stop confusing a sentence that makes you feel bad with a bad sentence.
I’m not pretending I know Butler’s intentions, if this is a good book or not, or even trying to convince you that it is worth reading at all. After all most folks don’t read to feel frustrated with language.
And god help you if your an escapist, this is nowhere you should want to go.