When you’re wandering through a hall of mirrors, isn’t it sometimes difficult to say for sure which of the reflections is the real one, the manifestation of you that the rest of the world sees on a regular basis? And don’t you sometimes feel a pang of fear that perhaps that ugliest, most distorted reflection of yourself is in fact your appearance to the rest of the world?
There is No Year offers a glimpse of our world as seen through a hopelessly scratched, warped mirror in a fun house –one that at first glance provides no accurate image of its subjects, but which -for all its distortion- offers equally as accurate a representation as any other. And, like a fun house mirror, There is No Year gives you the eerie sensation that maybe this terrifying, distorted image is a more accurate reflection of reality than any traditional mirror could ever provide.
Blake Butler’s first full-length novel reads like a twisted, post-modern fairytale. There is No Year tells of a family: a mother, a father, and a son who is described in confused gender pronouns. This family moves into a house in the suburbs in which they are confronted by the house’s current residents –replicas of themselves, a copy family eerily similar, but with mold-lined smiles. After having rid themselves of these unwonted pests, the family begins to discover that the house is host to many other, less pleasant secrets. Things happen to them, and things happen to the, or perhaps the house is just another manifestation of them. Everything about the novel is disjointed, uncomfortable… and effectively so, making it the most visceral and affecting novel I’ve read in recent memory. Butler provokes with words the same sensations of discomfort and abjection that (up to this point in my life) are matched only by the illustrations of Charles Burns.
The sensation engendered by the novel cannot be attributed to a particularly gripping or terrifying plot line –in fact not all that much happens throughout its course. Rather the reaction it stimulates seems to be a result of the novel’s multi-level focus on materialism (manifested both in its own physicality, and in Butler’s focus within his writing). Everything about the book: from its layout and printing, to the storyline, to the layers and layers of details included in the descriptive writing is highly conscious of the material world. There is No Year is a beautiful book: large, almost square, and with every page a seemingly different shade of gray (I have yet to decide what the correlation is between the color and content of each page, but I’m sure there is one). A black and white photograph opens every chapter, and there are a number of visual elements included within the layout of the text itself. While this could be classed as pretentious or gimmicky in other novels, the focus on materials within the story itself is so vital that any other layout for the novel would render its content half as effective.
The philosophical theory of materialism holds that all phenomena –including consciousness– are the result of material interactions. Perhaps this is why Blake Butler put so much thought and effort into his novel’s layout –for, perhaps due to his emphasis on its physical appearance– the novel itself seems to have a sort of consciousness. The novel has an eerie tendency to shift on you, and to make you lose your place entirely if you are stupid enough to place it down without a bookmark It has a tendency to suck you in and cast a shade of unreality over everything in your environment, an effect that lingers every time you pause in reading to get back to a reality that seems suddenly tainted by abject elements of Butler’s world. There is No Year hurries you through it –not only due to the desire to understand what the fuck is happening within it, but also because the irrepressible spew of its sentences are like an undertow sucking you ever deeper in and further out.
There is no understanding this novel, and there is ultimately very little that one can definitively say about it: its plot, its meaning, and its value as a reflection of modern society are all entirely ambiguous. There is No Year offers only questions, and makes not even the smallest attempt to answer them – but, if you are willing to swallow the uncertainty, and deal with the way it kicks and squirms in your stomach (and your throat) the sensation is delightfully eerie.