Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Blake Butler, _Scorch Atlas_

NOT AS ABSORBING as There Is No Year, I would say, but more than good enough to keep Butler on my must-read list. A recent book of his, I notice, shares a title with a song from Eno's Another Green World--that's recommendation enough all by itself.

Scorch Atlas loiters in that indistinct territory between collection of stories and novel.  On the one hand, the episodes/chapters work as free-standing stories and there do not seem to be recurring characters or chronological development; on the other, there are In Our Time-like prose passages between each chapter/episode, and each story is set in the midst of a large and unspecified natural catastrophe that combines plague, the slow rot of all human-made objects, and climatological chaos, so the book seems unified.

(Kudos, by the way, to the designers at bleachedwhale.com, who created a multitude of apparent stains, smudges, warpings, and mold-spots for every page of the volume, giving it the effect of having been discovered at the bottom of a midden after years of abandonment.)

Are there more post-apocalypse fictions circulating these days than usual? Not a new genre, of course, and more keep arriving, but I detect an upswing: MacCarthy's The Road, the two last Margaret Atwood novels, Ben Marcus's The Flame Alphabet, Gary Shteyngart's recent one with the long title, Jim Crace's The Pesthouse...and those are just those I can think of off the top of my head, and sticking to literary as opposed to genre fiction. And the volume before us, of course, which was published in 2009.

The world in Butler's book is so convincingly deliquescing that I actually found it difficult to read more than a story or two at one sitting. Each story sucks you into something gangrenously viscid, and everything you thought might prop you up--wall, ground, family--subsides slowly to sheer ooze. Consequently, Butler's book is much, much scarier, more horrific, than the Lovecraft novella I read a few weeks ago (At the Mountains of Madness).

Lovecraft seemed to place all his faith in adjectives and adverbs, but Butler goes for nouns and verbs: "The day the sky rained gravel I watched it drum my father's car."  Or "my abdomen ballooned." Letting the nouns and verbs do the job of scaring the bejeezus out of the reader allows Butler to preserve a deadpan stoicism in his narrators; unlike Lovecraft's characters, who keep announcing their internal barometric pressure, who are "disturbed," or "chilled," or "horrified," Butler's seem to all be doing their damnedest to act like nothing, really, is wrong, that we're going to be all right, even when it's glaringly plain that everything is wrong and nothing is going to be all right.

Randall had a head the size of several persons' heads--a vast seething bulb with rotten hair that shined under certain light. Several summers back he'd driven to a bigger city where smarter men removed a hunk out of his skull. They'd said the cyst grew from the wires hung over the house. Randall's son hadn't ended up so well off. The crap ate through the kid's whole cerebellum. Radiation. Scrambled cells. One had to be mindful of these things in these days, the doctors said.

Yes, the globe and its inhabitants are gradually becoming pestilent goo--so you have to be mindful.

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