Featherproof Books, 2009
Reviewed by J.A. Tyler
I hold a copy of Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas and am caught in an awe of books that is rare and seldom overtakes us, happening only when we cradle these pieces of literature and understand that we are seeing something new, something different, something nearly indefinable, something that will change us and our literary perceptions.
The pages are frayed in mock-burns, crumpled in digital disarray and otherwise tattered by design, the genius of Zach Dodson / Bleached Whale, and the spine is scarred, the pages wet with an unknown substance and dirt gritting between chapters, the very real hand-destroyed effect of Blake Butler himself throwing this book into the street, standing on its edges, smearing its face with real-world soot. This, the magic of appearance, the wonder of enormously creative production, before we even begin reading.
With Scorch Atlas, Featherproof Books has made it so that we feel we are picking up a lost history, that we are reading into a broken past, that we are reaching inside a mirror of ourselves but the backing is gone and the image is shattered and what we see frightens us. To give a book such latitude, such design, it is to teach us not to forsake our words, to instead hold them tight and in panic, for they can change the ways in which we see.
But outside of the trippingly slick design aspects and the phenomenal aesthetic presentation of Scorch Atlas, what is it that makes this book hum, that brings it to a higher level of writing, of literature, that makes us see Butler as more than avant garde, as more than new, as a writer who is simultaneously challenging us and begging us onward? In part, it is this notion of interlocking-stories, and the way that a structure of this type creates something other-worldly, a factor of going beyond.
Scorch Atlas, a belated primer, or in the year of the cyst & tremor, or in the year of the worm & wilting, or obliteratia, or a bloom of blue mold along the backbone, or a slip of tongue in the year of yeast, or hide his eyes in the hive blanket, or ilblissum akviss noebleerum iglitt peem or ______________, or no window, or spoke into the soft skin of the mother, or want for wish for nowhere, or coma ocean, or goodnight. [from the title page]
The through-line of Scorch Atlas is of apocalypse, the degradation of the world through glass and static, dirt and floods, but the characters are mostly nameless, usually relegated to easy cultural nomenclature: mother, father, etc. and there is, as such, no exact or absolute protagonist / antagonist. Certainly Butler has set-up the book in such a way that weather elements and societal devastation antagonize each moment of the plot, and there is certainly as well a sense that the carry-through, the following, is of a narrator combing through rubble, the rumbling leftovers, but these are merely interlocked and not forcedly glued to one another. They are a notion, an idea, not forever pock-marked and immovable but malleable, tidal, rising in and out with wax and wane.
The day the sky rained gravel I watched it drum my father’s car. A Corvette he’d spent years rebuilding. He liked to watch his face gleam in the hood. He kissed the key before ignition. He read the owner’s manual aloud. When he lost the strength to stand he left the car uncovered in the street. Each morning I took a Polaroid and we tacked it to his headboard—a panorama of slow ruin. [from ‘gravel’]
The gravel here plays as detriment, as the chaos of loss, and it carries this one narrative portion into the other stories of Scorch Atlas, the relationship built not by the character of dad or the car pelted to dents, but the storms that wages above them all.
To interlock means that Scorch Atlas has, as Jesse Ball mentions in his back cover blurb, created a map, an outline, so that readers are merely led one point to the next, tangents included, rather than stifled and cloistered by a confining and burdensome absolute of narrative.
My family huddled hidden under one another in the house our Dad had built alone. The house where we’d spent these years together. The old roof groaned under the pouring. The Leaking basement filled with goo. [from ‘Bath or Mud or Reclamation or Way In / Way Out’]
Here too, like everywhere in this book, it is equally about the family as it is about the rain, the flooding, the bursting of clouds into mud or dirt or fragments of some other progressive decay. And the through-line of the family, at some point, becomes irrelevant. As we read it becomes less and less important whether this Dad, huddled in hiding, is the same Dad carving himself in the gleam of his Corvette. If they are the same, then we are given the story of this family, of this Dad, falling into abandon. And if they are different, if one Dad is distinct from another, one family separate from the other, it is still the story of fathers, of sons, of families pickled in these massive earthly abuses, wrecking with the landscape. Scorch Atlas is still and always the devastation, the debris, the remains.
This is a sharp and clever structural choice for Butler as well since stories of ruin most often are given the task of rendering each and every moment of the collapse in grounded footage – in order to convince us that this altered reality is somehow still our reality – but with the presentation here as interlocking stories, with no claim to explain or justify how / when / where, Butler is able to loosely weave an apocalypse together without stopping along each point to build readily definable expositional markers, which would inevitably undermine his purpose and clutter the book with unnecessary waste and immaterial moments.
She spread across the wrecked earth and refracted through the ocean to split the sky: a neon ceiling over all things, a shade of something new, unnamed [from ‘the gown from mother’s stomach’]
Scorch Atlas is a world of mold, a world of festering wounds, a world of hurt. Scorch Atlas is a carefully and meticulously distraught world of language, a trembled and shaken line of thought, a vibrant dead trance of phrasing, the measure of words put together all and in the right ways. Blake Butler has made something enormous here, in the reams of his Scorch Atlas, and if nothing else, we are simply destroyed by it, mistaking our skin for its cover, our blood for its damage, our eyes for its violent and broken images.
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J. A. Tyler is the author of the novel(la)s INCONCEIVABLE WILSON (scrambler books, 2009), SOMEONE, Somewhere (ghost road press, 2009) & IN LOVE WITH A GHOST (willows wept press, 2010) & has had recent work with Sleepingfish, Caketrain, Hotel St. George, elimae, & Action, Yes. He is also founding editor of mud luscious / ml press. For more details, visit: www.aboutjatyler.com.