Surely you recall the trippy climax to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Astronaut Dave Bowman’s psychedelic voyage through the hyperspace tunnel, and his awakening in a Louis XVI bedroom, aged and dying, only to be rejuvenated by the Monolith as a space fetus? Well, Blake Butler’s There Is No Year, his first novel outside the small press realm, is pretty much that whole sequence replayed one hundred times in succession, occasionally slowed down to one frame per minute. But this analogy has to take into account the following highly distinctive changes.
Dave Bowman is now three generically named individuals, “mother,” “father,” and “son,” a family of shamblers suffering from various teratomas, fluctuating body parts, mental lacunae, spastic tics, insatiable appetites, and catastrophic identity disorders.
The inside of the hyperspace tunnel is lined with images from video games, reality TV shows, straight-to-DVD horror films, YouTube military videos, Andy Warhol home movies, and archival filmstrips about abbatoirs, teen dating etiquette, and the workplace.
The tunnel deposits the voyagers in a foreclosed and abandoned Florida housing development, where rotting grapefruits roll through the eerie empty streets like tumbleweeds, and armies of ants perform Super Bowl halftime routines.
The Monolith is replaced by a malignly intelligent, ever-mutating, rotting house of indeterminate, possibly infinite size. And in the end the house does not confer transcendence on the family so much as it locks them into a horrific cycle of Nietzschean eternal recurrence.
Butler guides us on this steamy, seamy, dreamy voyage with a flat, laconic, hypnotic voice that moves from incantations to one-liners, from gross-outs to episodes of tenderness, from boredom to overstimulation, from Allen Ginsberg wounded lyricism to clinical reportage. As befits the conceit of a kind of light-beyond-light that opens and closes the narrative, every object and action is depicted with perfect clarity, a hyperrealism that is nonetheless utterly surreal. Dali-esque is the only operative phrase. In fact, if you picture the family as trapped inside the entire Dali oeuvre, you’ll feel instantly at home.
Butler’s experimental novel (where jagged lines of text and oddly clumped paragraphs mimic the narrative disorientations) is the latest outcropping of a rich strain of avant-garde fiction, invoking memories of Patchen, Burroughs, Ballard, and Sorrentino. Surely Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves is a recent influence, and it might be entirely possible that Pamela Zoline’s “The Heat Death of the Universe” has donated some of its genes as well.
Somehow, despite all its over-the-top weirdness, There Is No Year manages to feel like stringent and abrasive New Journalism about the contemporary American psyche, as we all live “underwater” in our deadweight houses, forced nightly to confront the warped doppelgangers born of our misguided and ill-intentioned efforts, whom we have invited into our lives and can no longer convincingly dismiss.
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.