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Blake Butler

Blake Butler is the author of There Is No Year, Ever, and Scorch Atlas.

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“If there’s a more thoroughly brilliant and exciting new writer than Blake Butler . . . well, there just isn’t.”

– Dennis Cooper

“Lyrical…A weird, waking-dream of a memoir superbly illustrating the relentless inner spin of the insomniac.”

– Kirkus

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Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia

There would be no Lit Pub if not for Blake Butler.

10/11/11

This story is old; I’ve told it before but I’ll pinch it to this: In the spring of ’08, I read his story “The Gown from Mother’s Stomach” in Ninth Letter and felt a hard hurt in my throat. I flipped to his bio, discovered his blog, and for the next days I systematically clicked and read my way down the entire list of his online publications. I discovered journals and writers I never knew existed. And fell in love — deeply, head over heels — with this world that he had led me into. It dawned on me that maybe it didn’t take a story in The New Yorker to become a real writer. I even wrote him fan mail and he wrote back! Encouraged, I submitted to Lamination Colony. He responded, Yes. And there it is, my not-so-well-kept secret: Blake Butler was my gateway drug to the Internet — into the online scene of writers and readers and editors and publishers for which I am and will never stop being grateful. Every day I wake and check it still exists when I open my laptop to make my rounds: email, Facebook, Twitter, Reader, etc. This is, I realize, what I am doing every day when I go online — I am making sure the Internet didn’t go away in the night.

Or, in my case, in the morning hours. Like Blake, but not at all like Blake, I have trouble falling asleep. These days, because my job and schedule allow it, I usually work until 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning (it’s 4:28 right now, hello) until my eyes close, until suddenly I’m asleep after hours of agitation and thoughts that will not stop unless distracted by “work,” by which I mean staring or reading or Interneting or Netflixing or whatever else I do in the company of dark rooms lit by lone lamps and probably mostly I just waste time thinking nothing then sleep the sleep of the dead as if drugged until 10 on work days or noon on non-work days and two on days it doesn’t matter. Whenever it is though, I always wake and reach for the laptop. Something that now, after reading Nothing, seems maybe like a problem. Or addiction. Something not quite right yet comforting all the same. And the only reason why, for me, is because it’s there.

Those who follow, or have ever followed, Blake’s blog will know that he is an insomniac. I knew this about him early on, probably from the first blog posts of his I read. Perhaps this is one reason beyond his fiction that I gravitated toward him. It was his blog that kept me coming back, that drew me in. I’m not sure if he’s doing much with it these days, but there are many who will remember how his blog could become, in minutes, a hot-spot, a place where it seemed like everyone who was anyone and everybody else who was interested could pop up in the comments and party, a place where, suddenly, five comments could explode into a hundred or more. I came late to this, as I only ever got to witness it once or twice, and of course it had been going on for who knows how many years before I found it. But even so, it was exciting to be around Blake. To be in the presence of him, online, immersed in the buzz and hum surrounding him. And then, on slower days, if you were paying attention to his posts, he would write something true and heartbreaking, or something you felt or wanted to believe was true and heartbreaking — you never could be sure — and if you were me you would leave a comment that usually had the words “big” and “hug” in it.

I have been waiting for this book, for Nothing, since “The Gown from Mother’s Stomach.” I’ve known it was coming, without question, since the blog days. I hoped it would be readable, or comprehensible, or that it would show an extreme amount of care and love or trust — in you, in me, in us. Sometimes, not always, but sometimes, I doubt. Scorch Atlas is one of those books that will stay on my favorites shelf forever. I’ve taught it, I’ve bought it in bunches, and I still seem to keep running out of copies because I loan it out and never get it back. But I have one copy, sent to me by Blake himself, that I will never give away. It is signed, of course, and tucked inside is a strip of denim fabric. It is the book’s bookmark. I don’t know exactly where the fabric came from but I think I have a guess. If that guess is correct, then I feel special. If not, it doesn’t matter; I’ll still treat the fabric as if it’s special, because it is anyway, because I make it so. Ever, I struggled with. There Is No Year I couldn’t read, but not because I didn’t want to or didn’t like it; no, but because that book begins with such heavy iambics I couldn’t make sense of the words making sentences — I could only hear their sounds, their syllables. It was distracting. It also felt too big, too wide and heavy to hold or read comfortably. I put the book on the shelf and told myself I’d come back to it. I never did. But I will. It waits.

Nothing is different. Nothing is Blake, is like Blake’s blog back in the day and like Blake’s Scorch Atlas stories about mothers and fathers and children — like the free-throw father and the gown mother. There is love and pain and sadness and love and suffering and confusion and love and words toward sense-making all throughout these pages, on every page. There are also brackets and all caps and footnotes, but none are used to distraction.

There is this:

“ ] SAY MY MOTHER’S NAME, MY FATHER’S”

And there is this:

“I go to get a glass of water. I’m watching my dad again today so Mom can go to quilt guild and get out of the house. Dad in time has gotten stranger, more far gone from knowing who or when or where he is or was. Around the house he walks and knocks on glass and punches his own hand, in endless iteration. He seems continually waiting for something to happen, though when things do happen, it’s not the thing. In the late years of his life, he seems newborn in certain ways, definitionless, no longer knowing where to aim, though in his eyes and in the knocking and the skin around him, you can see that he has lived. None of this is his fault, or anyone’s. It is days.”

And this:

“Here I am not asking, not saying, moving past, for how these hours, new to him, for me repeat. That how, in my father’s blanking and often disoriented, disturbed flesh, in his forgetting, confusing ways he’d walked inside of so long now every day — how underneath that, in the moment, in the sheer bulk of his frustration, the bulge of his tongue pressed in the fury behind his bottom lip, same as mine in the same spot — how in the deliberate way he chews, in all his pacing, staring, seeing, I see him still right there — caught or clogged inside a self of other self, a fully breathing body mask — how underneath that, at its center, beyond the fluttered veils, and no matter how gone — he is there.”

I worked my way backwards with these quotes. This section of the book, which comes at the end, this section or chapter from which I have quoted all these moments, actually begins like this:

“Somewhere in this sprawl of hours is my father, and the destruction of his aging brain.”

Other, previous sections of the book seem to offer separate things, and function in different ways. An early section builds and builds to its conclusion with constant footnotes. A middle section reads vast and encyclopedic, researched, and structured upon a timeline of facts of sleep-related history. And other sections, too, provide brief glimpses of a mother — Blake’s mother, yes, but here, as ever, he paints her not as his own but as anyone’s. Always distinctly his mother. Yet somehow, also, everyone’s:

“To keep me calm or to recalm my internalizing terror in the fake light the house held to keep the night out, my mother read to me aloud. She read me books beside my bed about boys or men who, waking, moved — through forests to find fathers or ride on rivers, men who walked because they could. Her voice gave a calm and even glove of warming, one like an endlessly played album I can in my head alone invoke: a soft pocket right there all through the veils of junk recorded on my brain’s ends. With her there nearby, projecting softly aloud, the larger world felt far away — the crushing veils of silence in which the evil things could hide and approach suddenly filled with protection, an eye. She would stay there, predicting end points for our evening when she would need to leave me and always staying when I asked for further, more.”

And then, even earlier, near the beginning of Nothing:

“ . . . my mother goes to look more for the baby books in which throughout those years she wrote us down — sentences rendered in her looped handwriting, making claim of what she’d feed me, how I’d laugh. It’s a practice she still has not given up — each evening before bed now ends with her writing out the full day of her life, word by word. She is often up late into what is called the witching hour, sewing, singing, awake alone in the house, as my father has always been prone to nodding out early. My sleep complications, as is so much of me, are likely sewn from her: aura transferred into flesh in bridging time — a pattern printed on the lengths of lymph that make my brain and lung meat, which, if I decide to mate, I may too funnel into another body, here, a child. My mother’s journals — there must be a dozen of them now, each fat with ink and clippings from her hands — I already feel my skin tightening against me at their presence, as my incessant selves insist on realizing how one day, under the event of a thing I will not name here, those pages will become a tunnel back through and into her, her own sleeplessness, her longing, her days in step and click — the words the image of her thoughts and ways and ideas given from her as each day passes, written into text instead of me — as for every instant I am not there, her child, or anything I was not there for her to say, will be another wall that breaks my body in a maze that will not end.”

My final quotation, which I debated including, seems especially impossible not to include, though I worry I’m quoting too much, or that if allowed I’d keep on quoting, but, OK, here is the one I’ll end with:

“That I am writing these sentences in the same bedroom where this dream came for me seems only fitting — that old bedroom now converted in my parents’ house to a makeshift office where I come most days to be around to help my mother care for my father in his dementia — a constantly degrading state in which he less and less can recognize his surroundings or himself and how to move within it as he had — though no matter how hard I try, the ceiling of the room here now is just short and flat and white. There is nothing visibly disrupted in it. The nightglow stars have been removed. The walls, having been painted over purple and populated with my mother’s things, are different enough that the room itself seems not that room from back then here at all — though in the air, the presence, I can feel it, I’d rather not let it know I do.”

There is more. There is so much more I want to say. About this book and about my own parents — my mother, my father — but I won’t. Can’t. But I will say this. For the past four or five minutes I’ve been scrolling through old emails I sent to Blake. They reveal back to me a very young, often gushy, mostly exuberant me that is recognizable but not. I’ve grown up maybe a little since those early emails. It seems I used to share all kinds of news; it seems I maybe used to direct a lot of excitement his way. It’s been a while since I’ve done this. Since before December 2010, which Gmail indicates was our last correspondence — a PayPal exchange for books, the one that got me that mysterious denim bookmark. So much has happened since December 2010, since that spring of 2008 when I first discovered him in print, and online, and followed as best I could his lead, inspired and optimistic. In some way, this post feels very much again like one of those old emails, transmitted across space and time unseen, but meant, very much, to be read and hopefully heard and understood.

It is 5:00 now. It is Monday morning. Tomorrow, Tuesday, I’ll post this to the site. It will be a very happy day, a cause for celebration and excitement about this book, about Nothing, about what seems though, really, to be about everything and everyone that matters. Congratulations Blake, and big hug.

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17 Comments

  1. Jordan Blum said on 10/11/11 at 10:09 am Reply

    Wow, Molly. Very thorough, passionate, and informal yet wholly articulate. I can imagine you typing this with bursting enthusiasm (although, of course, we’ve never met haha). And I like the idea behind “I am making sure the Internet didn’t go away in the night.” Those are some powerful quotes too; it makes me want to read his work and (dare I say) emulate some of his style.

    Reply

    Molly Gaudry said on 10/11/11 at 1:13 pm

    Everyone should read his work and experiment with emulating his style. Blake’s got style coming out of his ears.

  2. ydde said on 10/11/11 at 11:22 am Reply

    Yes, very cool. I’ve only read Scorch Atlas by him, which was kind of shockingly great and chaotic and visceral. There Is No Year has been in my amazon cart for months, too, it seems, but I may have to push this up the pile.

    Something about insomnia, it draws me and I have to look/see/read/hear whatever it is anyone’s saying. I mean, most people spend a third to a fourth of their life sleeping, which is, typically, somewhere around twenty years. But then I think of all the nights I’ve spent not sleeping, the times I’m awake for 40 or 50 or 80 hours in a row and how I must be missing out on something great or everyone else is missing out on this odd halflife of dreamt wakefulness where everything feels half imagined and wholly forgotten and too bright, caustic. But maybe that’s why I made friends with the moon and trees rather than suns.

    I think it makes one naturally introspective, to not sleep. Because there’s no one else about, no one to talk to, to think at, so all thoughts turn inward, on family, on friends, on religion and philosophy, on the odd architecture of the mind and its relation to all of these things, and why dreams are too important to be hoarded by the sleepers.

    Very cool, though. Will be checking out soonishly.

    Reply

    Molly Gaudry said on 10/11/11 at 1:15 pm

    I bet you’ll love the book. I’ll bet you a buck.

    ydde said on 10/11/11 at 1:55 pm

    I’m going to mail you one buck.

    Molly Gaudry said on 10/11/11 at 1:56 pm

    I win!

  3. Erika said on 10/11/11 at 12:42 pm Reply

    I like the preface – that he was this “hook” into a larger community that you were not aware of. We all have these hooks. People who open up doors where we get glances or sometimes become fully baptized into a new group.

    Reply

    Molly Gaudry said on 10/11/11 at 1:16 pm

    Right? He wasn’t the only one for me, but he was definitely the first and led me to the others. Will always love him for that.

  4. Sam Ligon said on 10/11/11 at 1:22 pm Reply

    Great post, Molly. I’ve been looking forward to this book, too, and now even more so. Blake’s list pieces/poems, published over the last few years, felt like a glimpse into what his nonfiction would be like, And I love those lists.

    Can’t wait to read this book. Again, very cool post.

    Reply

    Molly Gaudry said on 10/11/11 at 1:25 pm

    What ever happened to those lists? I was looking forward to 2500, just to have it, sort of as a collection or object or something. . . .

  5. Peter Markus said on 10/11/11 at 2:51 pm Reply

    This is terrific. Blake is a wonder, a writer whose sentences feed me and make me feel a little less alone.

    Reply

    Molly Gaudry said on 10/11/11 at 5:48 pm

    Peter Markus, you are also a wonder.

  6. yrfriendliz said on 10/11/11 at 2:57 pm Reply

    Aw Molly, it may sound terrible to say this since I’ve dated Dan much longer than I knew you, but YOU were the person who introduced me to the online writing community! You were kind to me when I sent you that really weird/creepy/awesome homemade card and said “hey guess what you have a fan!” or something. I don’t remember. I remember making it though, that was fun.

    Dan introduced me to Blake’s writing, though. I also read “The Gown from Mother’s Stomach” in Scorch Atlas first and loved it. Haven’t read There is No Year yet, though even though it’s been on our end table since it came out. Maybe I will. I mean I probably will. I mean come on.

    Thanks for sharing, Molly!

    Reply

    Molly Gaudry said on 10/11/11 at 5:42 pm

    Aw, Liz, that is so cool/awesome/wonderful, and I LURVE the card! XXX

  7. Madison Langston said on 10/11/11 at 3:03 pm Reply

    I want all the lists too,
    I think this one is my favorite

    http://www.nighttrainmagazine.com/contents/butler_7_2.php

    Reply

    Molly Gaudry said on 10/11/11 at 6:11 pm

    I forgot that he had deadwinter.com. Ha.

    Sam Ligon said on 10/12/11 at 6:47 pm

    That’s cool, Madison. I’d never seen that one.

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