Monday, March 22, 2010

Burn Baby Burn

In the 2002 film Decasia, director Bill Morrison assembles a vast collage of decaying film stock and, with nothing more than a soundtrack, pieces it together into a film-length visual poem.  Vortices of blackness sweep through sunlit scenes. Poxes of dots and splotches swarm over happy dancers; bodies appear lit from within, aura-like outlines of white tracing their bodies, or darkness masks faces unnaturally, as in a photo negative.  Inky waves lap the screen.  The film is a testament both to film's artificiality, its impermanence, its gaps and stutters and lacks, and a celebration of the way those lacks can reveal something – sometimes nightmarish, sometimes beautiful – about the human condition.

Like Decasia, Blake Butler's Scorch Atlas presents itself as damaged goods.  The book, published by Featherproof in 2009, is designed to look like a moldering library volume; on the jacket and on the pages within, we find stains and wrinkles, amorphous dapplings of water and fungus.  The edges of the pages are darkened to look singed.  And the text inside is also splintered: first into 13 sections (stories? prose poems? chapters?) that don't quite hang together as a cohesive narrative, and then at the level of the sentence.  Characters speak in "rhyme and benediction"; the prose cracks into lists, line breaks, call and response. Things "smear," "squirt," "ooze," "froth"; they're "runny," "endless," and everything is damp.

Ostensibly, the book is about a world going through an onslaught of Biblical plagues, or perhaps an apocalypse in stages.  But Butler's not much interested in the breakdown of society; what fascinates him are the imploding families, crushed under disaster's weight.  Rowdy children tie their mother down to suck her breasts, their necks "fat with mold"; a nameless dead baby swells to fill an attic; a mother dies birthing a strange gown for her daughter to wear. 

I'm not going to lie: Butler's language is oppressive.  His sentences are forever turning in on themselves, hiding otherwise straightforward images in twisted syntax ("In the light slurring behind him he watched the streets eject a thing that moved").  This linguistic static muffles even the characters' innermost thoughts ("My brain wormed in want of recognition, turned over and over in cold sputter") or dresses them up in preciously unusual language even when the meaning's clear ("Here's a picture of my first girlfriend, whom I never got a chance to nuzzle").  This is a book where words like "shriek" or "murmuration" can slip by without making a ripple.  It's obvious Butler's not trying to create differentiated narrators, or even characters.  These folks all talk the same, and they're mostly passive victims of the same bizarre calamities.  The main distinction is the extent to which they're bloated with pus and spores. 

Yet, while I usually consider such verbal overkill annoyingly sloppy, in this novel even the messiness contributes to the overall effect.  It's as if the language itself has decomposed, and, like the figures in Decasia, the folks of Scorch Atlas have melded together unnaturally in the resulting corrosion.  I'll be interested to see what this writer does in the future... that is, if there is one.  After reading his book, I'm not so sure.


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