Reading Blake Butler‘s “novel in stories” Scorch Atlas will disorient you. Its imagery is vivid, fleeting, and sometimes grotesque, and the relationships within it — whether familial dynamics or laws of physics — exist to be defied. And yet there’s an exhilaration to it — through the length of the slim volume, its cover designed to resemble an artifact from some unspeakable disaster, Butler balances these scenes from upturned life with prose that glides and disorients.
A quick description of Scorch Atlas would likely involve the phrase “apocalyptic,” but this isn’t the terse Armageddon of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Instead, Butler’s decaying worlds resemble the vistas of Steve Erickson in their dreamlike logic and those of J.G. Ballard in their sense of the subconscious eroding restraints mental and physical. Butler’s previous work, the novella Ever (Calamari Press, 2009) and the chapbook Pretend I Am There (Publishing Genius, 2008), also dwell in dissolving landscapes.
“People are stuck on what is familiar, everyday,” Butler says via email. “Degrading locales feel more everyday to me than the settings of most realist novels, where if sheets are dirty it’s because someone is fucking illicitly. I feel gross in most air.” It’s a sense of intentional degradation that has extended to the book’s promotion and even its shape: publisher Featherproof placed a limited number of “hand-destroyed” copies of the book on sale in the period before its release.
“I think it’s particular to the destroyed quality of Scorch Atlas as an object…as the objective here was to make the book look like it had suffered its own contents,” says Butler. “If the book were about bike messengers, or about game show hosts with meth addictions, it wouldn’t really do much for the book’s aura for it to come beat to shit.”
The manipulation of the book’s text has extended elsewhere: an electronic collection of “remixes” is due from Featherproof soon. Butler views the remix project and the hand-destroyed editions as hailing from a similar place: “So much in the book is mangled, ripped to shit, and rhizomatic, I hope, and it only seems right to take that kind of material and let it be done horrid, beautiful things to.”
Both on his own website and his contributions to the literary site HTML Giant, Butler has discussed the evolution of prose and argued against complacency. The sentences in his own work twist and evolve, and there’s a perverse joy that comes from watching just how his paragraphs are shaped, of tracing their contractions and rhythms. Though given that the designs for both Scorch Atlas and EVER find design elements nestling their way onto the page and sometimes blending with the text, the question arises: is a book’s design inherently complementary to its language?
“So much authenticity can be added or taken away from a text based on how it is presented,” replies Butler. “It’s just a question of pleasing the eye and the mind, and this is not to say that a text can’t be strong without strong presentation, but it sure as hell helps: not only in the moment, but in helping extend the longevity of that object over time.”
For these works, that presentation came through collaboration. “I was lucky in both cases to get to work with designers (Derek White on EVER, and Zach Dodson on Scorch Atlas) who not only understood exactly what I wanted in the vague-ass way I’d say it (like, ‘Man, I really want it to look like someone got this smeared across their head, and like some gibberish symbols, and candy.’) and take that not only to the level of what I’d wanted, but way beyond it. Both of those guys are super smart and considerate when it comes to the idea of the book as an object, and in doing so created houses for text that in the end take the text to a whole new level.”
It’s with a discussion of narration — specifically, the fever-dream monologue of EVER — that our exchange ends. And it’s Butler’s closing words that encompass both his philosophy and his sense of experimentation: “I think that in order for [first person] to work, you have to earn it. You have to have a reason for a person to be talking to the reader directly, rather than just having the things be said. It’s more than voice, or characterization: it’s a tone, a mood, a parsing between the mind that is meant to be the generator of that language, and the way that mind communicates through paper. So much can be said without saying anything really, by attuning to the finer aspects of the way a language speaks: rhythm, grunting, silence, direction, in-jokes, white space, collision, accident, syntax, visual bumping, ouch.”