Blake Butler is a fantastic writer; he is a superior linguist, and his imagery is vivid. Many of the short sequences in this novel (?) read like snapshots of nightmares, and they are incredibly hallucinogenic. However, this is one of those pieces where we have to consider what this piece is; are we going to review a novel, or are we analyzing the impact of an artistic work? There is a huge difference here. It is, however, advertised as “a novel.”
The first half of this book really shines with a frightening and entirely realistic scenario. The only way to save the human race, and the planet, is to destroy it. We are presented with the emergence of an anti-Christ in a society that consumes ideas, headlines, and materials; the Gretch Gravey concept is digested by society and it poisons the social infrastructure. The idea is frightening, because Butler delivers a very plausible scenario as a society gazes into the mirror (a common symbol employed throughout) and sees an apocalypse that it is responsible for.
But I could not finish this book.
As chapters, images, themes, symbols, etc. are repeated ad nausea throughout the piece, I began to think that I was on a literary scavenger hunt. Motifs were consistently repeated, and during the second half I felt like I was trudging through a wasteland along with the E. Flood character (obvious Biblical symbolism); Flood feels like he is stuck on repeat in a loop of events and sensations, and as a reader, I began to feel like a sick joke was being played on me. You want more scenes with the murderer? You want answers? You want plot progression?
Coming from me, considering what I have written, my review is going to seem semi-hypocritical; I also enjoy literature that is presented through a metafictional lens. The book, however, traps and punishes the reader in the same way that Flood is trapped, and while this might seem like a masterful stroke—as it demonstrates Butler’s acknowledgement that he is, himself, omnipresent throughout the presentation and is guiding us, watching us—there is seemingly no reason to keep going (and this is probably symbolic, too; nihilistic to an extreme and depressing as all hell). In a way, I committed literary suicide and quit reading, which may be because I did not have the endurance to wade through the flood of repeated motifs. I began to feel as if I had already read every single sentence before, and the shock value or surprise had disappeared. As a narrative, the book should have been finished about halfway through.
If I consider this as an artistic rendition of several themes, I still see an amazing work of art. If I perceive this as a combination of meta-poetry-imagery-collage with a Rorschachian splash of adjectives and musings, I still perceive a beautiful piece that punishes the observer. There is no mistaking the genius in play, but there is literally no reason to continue through the “tape”, because whatever catharsis Flood could have experienced (I skimmed through the remainder of the book) is diluted. There was no reason to invest any further, because even the footnotes themselves had a, “You’ve already said this” feel to it. In the book’s first section, as I began to identify themes and imagery were starting to repeat, I began to wonder why the book is so big. We acknowledge, after the first few confessionals from Gravey’s cult, that we are reading a horror fantasy and the author is telling us this is not real, nothing happened, there is no evidence because nothing happened—this is fiction, after all—and we keep reading.
I intend to check out more of Butler’s work, but if I experience something similar, I’m not going to leave a review that will say the same thing. I am not going to accuse the author (artist) of showing off, because in this extensive volume, Butler shows you everything he has up his sleeve early; you aren’t getting a narrative, and nothing here will be easy. If I (the reader) am supposed to be Flood, trapped in a loop of imagery and sensation, or if Butler is Flood and I am watching his journey, then I gave up and just didn’t care. Maybe because I just don’t have the time to invest, or maybe I am being too hard on the author, or I am just an idiot—I can’t finish this one. I would recommend this piece to several readers whom I know would enjoy it, because I believe it would provoke some imaginative writing from new writers who want to write something different; new writers may be the best audience for this piece, and that’s not a bad thing.