I’m tempted to begin and end this review with just one word: Huh? The truth is, There Is No Year by Blake Butler is one strange book and to attempt to explain any of it would be almost ludicrous. I’m not sure it’s a book that can be explained. But I shall make an attempt to say something about it, even though I’m still working out what it’s about and what I actually think about it.
So, where to begin? Well, the book opens with a family—father, mother, son—moving into a home and finding a copy family that looks like them already there, each member of the family standing alone in a room, breathing but not speaking.
And then things get really strange.
Although the book does have the bare bones of a sequential narrative, those bones are extremely bare. Family moves in, weirdness ensues, they try to leave, but don’t—or perhaps they do. Certain images recur—dirt, ants, caterpillars, hair. There’s a sense of time stretching out and losing its meaning. Rooms seem to change size and location:
Panes kept falling out of all the windows. Sometimes the sand that’d made the glass became apparent, insects sprawling in the grain. The tires on the family car would have flattened many mornings. The welcome mat would melt in too much light. The birdbath teemed and toppled. The dishwasher would seem to speak. Nothing ever seemed to line up with one another. The son could not walk from one room to another without bumping his elbow, nicking his shoulder. He often heard people speaking in the vents, grunting or gunplay on the roof. The house would not keep still.
Just as the house doesn’t keep still and behave as a house should, so does this book. The paper is not white but varying shades of gray. The type is not laid out conventionally; instead, it sometimes appears as narrow columns of text, running down the center or right-hand side of the page. At one point, the main text is nothing but footnoted commas, with the “story” appearing in the notes. The reader is kept on edge, uncertain. Is there a pattern to this? Or is the feeling of being off-kilter the point?
The book seems to resist any efforts to pin down the meaning, and I suspect there are several readings that would make a certain amount of sense. Is this a literal haunted-house story? Are the family’s experiences hallucinations or dreams? Is the whole thing metaphorical? The answer may in fact be yes to all of these questions. I have my own theory about what’s going on, informed in part by my frequent viewings of a particular acclaimed 1980s horror film that is specifically referenced a couple of times in the book. But my theory, which encompasses lots of the disparate images that appear in the book, still doesn’t take everything into account.
And this brings me to the niggling little voice in my ear that keeps me from fully embracing this book. As much as I love ambiguity, I also like knowing that the author has a narrative or thematic purpose for everything he or she does. It’s the difference, in my mind, between the taut, disciplined storytelling of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dr. Who and sprawling messes of Lost and The X-Files. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Lost and adore The X Files, but I never had confidence that the creators knew what they were doing. A lot of material seemed designed merely to keep viewers guessing. It felt like they were making it up as they went along and throwing in things that seemed cool or weird. I can’t help but wonder whether Butler is doing the same. But if he is, does it matter?
Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe, with There Is No Year, that feeling of uncertainty is entirely the point. In the world of the novel, certain universal fears come to terrifyingly literal life. And our fears aren’t tidy; they don’t all have a purpose or fit a narrative. It would take multiple readings and discussions with others (I’d love to discuss this with others!) to unearth precisely what all the images and strange happenings in Butler’s novel are meant to represent, but I think they do have meaning, sometimes multiple meanings. And together, these images leave us wondering how well we understand ourselves and our fears. Or something. I’m still not sure.