In Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas, the world is being obliterated by a series of thirteen plagues that make those of biblical renown seem altogether quaint. But this isn’t about how nations or social structures or science deals with upheaval and disaster. No, that would be far too rational a take on a universe that seems given over entirely to irrationality. The plagues frame the stories of this book, but are immediately backgrounded by extremely personal investigations of loss. (It’s not the same at all, but consider how Anna Kavan’s Ice all but ignores its global disaster in favor of a single obsessive search). And so, the core of each of these stories lies not in end-of-the-world adventures, but in a completely real and believable pain. Isolation, the loss of children, the disintegration of family.
Scorch Atlas’ drowned, mud-caked, pustulent endgame world is so unrelenting, it absorbs all light you have for it. It bears the same adolescent Apocalypse fantasies that all sci-fi writers do in fiction and Tea Party adherents do in real life: it creates a world where no one will help you, literal helplessness, where the poor bastards that do not succumb to disaster by drowning and architectural collapse -it takes a degree of separating oneself from the recent catastrophe in Japan, and memories of Katrina to take fiction of this sort in – are worse off to live in a world of literal and metaphoric shit.
The stories are, for the most part, voluminously and unapologetically throat-slashing, yet there’s such a poetic beauty to the language that balances out such material (I liken this kind of comparison to some of the horrific violence of the original Suspiria, which is centered around the candy-colored cinematography, striking some oddly corporeal balance of opposite goings-on), making many of the bleak and apocalyptic landscapes seem like there’s a chance that things could get turned around, could get better–something which you never actually see coming to fruition, but with the possibilities always indefatigably looming.
As a work of searing allegory, Scorch Atlas is what we were, what we are, and what we’ll always be: propelled and clinging and curious. This is not a story about the lives of characters after some cataclysmic event. This is a book about people caught up in the destruction and mayhem. There are situations happening in this book that are beyond imaginable, and yet Butler is able to think them up and describe the horror with such acute awareness.
Blake Butler hails from another planet, a planet where fiction isn’t just stale, old junk. Butler and writers like him are reviving my hope for fiction. Every line in Scorched Atlas is intensely rich and fluid, it washes against your skin and leaves you dusty. He takes real risks. And despite the complexity and linguistic richness of his sentences, there is still an accessibility that is hard to find in most “experimental” fiction and poetry, and there is an undeniable emotional core to his work, a real heart pumping dust and oil across the pages. Scorch Atlas is a meditation on suffering, the perceived mutation of just being a young person being projected onto a universe ill-equipped to manifest that kind of self-loathing.
Blake Butler has coughed what needs to be read. He is now asking you to read it. Please do.