Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Scorch Atlas

I'm thankful to finally be writing this post, thankful to be telling folks who may not know about Blake Butler's SCORCH ATLAS, which is finally coming to book form via Featherproof Books in fall 2009.

I'm not sure what I read of Blake's initially that made me so interested in his work, but I was. It seemed like we were interested in the same kind of things, if not obsessing about them. So earlier in the year, I decided to contact him about trading manuscripts, mine poetry, and his a novel in short stories. He agreed pretty quickly, and it was nice to get another pair of eyes on my work just as I was excited to see his.

I remember that time I had more than a few hours between my first and my second and third classes I was teaching that semester, so I decided to dive in.

I read for a few straight hours, cover to cover, the entire .doc file of SCORCH ATLAS, and was blown away.

There are folks who say, "I couldn't stop reading!" when they talk about books, and the reason I'm so skeptical of that phrase is from my experiences: Rarely does that happen for me and to me, and so when it does, it's much more of an ordeal. It's not that I'm terribly picky, as I admire many writers, many books, by old authors and by new authors, but SCORCH ATLAS literally had me trying to blink moisture into my eyes from having to keep them open from the computer screen and the horrid fluorescent lights in my office. But I couldn't stop reading it, and didn't until the end.

We traded comments and emails back and forth, and I like to think we both helped out each other a lot with our manuscripts. Mine, though still a manuscript, is better for Blake's advice and what he saw in it, and I like to think that even though I'm not even close to thinking of myself as any kind of an editor, I was able to give him some good advice.

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 Suspiria centered around the candy-colored lensing, 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, something which you never actually see coming to fruition, but with the possibilities always indefatigably looming.

The characters seem destitute in the more narrative stories with initial reads, yet there's an underlying, deeply underlying, tenderness that comes through with more reads, things that seem to subconsciously fuse together as the novel takes on new meaning as a whole with the culmination of every story until the end.

And this is a book where every sentence matters.

Yet the words don't seem interminably chiseled or forced, but necessary, necessary for communication within such landscapes, within such oddly intriguing familial relationships that sometimes both eschew and embrace the idea that something may be worth saving in the end, and if all hope seems lost, the attempts at trying never cease to obtain it.

My words are not doing justice to Blake's words, the characters' words, I know this.

But this is a book I will be proud to own, proud to be reading, proud that such risks were being taken, real risks, without giving up the literary quality and merit of such work.

In another's hands, these stories could be a mess: full of bleakness, full of the forced apocalyptic and bizarre, to get a rise out of the reader, or strictly to shock. But there's so much more in these stories, more to be discovered upon subsequent readings, and more to be discovered by the many readers it will have.