The diseased gloppy lava of Blake Butler’s prose in Scorch Atlas may seem like a strange companion to the sharply honed fragments of from Un/Incorporated Territory, but there are compelling links between the two. Where Un/Incorporated explores the rigid forms a ‘peripheral’ colonial space have been subject to by a vast central colonial power, Scorch Atlas envisions the total disarticulation of center in the form of the suburban American household in a landlocked district. Significant is the almost fetishistic and always commensurate decay of the house and the body of those anchored in these homes in an apocalyptic landscape of hungry dogs and rains of unfamiliar fluids.
Lawnmower rusted. Pain the Chevy hailed obscene. Hardwoods in the den and guest room warped, already rotting. Plumbing pushed up through the floor. Rocking chair run off with. Mildewed carpet….
My brain is soggy. Mostly I just shed….feel my skin go older quicker, the wet running up my old folds. The smell of mold drawn in the water.
The Chevy connotes an American landscape. The lawn and mower, den and guestroom give us the typical suburban house. This is an “All American” story. And it is significant that the thread of the interlocked stories subtly moves to more interior spaces of the American continent. One of the climactic stories of the collection takes place in Oklahoma. The narrator is a hard working male in a large, enterprising family of 14 struggling to keep their family home out of the muddy jelly of Butler’s grievously wounded earth. There is a strange inversion of the pioneer narrative of hard working, sensible people working for survival on the open, barren American plains. Not Little House on the Prairie—instead, a zombie Grapes of Wrath. The frontier house succumbing to decay, family relations dissolve, and a narrator gradually drifting into hallucinatory visions and nihilistic action at the brink of death.
What is most significant to this discussion is that while Un/Incorporated dramatizes conflicting kinds of topography, the replacement of the indigenous with the alien (but definite) way of being in space, Scorch Atlas gives us a previously mapped and gridded United States interior, its sane infrastructure in utter disarray and, more importantly, an utterly askew sense of space and spatiality in his characters. Place names are generally absent. The characters often distrust the world beyond the sightline of the windows of their houses. Often their awareness struggles to move past the diseased walls and doors of their own bodies. When they do move, they wonder without a map or sense of route. They simply enter a denuded landscape and go, arriving often nowhere or simply stopping because they can no longer go.
This may be the first novel that through an (often) first person narration tries to collapse 3-dimensional space, center and margin, seer and seen, in favor of what Marshall McLuhan would call an audio-tactile understanding of the world—a mapping, a knowing via textures:
I crack the crust open with my forehead. The water slaps my chest, succumbs me under. Sludge slick through my hair. Grit gummed up in my nostrils. Cold metal in my brain. (149)
And eventually the suburb and those who move within it are sprung from the x axis as this narrator who understands through tactility swims down into the suburban world that was and which is now embalmed in fluid.
Scorch Atlas performs a massive clearing of ground and realignment of space. On the literal level, it liquefies the house, body, and landscape, eventually blinding its readers and leading them on equally by sound and texture, insisting on a synesthesiac understanding of this borderless new world. Viewed through the lens of contemporary fiction, it damns its peers and the traditions that have led to them that have given us picturesque worlds and narratives drawn by sightedness, those that forget that they are telling stories about people with bodies that have weight and perceive through the skin. Like an Ozark meth-cooking James Joyce, he delivers this through a sentence that also rejects recent tradition in embracing clumps of guttural consonants and anglo-saxon, onomatopoeiac diction whenever possible and manipulating syntax to deliver the reader into strings of strong stresses. His sentences are dense sonic thickets. To read Blake Butler out loud is to have airy vowels overwhelmed by glottal stops, the tongue striking teeth, and the lips pressing together. All of which helps to shatter cohesive visual perspective as the seat from which sense is made.