Thursday, December 2, 2010

On "Scorch Atlas" by Blake Butler ***

Butler is a poet of sorts. Each of these stories makes up part of what is a short story cycle or a novel in stories. But each also is a collection of images and lines that stand up on their own demand attention. Such makes for a very dense reading experience, requiring attention to every sentence. There is also the appreciation to be forged for the various word choices--the smell of the "sum" of a dump, for example ("Seabed"). This is what I like about the collection.

Two stories stood out for me. "Seabed" is about a survivor and a girl he picks up on his journey across a wasteland that used to be home. "Tour of the Drowned Neighborhood" is just that, and it's brilliant. It is easy to see in it a kind of homage New Orleans in Katrina. But it is not that. It is a tale of a town drowned in destruction and kept that way--from the point of view of one of the destroyed. It is a literal tour of the neighborhood under water.

The subject of these stories hints at the subject of the larger collection, which is exactly what the title of the book suggests--an atlas of a place after destruction. And in that was where the work grew tiresome to me. So much darkness and not much light until the expected end. As I did when I read another collection of stories set around the theme of death, I found myself growing weary. Were it not that Butler is such a strong writer on the sentence level I would have likely grown weary enough to put it down. Thankfully, Butler wows in each line, and that was enough to keep me reading.

One caveat: Featherproof Books has done a bang-up job on the design of this work. Each page, like each sentence, is a work of art. The design complements the book every bit.

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