Review: Sky Saw, a new novel by Blake Butler, reviewed by Sheldon Lee Sompton

In Blake Butler’s lyrically imagined new novel, Sky Saw, due out in December from Tyrant Books, you’ll find the his name spelled Blk Btlr on the cover and on each page.

Yes. It’s like that.

I toyed with the idea of writing this review without vowels. But I was concerned some might have a problem fully understanding whatever I may have to say of interest on the subject.

Nd ‘d sr ht t d tht.


Much like those first exposed to the Beats, there will be folks, including writers, who will not find the ability to see themselves either within the worlds created in such works or envision themselves writing something similar. At such a time, the writer, in my case, must simply view the work for what it was intended to be and not in light of how I, or anyone else, may have approached it.

The author of four prior books—Ever, Scorch Atlas, There Is No Year and Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia—Butler has said in at least one interview this newest book was written in approximately one month.

That said, a few points are worth mentioning early on. Lyrically, it is stunning. For its type, experimental, it is ambitious (though Butler maintains the story is traditional). Any work of more than 200 pages written in such a short timeframe is impressive. However, there were times when though lyrical, ambitious or impressive, the work began to take on the feel of that strange phrase some critic in a moment of struggling must have conjured up—purples prose.

In a fictive world where at any moment rooms can become liquid, humans have lost names or memories of names and are now numbers handed out by a faceless “state” and men live within men for thirty-seven years, Butler invents new ways to present images in nearly every sentence. Where a great deal of everything is dependent upon the never truly revealed “Cone” and a woman is made of glass here and then reduced to puddles beneath her tombstone there and words are writ in the sky and doppelgangers abound, the young and wildly popular Butler seems to look at freshness in language and smile the smile of one with a secret, then proceeds to show readers how fresh and different and beautifully strange three or twelve words in combination can become, such as the following passage:

And still I could not stand beside you in the color of the cone, for each inch of me that wanted and would be cleaning there was ten feet of me that stunk, each rung of each of these connected more rungs in a cribbage system I could by no length of me infer, I did not have the body, no mind, nothing left on which to brand, suddenly I was wearing all these bracelets and these groancrowns and I was looking down upon the earth, the legions of pixel bodies screaming underneath me and raising with their hands, the curdlife in their eyes forming diagonals that split each into new soil, blood encrusted, cowing, bigger babies squirming in their tendons to get out of their whole heads and making war from underneath, bruises formed in trombone to regale me with acid squench…

Some have called me a Southern storyteller, and it’s a pegging I’m fine to have tossed across my shoulder. But, this mentioned, I cannot propose to fully see the entire traditional story Butler says has laid out in this new book. Instead, I immersed myself in the language and evidence of the enviable talent displayed at such a consistently effective level throughout the full-length work.

In an attempt to give a brief glimpse into Butler’s most recent imagined world, it seems the all-powerful “Cone” holds tightly to the survivors living in this illusionary world in which Person 1180, a birth-giving machine of a mother bringing into the tortured world a great number of failed children while Person 811, the father, twists and turns inside a house wrapped in one huge acid blotter and filled with other fathers and men upon men. The house in this way becomes a character, an antagonist in and of itself. The theme of rooms and homes taking on as much importance as characters in Butler’s work has now become a staple of his work.

But it was the language that kept me turning pages while others, in private blog reviews here and there online, said the “fattened prose” became a burden or a bore. I felt much like Nabokov while teaching (though it’s generally accepted he was not the best instructor) telling his students he cared little about their stories, their plots, he only cared about the language.

Such endurance of talent across a full work brings to mind the effort Pound may have been immersed in while penning his Cantos, the obsessive and immediate spilling of words in perfect combination. I think of Eliot and his Wasteland, Joyce and his wake of Finnegan. Fine company, no doubt, I would suppose.

The book has already snatched up a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, considered a favorable one at this point, but which says essentially the already established fan-base Butler has enjoyed since his first published works would likely find themselves in a comfortable and satisfying place with Sky Saw. Then, almost as an afterthought, saying for those hoping to dive into Butler’s work this latest novel could be a good starting point.

I would kindly disagree. Readers seeking an introduction to Butler would do well to read first Scorch Atlas. Because for all his talent, and for all he and others working on the front lines of the crew of folks hoping to usher in a new and brave way of sharing their worlds on the page, Scorch Atlas is a fine work with just enough of the hallucinatory and just enough familiar structure to work as a primer, if I should be so bold as to suggest one would be needed.

No need in jumping too far ahead with a writer such as Butler only to discard him before seeing what came before, likewise denying themselves the pleasure of anticipating what is sure to be another solid work from a writer with the obsession, talent and courage needed to build new monuments to honor the written word no matter the risk.

Sky Saw, by Blake Butler. New York, New York: Tyrant Books, 2012. 200 pages. $14.95, paper.

Sheldon Lee Compton is the author of the collection, The Same Terrible Storm, recently nominated for the Chaffin Award. His work has been published widely and been four times nominated for the Pushcart Prize, as well. He was a judge’s selection winner in 2012 for the Still Short Story Award for his story “Lost Ball in High Weeds,” a chapter excerpt from his upcoming novel, Brown Bottle. He survives in Eastern Kentucky. To find out more, visit him online here.

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