Blake Butler fancies himself a surrealist. You don't need to ask him—five words into any of his books, you'll know it's true. (Besides, surrealists have communist tendencies and communists are always liars.) The surrealists of the 1920s developed a technique called automatic writing (think jazz improvisation, subtract music, add words), inspired by the automatism that is said to be experienced by those mediums who speak—in darkened rooms where ectoplasm waits—on behalf of ghosts.
It's no coincidence that Butler's There Is No Year is, at its core, a ghost story. His perpetually unnamed three-person family experiences the mediumistic automatism phenomenon throughout the entire novel. They're haunting themselves, and it's all incredibly surreal. Their future selves haunt their past selves, and their past selves haunt their present selves, who multiply and show up in other rooms, and in mirrors, and under beds, and between walls, and who write novels they've no notion of writing, and do things they aren't doing, or could be doing, or want to do because they have done. You'll even sense that one of these characters is definitely the haunter and the other two the haunted, but don't be afraid. It will help to think of Butler as Virgil. This trip isn't going to be easy, but he has no intention of holding your hand, so keep up.
Butler is either a contemporary surrealist or employing the surrealist tradition. His characters experience mind-bending phenomena on a literal level, or on a metaphorical level, or not at all. The son is a son, or the son was a daughter. Why am I even trying to explain this? Better not to split hairs.
There Is No Year is an acid burn of a lucid nightmare filled with gloved strangers and hair and mold and gel, and it may well be that the family therein is trapped inside a purgatory of its own making. But it's also possible that the ominous, lurking "black and gleaming boxes" that the "white flat wall spit[s] out" contain Pandora's unreleased hope, and if the family scratches at them until their fingers bleed, they'll eventually find it.
Only one thing is certain: Each member of this trio is in crisis. They are suffering on all fronts, and the battle is taking place in their home, which appears to the outside world to remain the same, but which to them has become a labyrinth that follows them, sticking to their skin like a cobweb, even when they go outside. The entire family believes they've moved to a new home, even though they never have.
Despite some of the horrific manifestations they suffer through (a mailbox that births swarms of caterpillars with "hair as long as half a foot," doors that won't open, doors that won't stay closed, slits like mouths in the walls, the way the house quivers), each of them carries on—almost somnambulating—with their daily lives. The father drives to work, although the trip takes him ever longer, arriving home just in time "to turn around and head to work again." The son doggedly attends school, even though his presence goes unacknowledged. And the mother mows the "mud-mushed grass" of the lawn into oblivion.
They trudge along through a Sisyphean hell, and no one stops to ask, "Wait a second, what the fuck is happening here?" Maybe we can relate, but Butler isn't channeling some dramatic angst-emoting teen (or communist, to be fair). He's not riffing on the "life is hell, sink into abject despair" trope that a dilution and simplification of his work might imply (read: "An ordinary family... subjected to the strange lonesome agony of daily life" as Ben Marcus effuses in a blurb on the book's back cover). Their suffering is specific, the result of a family tragedy, and not just a metaphor for the general malaise and pain of humanity. Focus, because Butler writes open the door of unrest through which hope may ultimately be found, and he expects you, like his characters, to find a way—by any means necessary—to walk through. Everyone's survival is riding on it.
Luckily, this novel is ultimately more accessible, rewarding, and engaging than his first two attempts (Ever and Scorch Atlas, both released in 2009) without significantly diverging from his usual themes or style. There Is No Year can be hard as hell to read, but it's also undeniably worth the effort. (Aside: Butler has not sold his complicated soul to HarperCollins. A little less authorial indulgence and a little more editorial strong-arming have done him a world of good.) From the Antonin Artaud epigraph to the title, which smacks of a certain Magritte painting of a pipe, it's clear that Butler's inclinations may ever lean sweetly against surrealism's heavy bosom.