Blake Butler began one of his more recent Vice columns, “Three Short, Savage Books You Have to Read,” by contrasting the tense and tenuous state of the world with the increasingly insular and self-involved state of literature, bemusedly musing on our curious ability to curl up with a good book (and, by implication, write one), losing ourselves in reassuringly clear and concrete narratives, as civilization crumbles outside our windows:
“It’s pretty clear by now that everything is fucked. So much so that even sitting at home and reading seems insane. As such, it’s become more and more difficult for me to believe a narrator who has any kind of clue what they are doing, where we’re headed, or whose world is anything but a constantly mutating maze, where memory and reality collapse into one another as casually as all the other horrors.”
The sentiment so effectively sums up his own authorial approach to his 2010 “novel-in-stories” Scorch Atlas, you could practically reprint it on the dust jacket, though even this expertly expressed post-facto mission statement can’t really prepare you for the marred and molten hell-scape he conjures in the book’s ravaged pages. Scorch Atlas is less a “novel-in-stories” than a found object from our blighted – and not too distant – future: an oral history of the apocalypse relayed by humanity’s remains.
In an unhinged prose that ranges from disoriented near-coherence to a surreal, almost poetic, stream-of-consciousness, Scorch Atlas presents a collection of short stories, descriptive passages, erratic questionnaire responses, and fitfully annotated photo albums documenting mankind’s final days: Outrageous storms relentlessly lay waste to imploded suburbs – blood, feces, concrete, and glass as likely to fall from the sky as rain. Sinkholes open without warning, sucking cars, homes, and humans into infernal oblivion. Bruises, boils, and alien growths erupt on the flesh, the result of unnamed, unknown infections. Gutters and sewers are overrun with the rotting corpses of animals and insects. In its final flickering hours, the television monotonously rattles off the names of the day’s dead. And the sun, even from behind thick layers of toxic clouds, sears the skin of the planet and its beaten survivors.
Hoping for logical explanations, or conventional narratives, in this festering landscape would be as futile as any other hope. Nature, itself, seems to have abandoned all reason, its chaotic revolt filtered through the groping agony of our narrators’ blistered, sun-burst brains. A mother literally destroys herself to care for her demonically feral sons. A man confronts the bloated, babbling undead corpse of his child sprawling in the attic, knowing it can’t be real, but unwilling to turn his back. A woman paddles an old wash basin through a corpse-littered lake towards a black, monolithic wall that appeared ominously overnight, believing it is speaking to her. Many of these individual accounts seem to melt before our eyes into hallucinogenic heatstroke delirium, either retreating from reality, or recoiling as it is rent apart. All of which might make it sound like Scorch Atlas is hard to follow, but there’s no need to follow a book that grips you so violently by the throat and drags you kicking and screaming into its nightmarish depths. Butler’s language of horror is so intense and exhaustive that, by the book’s end, he seems almost at a loss for words, leaving us, correspondingly, thoroughly psychologically drained.
But what ultimately enables Scorch Atlas to really pierce and scar the psyche is that, for all its bizarre and disturbing cataclysmic imagery, like our most uneasy dreams, it is somehow hauntingly familiar and troublingly believable. As our own world teeters on the edge of environmental and economic catastrophe, it’s not hard to imagine an Earth devastated by a blinding sun, unchecked disease, and scant resources. In that light, Butler’s focused descriptions of a deranged, broken planet can seem terrifyingly prophetic. While most of the survivors we encounter still remember a world before whatever unnamed crises reached such disastrous proportions, they exhibit no desire to rebuild. These are not the idealized, heroic post-apocalyptic archetypes we’re used to encountering, determined to forge a new civilization from the wreckage of the former. They are appallingly adaptable human animals struggling merely to maintain their ugly and desolate day-to-day existences, stripped of all hope, determination, or resolve – almost of all volition – by unendurable pain, fatigue, and trauma; reduced to simple, mechanical survival, whatever their current ghastly circumstances, even as the world around them sinks further into ruin. The planet’s environment may be grotesquely warped, even caricatured, but its inhabitants – in their resignations, their rationalizations, their inertia – remain unsettlingly, upsettingly recognizable.
With its vivid scenic renderings and rejection of narrative conventions, Scorch Atlas might be described more as portraiture than literature, its closest cousins being the phantasmagoric, yet gruesomely corporeal works of Hieronymus Bosch or Francis Bacon. It is a map of the end of the world for those of us who might conceivably find ourselves living through it. A short, savage book you have to read.