Sunday, July 19, 2015

Book Review: Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler

Blake Butler is one of those writers who've been on my radar for a while, but it took some time to get around to reading one of his books (though I have read some his work published online). I decided to start with his second book, Scorch Atlas.

Scorch Atlas is a novel in stories. Each of the thirteen stories and thirteen vignettes are about a different set of characters, but they all take place in the same world. In this case, a world being destroyed by a series of thirteen plagues.

The vignettes in the book describe the different plagues destroying the world. There are normal disasters like flooding and dust storms, but most of the plagues are bizarre occurrences like rains of blood, teeth, glitter, manure and static.
The earth had learned to scratch its back. In massive columns same as what we'd seen on TV during our worst storms, stretched check-pattern, warbled splatter. As well, the sound of a billion needles wheedling, tearing their tips against the grain.
The stories don't relate directly to the plagues in the vignettes. Instead, the stories focus on people dealing with the destruction of the world in general.

For example, in "The Ruined Childhood," a couple's baby becomes infected with some sort of strange and possibly supernatural disease. The baby's skin becomes covered with gunk and dogs start trying to invade their home to get at it. Finally, they decide to bury the baby and leave it for dead. When the father comes home, he finds that it somehow found its way into the attic and its body has swollen up. The father tries to deal with his wife slowly going insane from her loss and the undead child still growing in the attic.

This was probably my favorite story in the book. A surreal horror story about the destruction of a family and a very atmospheric take on the "evil child" trope.
The child's mother shouldn't see this, the father thought. He turned away and hid his eyes. He went back downstairs and locked the door behind him. He tucked a towel under the crack. Though for hours, through whatever insulation, whatever the silence, the child's voice still slammed his head.
Family disintegration is a major theme in the book. In "Disappearance," a boy's father is arrested after being falsely accused of abusing him and missing a free throw. With his father gone, he completely throws himself into searching for his missing mother. Even with the world falling down around him and eventually being quarantined in his school's gym, he persists until he finally finds her in a very strange place.
I sat on the floor in the neon light with stomach rumbling and sounds of flame and stink of rot. I saw things moving toward me and then gone. I couldn't remember where or why I was. I couldn't find my name writ on my tongue or brain-embedded.
Butler's vivid prose creates striking and relentless images of destruction and rotting. In "Seabed," a man named Randall walks among the ruins of his city and meets a little girl who seems to be the only other survivor. They stumble on a beach and find that the ocean's gone dry. On the ocean floor, they find a house.
The sand cracked beneath their feet. The shore sat scummed over and pile-driven down, pale combs of foam dried at the farthest point where water'd lapped. Cracked shells of land-struck jellies and uncased conch flesh sat overcooking, dried out, picked apart. Whole gulls with their skulls pecked in and post-ravaged by sand mites and worms.
The book also conveys the narrative of the world's destruction through other means besides straightforward stories. For example, "Damage Claim Questionnaire" tells us about a woman's loss of her family through an insurance claims form.
Have you undertaken methods to protect against future loss?
I often think of pastry. My joints creek when it drizzles. The windows have been painted over. I'd never kiss another man. The baby calm inside me, his kick stilled off to numb.
The constant rot in Scorch Atlas is even present in it's design. The pages are covered in burn marks, water damage and smoothed out crumpling to make it seem like a document from a now gone world.

I highly recommend this book. It's a wonderfully written and beautifully designed collection of surreal stories. It has a unique take on the speculation of the end of the world as we know it. While it focuses mostly on personal loss, it still manages to show the scale of death and destruction in such a scenario. I also have Blake Butler's 300,000,000 on my shelf and I look forward to reading that.

Buy Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler here.

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