Right off the bat, Scorch Atlas asserts itself as, if not the coolest-looking book you’ve ever fanned between your fingers, on the short-list, interior and exterior alike. Trot it out to the right café or park bench, and people will crane to try to discern what you’re reading. Visually, its obvious allusion (though a Google search yields nothing), is to The Whole Earth Catalog, Stewart Brand and Company’s smorgasbord of utopian philosophy, architecture, how-to, eco-engineering, and millennial gadgetry. Butler’s novel is the shrunken-down, charred, dystopian rendition of this; the sunny geodesic domes never got built, and the remaining landscape, littered with strip malls and trailer parks, takes the brunt of everything a creative televangelist might portend falling from the sky and then some. The book’s physical appearance, courtesy of Featherproof Books, is inextricable from the phenomenology of reading it, its textured pages so intrinsic to the work of the work that one wants to imagine that in their absence the reading brain would intuitively project them.
But if the book was mere accessorizing, stylishly anti-stylish, it would be garnering only a fraction of the deserved attention it’s getting, stunning décor being all well-and-good, but the chef having eventually to deliver from the unglamorous, E. coli-bespattered kitchen. So another superlative—Scorch Atlas is quite possibly the most visceral book I’ve ever read, and in its uncompromising slog through muck and murk, boot-heeled in language, the book carves out a style which, once experienced, feels necessary. As flickering lights can induce seizures, Butler’s prose seems prone toward causing synesthesia; touch permeates and choke-holds all the senses, rendering images tactile, reinventing sounds, smells and tastes, even air itself, as palpable spatio-temporal entities.
Like Annie Proulx and the William T. Vollmann of The Atlas, Butler dredges something ecstatic from the material, holding his breath amidst grit and gristle and slime. Unlike Proulx, say, where such writing serves as vehicle for characterization--of both the denizens of hardscrabble places like Newfoundland and Wyoming, and the places themselves--Butler appears to be up to something more metaphysical. Characters and places are virtually interchangeable, leveled when the malls “filled up with sludge and the sun went hyper-violet and grass squirmed and the water swam inside itself.” Though the occasional proper noun crops up--Randall, Bill, Oklahoma--this is not a book whose characters will stay with you as individuals after you’ve put the book down. Rather, the book builds its cumulative force through language and image, the sort of thing you may find yourself opening at random to delectate in its sentences.
Butler is skilled at a variety of techniques but a virtuoso at the dense, thorny sentence whose species is delineated by Gary Lutz in his now-famous Columbia lecture, “The Sentence is a Lonely Place.” As Lutz suggests sentences ought to, Butler’s “are all vibrating and destabilizing themselves; no longer solid and immutable, they start to flutter this way and that in playful receptivity…the words swap alphabetary vitals and viscera…intermingle and blend and smear and recompose themselves.” In keeping with such a representational apparatus, Butler’s world is destabilized as well, a world where blood is more likely than rain to slosh out of the sky, and one “wonders how long” it will be before one’s own teeth become “the ones that rained down and ripped us open.”
The book’s storyline--think of them as fourteen scenes whose curtains are forms of precipitation--begins with elements as commonplace as today’s headlines. First, there is a water storm that sounds like Katrina multiplied by five, upon whose heels comes a disease that causes “skin cells [to] shower…from my soft scalp” and “patterns in my forehead.” Style and subject-matter are interfused already, as it almost feels as if there is a contagion of alliterative sounds. Butler writes, “She could hear her mother murmur. Her father, fraught but what he’d lost…ate while crying, mad or mesmerized.” Days are “back-bent,” a house burns repeatedly, “always under star strum.” Assonances, too, run epidemic: “loamy, coagulating,” “the house’s bug-hung panes”; at times I had the uncanny sense that I was reading Christian Bok’s Euonia, where pages on end deploy only a single vowel (Butler’s said in one interview that his sentences originate in his nose).
Most effective are when alliteration and assonance slam together, obscuring technique; thus we get “something gunky, runny, rancid,” or “some sour music box, cranked to crack.” It’s tempting to describe Butler as reveling in language like a poet, but the more apt vocation might be alligator wrestler, embracing resistance, taking pleasure in the spectacle of the sentences wrapping around themselves—no skimming here, folks. Seductive as it is, this style is likely to break out beyond these pages and into the works of other writers. A plea, though: let this not be another case like Denis Johnson, where legions of (often third-rate) imitators were spawned right down to the typeface used in Jesus’ Son; let the spirit of experimentation rather than an exact chemical titration prevail.
Vollmann’s own The Atlas, aside from its title, bears the closest kinship to Scorch of any I can think of. To its credit, Butler’s language often recalls Vollmann’s. Where these books diverge is in terms of Vollmann’s vast geocultural, stylistic, and rhetorical range. Wandering everywhere from Mexico City to Nairobi, from Grand Central to the Arctic north, Vollmann's work also treks stylistically from beat to Biblical, raunchy to mythical. There's no doubt that Scorch Atlas plays with form—there is a questionnaire about damaged goods, a “tour of the drowned neighborhood,” and a portfolio of “water-damaged photos”—but running through all of these is a remarkable consistency of tone and style. In a book where air is described as “sweat,” where “smoke and ash hung in streamered fuzz,” the very spaces on the page brought on by such formal play are welcome places to stop and breathe. Also welcome are the glimmers of humor, such as how the substitute teachers get sick and themselves require subs, as well as the occasional crossover into the mythical, as in the talking bear who ingests a girl and regurgitates her into the sky.
It is unclear what the implications of such relentless onslaught are for the society into which it’s been unleashed--as with all apocalyptic narratives, one is tempted to see in it warning and caution, like those signs that show a car in mid-flip to indicate a dangerous curve in a road. Unlike McCarthy's road, there's no quest to cling to round the bend, and unlike DeLillo's Airborne Toxic Event, we cannot laugh or hold ourselves at ironic distance; we've become the event. Scorch Atlas leaves us floating in the “coma ocean,” and if there's a shot at transcendence, it is via an “UP that is on no compass.” Butler's language soars even if it takes us through a sky utterly marred, maybe beyond mend.