In physical form, Scorch Atlas presents itself as an artifact of aftermath. The slim volume’s blackened covers appear charred around the edges and severely water damaged, an effect repeated throughout pages that are sometimes blotted with inky spots, suggesting post-Katrina like mold or perhaps blood, and bear the traces of having been crumpled up and discarded. The single cover image is earth viewed from somewhere in space, an atlas of mutilated landmasses, unrecognizable from the continents and oceans we know, or perhaps it is a heavy dispersion of cloud, thickly hovering over what terrain is left. This manifestation of decomposed materiality evokes a testament to the disappearance of the book itself. In an age of e-readers, the feel of a book’s covers, the texture of touch as one turns a page—all that, it seems to say, is lost. Equally adrift is the once-familiar image of a writer whose frustration with setting out words prompts tearing a page from a notebook, crushing it in to a ball and tossing it into the trash. Word processors now replace such customary gestures of the romantic artist with robotic resolve as one cuts and pastes anew or drags a document into an icon of a trashcan stuffed with failed efforts.
But Blake Butler has created a work that goes well beyond that recent lament for the disappearance of the book and long-form reading. A series of poetically torturous vignettes and stories of varying length, Scorch Atlas embodies after-the-fact destruction of the world as we have known it, a world rendered so devoid of hope that its inhabitants no longer recall days when skies didn’t thrust down ice that clobbered old men in the street or give way to darkness so dense that it erased the light of the moon. The work is, in other words, in the vein of the post-apocalyptic genre that has historically been concurrent with fiction of the past two centuries, from Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), and that harkens back to the Book of Revelation itself, the West’s paradigm for a world undergoing the havoc of cosmic destruction, festering flesh, and seas foaming with blood. But John of Patmos knew what most apocalypse-inspired authors fail to remember: when it comes to apocalyptic destruction, a little goes a long way. It is somewhat ironic, then, that Scorch Atlas began as individual short stories, most of which appeared in such literary journals as New Ohio Review, Ninth Letter, and Barrelhouse, which were subsequently brought together in this single volume. Given their unrelenting images of rotting and putrid bodies, water-swelled walls, and dust-filled lungs, they might be better left as separate pieces. An excess of excess becomes tedious.
That said, Butler deserves acknowledgment for a certain kind of brilliance, and readers aren’t, after all, obliged to read through a collection of stories one after another, even if the form of the book invites it, as this one does, if only to undo it. A repetition of thirteen offerings creates a modicum of structure, beginning with the subtitle, A Belated Primer. This is followed by a list of thirteen alternative subtitles, each separated by the word “or”: “In the Year of Cyst & Tremor or In the Year of Worm & Wilting or Obliterata or A Bloom of Blue Mold Along the Backbone or A Slip of Tongue in the Year of the Yeast or Hide His Eyes in the Hive Blanket or Ilblissum Akviss Noebleerun Iglitt Peem or _____________ or No Window or Spoke Into the Soft Skin of Mother or Want for Wish for Nowhere or Coma Ocean or Goodnight.”
So too thirteen vignettes introduce thirteen stories, each vignette no longer than a page and most of them shorter, describing one repulsive horror after another as it besets the earth. Each has an anonymous first-person narrator, a witness to the destruction whose identity no longer matters in a life that offers no affiliation...