By Blake Butler
Blake Butler’s fourth novel opens with a surreal scene, caught on video, in which a real piece of art is being systematically obliterated: Two anonymous figures remove Willem de Kooning’s painting “Woman III” from a wall, and a third incinerates it with a flamethrower as an audience looks on. The painting has been stolen from an heiress, Alice Knott, who is initially bewildered as to why anyone would commit such a violent act of vandalism.
The story then pivots to Alice’s bizarre childhood, or what she remembers of it. She has distinct memories of a family consisting of a mother, a father and herself. One day this suddenly and inexplicably changes when the father disappears, “without any form of friction at all, any blight beyond where Alice herself felt it — not her mother, no one else. The man had simply completely ceased appearing anywhere, as far as Alice knew, including in others’ memory but hers, or any trace of evidence he’d ever been.” Eventually, a new family imposes itself on Alice, this one including the same mother, a different father and a new twin brother.
The physical state of her childhood home isn’t fixed either: Its size, furnishings and dimensions are in flux. The fact that neither Alice’s family nor their house can be depended on to stay the same is, I think, meant to obliterate any and all feelings of comfort that the idea of home or family might provide the protagonist or us, the readers.
(Also: Alice’s twin grows up to be a serial killer. That may feel like an alarming bit of news to present as an afterthought, but I do think it speaks to the nature and scope of this book that I almost forgot to mention it.)
The rest of the story revolves around what happens when footage of the de Kooning’s destruction goes viral. It leads to more videos of art being destroyed — including “The Strength of the Curve,” by Tullio Crali, which is burned in an oven. What follows is an epidemic of increasingly brutal attacks against art until, at last, Alice is caught up in this frenzy herself.
Butler can write clean and sharp sentences — that’s in evidence in the first few pages, on the destruction of “Woman III.” But when the narration moves closer to Alice (where it resides for the majority of the book) the prose gets more attenuated and confusing. If you’re not careful, you might mistake it for messy, but I think there’s an exceptional amount of intention and control on display in the telling of this story. There’s no doubt that Butler is saying precisely what he means to.
Even so, I initially found it grueling to read this book. Trying to precisely comprehend every line of “Alice Knott” felt like wrestling an opponent who very clearly had the upper hand. But once I gave myself permission to experience this prose as I do poetry, the reading experience became much more pleasurable and rewarding.
If you’re already familiar with Butler’s work then I suspect you already know what I mean. If you aren’t then let me say clearly: Don’t expect a conventional reading experience. “Alice Knott” is a meditation on art and perception whose form seems to serve as both a meta-comment on the function of the novel, and a challenge to the expectations that a reader should bring to one. It’s rare for me to enjoy and value a book on those terms, but this one worked for me. And even more to the point, I respected it for insisting that I rise to its challenge.