Alice Knott by Blake Butler. Review by Rose.

Book cover: Alice Knott by Blake ButleIn London, many years ago I visited a surrealist art exhibition. The museum had a grand piano suspended upside down from the ceiling, the mechanisms of the piano appeared to spill out whilst playing clanging discordant music. This object, towering high in the air, altered your entire view of the room. It was the start of a journey into altered perception and surrealistic art, film, objects, and paintings. Surreal films played including ‘Meshes of the Afternoon’ by the female director, Maya Derren (1945). In one scene in this film, the house appears to move, and the character is flung from wall to wall, the architecture no longer secure or stable: the film viewer’s perception is altered, creating a feeling of disorientation. This is how I felt reading this novel.

The idea for the name of the main character in this book, Alice, came from Butler’s mother who had Alzheimer’s. His mother asked him many times if he had read a book by a woman called Alice. Alice who? He asked. ‘Any book by someone named Alice is probably good, she answered. Butler wrote this book while he cared for his mother in the family home (Shane Jones, Believer Logger, 2020).

This book begins with a criminal act. An anonymous group, video the destruction of a painting worth millions, stolen from the reclusive heiress, Alice Knott. The video is watched by millions of people all over the world. This crime becomes a debate, a sensation that shocks, mystifies, and disgusts people who witness the obliteration. The faces of the criminals were hidden. The spectacle is conducted in an organised ceremonial fashion with clinical precision. Could it be activism? Is it a statement about consumerism and art? Is it a proclamation about the wealthy and possessions? Could it be a corporation destroying art?

This scene reminded me of the film ‘The King of Comedy’ by Scorsese. It has the same type of surrealness and off-centre bizarreness that makes you laugh out loud. This destructive behaviour is eventually replicated by members of the public, including a housewife, a dentist, and a student who visit galleries, either determined to immerse themselves and their bodies into famous art pieces or transform the piece with their doodling.  All say they felt driven to commit these damaging acts. Butler, in an interview for the Observer by Michael Seidlinger, said: “I don’t think art exists as a concept separate from flesh.”  The idea that our subjective perception of the world around us is shaped by aspects of our bodies, including the importance of art and the connection we feel to it, is known as ‘Embodied Cognition’ and is well documented.

The reader is then thrust into the subterranean depths of the reclusive heiress Alice Knott and her fractured recollections of the past. Her thoughts are an erratic stream of consciousness, submerging the reader into the strange macabre environment of the family home. Butler captures the subterranean depths of Alice’s psyche, her fleeting thoughts, confusion, hidden desires, scattered reflections, and moods. Alice’s world is a place where people and objects change regularly, and visual distortions are commonplace. It is a gothic surreal dreamscape with memory functioning like the illusions found in dream states, rather than the waking mind. Alice’s labouring brain, at times, sounds like a character from ‘The man who mistook his wife for a hat' a set of stories about neurological disorders by neurologist Oliver Sacks. Only a condition of the brain or a potent psychedelic drug could manifest this otherworldly territory.

Alice recalls the house she was brought up in, just large enough to squeeze the three of them inside. Still, when she wakes a little older, she discloses her shock at finding entire passageways, spaces, and even objects that did not exist earlier on her walks. The shape of the house is distorted in her mind, with rooms and corridors leading her to places never seen. The ceilings and walls expand and constrict under her gaze. The design of each room fits a unique historical period, from Victorian to the Depression-era. The colours and patterns of the wallpaper encroach on her mind making her dizzy, as she wanders through this magnifying and constraining architectural wonder, a mansion filled with haunting tales and the trauma of a family, a story that unravels itself like a long distressing illness. She recollects the ‘unfather’, her name for a man that she believed replaced her actual father, and a twin brother she never sees but feels like a presence behind her.

The house soon becomes a dominant character in the story. The transmuting interior, a symbol of the disjointed chaos in Alice Knott’s psyche. The adult Alice, much older, sees the processes of her thoughts and physiology as if observing them and herself, from a distance. Her memories and sense of time are fractured, like a pane of shattered glass, splintered shards that have no continuity or order as separate entities.  She recalls her stolen paintings and explains why these images were critical to her life at the time she purchased them. How do we look at paintings? What is it about some paintings that draw us in and transfix us? Some art pieces resonate with us; we may recognise something in an image and link it to a memory or we may feel a connection to a piece of art. Some art we would long to take with us back home if only we could. The power of art cannot be underestimated. Creativity can assist a person struggling to overcome traumatic events. The importance of art and imagery is central to this story. Trauma and its long-lasting effects are also a theme.

Butler is a gusty young American writer. He is willing to experiment with fiction and storytelling. He creates an unsettling textured atmosphere, describing environments in a way that creates a mind-altering experience, and a remarkable shift in perception for the reader.

An interview with Blake Butler by Shane Jones at 'The Believer Logger'