“Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia”
By Blake Butler; Harper Perennial; $14.99, 288 pages
Butler, who is also the author of “Ever”and”Scorch Atlas, “grew up in Atlanta and still lives here. He blogs at www.gillesdeleuze committedsuicideandsowilldr phil.com, and edits the blogs HTML Giant (htmlgiant.com)and laminationcolony.com.
by Gina Webb
A little more than halfway through Blake Butler’s new book, he reveals a sure-fire cure for insomnia, courtesy of the great director, Alfred Hitchcock, who shared it during an episode of his classic TV series. “‘It comes in capsule form, ‘ Hitchcock says, arranging a row of five bullets nose-up on his desk. ‘”For best results, they must be taken internally.’”
It’s one of the lighter moments in “Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia, ” Butler’s hallucinatory, stream-of-consciousness exploration of a condition that affects about 60 million Americans at some point in their lives.
“Every moment that I sleep I’ve fought for with my entire body,” says Butler, who has suffered from insomnia all his life. Even as a baby, sleep terrors scared him so badly he couldn’t be comforted, and at 8 he began to have recurring nightmares of a huge boulder that slowly rolled toward him each night, stopping just short of crushing him.
But where once fear kept him awake, now it’s mostly thinking — nonstop, relentless, train-wreck thinking — and marathon writing.
For example, Butler wrote the first draft of his third novel in 10 days — all 40,000 words of it. In “There Is No Year” (2010), a family of three move into a house where they find a “copy” family already living there, rooms filled with hair, a strange egg, and swarms of ants. Reviewers called it “intensely surreal and abstract, ” and “a haunting glimpse into a parallel universe.”
It was a universe of houses within houses, hidden doors to nowhere, holes, insects, mold, aging parents, dementia, horror movies, objects that watch us at night, and the immensity of air and light surrounding the sleeper. Butler revisits this world in “Nothing, ” as well as the novel’s poetic, difficult language — an unnerving mash-up of the contemporary, the archaic (”therein, ” “unto”), a sprinkling of skateboard slang (”rad”) and Butler’s very own syntax:
“Forget the moon and drowning stars, so worn out against glowing that they often appear not at all; at night, the earth does something different, as if underwater, a mottled mirror of the environment of day, as through the same spheres and bowls and bells of buildings, windows, streets, arches and cars appear; the same in their sinking to the no-light as in any shining, in the night they appear other, covered over, thick.”
Not surprisingly, Butler’s 4 a.m. concerns aren’t your garden-variety conversations with a co-worker, or what to say to the boss about that raise, or whether or not to get two or four new tires for the car.
Think David Lynch. In the waking dreamscape where Butler’s thoughts spin out of control, he could be De Quincy’s opium-eater wandering through a Dali painting by way of a poem by Antonin Artaud — if the whole thing were enclosed in Butler’s childhood home in Atlanta, where he still goes to write.
Along with compulsive wordplay (”4 a.m., I am. Swam, or swimming. Swat team. A-team. Guns. Fire, Forest. Mountain climbing) and “sleep catastrophizing” (worrying about the consequences of losing sleep), Butler’s wide-awake meanderings may include revisiting childhood guilt, comments he’s read on Facebook, the envisioning of a stranger’s suicide, surrealist images (a pocket watch made of ash, “a snare drum made of sand”) and the ever-present awareness of “the counting-down clocks.”
He also explores his subject in more objective fashion, delving into the history of insomnia, its causes, the parallels between sleeplessness and the unending flood of information via the Internet, the cumulative impact of prolonged suffering, and a few record-breaking bouts — including his own, when at 20, he stayed awake for 129 hours and “began hallucinating and saw heads in the wall and remember talking to the heads and walking through long holes of colors.”
One chapter offers a loose account of attitudes toward sleep and sleep-study developments throughout the ages, as well as seemingly random lists of inventions — “In the nineteenth century, we get local anesthesia, the revolver, kaleidoscopes, gas stoves and bikes, the tuning fork” — each entry not unlike the revolving door of associations that keeps Butler from ever falling asleep.
He includes an inventory of cures that, sorry, face it, never work — not self-hypnosis, sleeping pills, or exotic herbal concoctions (”uncooked oats . . . dried chamomile flowers and a pinch of mandrake”), and certainly not well-meaning but useless advice about bedtimes and bedtime habits (”don’t nap”).
Meanwhile, says Butler, “having patients focus on and identify the thoughts that keep them up, thereby subverting the brain by turning it against its own weight, instead of crawling further in, ” may be a counterintuitive cure.
If that’s true, fellow insomniacs, put the bullets away and come closer — you’ll find much here that mimics the mindtrack to your nightly ordeal, and who knows? It could add up to just what’s needed to break the cycle.
For the rest of us, the queasy feeling of having stumbled into someone else’s nightmare reminds us how lucky we are to be able to read “Nothing” for a while, put the book aside, close our eyes and fall asleep.