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Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia

Blake Butler

(Harper Perennial; US: Oct 2011)

Blake Butler titled his first work of nonfiction Nothing, but it could have just as easily been called Everything. In the way that white seems blank while actually containing every color, Nothing is fraught with an avalanche of insight, memory, fact, fear, and creatively rendered states of mind, giving the material the feel of a 300 page prose poem.


The full title is Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia, aptly describing the book’s format. In this portrait, Butler shows us the landscape of his sleep-deprived consciousness, and the results are amazing to behold—but also uncomfortable to witness.


Although I recommend it, let me first offer a disclaimer about Nothing: Don’t read it before you go to bed. Seriously. It’s a good book and worth a read (especially if you like experimental prose), but it’ll have your mind reeling and totally unready for sleep. Butler is great at showing the anxious mind spiraling from thought to thought, one thing leading to another, accumulating and making sleep impossible. It’s fascinating to observe, but also pretty miserable to experience—not that that’s necessarily a problem. Art doesn’t exist to make us comfortable. And in its strange, dreamlike, swirling text, Nothing succeeds in showing us an insomnia-plagued mind.


Still, it’s not a book for everyone. Its strangeness could definitely be a deal-breaker for some readers. The work is studded with quotes from the likes of Jorge Luis Borges, Samuel Beckett, John Cage, and Lyn Hejinian, which says a lot about this particular work. If those artists are your cup of tea, then read on.


However, expect to feel alienated during long portions of the reading experience. Due to sleeplessness, Butler buries himself under layers of crazed thought that distance him from the readers, so you can bank on feeling isolated while trudging through the murky waters. You’re also likely to get contact dizziness from the intense waves of imagination the writer sends through his text. Really, his brilliance is as much a curse as a gift, since the blankness of night apparently invites him to consider endless possible ideas.
 
The way one thought springs from another, various mental maladies also grow from the initial sleepless source, adding to the headache-inducing elements of the book. Butler writes, “The product of prolonged lost rest in effect operates against the body again like torture or dementia: Anxiety, Depression, Fear, Lability, Introversion, Lethargy, Fatigue, Loss of memory… These ruptures gather in gross packets, feeding one another…” Without question, the results of sleeplessness are maddening, but Butler does more than just tell us that. The writer goes on later, “Without sleep the aggregate aggregates its aggregating aggregations into something at once speeding up and slowing down—beating unseen walls over to find behind them more walls, darker, flatter—spaceless secrets—and so then what then—there you are.” 


This all may test the patience of the solution-finders among us, but as the writer demonstrates, insomnia isn’t easily fixed. Self-medication only makes sleepless matters worse. Butler describes inducing sleep by binge-eating cereal as a teen, which lead to a massive weight problem, which he later remedied with anorexia. The author concedes that alcohol helps to aid sleep, but not really; it grants a shallow sleep that leads to its own problems. Spending hours on the Internet helps, but that’s also alienating; it creates the illusion that users don’t need relationships in the physical world. Medication can help, but it comes with a host of new side-effects. Moderation in everything is key, of course, but if you have a busy brain that’s prone to mania, it’s probably much tougher to stay balanced.


Butler breaks up his whirling thoughts with a few discursive sections about the history of insomnia, which I will admit were welcome breaks for me. He also describes his parents—his mother, who also has trouble sleeping, and his ailing father, who has dementia. The portions of clear-cut autobiography are difficult to read in a different way, but again, they’re very welcome as well—emotional and accessible, with an absence of isolating code.


Personally, I wish Nothing had included more (or lengthier) accessible sections and fewer manic meditations riddled with copious footnotes. (I get the sense that if the book were published online, it would’ve been mostly hypertext.) But that’s not the kind of book Butler made. Fair enough.


As it is—an abstract portrait of a sleepless, suffering artist, buried under layers of thought, information, body mass—Nothing succeeds in showing readers a frenzied mental state they’ll probably be egger to abandon once they’ve finished the book. Luckily, the memoir ends on a strange but useful note, lending some meaning to the madness and with a conclusion that’s appropriate and satisfying.

Rating:

Sarah Watson is a Chicago-based freelance writer and book critic.


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