Blake Butler’s Novel “Alice Knott” Is a Tale of Psychological Disintegration for the Age of Disassociation

If I had a favorite narrative genre, it would be what I like to call “psychological disintegration.” I’ve long been seduced by madness, the deterioration of identity. The descent into madness of the lonely civil servant Poprishchin in Gogol’s Diary of a Mad Man. The identity confusion of Trelkovsky in novelist and artist Roland Topor’s The Tenant. The overwhelming paranoia of Roman Polanski’s female protagonists in Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby — their environments mutating into hallucinatory nightmare projections of their anxieties and fears (side note: Polanski directed an equally terrifying adaptation of Topor’s The Tenant). Tales of psychotic descent evolved through postmodernism and beyond: David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, Bret Easton Ellis’ Glamorama, visual artist Paul McCarthy’s luxuriantly creepy video The Painter, and even Todd Phillips’ surprisingly thoughtful Joker all explore a specifically late capitalist iteration of alienation and psychological derangement. I’ve derived so much pleasure and voyeuristic thrills from witnessing a character’s psyche fragment and distort into something unrecognizable.

Blake Butler’s utterly disoriented and disassociating new novel Alice Knott adjusts this genre of psychological disintegration to reflect the specifically suffocating alienation and loneliness of life in digitized, neoliberal America, circa 2020.

Butler’s texts go far deeper down the rabbit holes of these familiar narratives of descent into madness and hysteria; he illustrates the degradation of the social landscape. His characters aren’t just losing their minds, but losing their minds as they struggle to keep pace with and understand the schizoid cultural sphere. Butler understands our world as one in which rationale and reason have decayed, and any attempt to make sense of this deterioration only results in the rupturing of the psyche.

Modernism was largely defined by the use of analytical deduction to understand, dissect, and interpret the modes of being and thinking against society. Think Sherlock Holmes. Sigmund Freud. Fictional or non-fictional, these figures represent a modernist notion that society and thought can be understood through analysis: of behavior, of psychology, of sociology, of technology. 

But the world of Alice Knott is our world. The modern condition has been replaced with the logic of liquid modernity. Zygmunt Bauman writes of our culture: “What has been cut apart cannot be glued back together.” What makes Butler’s fiction so angst-inducing, chaotic, and frankly terrifying is that he captures characters trying to piece together reality — a narrative — to orient themselves to the world around them. But the world around them has dissolved into amorphousness, and the modernist techniques of deduction do not suffice. What results is a subject lost in liquid nothingness; with nothing solid to grasp onto, the subject sinks deeper and deeper into the abyss.  

In Butler’s delightfully fucked 2014 novel 300,000,000 (the novel that made me a Butler fan), a detective named Flood loses his mind while attempting to extrapolate a sick logic from the diaries of a mass murderer and cult leader. Butler inevitably casts doubt upon the existence of this diary, forcing his emotionally devastated readers to ponder, “What is real anyways? Is anything real?” No. Nothing is real, Butler suggests. You can’t make order in a society that has no foundation. No pattern. This is the devastating logic in which Butler’s fiction loses itself.

Butler’s new novel Alice Knott’s titular protagonist, an aging heiress and recovering alcoholic, lives alone in a sprawling and lonely mansion haunted by an unsettling and ambiguously traumatic upbringing projected as ghastly images throughout its corridors. Alice has squandered her family fortune (the text never indicates the origins of the fortune) on a vast collection of fine art masterpieces. Alice’s dreary and solitary life is rudely interrupted when a video of Willem de Kooning’s Woman III being burnt to a crisp by six unknown figures goes viral on the Internet. 

Willem de Kooning, Woman III, 1953, oil on canvas

The painting had been reported stolen by Alice, who housed the piece along with the rest of her collection in her vault. Alice finds herself embroiled in a conspiracy when more videos of artworks being defaced start flooding the internet. Jim Hodges. Magritte. Duchamp. Louise Bourgeois’ Three Horizontals — an uncanny figurative sculpture featuring three reclining anthropomorphic human forms stacked atop one another, evoking death, decay, and lifeless sexuality — has one of its figures’ mouths pissed in by a possessed and/or despondent attendee of the Tate Modern.

All the while, Alice keeps noticing more artworks vanishing from her vault. The media exploitatively reports Alice as a suspect in the crime spree, a notion troubled by the fact that her memory is fluid. She never remembers if she’s talked to the press or not. But there she is, in those taped broadcasts, making public statements and having them dissected throughout the digital discourse. Alice is struck by her emotional response to the stressful situation. She doesn’t feel afraid or guilty. She doesn’t even feel loss. She feels something closer to “the absence of loss that she should have felt,” writes Butler.

Absence — of memory, of clarity, of understanding — is a hauntological presence in the novel, and the story is driven by a pervasive sense of something being missing. As a reader, you’re constantly waiting for a bit of information that will clarify all the ambiguity, and it never comes.

Alice knows pieces of her life — her mind, even — are missing, but she can’t find those that she needs to complete the puzzle. Alice’s matters are further complicated when she learns that her twin brother Richard, a convicted serial killer, has been released from death row and is a free man. When this fact comes to light in the novel, Butler temporally slices Alice’s psychology; from then on, she seems to be caught between her waking reality and the buried memories that have been hidden away in her subconscious mind.

Butler chronicles Alice’s upbringing as a phantasmatic, hallucinatory array of stunning emotional negligences, familial betrayals, and utterly unexplainable and surreal moments of profound loss. Alice’s memories of her family — like all her memories — are incomplete. They come to her in the forms of images distorted in ways similar to the paintings that she so admires by de Kooning and Francis Bacon. She describes an insular childhood, and barely remembers having any experience beyond the confines of the mansion, with all its gloom and spectral misery.

Alice’s memories of her family are disturbing and traumatic in peculiar ways. She wasn’t beaten, or screamed at, or routinely humiliated. Abuse in Butler’s fiction is subtle and difficult to give language to. The abuse is everywhere, constantly in his characters’ peripheries, half-noticed but always there, lurking and haunting.

Alice describes a childhood lacerated with the eerie. One hesitates to even associate this novel with Freudian uncanny; besides its ostensible story being driven by the rather conventional “dysfunctional bourgeois family in a large haunted mansion” narrative, this is hardly a story in which “the outside has entered the inside” or “the unfamiliar has saturated the familiar.” There is nothing familiar about this tale.

Alice’s mansion isn’t an inanimate structure illuminated by sentient ghosts; it is, in fact, an animate being in and of itself. Alice continuously describes the house moving itself around, shifting architecture, morphing the arrangements of its structures, and folding in on itself like an M.C. Escher print or the bizarrely nebulous government building that provides the setting for the radically creative 2019 video game Control. “There always seemed to be new rooms, and different dimensions to the past ones: higher ceilings, wider walls, different colors to the trim and furniture, and so on,” writes Butler. “Even familiar doors at times seemed not to lead to where they’d previously led, while others led to spaces that did not even seem part of the house.” 

When Alice’s father suddenly disappears, her formerly banal childhood becomes a malicious doppelgänger of its former self. The father’s disappearance is never explained to or understood by Alice. Robbing her of whatever mourning would be necessary, her mom never even responds to Alice’s inquiries concerning his whereabouts. Beyond that, her mom seems to have had all memories of her husband totally erased. It’s not that he’s just gone, it’s that the only person who remembers his existence is Alice. The unexplained absence of her father coincides with Alice’s burgeoning interest in drinking, as well as the emergence of both temporal disturbances and a fracturing in her ability to distinguish between dreams and realities. From then on, and throughout the novel, an ominous fog of doubt subsumes Alice’s perceptions. Nothing can be trusted. Everything in Alice’s world is an illusion… A simulacrum… A Baudrillardian family horror.

The kaleidoscopic familial psychodrama gets darker when Alice remembers how her mother would take in men. Her affairs would turn into relationships, and the men became Alice’s new fathers. But Butler doesn’t mean to say that these men become “father figures” to Alice, but that they literally seem to pretend that they are all the exact same father who disappeared, cosplaying his identity. Alice refers to these imposters as her “unfather”: “And then one day, as if it’d never been another way; an ongoing reformat featuring, most prominently, another father, from out of nowhere, who at once held himself forth as her father for all time.”

But even more ambiguously troubling is Alice’s relationship with her twin “unbrother,” Richard. Alice recalls that she never, or seldom, physically came into contact with her brother growing up. Her parents tell her that Richard is physically ill, and cannot leave his room, which is always locked. And yet, her brother’s “absence” becomes a detectable phantom throughout her childhood — a continuous reminder that something is not right: “Thus, the distressed gap in Alice slowly became a widening expanse, increasingly palpable between her and and those with whom she slept in rooms beside, then turning only firmer as a rallying cause between them, at once walling Alice out and further confirming the distortion of who she’d once felt she was.” 

When the novel returns to Alice’s present day experience, the doors of perception that separate Alice’s waking existence, her memories, and her dreams begin to blur and distort until they all coalesce as one static mode of thought. The novel is structured as an odyssey of sorts, with Alice taken along a strange journey where distinctions between fantasy and reality become meaningless.

Alice is eventually found destroying art at a retrospective of a recently deceased conceptual artist named Alice Novak, who Butler describes as looking eerily physically similar to his protagonist. This kind of doubling happens repeatedly throughout the novel, and Butler has created a literary landscape in which — like a dream — it’s hard not to read every character and setting as anything other than a symbolic representation of Alice’s psychology. 

What Butler locates is how impossible it is for contemporary subjects to stand outside their own psychologies. One could detect influence within this novel of writers like the Japanese surrealist Kōbō Abe, who converted macabre mysteries into labyrinths of broken human thought. But in Butler’s work, this kind of ambiguous ghost story absorbs an element of cultural critique. While he takes us along with Alice through her imprisonment after being charged with the destruction of Alice Novak’s art, her subsequent escape with a stranger who may or may not be her brother, and eventually ending on a vague resolution of sorts, Butler strives to emphasize to readers that it is Alice’s perception that is the novel’s driving force, not its plot. Alice doesn’t know where she ends and the world begins; her pain, trauma, and garbled morass of perverted fantasies and twisted memories have been suffused into the world around her.

Is this not a deadly accurate diagnosis of the contemporary condition? Alice Knott inhabits what Christopher Lasch called a  “culture of narcissism.” Society has been eroded and bottomed out by austerity. Misery has become the norm. Institutions have utterly failed to address the deep material and attendant spiritual deprivation that has swarmed the globalized economy. Media narratives are manufactured in insidious “thought labs” and staked into the hearts of the collective unconscious to be later treated as incontrovertible truths, unquestioned and reterritorialized. As Marshall McLuhan once wrote, “With the arrival of electric technology, man has extended, or set outside himself, a live model of the central nervous system itself.”

The hysteria of Russiagate. The rapid shifts in talking points related to coronavirus. The media’s chaos reflects the turmoil of our lives and the interior hells within our minds. Throughout the novel, Alice finds the media misreporting facts of her life, but she doesn’t even know the facts of her life enough to refute the lies, allowing content producers to generate a life story for her (much like we all do with our Instagram feeds, desperate for anyone to just notice that we are there, anywhere, in the universe).

Butler’s fiction demands multiple interpretations, but it is interesting to consider his use of the motif of the serially destroyed artworks in the novel. In one troubling section of the book, Alice recalls her “unfather’s” obsession with a series of novels that he reads compulsively, refusing to share their contents with anyone else. But the problem is, he is missing one book in the series. Despite his intense readings of these texts, he is incapable of extrapolating a cogent interpretation or analysis from them because the texts are fractured. Diced up. Missing pieces.

Artworks are signifiers of meaning, and we use meaning to orient ourselves to the world around us. But what happens when society itself has been reduced to a spectacle? In a hall of mirrors, an artwork is just another piece of the mirage. It is a lie. The art destructive crime spree in Alice Knott then is a rebellion against a society of nothing in which the bedrock foundational concepts of human life — family, childhood, love, art — have been eroded and neutralized by a dysfunctional system. We live in a world of confusion, and Alice’s temporal and emotional collapse is only a slight intensification of the anxiety and dread that follows us around like a Grim Reaper in our digitally broadcasted lives.

Adam Lehrer is an artist, photographer and writer. Lehrer’s work consists of manipulated photography, collages made of mostly Internet sourced appropriated images, and video loops. He has had solo shows at Spring Break Art Show, Governor’s Island Art Fair, and has been featured in group shows. Lehrer is also a culture writer, and his art, film and music criticism has been featured in Autre Magazine, The Quietus, Forbes, VICE, Bedford & Bowery, Bullett Media, i-D, SSENSE, and more.

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