The New Violence in Literature
First of all, if you haven’t read anything by Blake Butler, go do it now. I suggest Scorch Atlas. It’s fine. I can wait.
You back? You feel dirty?
Butler is easily one of the best voices of this trend in underground literature. He, along with Sean Kilpatrick, Sam Pink, and a few other authors that get published by Lazy Fascist Press, Featherproof Books, and Tarpaulin Sky Press are at the forefront of a new kind of book. The kind that makes you squirm. These are books that you stop reading not because you want to, but because you have to.
Taking notes from both b-movie horror films and Shakespeare, these authors are developing a new kind of literary violence the likes of which has never been seen before. It is the violence of nameless links to videos of beheadings. You don’t see it coming, but once it’s there, you can’t look away. Everything is described in perfect grueling detail, a literal counting of just how many ropes of entrail are strewn across the floor. The language zig-zags between poetic highs and vulgar lows. Sentences act as biting commentary on the depersonalizing nature of technology while simultaneously describing base sexual desires.
This style reflects the nature of our age of instant gratification. Image after image is plastered in front of us, so much so that we can’t possibly catch them all and they end up mashed together in a bloody pulp at the back of our minds.
The same goes for the violence found in these books. When the stream starts, it doesn’t stop, not until you put the book down or you somehow reach the end. But unlike those endless streams of Youtube videos, this violence leaves you changed. You stand scared in your bedroom, wishing the images would leave your head, but there are just so many of them, you’ll never be able to get rid of them all.
To call these books Horror seems wrong, even though they are horrifying. These authors don’t deal with the world of monsters and serial killers, but instead with the terrifying untapped well of violence that sits in the heart of every human being. The feelings we pretend we don’t feel about our friends and ourselves.
These books look you right in the eye while they tell you in minute detail just how happy they’re going to feel as they break your thumbs. These books want you to watch while they drink your blood. These books want you to die, but not until you’ve seen everything you care about die first. These books are not for everyone.
Houses stretch and bleed with their inhabitants in Blake Butler’s fever dreams. A lonely weirdo contemplates what would happen if he killed his roommate in their claustrophobic Chicago apartment during another wasted day in Sam Pink’s Person. Gil the Nihilist of Gil the Nihilist just wants to see what happens when he hits someone hard enough to make them scream.
Who are these maniacs? What do they want from us? They are the people of these books. They are the characters, they are their authors, and sadly, they are us.
The characters trapped in these tomes thrive on two things—hate and fear. They hate themselves or their families or the world, and sometimes they just hate. From this hate, in a reversal of what Star Wars has taught us, they gain a fear just as powerful as that hate, directed towards all those objects of hate with the same intensity.
Blake Butler’s books take these themes and use them to light the issues of the modern family unit. In what is probably his most accomplished book, Scorch Atlas, Butler tackles these themes through the lens of a post-apocalyptic earth. This novel, told in stories, begins with the end of the world. Plagues of insects, blood, and glass rain down from heaven as the sun burns hotter than it ever has before, reducing the planet to an endless desert that the last humans wander in search of some memory of what once was.
The book shifts focus from family to family as it moves through the stories. A boy searches the ruins of New Jersey for his dead mother in hopes of appeasing his father who has fallen into madness. A mother explores her ruined home as she recounts memories of her children, all of whom died in various fires brought on by the sun’s unrelenting heat.
As you read each story, time moves forward a little at a time. You watch as society collapses further and further, until all that remains are few outcroppings of humanity. Such as the woman who attempts to care for her now feral children with the useless hope that they might regain some memory of her. You watch as she breaks under the realization that there will be no salvation for humanity.
Butler’s future is devoid of all hope, what is broken cannot be fixed, and all that you can do is watch.
While it is true that the world has broken, for Butler, addressing this on the scale of science fiction is too large of a task. You can never know how the governments reacted in the final moments of their existence or if there were any last-ditch efforts to help the rich escape from the planet. You only see the world through the eyes of those that were left behind. You watch them fall apart as people both mentally and physically.
While you never see that large picture of the blackened earth, you know it’s there. Families tear themselves apart without any inkling that they may find a way to reform. By destroying the family unit, Butler destroys the world.
Butler’s other works such as Sky Saw and There is No Year watch families fall apart while the world stays indifferent. In Sky Saw, we find ourselves in what might be the future, but it may just be a dream. People no longer have names, only their designating numbers. Through a mish-mash of language and pus, the tragic love story of Person 811 and Person 1180 unfolds. Unnamed agents steal Person 811 away from Person 1180 after she fails to give birth to healthy children, her womb only produces monsters in this hellscape.
Butler leaves you wondering if any of this is even real. Are these people really trapped in geometric shapes descended to the earth from heaven, or are they attempting to deal with memories of abuse? Did the nameless matriarch really watch her children kill their father, or did they simply push him away because of his overbearing nature?
By forcing the innermost thoughts of violence we hold out of his characters, Butler forces us to look the worst parts of ourselves dead in the eyes, and acknowledge the power that they hold. The novels Butler writes show a world without any restraint. His characters look for what we all seek, love, shelter, belonging, and they often come up short, just as we do. But where they diverge from our day-to-day actions is how they react to this loss.
They find the well of anger that exists in each one of us and bring it to the front with an almost preternatural force. All the pent-up feelings that come along with being wronged are finally released in an unending torrent of violence and sorrow. And here is where we kind find the lessons that Butler wants to teach.
These moments of rage cannot define us. Butler’s worlds brim with the anger of pent-up feelings being released in the worst possible way. Butler’s worlds are the worlds where no one forgives each other, and you can be damn well sure they don’t forget either. If people allowed themselves to revel in their personal rage and sadness the way Butler’s characters do, we would find ourselves in Scorch Atlas.
While Butler fills us with the fear of what it is we are capable of, another author is doing the exact opposite. His name is Sam Pink and he knows you are impotent.
Butler’s words splash blood across the page with a cold look in their eyes. Pink’s just shudder in a corner and hope you stop staring at them. While not explicitly violent in the way of some of the other writer’s in this canon, Pink’s books still leave you with that same vile feeling. Focusing instead on stagnation and inability in the face of the world, Pink’s works bring to mind the violence one works on themselves.
In his novel Person, Pink follows the life of its titular subject—a person. This person is not special or meaningful or even that interesting. In fact, they are the opposite of these things. He is afraid of everything, from interacting with other human beings to attempting to get a job. We view the world through his eyes, and what he sees is bleak.
Reflected in every aspect of his life, this person can only see his impending failures. Locked into them by the notion that they are inescapable, the reader can only watch with a feeling of pity as his life fails to form. We cannot even see him fall apart because there is nothing built up to begin with. He considers going to the job interview he so desperately needs, but instead rides around on the subway all day. Not even he really knows why, having only a vague notion that “it wouldn’t work out anyway.”
In direct opposition to Butler’s characters who care too much, Pink’s care too little. They let the world wash over them as they wait to die—or not, it doesn’t really matter. Their apathy goes beyond waiting for an ending to take them away, they prefer to simply wait in what they wish was an infinite present, knowing full well that even that is doomed to end.
This kind of violence towards the self exists in the lives of many of the twenty somethings you see hanging out in public spaces. The ones that are always standing around in groups not saying anything to each other. Even in togetherness they are alone because they have never fully learned what it meant to be together. They are completely unable to relate to one another because all they’ve ever heard is that “you are special”. With this in mind, each one thinks that they are the voice of this post-everything generation, but what they don’t realize is that by being post-everything, they’ve eliminated the need for a voice.
Their voice is the sound of a Facebook message.
Obsessed with digital and pop culture, this generation is what Pink is writing down. Told by the baby boomers that they could do anything they set their mind to as long as they are willing to put in the hard work, they placed far too much stock in this hypothetical future. As time passed on, these children of privilege have become obsessed with themselves and can’t bring themselves to go into a situation other than the one they dreamed of. Now they find themselves stuck in the midst of global and financial crisis, unable to fulfill these dreams. Instead of considering a possible detour, they would rather sit in their cars waiting for the construction to finish as the gas in their tanks slowly evaporates.
What you may be asking at this point is “But how is this violence ‘new?'” It’s new because it reflects a violence that is new in society. The violence these authors bring to their books is impersonal and lacking in humanity. When the characters behave violently they do so without much thought about the violence they commit. If they reflect on anything, it is how the violence affects them, not those who are are harmed.
An apathy afflicts this generation unlike any other that came before it. There is no drive to learn anything when you can just look it up on your smart phone. There is no drive to help people because who has time for other people’s problems, really? There is no drive to live because what life could there be beyond the one you dreamed for yourself when you were seven?
So when we are forced to look at the world we could never be bothered to look at, we get angry. We get angry because we feel that we can’t do anything, and that the world should know that, so how dare it try to ask us for anything! Then we lash out because we don’t know what else to do.
This violence surrounds us at all times, it has become a way of life for many of us. This violence isn’t just the new violence of literature, it is the new violence of the world.
But is this all these books are trying to tell us? That we’re screwed as humans and we probably won’t find a way out? It may seem that way, but perhaps there is a nugget of hope to be found in the muck of their language.
Yes, it is true that the characters in the works don’t learn anything, but maybe they aren’t supposed to. As readers, we have the advantage of being able to look into the glass box that is the world of a book, while not having to deal with the consequences that the characters face. At least not directly, that is. While they may not be able to learn from their mistakes, we can.
As stated earlier, Scorch Atlas can only become our world if we let these feelings of hatred control us—even Butler knows this. There is only one story in the book in which the characters truly, and selflessly love one another, and they are also the only ones that find salvation. A horribly disfigured man finds a little girl wandering in the desert. The two walk together across the dry bed of the ocean, helping each other combat their burning thirst by sharing stories of the lives. And for the only time in the entire book, it rains water.
Butler doesn’t want the world of Scorch Atlas to be real, no one does. But he does think it is possible. And because it is only possible, not definite, he tells us how we can avoid it.
We all know someone like Pink’s Person. Hell, maybe we are that Person. Constantly wandering and too caught up in themselves to bother to figure out how to stop. But there is a moment in which he does slow down, think, and actually find something that makes him happy. And that is when he shares an orange with a friend. In that moment The Person sits down with his roommate, and shares food with him. Neither of them look at a screen, they don’t wish that the world was more perfect. They simply sit, eat, and joke with one another.
We don’t have to get lost in our own heads, making it impossible for us to find our way in the real world. Not if we reach out to each other. While Pink shows the way young people’s self-centeredness leads them to think that they are above the rest of the world, he also shows how we feel that when we suffer, we must suffer alone.
Pink wants us to know that we can escape the feeling that we must reject the world when it asks us for help if we know that we can ask the world to help us too.
The violence found in these works is very real, but it doesn’t have to be. By rejecting the world we create this violence, but we can avoid it if we do the hard thing, and dare to let someone in.
If this kind of book sounds like something you’d be interested in, here are a few suggestions (all these books have a trigger warning for violence and sexual violence):
Scorch Atlas – Blake Butler
Sky Saw – Blake Butler
Person – Sam Pink
Rontel – Sam Pink
Haute Surveillance – Johannes Goransson
Gil The Nihilist – Sean Kilpatrick (Trigger warning for extreme violence/sexual violence: while all of the books on this list are potentially triggering for the reasons listed above, I feel this book needs a second one because it takes these themes to an even greater degree.)
Butler, Blake. Scorch Atlas. Chicago (Ill.): Featherproof, 2009. Print
Pink, Sam. Person. Portland, OR: Lazy Fascist, 2010. Print.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
Scorch Atlas is possibly the darkest book I’ve read.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not usually too keen on experimental stuff. But some of these works are great literature.
Blake Butler has an amazing voice. I kept thinking of The Stand when reading Scorch Atlas, not because this book has anything in common with it other than post-apocalyptic settings, but but something about the word choice and some of the phrasing just reminds me of the more poetic descriptions of Stephen King.
I had never read bizarro fiction but I had been dying to read Person or any of the Lazy Fascist books out of curiosity. I always seem to be interested in anything that seems to be different from the usual mainstream literature. Loved the read. I will look into Butler’s work next.
Person is weird and interesting and unique and a little aggravating at times. I really liked it.
Bizarro at its finest. Pink doesn’t need unicorns on fire to show us the absurdity of life–just one hopeless guy.
scorch atlas man.. i began liking the book to the point where i couldn’t wait to finish it to begin reading it again.
Recently I read my first Sam Pink book, and I could tell after the first page that it will definitely not be my last!
I have read Gil the Nihilist and thought it was pretty good. Hard to get into at first but gets easier if you stick with it. Ended up reading the whole thing in about half an hour. I will check out the other books. I read a really messed up book of poetry called ‘Tommy Blackwood – I Fucked the Devil.’ Some of the stuff in that made me feel sick. Check it out if you are into this kind of thing. It is pretty hard to find but my friend said he got it here: http://www.danmoxham.webs.com (not sure if he is the author or just selling it) very extreme and horrible parts in this book.
Enjoyed the post. All the best.
Here I thought I was doing something new with my fiction writing, but apparently Sam Pink and Blake Butler beat me to the punch again. It’s rare that violence is portrayed so indignantly and I’m very keen to check out some of the works you suggested.
I thought these were great interpretations on these books–whether I agreed with you in the beginning or not, I now do! I’ve noticed more than ever that characters in modern literature tend to be reflective of our self-centered and violent culture.
In Scorch Atlas, Blake Butler took a well-trodden premise and presented it in an amazingly original and clever way. That is something I will give him credit for.
These authors do a fine job of blending poetry and fiction into an entertaining read.
Sam Pink is a great writer, but “Person”, like many of Pink’s work, does not do enough to develop its…person…
GREAT article! If you ever feel like crap, read Sam Pink. It’s better than eating couch pizza and then wondering what kind of person that makes you. Or not really. I don’t know.
It seems that many of these novels of violence take place in post-apocalyptic settings, and that most post-apocalyptic novels are extremely violent. Perhaps it is a metaphor for what already goes on in our world today, with corporate greed and so forth, but I think that a catastrophic end to our civilization has become a very real possibility, and perhaps these novels provide a glimpse to a very real future.
Although I’m a hardcore fan of Pink’s Person and Rontel, Witch Piss is a new spin on Pink’s writing and everyone should read it.
It’s weird not to spend the majority of a Sam Pink novel outside of the narrator’s head.
Could it be that literary circles are delving into a new level of darkness and violence because the general populace is so desensitized to the reality of extreme violence? In theory, I could go from watching a man get his head graphically caved in during an episode of Game of Thrones, chainsaw some people in half during a round of Gears of War, and go watch any number of people die in horrifying and gore-tastic ways in most horror movies all in a few hours. It isn’t as terrifying as horror with atmosphere and that creeping terror that sticks to the back of your neck, but the visceral reaction we as people have has been tempered down by the sheer amount of stimuli we receive that dulls us to violence. In order to highlight the violence, an author may have to go over the top to levels otherwise unheard of.
I normally read, light hearted fantasy books, but would defiantly give this a read after my already grow list of books to read.
Absolutely brilliant article, although I have yet to read any of the works above-mentioned (they have now officially been moved rather high up my reading list).
The part about our modern culture being devoid of responsibility and rife with a kind of apathy that stems from entitlement and lack of empathy really made me shudder. It’s far too believable and I hope we’re not too far gone yet.
Fascinating piece- definitely added things to my to-do reading list.
I just finished reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace and I’ve started Blake Butler’s There is No Year, and I’m looking forward to seeing how “New Sincerity” lit gets down to some of these “alt lit” motifs like urban ennui, psychosis, and death in comparison with the alt works by newer authors like Butler.
I thought this was a beautifully written article, and a lot of it rang true for me. I think this genre might be too bleak for me but, even knowing this, your article has convinced me to at least try Scorch Atlas…so here goes…
This article was really interesting, even to readers who may not know as much about the genre as you. You really sold Scorch Atlas and I just may have to read it so I can know a little bit more about these works.
These books all sound really interesting. I keep meaning to check out Scorch Atlas. This was a great article; the presence of really intense violence in literature is an interesting social trend, and deserving of more study than I think it generally gets.
I can’t help but take issue with the tendency of seeing this generation as being entitled and devoid of empathy, attention spans, realistic ambition, etc. I understand the urge. It’s frustrating to see people whip out their phones at the slightest threat of an idle moment. However, I think there’s a lot of danger in massing a whole generation of people into an unthinking horde of pop culture worshipers. No matter what kind of impact new forms of media might have on the way we conduct our lives, there’s no kind of technology that is going to truly cancel out human traits like curiosity and empathy. Realistically, I strongly doubt that the percentage of people in this generation who can think critically and care about other people is any lower now than any other time period in history. It’s not a good thing to pity and bemoan an entire generation of people because of a presumption about how they’re experiencing and reacting to the world around them.
Sorry about the wall of text! I really enjoyed the article.
This is a great article, with some fascinating insights. The only push back I would offer to the idea that this is new is to invoke a book like American Psycho–considering this, perhaps what we are seeing now with the trend you write about is a significant point on a continuum.
Lets just say…I have a lot of reading to do.