The Short Version: An unnamed family moves into a new house after their boy barely survived a terrible illness. Strangely, there is a copy family already there. Reality continues to blur very quickly and very overwhelmingly as the three family members encounter… all kinds of strange things. That’s really the plot, to be honest. This happens for 400 pages.
The Review: I was so excited going into this book. For one thing, I got an advance copy from the wonderful people at Harper Perennial, for the express purposes of reading it and blogging about it. For another, it sounded creepy and spooky and unsettling in all the right ways. And for about… a hundred pages or so, it was. There’s minimal background description on the part of Mr. Butler – he does not waste any time setting up the year, the world, the family’s physical description… they’re just there. Barely more than shadows themselves.
At first, the novel (if you could call it that… but we’ll get there) feels like a fever dream from which you can’t wake up. It is uncomfortable in a very unnerving way. The initial feeling of reading this book is like there being a tone just out of your hearing range that sets your teeth on edge and you try to twist away from it but it is just there and has you by the scruff of your neck and there is a moment – one single, enlongated moment that may last for an eternity – of fear. That’s the feeling as you start reading this book.
But alas, the feeling wears off so quickly. The best scary novels are the ones that make the whole experience a ride. In horror – which is arguably what I’d classify this novel under – you can’t allow someone to get comfortable in the scary place. If you do, it quickly becomes not-scary and so you need to go even further to be scary. (See: torture-porn after Saw)
What Butler doesn’t do is go anywhere with this book. With the story. With the characters. He seems to relish in it – and so do some of the back-cover quotes – but by god I was bored. I was straight up bored. Then, as tends to happen when I’m continuously bored by something, there is a moment where it snaps into outright hatred. This moment came for me in this book with the line “as if someone had dragged the universe into Adobe Photoshop and bucket-filled the sky a nonexistent color.” I’m sorry, are you frakking kidding me? Is that a real sentence? I’m not dreaming it? This felt like everything we make fun of/hate hipsters for. It was so glaring, so utterly unnecessary, so ridiculously self-righteous a sentence that I nearly stopped reading the book then and there.
The rest of the book, I realized, doesn’t get any better. Nor does it get any worse – it is another 250 pages of what some might call authorial masturbation. It is Butler writing in incredibly obtuse ways about strange things happening to this family… but even the novelty of his writing wears off after about page 200 (or, for me, with the obnoxious Photoshop reference in the 140s). The characters are less-than-two dimensional, the plot is non-existent, and the book has nothing at all to say. I’d forgive the lack of plot, the cipher-esque characters, if I felt that the book was actually worth reading. There’s something, deep down inside this book, about suburban life that Butler seems to be trying to get at – especially the sequence where the father has to travel increasingly long distances to and from work even though the mileage according to the car isn’t any different. Is it the “Synchronicity II” type of thing that Sting was singing about? That was the best parallel I could think… but it does Sting a disservice. Butler takes the easiest road possible by taking a broad swipe at suburbia by wrapping it into this wannabe ghost story. Instead of anything remarkable, it comes off as collegiate – sophomoric – undergraduate-at-best.
Rating: 1 out of 5. For every moment of intelligence in the writing of this book, there were at least five terrible ones. There’s no way to sugar-coat this: it is a bad book. A poorly written attempt to be “avant-garde” or “radical” or “genre-breaking” or to just wank off. Mark Z. Danielewski did it in far more genre-smashing (and terrifying) fashion with House of Leaves – that was a ghost story, a haunted house story, a piercing look into “what do we want out of the world”, whereas this book is just another wannabe. It is another example of an overly pretentious author publishing purposefully obtuse material that people hail as genius simply because they don’t get it. Well, let me save you the time – there is nothing here to get.