“Alice Knott” by Blake Butler:
In a shockingly blasphemous scene, at least blasphemous so to connoisseurs of art, the novel sets the tone for what is to come. What is to come is not clear, yet but it is ominously unfriendly and seems to threaten the very foundations of what we came to understand as art - and thus life and moral.
Alice Knott, a woman, very rich, very old, very peculiar, finds herself the victim of a theft and in the focus of suspicion of being behind this deed that culminated in the destruction of works of art she possessed, works of singularity and irreplaceability.
More disconcerting to Alice than being a suspect or being robbed, though was the thing, an object, that the intruders left behind in the space which once was occupied by a Robert Rauschenberg painting, a piece titled White Painting, a blank white canvas that followed concept over form, reminding of the “continuous non-presence of the possibility of nothingness“.
The object left behind was a mirror. Unforgettable the moment when Alice approaches the object, at first finding it hard to distinguish it as a different object, it being of the same size as the stolen canvas and the surrounding walls being of the same white as the former painting. Then she stood directly in front of it and saw her own reflection as her portrait in a white field. These strong images got me hooked and I kept reading on, intrigued by art’s semantics.
The big one question which arises is of course: WHY?
From now on we slowly get to see glimpses of who Alice is and was and it is a disturbing sight we see. Alice is haunted by childhood demons, by a father who mysteriously and inexplicably vanished one day, only to be replaced by a person who claims to be her father, a look-alike twin brother who, as an inmate in death row escaped his fate for unknown reasons, a mother who resists all questions and references to her vanished husband. In short: she is haunted by a family she deeply distrusts.
The mind into which we are forced to plunge is a strange, distorted, traumatized and tortured one. A phantasmagoric nightmare, a kaleidoscopical dream state, not easy to confront. More and more one is reminded of another famous Alice, the one who went down the rabbit hole.
Soon we learn of the downfall of the family, how Alice was left, after the death of her parents, with a heritage of immense wealth. Her ominous twin vanished soon after.
Things begin to change over night, rooms appear, corridors open up. We are yet not certain if this is real or imagination.
The prose, when it describes the mental state of Alice, is a mostly cool descriptive voice in a differentiated, sophisticated language which sometimes, quite surreptitiously, brings to mind the dictation of Henry James.
Then more art all over the world is vandalised and destroyed. Reality, memory and imagination begin to shift and mingle until we are no longer certain of what Alice sees is the blackness of her mind, the TV screen on the wall or reality.
The novel slowly begins to feel like a dystopian science fiction story or a metaphor for doomsday.
And then, after reading exactly half of the book, all of a sudden I lost interest. I no longer wanted to wander around in such a strange mind without at least a glimpse or an idea of where this tale could be leading. I admit, my patience was exhausted and although I found the prose a good one, it couldn’t catch my attention any longer. Not for the length of yet another book half. I grew tired of having to guess what was really going on, what is really happening.
And by now I don’t even care anymore.
This is one of the very rare occurrences where a book started out wonderfully promising and sadly ended up in indifference. Although it was in many parts an intelligent construct and an intriguing read, in the end (or rather: In the middle) it failed to be the book for me. Strangely, too I remember the description of the Rauschenberg canvas, somehow its possible reading now extending to this book: “a continuous non-presence of the possibility of nothingness“.
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