excerpt from Alice Knott
By Blake Butler - Dec 15, 2020
The following excerpt is from ALICE KNOTT, Blake Butler’s new novel, available now from Riverhead Books.
At New York’s MoMA, Henri Rousseau’s The Dream (1910) is attacked with a straight razor by a local college professor of physics, who after screaming “I am the fuck of your reality” stabs the image of a full moon in the painting’s upper right-hand corner eleven times before restraint. A video, less viral than prior efforts, circulates briefly, showing police beating the man into submission as he attempts to struggle free, screaming over and over for his mother by her first name.
And on the same floor, in the same afternoon, Umberto Boccioni’s Dynamism of a Soccer Player (1913) survives attack in the form of a recently laid-off nanny’s attempts to pry the painting from its frame, resorting then to punching the face of the image with her fists so hard the pigment would be forever dented, if in a way almost not visible to the passing eye. In her purse, they find nearly a week’s worth of leaking frozen meatloaf dinners crammed into otherwise empty vessel, with a handwritten note that says, You may not eat me.
Later that afternoon, downtown at the New Museum, a set of twins left briefly unsupervised by their young parents climb over the dividing rail around Chris Burden’s A Tale of Two Cities (1981), where they are then able to run and roll in gleeful hysteria across a significant stretch of the installation’s meticulously arranged landscape before their detention. It is, of course, the parents who will be charged, resulting in a month-long exposé in which the mother attempts to out the father, an accountant, as a secret correspondent for the CIA, claiming he had triggered the children to act out by placing his finger in their ears and administering a serum concocted and administered by the government for centuries in the manufacturing of the exact timeline of our history as it had already been conceived. In the end, only the mother will serve time.
And the next morning, across the country at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, Katie Grinnan’s Mirage (2011) is assaulted by a security attendant who had been assigned that day to watch the very room in which the work had been displayed, a violent outburst that then continues onto nearby bystanders, leaving four wounded and one dead. “I could no longer stand to let it go on like this,” the guard is quoted as saying upon arrest. “It isn’t right. It isn’t the way I am, we are, we have been. This disease. This eye within the eye. I am become overcome, my bones. No new future.”
And across the ocean, at almost the same time, a recently married architect is arrested for trying to masturbate onto the face of Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893), succeeding only in exposing himself to dozens from a visiting middle school, amid their actual audible replications of the target’s representative act. While imprisoned, the culprit will attempt to sever his genitalia with the bent edge of the leg of a metal bedframe and die from blood loss.
And a substitute teacher removes the section of mirror from Joan Miró’s sculpture Object (1932), allowing it to fall free on the ground, as if the mirror had been scalding to the touch once broken free, shrieking in high-pitched furor as they come to stop her, unable thereafter to make any kind of human speech, only more shrieking.
And a Boy Scout with a pocket knife manages to stab Rembrandt van Rijn’s Judas Repentant, Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver (1629) twenty-two times without triggering attention of the guards before he stops and lies face down by his own will on the floor and goes at once into a coma; only later will it be discovered that he had been blind from birth, with no clear explanation for how he’d delivered himself from the home of his also blind legal guardian, his grandmother, her home more than one hundred miles away.
And somewhere else an elderly woman throws her body into Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), so hard that it shatters the glass and spills formaldehyde into the gallery, pooling out into the nearby rooms like a sick tide; the woman later tells the press she “wanted to take the place of the shark and let the shark live in sunlight forever instead of what I am because soon there will be nothing.”
What is wrong with all these people’s minds, people keep asking? Why did it have to come this far, and what will be enough to make it stop? Many have their own opinions on the outcome, the exposure, though in the end none will be true, never exactly as it happened; and neither, then, will the story whoever is left in years thereafter to pass it on.
Regardless, two different kinds of neon blue paint are sprayed simultaneously onto Salvador Dalí’s Girl at a Window (1926) by the left and right hand of a young mother, who has left her sixteen-month-old child at home alone to fend for himself so that she might go and make the pattern of an upside-down cross over the famous image. In her absence, the child will be found having ripped all the pages out of a copy of the Bible passed down through their family for more generations than anyone might like to recall, her first work as a living artist.
And that same day Antoine Bourdelle’s Head of Apollo (1900) is lifted up by a young violin prodigy and carried across the exhibition chamber at a run before being dunked like a basketball into the back of the head of an unwitting patron, inflicting physical damage that will eventually prove critical.
And a young housewife produces a steel baton from underneath her dress and attacks Glenn Ligon’s neon-bulb sculpture, Untitled (America) (2018), then fends off security by cutting her arms with fragments from the wreckage, spraying blood she screams is “sick blood” at them until she is eventually restrained using plastic sheeting and a Taser.
And another and again and so on, all like this; the hour in the hour rendered full, as if to splitting, each act made done in separate rooms touched by the same air, hemispheres and days apart.
Each occurrence, once it is committed, has been committed. It cannot thereafter be unwritten from the replicating pages of organs of the media that continue to carry it forward by mouth and eye, regardless of how quickly we must continue to move on, accumulating more and more preposterous occasions into mass memory until eventually it’s no longer possible to properly attend to any one.
And meanwhile, in the news of local politics and weather, birds keep falling from the sky in flocks, their pupils overrun with scads of parasite; six different elementary schools in the same district all burn down on the same day, a serial accident cited in connection to faulty work done by a major contractor, now running for mayor; a bag boy kills eighteen by slipping arsenic into each box of doughnuts that he is forced to touch by way of work; sales of Aricept reach an all-time high; Stonehenge collapses; a long wing of the Mall of America collapses; the president’s twin brother appears on the nightly news to ask that we bow our heads with him and pray. It is unclear what any of these events have to do with what’s being done elsewhere, how it connects; how it might have gone differently or could never have gone differently. Soon, one might imagine, there will be more instances of damage than can be accounted for, so much so we won’t even be able to recognize the real from the unreal; a mass of incorporated acts eventually surpassing our mental bandwidth, lost in the gape.
It is, after all, just another day held over in our remaining hours, as some of us struggle just to stand; the light in the room of the ongoing reportage, tuned into by millions, maintains the same conductive quality as ever, at once neurotic and antiseptic, biding its lines, beneath the whites of the eyes of the news anchors in every local hemisphere as soft as something bled to death, too primed; against all of which the ongoing ambient buzzing of the production, the heavy lights, the operators, their flawless makeup, obscures the soundtrack just enough to make any one word seem off from what it meant.
The strangest thing, to Alice, in the midst of the world as it unfolds, both by word of mouth and in her heart, is how none of it seems actually strange at all, despite its lack of precedent. Not that it had already happened before, in another life even, but that she’d felt it coming her whole life. From her incarcerated state, each aspect of the present seems in its reception like something that could have been in one of her father’s books or a plotline in the show they’d watched together as a family, neither of which she remembered as her own memory beforehand; at least, an echo of those, embodied by their air. The present’s occurrence effectively affects her as any newly unveiled episode would have, even knowing that, even days later, often only one small scene or minor aspect of the production is all that will still stick—the way a character said something more than what was said, even; the stunning color of a walk-on’s leggings or lips, perhaps, as seen moving through the background of a shot, elements not meant to have specific purpose, it seems, but somehow therein occluding the more formal aspects of the entertainment, larger than life. Though the walls of her cell are real, clearly—she can bang her head against them and feel no bend—the words within her don’t feel like hers, seem to have no defining explanation beyond her own mind, their meanings fitting in her like a floodplain, one upon which the rushing waters have long already come and worn down the land to its barest. There could be nothing more there underneath, beyond a burning, the molten core around which churns the mutating crust of Earth.
Sometimes, in the flat of night there, running open, Alice can even hear the texture of her father’s voice—not her unfather, for once, but the one who had been lost—reading to her aloud among the black space crammed into the air behind her eyes. And though she can’t really seem to make out any of the single words themselves, their clusters, or what they mean, she can sense where the sounds of the spoken sentences pushed up against her flesh, the blood beneath. If she can fix herself just so, on the edge of hours passing half-asleep inside her cell as the world without her carries on, it might begin to seem almost as if she is still in her old room in her family’s house instead of here; the mouth of his voice might still appear there reading the words out of the book between her and him, some kind of passage through which she cannot wriggle but can breathe; his whiskers brushing at her ear, his thick tongue clucking, the sound of the language stronger the longer she can go without asking where it came from or what it means. It is the clearest feeling she can count not still today, held so tightly down against her she might soon not remember having ever moved an inch or felt a way.
Read more about ALICE KNOTT, available now from Riverhead Books.