Neon Ceiling: Hope and Memory in Butler’s ‘Scorch Atlas’

Blake Butler in his collection of short stories, Scorch Atlas, writes an earth that is rotting with words so vivid that you can actually see this slow peeling of the earth, and feel the flakes swirl in the festering atmosphere around you. This decay is not only limited to the physical world, but also encompasses an emotional one. Butler’s characters are shells of themselves, mirroring their external world, moving slowly through physical and emotional sludge. Grime builds up in the crevices of their skin and, while reading of their lives, your skin also begins to itch with filth as you are transported onto this scorched earth.

A story that particularly resonated with me was Butler’s “The Gown From Mother’s Stomach”. A mother, unable to acquire a new gown for her daughter, begins to eat everything in sight in order to make a dress from herself.

God will knit it in my womb like he did you.

She eats her clothing, the quilt, toilet paper, the curtains and even her own hair when it falls out in order to make this gown for her daughter. The daughter tries to reason with her, but to no avail. The mother continues to eat and, when she is unable to move, tells her daughter of the time when she spoke with a bear. This recollection is one of the very few hopeful elements in the story, as it hints at a better time, but even this memory is questionable as the mother becomes more and more delirious.

This doubt over memory, over these faint glimmers of hope, is formed by the thought that the memory could have been created and planted in her subconscious unwittingly by herself. She may have done this in order to survive such a desolate environment by giving herself hope, believing that if things were once good, they could be so once again. However, to both the mother and the daughter, the memory is real.

The problem with the mother’s memory of the bear is that it creates a monotonous, damaging circle and the theme of chewing echoes this repetition. The mother endlessly chews to make an unwanted gown and the father chews all of the food in the house in an attempt to relieve his ceaseless depression. They go through motions that they have always done in order to find something new. It echoes the broadly quoted saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. They both crave new experiences, because they want to create new memories and therefore hope, but in their search to satisfy themselves, they perish.

The daughter goes in search of a talking bear to mirror her mother’s memory. She desires to experience something new in order to create hope, just like her parents. During her search, she witnesses wondrous events, but to her they are spectacles that are seen daily and are, therefore, boring.

She saw many things that you or I would gape at – two-headed cattle, lakes of insect, larvae falling from the sky – all things to her now everyday.

She becomes desensitised to such spectacles, because they have already been experienced and thus lose their power to become new memories.

She had no idea she’d come full circle to her backyard when she found the bear standing at a tree.

It is not until she is eaten and excreted from the very bear she hoped to find that she can experience a purely new sensation. The daughter is taken out of the circle and unformed outside of it as “a strange fluorescence”, something her parents were unable to do. Through her death from the mother’s memory, the circle is broken and hope can begin to shine through.

She spread across the wrecked earth and refracted through the ocean to split the sky: a neon ceiling over all things, a shade of something new, unnamed.

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