Novel Approach: Trauma, art and memory seethe in baffling Blake Butler novel ‘Alice Knott’

“I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.” —Edgar Allan Poe

Sanity is something most people take for granted, we just function under the assumption that we are fully sane and have full control over our cognitive functions. The same cannot be said for the narrator of our latest read.

Alice Knott by Blake Butler

Blake Butler’s latest novel is not the sort of book a reader can quickly devour, rather it is written to befuddle readers, putting them in a similar state of confusion that dominates the protagonist’s world.

Thick and richly written “Alice Knott” leaves readers with questions about the protagonist’s life and the declining state of her mind as the plot progresses. After several prominent works are stolen from her home and destroyed in a viral video, Alice finds that the thieves left an odd mirror in the place of one of the stolen paintings and that the mirror has a troublesome effect on her already puzzling grasp on reality.

The story about an art theft and destruction of great works is deeply interwound with Alice’s own personal trauma that seems to be locked away in her childhood memories she can only glean but not quite grasp. The trauma that locks Alice’s mind in an ever-shifting realm of bafflement is written with an elegant pen shadowed by the unreliability of Alice’s narration.

Admittedly, this book is not for everyone. While it is written beautifully, the text is dense and like its protagonist, some readers might feel that instead of absorbing the content of Butler’s prose, the words merely run away from the mind like raindrops on a rooftop. This is not a book readers easily flip through, it certainly is not a beach read, but those with a passion for artwork might find it compelling to read and discuss “Alice Knott” together for a more literary minded book club.

From the book jacket…

Alice Knott lives alone, a reclusive heiress haunted by memories of her deceased parents and mysterious near-identical brother. Much of her family’s fortune has been spent on a world-class collection of artwork, which she stores in a vault in her lonely, cavernous house. One day, she awakens to find the artwork destroyed, the act of vandalism captured in a viral video that soon triggers a rash of copycat incidents. As more videos follow and the world’s most priceless works of art are destroyed one by one, Alice finds that she has become the chief suspect in an international conspiracy—even as her psyche becomes a shadowed landscape of childhood demons and cognitive disorder.

If you enjoy...

Readers with a fondness for unreliable narrators or narrators with unraveling minds might also enjoy “The Alarming Palsy of James Orr” by Tom Lee. The novel follows a man’s declining sanity after he wakes up one morning to find that half his face is paralyzed.