“From where Alice sits, after all, nothing has changed: the walls are still walls … no one and nothing but her inside herself again, alone.”
After months of quarantine, too many people can relate to the feelings of the eponymous character in Blake Butler’s novel “Alice Knott,” published in July.
The work tells of an aged and reclusive heiress living in a world with vague mentions of a plague, riots, ineffectual public leaders and people driven insane by well known works of art when random and absurd acts of violence break out in museums around the world.
The beginning for all the museum mayhem is when one painting, Williem de Kooning’s “Woman III,” is stolen and destroyed from Alice’s home in the opening pages of the novel. The painting’s incineration is broadcast online and spreads virally, witnessed by millions of people.
Much less permanent than art is Alice’s sense of self and her fragmented memories. We learn of her unhappy childhood with her mother, her brother Richard, and her stepfather, who is addicted to reading a mysterious collection of books. Alice remembers Richard as at one point a serial killer on death row, or just someone who was once a disturbed youth, or he might be the man who is visiting her and wants to see the vault where the rest of her art is stored.
We’re then taken on a surrealist journey in which Alice is at one point surveilled, taken to a hospital or prison, and then executed before we meet her again in her mansion. The upheaval of the outside world breaks into her interior life, no matter how sequestered she is. Absent from “Alice Knott” is any kind of standard dialogue. Rather we read chapters that are more like vignettes with a style that has winding and baroque sentences, further driving home the idea of the isolated state of the title character.
“Alice Knott” points to other works, notably of course “Through the Looking Glass.” David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” shares the theme of addictive and paralyzing entertainment. The vast but obscure organization known as “Void” in this book is also a nod to the conspiratorial intricacies of Thomas Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49,” a short novel that showed much of the anxieties of the 1960s – a shift in trust in authority and many cultural institutions and coming face to face with a conspiracy only to find out there might not be a conspiracy after all.
In trying to make sense of a crazy world, sometimes it’s good to know you’re not alone, even if that includes empathizing with a character who isn’t real.