November 25, 2011
MEMOIR

NOTHING
A Portrait of Insomnia

By Blake Butler

HarperPerennial. 326 pp. Paperback, $14.99

For insomniacs, sleep isn’t restorative. It’s a problem to be solved, like a differential equation or Jenga. “Usually I like feet to be allowed out a certain bit from the end of my covers,” Blake Butler says in “Nothing,” a neurotic, overwritten memoir of sleeplessness. “They should never feel constrained — never wrapped up inside the blanket, locked of rummaging access . . . not butted up against or tangled in or even pressing lightly against another plane, which includes my girlfriend, if I have one.” It’s hard to imagine who would volunteer to share a bed with the restless Butler; the hang-ups that prevent him from befriending Mr. Sandman include obsessive attempts to think about nothing, a disdain for sleeping pills and difficulties in channeling “a kind of connective tissue of the self in silence.”


’Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia’ by Blake Butler (Harper Perennial)

“The longer I wait trying to be calm the less calm I am,” he writes. “Some nights it is better then to get out of the bed and walk around as if the day is there.” If the syntax of that last sentence seems off, it’s because Butler — author of two novels and editor of “HTMLGiant,” the “internet literature magazine blog of the future” — tries to capture his own hyperactivity in run-on sentences, bad grammar and stream-of-consciousness. Experimental prose isn’t a crime: It built Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” and “About a Mountain,” John D’Agata’s excellent 2010 account of nuclear waste disposal at Yucca Mountain, doesn’t shy away from pushing linguistic boundaries.

Still, much of Butler’s book may send readers to dreamland, which would be a shame, since there are serviceable chapters on the history of the disorder and on quack remedies. “If I closed my eyes, I might miss the instance of the thing at last that reveals the thing itself,” Butler writes. “The thing about me and the me in me there that I always wanted and never knew to name.” Perhaps his editor should have recommended Tylenol PM.

Justin Moyer

Justin Moyer is the deputy editor of the Morning Mix.
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