When a video showing the destruction of a Willem de Kooning painting goes viral, copycat crimes erupt across the world. The de Kooning, among other destroyed works, turns out to have been stolen from Alice Knott, an aging heiress isolated in her family home for decades.
... moments of clear emotional connection are rare, as this Knott proves too bizarre, its rhetoric too baroque, to function as some potboiler ripped from the headlines ... Butler’s concern is with the nature and value of art, and the related mystery of individual identity ... the reading never feels like lab work. Rather, sentence after anfractuous sentence comes alive ... For me the style packed a delicious wallop. I was seduced by touches like Alice’s meditation on her lonesome childhood ... I was wowed by Alice’s recognition that she’s less a self than an amalgam ... a remarkable accomplishment; still, I shouldn’t overlook a more accessible pleasure of the text ... the narrative both fascinates and confounds ... Butler...revels in abstraction, his Not-Alice on a ramble through Nebulous-Land. Therein lies the great challenge for a reader, the feeling that we’re getting nowhere, that whatever is achieved in one paragraph goes to pieces in the next. Yet this quicksand of story, its glimmers lovely but slippery, manages improbably to generate suspense. A plot emerges, a classic: the protagonist goes on a quest for her origins.
Butler can write clean and sharp sentences — that’s in evidence in the first few pages ... But when the narration moves closer to Alice (where it resides for the majority of the book) the prose gets more attenuated and confusing. If you’re not careful, you might mistake it for messy, but I think there’s an exceptional amount of intention and control on display in the telling of this story. There’s no doubt that Butler is saying precisely what he means to ... Even so, I initially found it grueling to read this book. Trying to precisely comprehend every line of Alice Knott felt like wrestling an opponent who very clearly had the upper hand. But once I gave myself permission to experience this prose as I do poetry, the reading experience became much more pleasurable and rewarding ... If you’re already familiar with Butler’s work then I suspect you already know what I mean. If you aren’t then let me say clearly: Don’t expect a conventional reading experience. Alice Knott is a meditation on art and perception whose form seems to serve as both a meta-comment on the function of the novel, and a challenge to the expectations that a reader should bring to one. It’s rare for me to enjoy and value a book on those terms, but this one worked for me. And even more to the point, I respected it for insisting that I rise to its challenge.
Butler’s inventive mind-game is a dire warning about our numbing obsession with entertainment, our degradation of the planet, how we measure the value of art and creativity, and our unanswered hunger for meaning and belief ... Alice struggles to understand who she is—like most humans, but times 10—and what is real. Butler uses this complex dystopian puzzle to explore age-old existential questions made new and newly alarming by scientific advances and late-stage capitalism.