Blake Butler’s frenetic prose transforms rather than comforts. His nightmarish new novel, 300,000,000 has its thematic and syntactic origins in “The Disappeared,” (pdf) a story from his debut collection Scorch Atlas (2009). A teenager’s abuse is discovered during a high school scoliosis check: “Even the cheerleaders saw my bruises.” The boy’s father is made to “shoot free-throws to prove he was a man.” His airballs land him in prison. Parentless, the boy is placed under the care of his porn-watching uncle. The boy longs for his absent mother, whose disappearance is representative of a wider thinning of the population. This pandemic has reached his school, where “Baskets of dental floss and disinfectant were placed in the nurse’s office with the condoms.” Paramilitary officers tackle teachers when they attempt to leave the building. Dead bodies begin to pile. Students “who weren’t sick were going crazy. I watched a boy stick out his own eyes. I watched a girl bang her head on a blackboard.” Surrounded by death, the boy seeks life — the life of his lost mother. He places dots on a map to represent his sightings of her, and the constellation forms her face. Among the wordplay and the gore and the hyperbole, Butler’s final mode is love.
300,000,000, is the logical and emotional evolution of “The Disappeared.” Butler is too young for this new novel to be his endgame, but the book arrives with the feeling that it announces an aesthetic pivot. Butler’s books have been cataloging language’s increasing inability to document America at its exhausted margins. 300,000,000 is a long, unwieldy work. Some readers will flaunt its difficulty like a badge. Others won’t be able to finish. Those who can reach the final pages will be rewarded, though perhaps not with the conventional crowns of fiction. Butler’s work is not for everyone, but for its rightful audience, his fragmented narratives are like revelations.
The novel begins with the discovery of a notebook belonging to an alleged serial killer, Gretch Gravey. Mute upon capture, Gravey’s writing does the talking. His prose is thick with Biblicisms. He seems destined to not merely kill, but consume or absorb the novel’s titular amount of Americans. Gravey’s goal is metamorphosis. Transfiguration. His persona shifts into those he has spiritually consumed, a seemingly endless parade of boys and mothers held prisoners in a house full of sex, drugs, and death. No matter the unnamed narrative voice, all of Gravey’s narrators sound like Butler’s trademark syntax and description: “During this era, Gravey wore his white hair like a robe a lot, wrapped around his fangled body with the weird bruises at his softer points such as his calves and pits and chin, as the networking womb inside him widened.” Long sentences that curve around commas. Scrambled registers of language, with the colloquial and pop living next to the archaic. Images of mothers, births, homes, and night. References to bodies as “meat.” Butler’s repetitions feel less like mannerisms and more like the refrains of some new literary religion. His characters speak in tongues.
Gravey’s disciples litter the first half of the novel. It is difficult to discern what is real, and what is not, although part of Butler’s linguistic project appears the cleaving of sign from signified. Jacob Korg has argued that the genius of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was not his ability to be mimetic, but his belief that language was ultimately transformative. Words warped the world. Near the moment when the reader might become frustrated with this novel — wondering whether Gravey’s cannibalistic murders are hallucinations or actualities — Butler’s project becomes apparent. Gravey’s goal is to kill everybody in America, and he claims the best part about that plan is that “you can begin with anybody in America.”
Detective E.N. Flood, the man assigned to the case, whose footnotes complement the narrative text, then fully enters the story. His admission: “Honestly at this point I want to burn the book. I also find myself thinking I want to eat it, that I want to get the sentences tattooed on my body. The thought snakes through me in my voice. I have been sleeping with the book at night whether I do or not, like suddenly it’s in my arms, or it feels like it is. It is a pressure. A dress. It kind of itches. As an afterthought, I have covered up the mirrors in my home, though not those in my car. Suddenly I feel over-aware of the number of mirrors I come into contact with daily, often without having even noticed their presence in the room. The book continues.”
300,000,000 bothered me. I’ve been unsettled by William S. Burroughs and Kathy Acker, but Butler’s work arrives with a firmer theology. In a recent interview, Butler explains “I am not religious in the churchgoing sense or probably even many other senses, though I do believe in god, at least where the idea of god could be some force that exists outside reality. I do not necessarily understand why any human would imagine an illimitable entity and then think they can have a relationship with it as a human. My spirituality is more like silence, which is holier to me than wafers and wine.” God is simultaneously present and absent in Butler’s canon. He is never, though, forgotten. The maniacal bloodletting in 300,000,000 is a frightening reminder that there is still blood to be let. Butler’s book wonders what would happen if one man attempted to kill America not with planes or disease or bombs, but with hate, with a pure evil. At one point in the novel, Gravey’s convoluted plan runs out of luck. He is arrested, “found facedown in the smallest room of his seven-room ranch-style home with legs bound at the ankle by a length of electrical wire, apparently administered by his own hands.” But there is no peace. The nightmare merely is given another mask. Detective Flood’s notes become more poetic and perverse. He describes the smell of Gravey’s home as “sweet…The sweetness was revolting. But it was also — I breathed it in.” Like Gravey, Flood’s identity becomes tenuous. He is more letters than man. He becomes Darrel, an amorphous identity that previously belonged to Gravey and snakes through the novel.
Other investigators are confounded by Gravey’s seemingly endless tapes. They are not blank, merely the “white of a white loom.” The viewers see what they want to see, since the “eyes play tricks inside their wishing boredom.” The novel’s footnotes begin communicating with, and contradicting, each other. Flood disappears, and when he returns his notes are even more apocalyptic. He is searching for something more than Gravey, “Something outside the potential aspect of god or what had been or could be. Something a language didn’t own.”
Fiction’s ability to reveal the fallibility of language is nothing new. What Butler offers is, curiously enough, something religion posits: language is inadequate to capture existence. Butler’s sentences stretch toward the invisible, the mystical, but they are unable to reach it. They snap back. They break. For Butler, the evil of Gravey, the evil omnipresent within 300,000,000, is beyond the scope of his sentences. What else would we expect of evil? What else would we expect of God?
In “The Disappeared,” the parentless narrator sneaks glances at the pornography ordered by his uncle. The boy is more than disinterested; he is afraid. The women “had the mark of something brimming in them. Something ruined and old and endless.” Soon that ruined, old, endless dread becomes physical and parasitic. With 300,000,000, Butler has created a literary artifact. Gravey’s hellish experiments move beyond the walls of his bloodsoaked home and permeate his country. A “football hero” stands “with the Luger to his temple on the fifty-yard line. The banker handing back a withdrawal in the form of a sheet of his own skin. Gas station attendants robbing the customers of their consciousness.” One unidentified speaker wonders “What is happening in America?…We must act now. This is our home.” Butler’s central trope has always been the idea of homes, our private Americas. But Butler’s house has many rooms. 300,000,000 is a new testament; what happens when prose becomes prophecy.