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.
Samuel Ligon – Drift and Swerve. In this collection of sharp, unforgettable stories, Ligon’s wayward American men and women slog through cities like Providence and Orlando and are always looking for something else, something not quite attainable. Ligon’s work is sometimes called bleak, but there is great humor and hope and humanity in these stories.
It is summer again and the breasts rise up everywhere, calling out to me, demanding my rapt, empty attention. Every woman over fifty has disappeared as the various bare portions of breasts present themselves, tops here, sides over there, a trophy set at the beach unwrapped and bronzing. Carla watches me watch and I try to restrain myself, but they are everywhere before me, and even a quick glance or a longer glance is a sign of my restraint.
The way Ligon captures this conflicted narrator’s predicament, from the fragile relationship to a family tragedy, is classic storytelling.
Blake Butler – Scorch Atlas. This collection of interwoven stories concerning broken and confused survivors depicts, amongst many other things, different types of rain, none of them good for the environment, or what’s left of it. Butler’s post-apocalyptic world is relentlessly dark and frightening, and yet it’s beautiful. In “Television Milk” we have a mother held hostage by her children, who feed on her.
The children let me out around the time for dinner and brought me downstairs to milk. It’d been several years since I’d nursed but somehow my glands could still produce. At first it’d taken some coaxing, a pinch, a punch, a howl, but eventually they had me gushing.
Perhaps Scorch Atlas can be read as a survival guide for December 21, 2012. Either way if you love language and how it can move across the page and burst in your ear this is a must-read. If there is a what’s next in American Letters, Blake Butler is it.
Peter Markus – Bob, or Man on Boat. This is transcendent music, a 133 page song of incredible beauty from America’s preeminent poet of earthly and heavenly matter. No other writer can make from mud and river and fish and moon the luminous world Markus paints here in this story of a father and son fishing on the river. Open the book anywhere and you will find the spare and haunting prose Markus has become renowned for:
I once saw Bob, at dawn, standing up in his boat, facing where the sun was rising, and what Bob was doing, it looked like to me, it sounded like to me, was he was screaming, though what he was saying, what he was hollering, this I could not hear.
When I told this to a friend in town who is no stranger to Bob, what he said was that Bob was yelling at the sun, that he was telling it to stay where it was, for it to go away, because Bob didn’t want the night, and the night’s fishing, to come to an end.
Likewise, you will not want to see Bob come to an end, or at least, you will count the days till Peter Markus’ next piece of music.
Luckily, I have been keeping a list. I began the year with Tom Hodgkinson’s lovely How to be Idle, which is a very very good way to begin a year of reading. Immediately then to The Twelve Terrors of Christmas (Updike / Gorey). Thereafter, Kicking the Leaves, an old favorite. This is in my opinion, Donald Hall’s best volume of poetry. I have read it dozens of times. Then a short travel with a writer I had never read, Gyula Krudy, whose Sunflower, courtesy of NYRB was enormously pleasing and atmospheric. Then Botvinnik: 100 Selected Games, for those of you who read chess-notation with joy and pleasure. That old Soviet master had a fearsome will. Then Last Days by Brian Evenson, Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler, Life of Johnson by Boswell (wonderful — even the ambition of reading it and carrying it about with one is wonderful). Then Fowles, The Collector, and Out by the very resourceful Matsuo Kirino. Read Out if you, like myself and also the previously mentioned Evenson, spend time thinking about how bodies ought to be disposed of. At this point, I went to another old favorite, Robert Walser’s Selected Stories. If you must read something, please forget about what anyone else has to say and read Walser’s selected stories. There’s a lot of posturing about contemporary writing, but the truth is — most of it isn’t any good. That’s where Walser comes in, from the first quarter of the last century, riding the wagon from his Swiss sanatorium. He’ll fix your modern day ills with ease.
I went to Leonard Gardner next, and his Fat City, which I read in one sitting. Delicious! Do you like prize-fighting? I do. Then Zen Antics courtesy of Cleary, and Lolita while on a train to Michigan, and Hass’s Field Guide (not an actual field guide).
At this point we are partway through the year, and I am considering the class I will teach in the fall, a class on derive, which sends us into: Society of the Spectacle by Debord, Revolution of Everyday Life by Vaneigem, Nadja by Breton, The Character of Physical Law by Feynman, A Pattern Language by Alexander, Ishikawa, Silverstein, and Koolhaus’s Delirious New York.
I will leave you then, there with me in the summertime. Of later books, I will mention but one:
Bears: A Brief History by Brunner (a remarkable book). Do you like bears?