Books - Blake Butler's dark twisted fantasy
Author's 300,000,000 is a narrative blood bath
"This word occurs because of god," begins 300,000,000 the newest novel from Blake Butler, whose prolificacy as an editor (the recently shuttered online literature outpost HTML Giant), columnist (Vice, the New York Times) and novelist (There Is No Year, Scorch Atlas) raises the question of whether some mystical force isn't behind that word, and every other, in the ensuing 400-odd pages. 300,000,000 revisits themes familiar to readers of Butler — the desolation of the American suburbs, the inevitable failures of language and representation—but it does so with such savagery and excess.
The novel begins with Detective E.N. Flood's discovery of a journal by Gretch Nathaniel Gravey, a charismatic leader in the characteristically American traditions of Charles Manson. He compels a sect of lost boys to kill young women and store their remains in the cellar of his home, the "Black House." Flood's footnotes, as he works to decipher largely arcane writings, along with apparent testimony from Gravey's ideologues, help to elucidate the first four of the book's five parts. In the end, Flood and all other immediately recognizable characters exit the narrative, giving way to a sort of incantatory prose poem that recalls the Book of Revelation and, like the best poetry, dissolves the act of reading. In the final section, "The Part About Darrell," everyone in the U.S. — more than 300,000,000 souls — is dead, and Gravey's crimes have escalated to a national fervor. Throughout the book, a dark consciousness referred to as "Darrell" has purportedly incited many of Gravey's actions.
Reviews of 300,000,000 have been almost unanimously positive. Most, however, either begin or end with the caveat that it is an accomplishment "not for the squeamish" (NPR) or "not for everyone" (TimeOut New York). This sort of response, too, is within the realm of Butler criticism. "I'm always going to get one star or five stars," he says.
Butler answered a few questions for Creative Loafing about his process, Darrell's genesis, and his own complicated ethos.
When was the idea for 300,000,000 born? How long did you have the skeleton sort of floating around in your mind?
I kind of started it because of 2666, by Roberto Bolaño. I think I read his book The Savage Detectives and I was like, "Fuck this book, it's lame." I was just being an asshole. He'd had a Tupac renaissance, where he had 50 books coming out after his death, and everyone loves all of them. So I read The Savage Detectives, decided I hated him, and someone said I really needed to read 2666 because it's this amazing book. It sounded really interesting because there are these grisly murder descriptions, and it's really brutal, and I was like, "Oh, that sounds up my alley." I read it and I decided I was more interested in what I was thinking it would be, so I stole the structure. There's five books in his book and there's five books in 300,000,000, and I knew that in the fourth book a whole shitload of people would be killed, so it gave me a structure and helped me develop pacing. Since my process is kind of like wandering in the dark, to have guide points of length, or concept, really helps. And also I was in the worst spot I've ever been in in my life. So I was really angry and like, "I'm just going to fucking attack this book I guess, without corresponding with it as an entity, as a book itself. I'm going to steal it and write it better than him." I intentionally turned up all the volume as loud as I could. So that was my goal, and then it turned into something kind of different as I edited it and calmed down and grew up a little bit.
Do you want to speak to the figure of Darrell? As I was reading, I kept thinking of Bob from "Twin Peaks." There's an obvious darkness to Darrell, but at the same time, he can be credited with these really beautiful passages.
Bob from "Twin Peaks" is one of my favorite villains of all time, because what the fuck is he? He's just this creepy-looking guy, and he does creepy shit, and he's able to appear in all these different places, but you never actually know what he is. I guess Darrell is kind of that to me, too. I wanted it to be this energy that could move between people, and wanted people to be gone so that we could go to a state beyond. It's meant to have a spiritual repercussion, and the violence that's done does lead to something, not just the end. Spiritually, I don't believe that death is the end. I'm not a Jesus person or a religious person, but I do believe there is something animating the universe. I don't know what it is, but I call it Darrell. Darrell is someone I went to elementary school with. He was the weirdest, most fucked-up kid I've ever met, but I've never stopped thinking about him. So it's like that name is the same as Bob, right? It could be anyone's name.
300,000,000 ends with the apparent destruction of humanity, at least in the U.S. How should the world end?
I think it should end the way a tape ends when it hits the end of the tape. It's just over. There's no cataclysm, or big thing; it just hits the duration. I think hopefully the end of this world is just a small item in another, much larger context. Which could either belittle this world or make this world very important.
This interview has been condensed and edited.