First encounter with Blake Butler’s new novel may leave you dazzled, yet also disoriented, and if so you’ll find a point of reckoning in Roberto Bolano’s 2666. The titles are only the most obvious similarity. Butler’s number, unlike Bolano’s, refers to something specific, the total population of the U.S.—at least as the story begins. But the slaughter that follows recalls the women who keep turning up dead, in Bolano, and the Nordamericano also divides his book five ways, each section bearing a title that, like those in 2666, start with “The Part About...” Then there’s the epigraph, also from the ’04 masterwork: “Every hundred feet the world changes.” The line can be read several ways, but its pairing of closeness and difference again calls to mind both novels.
Butler’s expressed his admiration for 2666 more directly, especially online (he founded the recently defunct HTMLGiant). But that’s enough about the navigational star; consider, instead, the heading.
300,000,000 takes on an extraordinary challenge, running far longer than anything this writer has done, working with the stuff of slasher movies and then, beneath the flayed skin, attempting to rig up a better humanity, pan-sexual, with greater freedom of language: “free beyond music, ...risen from us like a bruise meant soon to heal.” The mayhem and metamorphosis reveals other literary models, too, in particular Moby Dick. Butler works in a meditation on whiteness, and his murderers and police, afloat on their coffins, figure in a tragedy of flawed national vision; the climactic section is “The Part About America.” On top of that Butler puts his apocalyptic storms across in a mouthy whirl of Americanese, clattery with repetition and consonance, upending norms of style: “Blood violence. Scrying violence. Schools’ door locked door to door.” Authorial intrusions further distress both world and word-object:
This sentence describes the panic of the American population remaindered in the rising light of rising terror of the murder of ourselves, which I could not begin to bring myself to impart to you directly for the way it might feel too much today like what you’ve done.
Today in America, a wake is waking.
300,000,000 flaunts its overreach—and by and large trounces any such criticism. When I say it gave me the heebie-jeebies, I mean it in the best possible way. I’ve got misgivings about the final fifth, but overall, I found it fascinating to watch this writer’s intelligence grapple, buck-naked, with fresh prodigies of his imagination. He’s left a bloody handprint, sure to linger, on the walls of his literary generation.
Walls, rooms, houses: these are primary materials for 300,000,000. It starts in “the Black House,” owned by one Gretch Gravey, “a forty-five-year-old Caucasian male” now in custody for multiple murders. Gravey’s notebook provides the opening “Part” and, in a crackbrained modulation of Butler’s vernacular, details the rise of his cult. He inspires teenage boys to become, themselves—grave-y. They kill and cannibalize and stash the corpses down cellar. The novel will eventually drop a few pertinent names, like Manson and Dahmer and Jim Jones, but Gravey’s monstrousness is more surreal, and his God more bizarre: a being named Darrel. “America,” he writes, “is changing under Darrell.” It’s “turning every person back to zero,” in a House “the birthplace of an actually everlasting form of spirit.” So all Gravey’s children dare hell—or then again, considering the perversion of father and sons, is Da our hell?
This wordplay may not be what Butler had in mind, but he’s very much about language, its fertility and confusion. Most of the claims in the first “Part” are challenged, and many undone, in footnotes by the detective E.N. Flood. The first reader of Gravey’s Gospel, when Flood calls the Black House “Escherian,” he could be describing the shifting and impossible perspectives of the other sections. So the suspense has a quality far older than any murder mystery; rather we wonder, childlike: what craziness is coming?
The second part takes a communal point of view, roughly that of the police, as the holy bloodlust seeps outward from the cell of its prophet: the rising terror of the murder of ourselves... The third perspective could be Flood’s, or perhaps his ghost’s. “I’d masturbate,” he confesses, “and issue a gallon of black stones.” Flood finds himself back in the House—now abandoned, like most of the country—and there he discovers fresh basement spaces and holds a conversation with what seems like another ghost. Is it his wife? His own naysaying reader? Then the fourth part, “About America,” swings out again to a greater perspective, including a brief gusher of actual Americana, name-checking everything from Moby Dick to Dahmer. By section’s end, this point of view has become the author’s, or Author’s. He conflates words and symbols—circle, diamond, others—in search of an art form with fresh powers: free beyond music and soon to heal.
Now, the pages of history include nothing about the Native Americans, and surely their genocide, their alternative spirituality, belongs in 300,000,000. An oversight—but it doesn’t keep the third and fourth sections from proving the novel’s capstone. They more than repay the effort of puzzling things out: Where now? Who now? When now?
Those brief questions open Beckett’s Unnameable, another voyage out of the body to vague yet significant ports of call, and I admire the resonance. I can trace, too, the shape of a common nocturnal psychodrama, the dream of many rooms, in which an unstable personality tries to locate its dwelling place. The fact that Butler worked with these same elements in his first book, the frail but brave EVER, deepens my appreciation. This time, he’s got so much more in play.
The final “Part About Darrell,” however, added little. His new Messiah turns out to be a woman, pretty much, and that makes for balance, since most of Gravey’s first victims are women. Also she brings glad tidings, a cleansing renewal: “Beneath the dirt, the blood is dry. Enmassed dreams of the dead hold up the lattice of the unnamed landscape. Yet such passages can feel reiterative, and they call attention to the danger of Butler’s approach, namely, abstraction. The earlier killing fields may be hard to look upon, but they provide the right gloomy backdrop for the verbal and imaginative pyrotechnics. Most of the time that phantasmagoria convinced me; it showed me, vividly, a culture that’s lost the connection between words and meaning. Still, paradoxically, it’s this author’s gift for the fantastic, in phrasing and event, that reminds us how fiction depends on the empirical, on hard knocks.
JOHN DOMINI's latest book is The Sea-God's Herb, selected criticism, and in 2016 he will bring out a new set of stories, MOVIEOLA!