Monday, November 03, 2014

A review of Blake Butler's 300,000,000

Please forgive me if this review takes on the cadence of its subject's sentences. One of Three Hundred Million's mechanisms is the mirror, an image it returns to over and over, to speak of the way that configuration of glass and light makes a multitude, and try to make a horror of the fact that in the act of reading, words are reflected out into the reader's heads, that the reader then might be another mirror reflecting the word into the world at large. The narrative concerns itself with a killer, a Charles Manson/David Koresh hybrid named Gretch Gravey, who, through existing inside a literary space not beholden to realism, is able to kill via his words overriding their audience's will and replacing their consciousnesses with himself, and his intention to do violence, kill. He gets inside other characters because the path of one reflection into another turns into a tunnel, to name another image the book obsessively touches upon.

Author Blake Butler has written extensively online about what interests him in literature and what he wants the written word to do. Disinterested in humanism, he dismisses mimetic realism, and what he wants instead is books that describe things that cannot exist inside our reality, and get at a space of serene silence, defined in the context of his latest novel as what might be beyond death. Inside his fictional spaces he tries to activate through images the feelings narratives bring him to: Writing for Vice he's likened the novels of Harry Mathews to falling through a series of false floors, and in 300,000,000 his investigating detective protagonist does exactly that.

Calling such attention to his techniques lets in light through the sense of play palpable, and this book contains far more ecstatic prose than what has preceded it in Butler's bibliography. Before what was felt behind each sentence as its shadow was only a bit of darkness. Here one can sense the possibility of other thoughts, wriggling inside the reader as the words come wrecking in to make a ruin to excavate. This is the method by which, in another author's intention, literature might soften the heart and make a more empathetic human, through the superimposition of one world projected onto the interior life of another. Reading Butler what we hear is the rattling of the film through the projector. Such sound holds a place in the nostalgic heart of the moviegoer, and Butler is a reader's writer in that particular way: I came to read his novels almost as an act of gratitude for the better ones his enthusiasm turned me onto. But it is worth noting his invocation of the sound of such machinery is intended as a means to invoke an industrial disquiet, like a Coil record, or the sound design in Eraserhead.

Butler has openly admired David Foster Wallace, and the publication of Infinite Jest is offhandedly referenced inside this novel in a similar manner to how he made oblique mention of his suicide in 2011's There Is No Year. The titular entertainment in Infinite Jest was one that could not be looked away from, overriding the individual in a manner akin to Gravey's words here, and Wallace's act of mirroring was his novel's scope signaled to readers that a space had been created they could die inside of. In Wallace, this idea of something completely overpowering is a metaphor for addiction's perpetuation of itself; with Butler it seems based more on a want for the book to function like a drug, that his words might hit the reader's brain in a place lower than its language centers, and be felt not merely observed.

But let me speak to you now in a manner as realistic and pragmatic as possible: That is not what literature does, and that is not how words work. This is not to say that Butler needn't have bothered, only that the reader need not worry. The book cannot become a drug; the paragraph cannot even hold heat inside your face the way chewing a clove of raw garlic can. I believe in literature's redemptive power, in a way I think Butler may doubt, but as someone who has only ever ingested garlic raw for its antibiotic qualities I felt in those moments that I understood its fire for what it was, the same way I see the written word as capable of shining light. Language maintains it remove, and even as Butler attends to the music of a sentence's movement he cannot hit the low notes that lead to a liquification of the bowels. 300,000,000 can disquiet if you let it, if you read it slowly and take its sense of its inevitability seriously, if you do not compartmentalize it to see it as lines of type written by one man in a room. Beyond that it can be beautiful: One can see the typeset MIDI and hear the symphonic roar it is a shadow of, the opacity of many sentences resulting from sound being prized over all else.

Halfway through the book everyone in America is dead, and still the book goes on, following a figure through an abstract space, an empty afterlife a reader might recognize from other Blake Butler books, in its make of houses and their hallways. In consciously trying to transfer the reader to a space, the author thinks of spaces. While he wants them to be impossible, he would also be the first to admit that every book positions you inside a space, even as he is the only one who tries to do it by speaking so obsessively of suburban architecture.

In the book's gesture towards doing violence to the reader by what it makes them think about, its mode is primarily philosophical, albeit in the manner of Manson's maniac rambling. Scenes that strive for graphic descriptive detail are limited to about one. It seems unlikely this book will find the readership that would make it the trigger of a massacre, through means of some schizophrenic living in a state with lax gun control laws. The readers will be readers, and failing to wreak total damage the book will do what all books do, excavating more of a space inside you wherein words can resonate and echo. To the same extent the book is a drug that perpetuates a want for more literature, every book is also a meal stretching out the stomach. What Butler wants is the mania of eating filmstrips, that might expose themselves inside the stomach and once fully digested show through shit-smears the image of the reader's unmaking. This then would be not a food but a feeling, which means that many reading will find themselves left empty. This does not mean the author fails in what he set out to do. A few weeks after reading 300,000,000 I decided I might as well read Infinite Jest, after having pretty much decided years ago that I never needed to. What I was reflecting then was another entity's appetites.