Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times

February 1, 2016

The Meaning of Life in Butler’s 300,000,000

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Blake Butler’s 300,000,000 will churn stomachs, induce headaches and inspire bewilderment and consternation. For the diligent reader who pushes past its exhaustive 455 page span, it will provoke such a range of emotional responses that one would not be wrong to think it able to cull the entire spectrum of conceivable sensations. In fact, this is exactly what the novel intends to do with nearly every sort of living experience packed into its grafting language and phantasmagoric plot.

After finishing the book, the usual questions ran through my mind: What did Butler try to accomplish here? Was he successful? Did I even like it? But I knew these questions, and any answers I could give to them, had no footing in a reading experience as visceral and vast as 300,000,000. I truly believe that the most appropriate response one can give to a book of this caliber is a long, prolapsed scream. What you read here is a second-best alternative.

Initially, 300,000,000 presents itself as the transcription of a notebook journal written by Gretch Gravey, a serial-killer who feeds drugs to local teenage burnouts. The drugs don’t come free, of course; in return for them, the addicts must listen to Gravey’s maniacal sermons, in which he espouses the teachings of an ineffable presence he calls Darrel. These teenagers soon begin to stay at Gravey’s house, treating him as a holy figure. Shortly thereafter, Darrel, using Gravey as his material avatar, instructs the burnout disciples to participate in the wholesale eradication of the entire American population. Darrel plans to do this by activating its own consciousness in every American, replacing whatever personality came before it. With all of America under the thrall of Darrel’s mind, each citizen, recognizing all other individuals as hosts of the same consciousness, all with the same intention, will kill as many people as possible until every American is dead. This reads, at first, as the lunatic nonsense of a Manson-like figure. E.N. Flood, a police detective who makes sense of the notebook jottings through explanatory footnotes of Gravey’s oft-inexplicable writings, thinks the same. Until we begin to see the clarity of his thought start to blur as well.

Flood’s exegesis of Gravey’s ramblings leads him to etch words from the notebook into a copy of the Bible. He even expresses a desire to tattoo himself with lines from it. He convinces himself that the Gravey case was destined to be his in a display of megalomania comparable to Gravey’s own. He eventually cannot distinguish a day from any other day in his life and his identity begins to crumble. When the notebook ends, the reader moves on to Flood’s own electronic journal of the Gravey case. To our terror, his musings resemble the same mania of the previous text. Other people comment on his ramblings: his sergeant, co-workers, friends, a psychiatrist. But even these voices and personalities begin to blur and coalesce.

And then, slowly, it happens: everyone who had any kind of interaction with the arrested Gravey, even the cafeteria chef who prepared his meals, begins to murder those around them. Then the relatives of those killed begin to do the same. Darrel spreads. Butler breaks the fourth wall numerous times, bringing the reader into the carnage. Indeed, the amphibian narrator, a patchwork of voices shifting from the idiolects of Gravey and Darrel to that of Flood and even his dead wife, cites the performative nature of reading, the act of creating the plot’s events as we engage with it and realize them in our minds, as an indictment of every reader. We are left with the uncanny sensation of having initiated the manifestation of a horror almost beyond imagining. As Gravey tells us, channeling his voice through Flood’s own investigative entries, “If I’m not here yet…then invent me. Make me come.” About halfway through the novel, everyone in America is dead.

The question remains: what could possibly take another 220 pages to express now that everybody in the novel is dead? It is in these pages, however, that the genius of 300,000,000 flaunts itself. Darrel’s plan does not end with the deaths of approximately 300,000,000 people. It ends with the “mnemonic American mush,” a vision of the afterlife, layered with the sensations, memories, dreams, fantasies, and yearnings of every single person killed, that I will not and cannot attempt to explain any further. In these pages are some of the most harrowing, compassionate and alien displays of narrative and diction you are likely to encounter since Finnegan’s Wake and Gravity’s Rainbow.

But the best thing about 300,000,000 is that everyone can, and should, read it. And while 300,000,000 is no less complex than an epic Joyce or Pynchon novel, the profound, sublime vision realized by its enigmatic Darrel figure requires no understanding of textbook entropy or the philosophy of history. For this novel, all you need is life, memories, aspirations, relations, all the qualities that make a person a person, let alone an American. And in this day and age, with our greed and fears multiplying so eerily like that of the Darrel virus, the vision of horror and empathy this novel provides is one of absolute necessity. Blake Butler’s 300,000,000 is without a doubt our latest iteration of the Great American Novel.