REVIEW: 300 Million by Blake Butler
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“The best thing about planning to kill everybody in America is you can begin with anybody in America.”
300 Million revolves around a cop named Flood, tasked with investigating a mass-murderer/cult-leader named Gretch Gravey, who, in turn, is possessed by an evil entity named “Darrel.” Gravey’s cult consists of young burnout metalhead kids that bring him victims to rape, murder, and dismember. Flood goes/was crazy while/before reading Gravey’s diary but there’s the possibility that the diary maybe never existed, that maybe even the officers and kids providing the footnotes never existed. The utilization of footnotes and odd passages of pseudo-dialogue play in the same vein as House of Leaves, where the metaphysical imbues a sense of creepiness alongside masterful fourth-wall breaking.
I am fascinated by what makes this book speak to me. In equal measure, I feel like I loved and hated it while loving the parts that I hated because they felt like an important part of the whole, like they had to exist in order that what I loved might exist. 300 Million feels new and unique in the way it’s trying to tell you something that shouldn’t be told; however, it’s that same manner that becomes at times completely exhausting. Reading it for long stretches of time while standing up in my kitchen with my laptop on the counter, my eyes would glaze over after a few lines and I’d feel like I was receiving a transmission, rather than reading a book. But that’s not a bad thing; in fact that’s what I liked most about 300 Million. Every word means precisely what it feels like it means, instinctually. When it washes over the reader, one can get in touch with the little voice that communicates via colors and feelings rather than words.
I felt similarly about Butler’s previous work. Scorch Atlas was intense and incisive; Sky Saw was obtuse and mesmerizing. Both books, however, were difficult and thin on plot. Whether things like plot are necessary to a work of fiction is a big topic, and I tend to weigh in, delicately balanced, on the fence. A work should be judged on what it is and what it’s trying to be (or at least what the reader perceives it is trying to be) and as such I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this is a book about language, that in fact most of Butler’s work is about language, and the characters, the themes, all of those things are in service to the words and not the other way around.
Therefore, this is a gutsy work because the success of the whole hinges on the effectiveness with which the words are arranged on the page on a nearly word-by-word (or perhaps sentence-by-sentence) basis, and gutsier still because Butler infrequently arranges them in a stereotypically beautiful order.
When the sentences work, they do so with an alarming, ugly force:
“I was snowing like a crematorium on fire in the stem of August all throughout me.”
“Their dreams in absence of individual mobility rasped whiter than white was when I understood what white was.”
Both of these lines reveal something underneath the surface of our waking minds. Don’t follow it literally. What does “snowing” bring to mind? What do “crematorium on fire”? What does “stem” mean? And “August”?
What about “me”?
That second sentence, I can’t even put into words how much I love it. It so encapsulates the feeling one gets (through drugs or just life) how much more clearthings are beyond the burdensome mechanics of our mundane chemicals, how there’s always another level hovering and waiting patiently just over the one in which we typically reside. Both of these sentences are so intensely good that you have to go back and count the syllables.
Then there are lines like this:
“…the chest flesh is rendered from the sternum with an apparatus and taken into the self in part of self becoming and then taken off of those with scalpels or teeth themselves…”
The line employs the same spirit, but for some reason just doesn’t work for me. The fascination with the mechanical workings of the body, while a good contrast to the deep-brain of the other half of the book, fails to bring me in. Also, once “taken into self in part of self becoming,” appears, my brain begins to trip and stutter, and I lose my footing. Taken as a whole, again, this is something that I really enjoy. I like the fact that I was both awoken and shaken. But in the line by line, minute to minute action of reading the book, too many lines like this can become a chore, can make you wonder just what it is you’re doing in the first place.
Also, there are plenty of death metal sentences, such as:
“In total death, at last, all bodies appeared stacked up neck-high across the landscape, dead as fuck.”
Passages move from twisting, philosophical transcendence to Ren & Stimpy style depictions of bodily functions (I didn’t search for “barf” or “butts,” but those words are in there); or, in the case of the above line, a kind of willful shedding of pretense. I love the idea of this symbiosis between the high and the low, this seeming irreverence for whether such things as “high” or “low” even exist.
Though some lines work and some lines don’t, these are sentences that live or die based on rules the novel created for itself. Even now, looking back over what I’ve written, I’m having trouble putting my finger on what I liked or didn’t like about the good or bad lines, or if it really matters.
The overwhelming sentiment upon finishing the novel is that Butler has created a language all his own. The rhythm is that of an incantation. You’ll go from geometric patterns to descriptions of semen to a philosophical reflection on white space. All of this works in the kind-of fractal pattern you’d experience while under the influence of a psychedelic. The way everything tumbles into itself is at the heart of what I had mentioned earlier, the way with which the language felt by turns torturous and merciful. There are times where you get a whole novel’s worth of feeling and sickness within a single sentence.
I think a lot about how books can best separate themselves from movies and music, as entertainment. This is the answer. 300 Million stands as an entity constructed purely by language, a sledgehammer if a sledgehammer were something more slippery. There are a lot of scenes in the book where characters laugh but no sound exists to accompany the gesture. Tapes are played and, yet again, there is no sound. No sound in a voice. No sound on tape. No sound in a room. No sound: The cult leader, this Gravey guy, or rather Darrel, is a virus, aforce of nature, and he exists only in the language Butler has concocted. The characters hear nothing on the tapes and the videos because it’s all drained into the thing that’s right in your face. The whole time, never blinking. Not even once.
by Blake Butler