Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Review of Blake Butler's Three Hundred Million

Right off the bat: Three Hundred Million is the most full, most fully realized and the most consistently engaging novel that Blake Butler has written in his career to date.

            For those who have read Butler’s work before, Three Hundred Million is very much written in his instantly recognizable style. The writing is often opaque, emotionless, as if written by some mad, cosmic force and not for human consumption. In many ways his style has remained totally rock solid, while everything around it has matured and grown.
For those who have not read Butler’s work it should be noted that he writes like no one else, living or dead. Comparisons to Burroughs (William H.) are common but I would personally place his style closer to those of Dylan Thomas, the Revelation of John and Beckett. Abstract, biblical and unrelentingly dark, he revels in unexplained phenomena and impossible feeling. His work is full of cryptic signs and warps of reality that end as soon as they start. Butler’s work runs mostly on the section and sentence levels. That is, most of the time there is little to no obvious plot and little to no overarching idea or message, though Three Hundred Million is something of an exception. Each section tends to function within itself and much of the motion occurs within each sentence. Butler generally unleashes a constant stream of darker and darker images, more and more gory scenes that are connected, most of the time, by abstract or tenuous connections: a glowing symbol, the rising tide of liquid within a room, a compulsion to murder or commit suicide. The writing is so clinical, so sterile that it flies in the face of classic horror. There is no suspense, no lurking monster (expect perhaps humanity itself, reality itself). Butler never seems interested in eliciting emotion, fear or otherwise. The events depicted, even the most brutal and heinous, never elicit disgust, never elicit fear or pain. They are simply stated, almost reported. It’s a strange thing to come up against, where events and depictions that should cause the most revolt, the most innate aversion are simply drawn over with the eyes. Statistics of hundreds of thousands of dead, brutal murders of families at the hands of their own members. No motive ever stated, no motive considered. No lack of motive. Simply an act. One might be tempted to accuse him of violence for the sake of violence, pain for the sake of pain but I think this is too easy.
Apparently written as an homage to 2666 where Bolano’s work is all plot but light in terms of linguistic acrobatics Butler’s work is nearly all poetry. Rather than an homage the two works function more as two halves of a whole, two complementary pieces that derive from the same place and fill in the absent parts of the other.This writing comes off somewhat like an extended exercise in Chomsky’s famous linguistic sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” where all of the rules of grammar are adhered to, but the connections between the individual words tend toward abstraction. Butler’s writing is an exploration in the writing of possibility, except instead of wallowing in the myriad possible he is only interested in writing the impossible, not in extending out the bounds of how we can connect words but in stepping outside of those bounds, in how the rules of language can be bent to breaking.
            With Three Hundred Million Butler has finally built up a structure and one strong enough to support the infinite weight of his writing. There is just enough reality to act as a foil for the insanity. There is just a bit of light and hope present that that light and hope can be crushed under the constant stream of madness and pain. It is one thing to plop down a labyrinthine madness, it is another to take your labyrinthine madness and set it to life.
This work steps away from Butler’s previous works in that it touches on elements that are firmly grounded in reality: America and what it means to be an American, love and relationships, Teen angst, sexuality, the knee jerk vilification of outsiders. God. There are no easily parsed ‘stances’ or ‘opinions’, just observations. On the one hand Butler’s broad writing leaves open huge vistas for critical interpretation. The events of the novel could be read as a critique of consumerism or contemporary culture or as a rendering of the depths of adolescence, psychosis or the human condition (this insanely vague and endlessly repeated phrase that tends to get more wrong than it could ever get right). But the work is smarter than that, it is harder than that, it is more nuanced and subtle and thoughtful than that. Butler takes these things that we are intimately familiar with, common objects and inventions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, marriage, the home and, much like a Noise artist will take the sound of a guitar (a sound so familiar to any American that it generally just falls into the background) and run it through a string of processing devices, amplifiers and feedback so as to turn it into something so viciously twisted, so blindingly new, that we feel an instinctual revulsion, a blinding confusion. The same feeling that might come upon someone stepping into their home to find the each wall and piece of furniture remained, but had been rearranged by some unknown agent into a totally different configuration. Butler runs America and marriage and God through his miswired linguistic system and fractures them beyond repair, rearranges these things into misshapen galaxies that are only recognizable by the nametags hanging around their shattered necks. By taking us outside of our zone of comfort, by rearranging and deforming these ubiquitous symbols he allows us to to build them back up within ourselves to something new, to reform them into something different and ultimately more true.

This is not Butler’s greatest novel. If the leaps in maturity, completeness and grace between Nothing and Skysaw and then from there to Three Hundred Million are any indication in where he is headed I feel safe in saying that he has not written that novel yet. Here, in Three Hundred Million he has created a very interesting and very unusual work and one very worth the time and effort of any person who is seriously interested in literature from any era.

1 comment:

  1. I found this review on Amazon while trying to sell the book to a friends. Very cool place you have here. I'm trying to find you on Facebook though and I'm drawing blank.