An Interview with Blake Butler
Wherever and whatever “the line” may be, the power of transgressive fiction comes from finding and crossing it. Plenty of books get there, but Blake Butler’s immense 300,000,000 begins on the far side and only goes farther, into a zone not meant for humans but still somehow perceptible to us, or to what will be left of us once what’s going to happen happens.
Opening as a prolonged rant, we’re thrown right away into the consciousness of a maniac called Gretch Gravey who, possessed by someone or something called Darrel, musters an army of lost boys to kill everyone in America (the 300,000,000 of the title is our former population). Into the wormhole opened by this devastation plunges Flood, a detective who serves as the reader’s shaky interpreter until he’s so overcome by the terrain that all sense is drained out of him. Then, in a place devoid of life but richly haunted by emergent, bastard forms of perception, the rest of the novel plays out in a state that I’ve never before felt a text induce in me.
The America of 300,000,000 is beyond collapse, over the brink that ours feels like it’s approaching. Threading its ultraviolence through suburbs, outlet malls, and a kind of normalcy wrapped around animal terror—“Outside, in the mash surrounding the house with cash and unending television…My skin around me did a slither”—its response to the spate of shootings of recent years does more than those events ever could to expose the black heart that both animates and threatens to annihilate everyone currently alive in this country.
Butler’s books have always been minds to sync up with and wander through, rather than guided tours of pre-existing places, but never before has he deformed the shape of his reader’s consciousness to this degree.
I spoke with Blake by phone in August. I was in New York and he was in Atlanta.
I. BLOW MYSELF OUT OF THE WATER
THE BELIEVER: 300,000,000 makes an extreme demand on the reader’s attention. It’s a book that says, “Fuck you, sit down, and listen.” It almost feels like bondage, another kind of violence beyond the violence of the subject matter.
BLAKE BUTLER: I’m glad that that comes through, because it was also violent to write. When I started it, I was probably in the worst emotional state of my life. I was like, “If I’m going to do this, I just have to explode. There’s nothing to hold back this time.“ I feel like books are marginalized at this point too, so if I’m going to get your attention to make you even open the book, I’m going to take you by the fucking coat collar. I’m not trying to be macabre, but I was thinking, “This is going to be the last book I ever write.”
BLVR: A lot of your work has a pre-apocalyptic quality. Like the world’s in the process of ending. But in this book it feels like even that mindset is blowing up, like it was the terminus of some trajectory for you.
BB: It was definitely a transition point for me. I didn’t know what else to do, and I felt like I was pacing the same places again in everything I tried to write. That, coupled with being beside my dad dying over a slow four-year period, and I was also going through a really bad breakup—everything felt like shit to me. And I write all day every day, so when I feel unproductive, it magnifies everything else. It was just this collision of factors where I was like, “I’m gonna do everything I can to make this have every trick in my mind on paper, and then I don’t give a fuck what happens after that.” My main goal was to blow myself out of the water.
BLVR: To work through the bottom into a new world.
BB: Right. And it was even darker originally. There was no transformation at all. I spent another three years revising. My life’s much better now, and I think some of the revision helped come out the other end and not just put you in this place where everything’s fucked.
BLVR: Do you still work all day every day?
BB: I don’t do that anymore. I have no idea how I used to do that. I was just so obsessed, I had so much I wanted to put places and I didn’t know where to put it. I couldn’t stop, and I couldn’t sleep because I couldn’t wait to get back there. But now my map of where I’m going is a little bit more settled. Now I know that I really can do anything, it just has to be on the correct terms. So I have to ask myself what I want to do now. I’m not lashing out as much at this point, but I still need the fervency and the inspiration to open the document and jump in there again.
BLVR: There must be a feeling of lessened cynicism at this point, right? Because early on there’s the sense that the world is against you, like people couldn’t possibly be interested in what you have to say, but if you start to find that people are interested, then there’s the question of what you really want to say.
BB: That’s totally it. Because in the beginning I was definitely balls out like I wanted to rip it all down. And now I’m like, “OK, I can’t be that guy anymore because I’ve found myself in a place I didn’t expect.” So now the next step is to find a way to challenge myself to become driven to that extent again but toward a different target.
II. THE REAL 2666
BLVR: A book this abstract needs a few recognizable roots to tie into the rest of literature, or the rest of reality. How conscious of other works were you?
BB: I started writing this as a reaction to Bolaño’s 2666. Someone gave it to me, and I was like “Why is he putting out a book every month after his death and they’re getting all this hype?” But everyone said I had to read 2666, it’s his big one. My friend mailed me a copy, so I decided to read it and take each sentence and talk shit about it before I even kept going. I did that for a while, and I actually ended up liking it a lot, but all the ways people described the book, trying to get me excited about it, didn’t come through at all. So I was like, “What’s that book? What’s the book I was excited by that this did not turn out to be?”
BLVR: So 300,000,000 is your attempt to write what you had hoped 2666 would be?
BB: Yeah. I decided to write the book that I was expecting. And in doing that I took Bolaño’s structure. So there are five parts in both. And there’s a similar building in the way they jump from voice to voice. There’s not a lot of similarities after that, but structurally I knew I wanted to write a long book with a lot of people dead in it. Very graphic and violent, with a lot of hyper-language. Right before 2666, I had for the first time read Pierre Guyotat's Tomb for 500,000 Soldiers and that knocked me so hard on my ass. Every word is a blitzkrieg. If I hadn’t read him then, I don’t know if 2666 would’ve triggered the same thing in me.
BLVR: On the Guyotat side of things, I was interested in talking about a few people you’ve written about over the years—Burroughs, Herzog, Michael Gira from the band Swans. These heroes of yours are twentieth century people, but now we’re in a new era. With guys like Burroughs, who I imagine were living genuinely depraved lives, it’s interesting for a writer like you to take their sense of primal terror and perversity, and express it in what now seems like an era of anxiety and dread, rather than outright degradation.
BB: Like, “Yeah, I’m writing this book where everyone in the country is killed, but you know, I wrote most of it at my parents’ house.” It was weird to be writing this vulgar, horrific book in basically the first room I masturbated in. And that’s very different from Burroughs being so fucked up he doesn’t even know where he is.
BLVR: He seems like somebody who had no regard for his own life.
BB: I’m the opposite of that. I’m normal. I live in a nice apartment. I think one thing those guys didn’t have that I have is the Internet. The Internet is the biggest conduit of psychic violence since television. Now there is psychic violence permeating places where it doesn’t look like it is.
BLVR: Maybe a guy like Burroughs would think that lying in a stupor on a hotel room floor is less psychically damaging than checking your email twenty-four hours a day.
BB: It might be intolerable to him. Or he might say, “You’re all a bunch of pussies.” I don’t know.
III. DAHMER / GOD
BB: I spent a lot of time thinking about Jeffrey Dahmer while I was writing this. There’s bro-violence, like drunken masses at football games, and then there is spiritual violence that shows that humans have something inside of them that is grotesque. And Dahmer, to me, became a figure of that. I am incapable of ever hurting someone, but I totally understand where it could come from because I can feel it. I will just never act on it.
BLVR: I wonder if Dahmer would’ve been incapable of writing about it. If he, in order to experience those thoughts, had to act on them. Whereas you, in order to experience them, have to write them.
BB: I think for him, it wasn’t a choice. He wanted to not do it. But when he opened that door—just as I open that door enough to write these things—he was genuinely compelled to fucking do it. I want there not to be suffering. But to not have suffering, we need to open that door and confront that thing.
BLVR: To me, having thoughts you aren’t willing to consider is the same as having a horrible rash and saying, “I don’t want to have this checked out.”
BB: Think about the rash. Think about where the rash came from.
BLVR: About halfway through your book, everyone alive ever is dead. What’s left?
BB: That was one of my goals, like, “How do I write a book that’s still emotional even when there are no humans alive?” That was a challenge, and it helped me get through the worst of it.
BLVR: What do you think about the spirituality of that? The first sentence of your book is “This word occurs because of god.” What god?
BB: I use the word “god” a lot, and I’m not sure if I know what I believe god is. I don’t believe that when we die, that’s it. It’s almost like a logical faith. I logically don’t believe that all this stuff is generated from dust. But I’m also not like “Jesus Christ came down to save us.” It’s almost selfish to think that human beings, on this plane of reality, are the end of it.
BLVR: At the very least you can have a faith that there’s way more that’s real than we can possibly understand.
BB: Exactly. And what if life after death is all based within memory: you die, and you don’t ascend on a bed of clouds to Jesus, but your brain has a terrain that it can use to propel itself further. It’s more of a theoretical afterlife. If that’s true, all of these theoretical afterlives of people could potentially interact or network. That space seems way more powerful and exciting than reality. This potential boundlessness is more of what god is to me.
BLVR: 300,000,000 often works in a pre-novelistic, mystical mode, like the writings of saints in the desert raving for days, but maybe also having real visions.
BB: I think raving is valid. The other night I watched all these Charlie Rose interviews with Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst and David Foster Wallace…and the last one was with Charles Manson. And Manson made so much fucking more sense in the way he was talking about life than all these supposedly rational, thoughtful artists. So does this mean there’s something wrong with me, or is it that, “Yes, the Manson Family did fucked up things as a result of thinking this way, but it’s not that all of this is babble. It’s a kind of language that transcends everyday reality and begins to touch the places after death and the things that have a potentiality to become god?” Insane language has the power to build things that don’t exist in reality. It ends up leading to horrible events, but I do think there’s something transcendent that can happen with language, and it can be in the mouth of a maniac.
BLVR: Do you think language is a fundamentally human product? Or does it exist outside of people and somehow create them?
BB: I think language is a system that we have devised to negotiate a series of more amorphous entities. It’s a layer you can use to see where those things exist, but if you don’t have anyone speaking anymore, those things are still there. The things that language stands for do not require humans, and in fact are often trampled down by humans.
BLVR: Your language has a quality of invocation: rather than describing things, even fantastical things, it’s causing those things to be. I think that’s part of why it’s difficult and also really exciting.
BB: That’s always been my goal as a writer. It’s not that I’m an escapist, but the value of language is that it can create places that did not exist before. And so language for me doesn’t reflect the world, it extends the world, so that it becomes larger and more fantastic and less mired in this school shooting bullshit. It actually builds a future—that’s how evolution occurs.
IV. KEEPER OF THE MAZE
BLVR: One thing I think about, in terms of shaping a huge book like this, is the fear of going back into the draft and confronting what still needs to be done. An older writer once told me, “There’s nothing to be afraid of in there because you are the Minotaur in your own labyrinth.” But I wonder if this is true. Do you feel like there’s something else in there?
BB: You’re not always the Minotaur, but you are the keeper of the maze and you are the only one that can go in there and kill the Minotaur. You are the cursor that goes in, and there’s no reason to fear that because it’s part of your fate as the keeper. You’re not the mazekeeper anymore if you leave.
BLVR: Or if you let things proliferate and get out of control. It’s up to you to keep the maze under some kind of order.
BB: Otherwise it might as well not exist. If it overgrows itself, then it’s just a block of trees. Revision involves looking at that stuff as a reader, and being like, “What is logically here, how do I build this image into that image, and build a connection?” It can’t all just be intuitive, it has to have an arc or a connecting apparatus which is, to me, based on logic. When you’re looking at the first draft, you’re looking for what makes fruition out of that energy.
BLVR: Maybe that’s one definition of artistic sanity. You have to have the visionary side to go into these places, but then you also have to step out of it and understand what someone else needs in order to get through. Maybe an insane person can’t do that. Therefore their maze is impenetrable.
BB: In 300,000,000, the first section is basically a maniac talking. That’s why now there are the notes by a reader outside, the detective who is investigating the maniac. It was too hard to read without those, but once I installed the “here is what’s actually being said in this insanity” component, it didn’t undermine the insanity; it was meant to draw out its logic. You don’t want to make the reader feel like this is so much work that they can’t even begin, but, at the same time, there are dimensions in language that can’t be parsed. So I intermixed a point of sanity within the insanity, but still the insanity is what carries all the energy.
BLVR: I read your 2009 HTMLGiant piece about how huge tomes like Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow are so venerated in our culture, but there’s so much trepidation about publishing things like that now.
BB: Purely from a reader’s standpoint, I’d like to see more of the publishing instinct of, “We don’t know how this is gonna go, but we’re putting it out in the world anyway.” That’s good for readers, and it’s good for artists too, because with art, the more you allow it to feel to like it has a place, the more chances people are willing to take. I think it’s important as an artist to be continually sticking your head into all these different bags. So many of my peers, or just people in general, don’t read enough. So much of culture is interested in the "I” at this point. That requires no sense of aesthetic exploration. Reality is overrated to me. Everyone spends enough time on the computer, eating, going out to bars. Why do I need to read a book about that?
BLVR: Maybe that kind of “realistic writing,” in the sense of documenting the immediate present, is always gratuitous. It’s like reading the news, which has no shape. If you want to actually feel something from what you read, it has to have been cooked down. The present is too raw.
BB: It’s not an artifact yet. It can still be anything and therefore it’s not really anything yet.
BLVR: I would either say that reality is overrated, or that it’s under-represented. To me, something like El Topo or Molloy is reality. That’s expressing a real state, rather than just like, “OK, I dropped my kids off at school, and then I came home, and…” That seems like an artistically meaningless part of reality.
BB: It’s the shit of reality. El Topo is by far more realistic to me than Knausgaard. And if we can reset the idea of reality to accept that the surreal and the unknown permeate everything, then why are we re-ingesting the worst part? Like going to the bathroom and having sex. We can watch a sitcom if that’s what we’re interested in investigating. I think with art, and particularly literature, the power of the word to make anything for free sitting in front of a white piece of paper—it’s cowardly to confine it to your immediate day-to-day ingestion.
BLVR: I think of your landscape as post-Americana, like an even shittier version of what defines America. You’ve got all these references to Chili’s and Chi Chi’s and Petco, and I know you’re interested in fast food. These are the first things you would see if you came to America having never been here.
BB: If you drive out into the middle of the desert then you don’t see that, but if you’re in a major American city and drive through the suburbs, then every location is kind of the same. The sense of history and patriotism that we have is often based around acts of defiance and destruction, but what did we actually build here? We built a bunch of shitty corporate chains.
BLVR: It’s an interesting backdrop for fiction. I don’t know anyone else who’s taken that on in the way you have. The sinister thing about malls and chains is that they look kind of good, they’re clean and modern, but they disguise an even deeper cesspool than places that are filthy on the surface.
BB: It’s the same as avoiding thinking about Dahmer. I like walking around in malls. It’s like being at space camp. It’s a nice escape. But it’s not real. But other people don’t see it that way. They just wish they had money to buy a Burberry coat, even though the coat they’re wearing is fine. That seems particularly American to me. Which is why this book is about not everyone in the world dying, it’s just everyone in America, because there’s something very particular in America that knits everyone to this black underbelly. We don’t realize what we’re walking on half the time.
BLVR: And there’s a paradox where these shootings seem to be a rupture in the culture and everybody’s up in arms about them, but they’re also so smoothly integrated, making them part of what they’re seemingly lashing out against.
BB: That’s the most American reaction you can have. It’s scary that in America we have something called the Batman Killer. That’s like a corporate sponsored killer. It’s a weird mash of consumerism right up against this maniacal intent.
BLVR: Do you want to say anything about Darrel and where in the mix he falls?
BB: The main evil person in the book, Gravey, is like a corpse that is animated by this thing that I called Darrel. I used that name because he was this kid I went to elementary school with, and I never stopped thinking about him because he was one of the most troubled, fucked up people I ever met.
In the book, Darrel’s not quite Satan or God, but more like a force in the world that wants to push people toward horrible acts. Because evil is too easy an explanation. I like more the idea that violence isn’t evil. At least in the context of what we were saying about the difference between spiritual violence and bro violence, it has a connective tissue to the world that is beyond the world. Darrel is a force that I don’t have any word for beside that stupid name.
BLVR: It’s something that seeks a host. It moves from person to person and inhabits them.
BB: And it wants those vessels to evolve. Even though this is done in a violent, negative sense, it’s not trying to hurt as much as it’s trying to rend and overhaul.
BLVR: Somehow activate people’s unknown potentials?
BB: Activate’s a good word, sure. It’s like a commonality within spirits of all people. The book goes toward the sense that after we’re all dead, it’s not like we’re all one, but there’s another form of relation that’s beyond bodies. And Darrel is part of that synthesis. I’ve always been surprised to some extent when people respond to my writing by saying, “He hates everyone.” It comes from a place of wanting grander, better things. I feel a moral rage that I don’t know what else to do with.
BLVR: I think people who can’t see positivity in any work of art, they just don’t understand what it takes to produce. Even somebody like Guyotat, or Celine; just the fact that they wrote a book has to be a positive thing. You can’t do that if you have no hope.
BB: It’s a huge act of faith. I don’t understand how you can have passion and not be angry every day. I’d like to think that there are different levels of value and that some people really think the greatest thing is being able to order Chinese food from the Internet, but you don’t come to live just to eat and shit and make babies. If that’s all life is…
BLVR: If that’s all life is, then it’s just pure biology. But even if a lot of people think that way, there are still enough people actively campaigning for life to be more than that to amount to more than a lifetime’s worth of great things to read and watch and think about.
BB: But you can never totally overcome the fear that that’s all it is. You can go home every night and watch a film that makes you feel like someone spent ten years to make a great film, and you can find it beautiful, but in the morning when you wake up and have to do something you don’t want to do, does that make it any better? Not really. Still, at the end of the day, the fact that those things do exist makes the act of sustaining your life and going forward at least have these roadside stops where you’re like, “Yes, there are beautiful things, and there are things that make me think.”
BLVR: I picture it like each beautiful thing is a wedge that keeps a lid from closing over you. If that lid ever fully closes, you suffocate.
BB: I used to think about it like each thing that’s created is one pixel in this face that we’ll never see. It does transcend just being a movie or just being a book. It develops a network that we may never know the worth of. There is something in the interweaving of all these things that makes human life more valuable, to me and hopefully to something beyond human life, because if everyone dies and there’s just all these movies left, then whatever. I think there’s a lot more to be conceived and a lot more space to create before we exit this area that we’ve sanctioned off as the only place we are.
BLVR: A great book or a great film may in the end only be a roadside stop, but making one is still enough for a lifetime to aspire to.
BB: I mean, what else is there to do? You can’t beat yourself up that it’s artifice, because I would rather be the person creating artifice that no one else could have created than be a dentist where someone says, “Yeah, you fixed my teeth, but I could’ve gone to this other dentist who would’ve done the exact same thing.”
David Rice is a writer from Northampton, MA. He’s currently editing his first novel and has stories in Black Clock, Birkensnake, Identity Theory, The Last Magazine, Spork, Pithead Chapel, and elsewhere. He writes the graphic novel Lazy Eye Stories (lazyeyestories.com) and is online at raviddice.com.