He who brought me brightest in the image of the human toward god was a series of shapes I knew as Darrel, though quickly I would come to see that's not his name. His name had squirmed as any word, appearing burned into the pages of the unholy books composed alone in pens and tongues by men before we were we, beneath a sky propped up with our lunchmeat flab asleep and praying. Each syllable in how anyone would say his name would deform itself depending on whose mouth was being used, and so the name could lace within all language. His name appeared inside all ageless rails of light, invoked malformed in the mouths of all as corporations, entertainments, narcotics, art. But with my human mouth I called him Darrel, after the son I'd never have. I lived with Darrel in the black house for more than thirteen billion years before I ever had a body, years in which the flood of ideas we would erect from incubated and formed blood inside our brains. The ground beneath the dirt of our whole future pressed against everything we wanted, became so thin with all the scraping of the nails and all the one-day-buried no ones and all the nothing waking up in our new bodies in the night, that what was left of the foundation underneath us was something so clear and timeless and deranged we couldn't feel it, and so wanted it again then even more, and in that wanting wanted every inch of now to produce further lengths to lust for, new skin to seethe inside of. I mean we began again like night again like night again every time we spoke or saw or felt anything. We were not us as we became us but someone else inside of someone else already all once again enslaved to live again as if we never had or known we could. (p. 4)
It is tempting, as other reviewers of Blake Butler's latest novel, 300,000,000, to begin this review with a warning about the grisly subject of this book, or perhaps to make thematic comparisons to works by authors like Roberto Bolaño (since purportedly 300,000,000 was written as a response to 2666, which Butler apparently found to be dull) or to Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves (after all, there are entries written by other hands at the foot of most of these journal entries). After all, these things serve to provide a context, an anchor if you will, for a text that challenges its readers at not just the syntactical level, but also the semantic. However, that is too easy and while I do acknowledge that there is some validity for these approaches to the novel, I think it would be best to consider the work as it is presented to the reader.
300,000,000 begins with excerpts from the journal of a 45 year-old man, Gretch Gravey, an accused serial killer who has, with the help of teen boys, has dismembered the bodies of hundreds of women over a period of years and has harvested some of their flesh for wall decor for his basement. In entries such as the one quoted from near the beginning, he alludes to a guiding spirit, who he has named Darrel. His mission, if such a word could be applied here, is to depopulate the United States, to reduce its roughly 300 million. The detective who investigated and captured Gravey in his house, Flood, increasingly becomes enmeshed in what we encounters in Gravey's journal. At first, Flood's comments are seemingly innocuous, such as his retort to the journal entry excerpted above:
FLOOD: Whether Gravey is using this opening disorientation voice as a way of disclaiming his own actions I am unsure. He seems sometimes to be speaking directly to the reader, while at other times at you or through you or around you; perhaps, forgive me, inside you. Frequently one gets the sense of several of these modes in play at once. There are as well perhaps still other modes I've yet to consider, though I hope that in my exploration of his words I can begin to draw out what lies underneath. Unfortunately, my transcription here removes the context of Gretch Gravey's particularly mangled/child-eyed/dogshit handwriting, which even after just minutes of staring at gives me a fever. (p. 5)
However, later on, as Flood recounts the sickening discovery of the bodies in the house, he describes the experience in an unsettling, surprising fashion:
FLOOD: The smell was – I hate to say it – sweet. It reminded me of waking up in a graddfield having slept all through the night without coverage against the night sky. I mean, I don't want to sound morbid, it was revolting. The sweetness was revolting. But it was also – I breathed it in. (p. 124)
As the reader advances through the first two parts, "The Part About Gravey" and "The Part About the Killing," into the middle part, "The Part About Flood (In the City of Sod)," she will encounter an initially subtle yet key departure in tone and tenor, as the passages begin to show a merger of personalities, as other detectives begin to comment on the passages, sometimes excising parts of Flood's commentaries, as Flood himself begins to become disassociated from himself, perhaps due to becoming too involved in the case. There is a palpable sense of entrapment, as though the very foundations of world-view/understanding are undergoing a semantic collapse:
Worse than knowing I needed out, I didn't know what I needed back out into. Even when I could feel there was something else beyond the edges of any color in the street or window where no one waited even to just totally ignore me, I couldn't recognize it enough to know how to want it harder. Along each street it was as if I were waiting for some hole to swallow my face. Each moment it didn't made the going into the next step that much less worth doing. This is what life had always felt like. In my mind, expecting the absence of something or someone there before me made the presence in its place feel like the punch line to a routine no one was performing. And where I couldn't find a way to laugh, I became my own stand-in, over and over, like painting white over a window from the inside. (p. 251)
It is nearly pointless to discuss characterization or plot here, as Butler's focus is not as much on a linear development of each, but rather on the breakdown of place and personality, ripping apart the layers of comfort and sanity that insulate readers from the potential horrors of the world. As Flood's character breakdowns, as we begin to see Gravey's "Darrel" emerge, the story becomes more and more a revelation, of insanity for some part, but also of something more sinister feeling. If an adjective had to be employed to describe the general mood of the final two sections, "The Part About America" and "The Part About Darrel," it would be dread. There is just that sense of things collapsing into something that is beyond nothingness, something that is never absent yet neither is truly present. It is this creeping no-character that creates a partial (if never total) definition of what is transpiring. The success or failure of 300,000,000 depends largely on how a reader reacts to this quasi-entity. For myself, my sense of this no-character helped provide some semblance of chaotic non-order that despite its occasionally baffling descriptions and thematic scene shifts made an odd sort of sense. By novel's end, I was almost spooked by the seemingly "normal" world around me, in part because Butler's twisting of language to create this estranged environment made it difficult at first to return to the "normality" of the waking world. This is perhaps the greatest compliment I can give to a work that demands (and takes) a lot of its readers.