ABOUT 300 MILLION people reside in the United States, hence the title of Blake Butler’s latest novel, in which he kills all of them.
Butler, who has published seven books since his debut in 2009 with Ever, has destroyed many worlds, and, simultaneously, his books have obliterated his readers’ senses of the rules of plot and language. In his Bookforum review of Butler’s third book, There Is No Year, David Haglund suggests that the author’s work embodies the opposite characteristics of Jonathan Franzen’s writing: where Franzen has striven for transparency and relatable characters, Butler remains elusive, creating linguistic puzzles that we must sink into rather than solve. In destroying his worlds, Butler usually destroys understanding, favoring emotion and instinct over narrative. In this way, his books seem more like poetry than novels.
As readers, we expect — have been trained to expect — certain outcomes from creative endeavors, particularly from stories. We see the gun and wait for its discharge, often demanding that our narratives conform to conventional rules of sense-making. Butler defies those expectations. In Sky Saw, an omnipotent Cone takes over society, leaving a family demolished and desperately searching for understanding. Inexplicable phenomena (a copy family, rooms full of skin, a plague of caterpillars) terrorize another family in their new home in There Is No Year. And in his 2011 memoir (Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia), Butler mashes together the strain of his own sleeplessness with the pain of his father’s mental and physical deterioration from Alzheimer’s in an apocalypse of consciousness.
Unlike many contemporary writers, Butler does not dabble in darkness. He is ensconced in it. Superficially, 300,000,000 is a reaction to Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, though, in reading it, this is more a fun fact of trivia than necessary knowledge. Despite having similar structures (each book consists of five sections, with titles beginning “The Part About …”), Butler’s novel subsumes Bolaño’s concerns with death, vilification, and secrecy, and multiplies them tenfold. Ostensibly, the novel contains the story of a serial killer and the detective assigned to the case. In the first section, “The Part About Gravey,” readers familiar with Butler’s work may be surprised to discover an identifiable, almost traditional structure. As a footnote at the end of the first short chapter explains,
This text was transcribed from a white notebook found at the foot of the stairs in the room beneath the home at address [blacked out]. The original handwriting has been confirmed as that of the home’s owner, Gretch Nathaniel Gravey, a forty-five-year-old Caucasian male, who, at the time of this writing, is being held without bond by the State for an as yet undetermined number of charges of murder in the first degree.
The clarifying footnote is courtesy of Detective E. N. Flood. In the first quarter or so of the book, Flood’s commentary or quotations from court testimonies follows Gravey’s own story, taken from his notebook. Butler eases us into the mind of Gravey — an amalgamation of well-known killers, like David Koresh, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Charles Manson. Gravey dreams of a united country, in which all Americans have been absorbed into one monolithic being. While the notebook is, theoretically, Gravey’s, it is comprised of three united personas: a first-person speaker, Gravey (who is “killed” by and then becomes the speaker), and Darrel, a sort of idea of omniprescence not unlike God. As the notebook puts it, “He who brought me brightest in the image of the human toward god was a series of shapes I knew as Darrel,” and, “I knew the instant I saw Gravey I would become him, and he would fill me, and in our collision, god would bend.” These voices together spin a picture of Gravey’s life before his capture and imprisonment.
At that time Gravey lived in a house filled with mirrors, innumerable lights, a band that played silence, and a hoard of followers (as young as eight years old). In the endless stupidity of youth, boys from the area have somehow heard of Gravey’s black house and come “since they could get fucked up there.” Quotations from their testimonies supplement Flood’s footnotes, providing more insight into the commune’s function. But, like many other parts of the story, their statements defy each other. One says there were “several dozen guys all just standing around to wait to hear Darrel talk,” and another (name withheld) responds, “Man no there were never that many people. Especially once dude started getting weirder and not giving drugs unless you’d listen to him.”
As Gravey gets “weirder,” the killings begin (“The best thing about planning to kill everybody in America is you can begin with anybody in America”). Darrel tells Gravey to bring into the house “a newer mother,” and the boys are responsible for obtaining these mothers, of which there are many. From here the narrative plunges fully into horror. The author writes in detail about Gravey’s cannibalism and his sexualization of violence. I will not quote the details here — suffice it to say, at one point, he sucks the eyes out of a miscarried fetus after killing its mother. Even in his official, relatively sterile reports, Flood cannot shield us from the barbarism:
In these early acts, his tendency would be toward consuming sections of the face of the victim (cheeks, jowls, cartilage, tongue), as if to place his mark on them in the most visible and personally associative sense; later, this habit will increase, and eventually disregard any seeming order to what is consumed, as his desire to “absorb the person wholly, all persons wholly, unto one body” becomes more central.
While these are difficult, nauseating passages to read, the most disturbing part is the narrative’s authenticity. Gravey sounds utterly depraved and yet also entirely convinced of the rightness of his beliefs and actions. With great (almost frightening) skill, Butler imbues his character with all the megalomania and fanaticism known to serial killers. Gravey believes he possesses a higher mission. “Everything had already happened and yet I had to play the part as had been promised,” he writes in his notebook. As one sinks into the whirlwind of his vehemence and obsession, it becomes difficult to remember that this is fiction, not some voyeuristic, true-crime tale reproduced from a serial killer’s journals.
Meanwhile, Flood has also been reading the notebook, remarking on it, and here we see Butler undo the story we thought we were reading. An illogical sense of purpose begins to appear in Flood’s otherwise straightforward notes, as in, “The more I think about it the more I believe what I want to believe, which is that from the beginning this case always belonged to me, before there ever was a case.”
The second section, “The Part About the Killing,” illustrates Flood’s further mental deterioration and detachment from any known reality and details how insidiously Gravey (and Darrel) invades the American conscious. Whereas the pandemic of other dystopian narratives are more definable (maybe I mean more believable), the infecting virus in Butler’s story is Gravey himself. When the author writes, “The name of Gravey spreads,” note the verb and how the killer’s existence, in a culture of extremism, functions like disease.
Gravey becomes known and so grows more known, spoke in the same breath with the soap actor, the dead diva, the president. […] Clothing is emblazoned with his head or replications of the tattoo on his forearm. […] Songs speak his name suddenly in dive bars and on airwaves. Words beyond his name recall his name in plague.
As the hive mind begins to hover around Gravey and to absorb him, Butler’s story grows stranger and more disjointed. Suspicion reigns. While in the first section, we instinctively trust the footnotes as reliable and sane, this organization, too, succumbs to Gravey’s influence. No single voice dominates the chapters now; they fluctuate between third-person narration — detailing the situation in America and Flood’s behavior — and an unknown “I” and a collective “we.” More voices join the footnotes. A Sergeant R. Smith explains that Flood’s notes, which constitute much of the second section’s chapters, were found in his files after he disappeared. A psychiatrist named Mary Rutherford, claiming to have just received access to the files, soon adds, “I wonder why no one has mentioned that this case does not seem to exist. I can find no evidence in reports personal or private at my level of access to the investigation or holding of a suspect by the name of Gravey.”
The narrative topography becomes multifaceted and disorienting. Which raises the question: What story are we reading? Is it of a serial killer named Gravey or a madman named Flood or both or neither? There is no comfort in Butler’s writing and no assurance. Shortly after Mary Rutherford appears, another chapter transcribes an interview between Gravey and J. Burns, in which Gravey says, among other things, “God’s name isn’t God. The word has not been formed yet. I am forming the word.” The interview ends as Burns becomes, apparently, infected by Gravey. A great need to be with the murderer overcomes Burns, right before he realizes he is bleeding. The chapter’s footnote, again from Sergeant Smith, claims that J. Burns died in 1967 while on the police force. Smith has “no idea why his name appears here.” There is no longer any concrete truth to which either character or reader can cling.
And, throughout the second section, people are killing. Gravey’s dream of what he calls “Sod,” in which everyone is dead and thereby everyone is one, comes to pass. Killing replaces birthing as “John debegets Nancy debegets Richard debegets Tom,” and so forth until, “Today in America, 208,135,180 people become killed, each and all killed and killed again forever amen until everybody in America is dead.” In 300,000,000, we are not indirectly responsible for the end of the world, through climate change or overpopulation or mass industrialization and dehumanization. The end is simpler than that. We have, instead, turned on and destroyed ourselves.
As we transition into the third section, “The Part About Flood (in the City of Sod),” only Flood remains — though it is also difficult to say if he is Flood or just a representation of the singular, united mind. As Flood, a former voice of clarity, transforms into a spirit wandering the desiccated, empty country, readers will find themselves stepping into his role as detective, critic, and analyst. The opacity of Butler’s writing requires such a transposition since, without the more lucid passages from Flood’s perspective, the book begins to wallow in oblivion. With obvious purpose: the narrative obfuscation mirrors the collapse of the nation. As the story (if one can call it that) continues, every detail reads like a clue in our search for entrance into Butler’s creation. Does Sod stand for Society or Destruction? Is God Gravey or Darrel? We learn, through a footnote, that Flood’s wife died before the story began, which makes his mental deterioration more understandable and the possibility that much of the book takes place in his mind more … if not coherent, at least possible.
As Flood explores Sod, the question of self and otherness in this new land becomes more urgent. He asks,
What else is less clear to me here than I imagine, what has not transferred between the seeming many ideas of me that I am, all split apart and up under trance. What about you, for instance? Whoever I am speaking this to, if anybody. Why won’t you respond?
The past, the future, the dead, memory — these ideas topple onto each other until Flood converses with what seems to be his dead wife’s spirit, who makes requests like, “Can you fuck my mind please,” and insists, “Everything that has been said up to this point is real. […] Any distortions in the story are the story.” Fiction, narration, and story, in Butler’s hands, are unformed theories, rather than the formula for novel writing. Just as we grow accustomed to the concept that we are reading a post-apocalyptic scenario from Flood’s muddled perspective, the psychiatrist Mary Rutherford interrupts to explain the detective’s neither-alive-nor-dead existence, the nature of which, she allows, “is rather hairy.” Half the page of her explanation is blacked out. We know this censorship is Butler’s choosing, but it speaks to the book’s greater reminder that all fiction is just that: made up. Made up by a single, contained mind, making all narrators inherently unreliable.
Readers have no way, really, to assess a story’s truth beyond an author’s narration because we can never entirely enter the world of a text. All we have is our own interpretation of what we’ve read. Butler’s writing somehow simultaneously heightens our sense of the distance between the text and ourselves and makes us feel as though we might be a part of it; he put us there:
Even you were not free of this infestation, however kind you felt you’d been. You might have imagined yourself spared, but you were not spared. You who had moved from room to room held in the houses among the bodies in the light, who had slept through hours gone unknowing of who would come in above you in the great year of the universe becoming one eternal sore upon undone forever lathered forever loved.
In the book’s final two sections, “The Part About America” and “The Part About Darrel,” the author pushes his readers to the limit. He infuriates us. All of the book’s voices collapse into one, one voice that is Flood and Gravey and Darrel and is both dead and alive: “I fear I am not ending or beginning, but that I am.” The journey through the novel both is and ends with an untranslatable experience — much like the notion of dying, something no one can actually explain to us. In most of the final section, the speaking self tries to hold on to memories that recall an earlier life or lives. “I remember spinning and stopping. I remember endless alternate endings. I remember inhaling between lines sung in the song. I remember asking someone to come nearer.” As Butler said when I spoke to him about the novel, “It’s the end of the murder story.” The end because there is no one left to kill, only pure being and a wavering consciousness trying to hold the world’s memories.