Essay : Revisiting 300,000,000
I've read a digital advance review copy of Blake Butler's novel 300,000,000 in 2014, a couple weeks before its October 14 release. I've started it in Montreal, read it in Istanbul, Erzurum, Kars and finished it a couple miles past beautiful Dogübayazit, Turkey a week into my trip. I was not ready for what hit me. Neither intellectually or emotionally. 300,000,000 hit me hard. Perhaps harder than any other novel since I've started writing this blog. I've ended up churning one of my rambling fanboy reviews because I couldn't cope with the unspeakable feelings this novel evoked in me. No other novel broke the boundaries between its universe and my reality the way 300,000,000 has and yet for the longest time I was unable to discuss it coherently.
So, I decided to do something I do too rarely nowadays and reread the goddamn book during my summer vacation. This time, I've done it in two frenzies six hours sittings and hopefully came up with a clearer portrait of what's so horribly fascinating about 300,000,000.
If you're not familiar with the novel let me tell you: it might not be your cup of tea. It's the story of a cult leader named Gretch Gravey who plans to murder everyone in America and the subsequent collapse of reality when it starts to work. Not only 300,000,000 is insanely violent, but it's delivered in jagged, makeshift sentences Blake Butler crafted from the discourses of notorious cult leaders. It's difficult, antagonistic and some people most definitely hated it. So, the question persists: why have I been obsessed with 300,000,000 for the last two years?
300,000,000 is an apocalypse novel. Not to be confused with post-apocalypse, survival-in-the-Wasteland narratives which are really popular. They usually highlight the endurance of human spirit. The resilience of human beings when put through the most dehumanizing extinction event conditions an author can come up with. This is not the case in 300,000,000. The novel IS the dehumanizing extinction event. The apocalypse is gradually unfolding as you're reading and there's no protagonist to survive it. The rugged, obsessed detective E.N Flood who annotates cult leader Gretch Gravey's journals and other testimonies at the beginning seems to be it, but he fizzles and becomes absorbed in Gravey's vision.
The apocalypse is everybody's fault and no one is miraculously saved. It's a self-destruction event. 300,000,000 is terrifying because it eschews the very foundation of Judeo-Christian storytelling: the myth of redemptive violence. There is no good to fight the evil in Blake Butler's novel. I don't know if I'd even qualify the violence as "an evil" per se in this case. It just happens and there's no stopping it to. The battle between good and evil comes down to an evolutionary struggle between existence and non-existence, predator and prey. But there's no predator here. Gretch Gravey is absorbed by his vision of apocalypse like everyone else and ultimately suffers the same fate as any other victim. Gravey is a prophet, not the architect of America's demise. That's the beautiful part: everybody's guilty and everybody dies, like in the immortal (hed) P.E song.
Blake Butler redefines the moral landscape of storytelling in 300,000,000 by basically cheating it. That's also why it's a challenging read. Whenever the rules of storytelling lead Butler in a stalemate or simply to a place that doesn't serve the story, he changes the rules on us. E.N Flood is commenting on the story using footnotes at the beginning only to be absorbed by it and be replaced by a series of characters that argue about each other's existence. They also argue about the veracity of what they're reading. There's this intense scene where a police officer named Burns is getting infected by whatever soul infection is oozing from Gretch Gravey, yet footnotes claim the cop died in 1967 and couldn't have possibly written these lines. Realities clashes into one another and bend, giving each character (and consequently the read), it's own isolated and alienating apocalypse.
300,000,000 is split in five different parts: the part about Gravey, the part about the killing, the part about Flood (in the city of Sod), the part about America and the part about Darrel. I've mainly discussed the first two parts above, but the novel takes its most disturbing turn in the part about Flood (in the city of Sod), where Flood becomes the very narrator of the story. He's not exactly E.N Flood anymore as he's wandering inside a world where everyone's dead, so the basis of his identity becomes unstable. Who do you become in a world where there is nobody left to tell you who you are? This kind of philosophical question might not be your cup of tea, but you cannot question the otherworldliness of the vision. It would've made Richard Matheson himself cry. That's where 300,000,000 truly becomes unhinged and antagonistic to its own reader. If the story swallowed its own protagonist and blurred his sense of reality, what will it do to YOU?
The final two parts of 300,000,000: the part about America and the part about Darrel are still very cryptic to me. I'm not sure my flimsy understanding of them is valid at all. I think it's about the impossibility of transcendence, but I could be very wrong about that. There is no tangible foothold for what the Flood/Gravey/Darrel character is experiencing. The narrator is not really able to translate it in coherent images himself. He's drifting through a netherworld while being assaulted by reminiscences of the world that used to be. I might be wrong about that too, but I interpreted that part as Blake Butler's attempt to translate his late father's condition. To punch through the walls of his immutable isolation. But that's just my hypothesis on some of the most obscure and cryptic fiction I've ever read. It might not even have a meaning. Butler goes so deep into the annihilation of everything we know, deciding what has meaning and what doesn't would be completely arbitrary. We're hardwired to make intellectual shortcuts to create meaning as a species and 300,000,000 is an act of rebellion against that habit.
300,000,000 is a novel you'll either love or hate. No other book has challenged my sense of reality and comfort as a reader with such anger and ambition. It's why I love it. It's why I'm still obsessed by it after a second reading. I believe it's the best novel I've read since starting this blog in 2009 and I hope my thoughts will help you shine some light on what I believe is some of the most fantastic fiction written in the 21st century.