On 300,000,000, Outdoing your Own Legacy and Obscene People, a Conversation with Blake Butler
Some of you might've noticed, but it kind of is Blake Butler Appreciation Week. He is a rare visionary talent I've been obsessed with since reading his masterpiece 300,000,000 in 2014 and subsequently leaving a hysteric review. There will be another Blake Butler Appreciation Week this summer, by the way, where I will revisit the book and hopefully write something a little more eloquent about what it represents for me.
Blake was generous enough to let me interview him, so that you guys get to know him too and hopefully understand why I find the work (and the man), so fascinating. It's a robust read, so , open a new browser tab, get yourself a fresh cup of coffee and enjoy this glorious session of literary nerdom.
Ben: Blake, I've been slightly obsessed with your novel 300,000,000 since I've read it in 2014 (in Eastern Turkey of all places). Now, I have a hundred theories as to why that is, but I'm curious: why do you think anyone could become obsessed with 300,000,000?
Blake: I was obsessed with quite a few different personas during the phase of writing, which basically manifested in being obsessed with texts by or about them; in particular maniacal personas, Koresh, Dahmer, Manson, whose behaviors in association with the documentation of them made the language they used of more extreme significance. I found myself wanting to steal the words they used in trying to implement horrific acts and beliefs and cram them together with the kind of sound and emotion I was going through at the time the early drafts of the book were written, which in retrospect was a very bad time of my life, in which I felt myself almost becoming other people (though as well containing them, because I don't believe you can disassociate yourself from your worst elements even if they don't seem like really you).
So, particularly in the first section of the book, there is a lot of cribbed language from sermons Koresh would give, for instance, though not direct quotes; I would instead take a block of words of his I had been reading and rereading to try to figure out what was behind them, and rearrange them in word with various cut-up method type maneuvers, until I found sentences that seemed to make sense in a completely different way than the original, then I would add on to that or interpret that, and collage it together with other things similarly uncovered. I wanted the fucked up, obsessive energy in those bodies to infect what was coming out of mine, and in that way ended up going places I would not have otherwise; something beyond death.
Maybe any ability to find obsession there derives at least in part from that kind of secretive scaffold-building and desire to keep shredding through the masks only to find further masks, if not also from the other kinds of ways I would try to make the book work like a Magic Eye puzzle at times, or a maze that didn't have a solution but to end up in the next level of the maze. That's why the layers of the commentary by the detective investigating the main speaker of book one (the killer) is there; trying to parse both for myself and the reader what the maniac-speak was doing, which then itself becomes complicated by latent elements in that second speaker, building connections between them, and between physical spaces, etc.
In some ways I wanted the book to be the ultimate manifestation of all possible nightmares bred into one body, thus ending the necessity of nightmares, and the necessity of speaking, thinking, being. Wherever the book is successful for a reader (despite my wanting to assault the reader throughout) it must be some kind of product of that ambition.
Ben: Books that are angry with the way we live are a dime a dozen, really. Our collective need for non-stop entertainment, our fascination with violence, these are themes that are important in 300,000,000 too but I wouldn't qualify it as angry. It's more concerned, fatalistic. It's one of the things that blew me away about the book. How uncomfortable it made me feel about my own fascination with violence and death. I've heard you call the book "the end of the murder story" in another interview. I thought it was interesting because the first thing I thought about this book is that it portrayed the end of America, which is like you said here the ultimate manifestation of all nightmares. The disappearance (or rather the transmutation) of us. What actually lead you to such a pure nightmare vision and why do you think charismatic leaders have such an important part to play in it?
Blake: I'm glad you detect the concern; I think a lot of the time work that uses language and imagery like mine are often pushed into a place of total interpreted desolation, wreckage, decay, whereas I feel lurking behind it all for me there is a sense of wanting more, from the world, from people; perhaps underneath it all I'm idealistic to a fault. I'm always surprised by how what seems what should be an inherent logic of goodwill and spirit gets cleaved to death even in the most common of arenas. People never fail to find new ways to throw themselves against the cage, forgetting they aren't the only caged one; they are sharing the cage with millions, not to mention history. In the end I'm just another son.
But with this book in particular, a lot of those layers came much later in the work. I wrote the original draft of the novel during one of the worst periods of my life, having been left out of the blue by someone I was with for many years, seeing my father slowly dying in Alzheimer's, feeling utterly lost. I think I vented a lot of the emotion I was beating myself through during that time into the book, with the intent of outdoing myself to such an extent I would never need to write again. The original final line of the novel was, if I remember correctly, "The only way to complete this book is to kill myself." That kind of hysteria, and the mutating emotions that carried me through so much of what would remain the voice of the killer throughout, definitely took me to some places I didn't know were in me, and that ever since I've been trying to figure out how to proceed from as a writer.
But that first rush of energy and hell the book came out of could have come out no other way, and in the end, across the many years once I had the initial draft finished were a challenge to uplift it out of pure visions of misery and terror into somewhere else: somewhere transcending death, evil. I'm the kind of writer that quite obsessively spends 20-50x more time editing and revising the document than I do generating its original form, once I have its skeleton; for me, all the most fun tricks and secrets and higher levels of speech and thought come out in working the body of the thing to the brink of breaking. So, 40 versions of the novel later, I felt I got it to where I wanted, above just being a ball of fury, trauma, human violence.
I guess using logic and rationale, however seeming demented, to take that initial urge and vision of the unreal to make it into speech, an object, isn't that far off from what a cult leader or other spiritually liminal figure becomes wrapped up in: ecstasy and fervent vision over reality and dotted lines. Fortunately, some people have better gates around the dark parts of their person, so instead of blood it becomes a book.
Ben: That was a much more personal answer that I expected. I thought you might find interesting that I often refer to 300,000,000 when arguing depression with people who never experienced it. That it's not about wanting to get better, but wanting for everything to stop and transcend the fabric of the world that weights on you. I'm conscious it's a very simple allegory to make about a very complicated book, but I think it works somewhat.
How do you come back creatively from a novel that makes you write: "The only way to complete this book is to kill myself?" You mention that you're trying to proceed from the places where it brought you. How did you get back on the horse after providing the 21st century's most convincing vision of apocalypse yet and how comfortable would you be for 300,000,000 to be your legacy? Because I lack the comparison items for it aside from House of Leaves and Infinite Jest (in the form, not the content) and those were by far the legacy of their authors.
Blake: It was a difficult thing for me to figure out how to continue writing in the wake of, for certain; both procedurally, and most so in knowing that I'd finally written the maximized version of something I'd be aiming at since I began. I couldn't keep pacing the same circles anymore, and so it's been a long process of figuring out my habits and grips as a writer and figuring out how to move another way. I've always been the kind of writer who wants to be at the desk every day, regardless of whether I know where I'm going or what I'm working on, if nothing else to continue putting distance between who I was the time before and what I'll end up feeling good enough about to let out to be something more than just a buried file name on my desktop. I probably easily have at least 25x as much writing on my hard drive that I never did anything with in comparison to what I've published, and odd as it might sound that's a really comforting feeling, knowing that I hid a lot of the work it took to get me where I ended up.
To that end, I've been working on a novel for the past four years now where for the first time for me the idea of what the book might be came before any of the writing, and figuring out how to do it right has been a struggle. I finished a version of it, immediately deleted it knowing it had come out almost entirely wrong; wrote it again, figuring out in doing that where the hear of the book was, and then began again from there; it took all of that to push me finally I think to see an end where I can feel I'm getting to that new ground, though there have been dozens of times along the way I wanted to stop once and for all. Thankfully, I guess, my OCD won't let me quit like that, nor I guess will my heart.
I haven't thought too much about the legacy part, to be honest. The work is what's important. If anyone remembers or thinks about anything I've done in any kind of way I take it as a blessing.
Ben: Word. Most of the major critics that praised you did so because of your creative use of language. I'm one of these guys who doesn't "get" modernists and other language first/story-characters-everything else later unless they are explained to me. I was able to read and appreciate 300,000,000 because you're actually telling a story there. Now, what fascinates you in the linguistic aspect of literature and why do you think YOUR use of language stands out?
Blake: Plots bore the shit out of me, or particularly plot-first works, where the book is totally driven on you giving a shit what happens to a character in a familiar setting. I can't remember the last time I read a plot-driven book and thought, "This plot is unlike any other plot I've already seen 1,000 times." I couldn't give a shit less who killed who or who fucked who, which seem to be the two pinnacles upon which most plot-driven fiction cycles. I'd rather cry.
All that said, language for language's sake is also stale a lot of the time. So much writing is satisfied to be whatever it is, based on some kind of idea of the presence of the utterance or something; a lot of it falls just as flat, if not quite as predictably. I prefer to let aggravated language turn itself into something else without the necessity of preconception by an author, such that much of the writing becomes more like sculpting, drawing strands and occurrences out of the unknown and stacking it, building it toward something if still not quite fully tangible, somehow more impossible, alive.
Ben: You sure make point about plot-driven literature: do you have an idea of what you're going to write about before you start or for example did 300,000,000 emerged out of your fascination with David Koresh speeches?
Blake: It's always different ways how something comes, more often it's an impulse or a feeling that makes me want to sit down and start banging out the words that come through, while also looking for the lurking direction inherent in them and streamlining it as it goes, kind of a cross between improvisation and sculpture.
300,000,000 began with a cross of impulses: (1) Having heard a lot of rumors about what Bolaño's masterpiece 2666 was about without having read it, and then after reading it (and greatly admiring it despite an initial aversion to his earlier works), having desired to write the book that I imagined in descriptions of the actual book by others, which had manifested in my imagination something much more brutal, ethereal, manic. Aiming at more of a scope/intent than necessarily any plot point or sentence. (2) After a discussion of American obsession with murder in media (such as how all TV shows seem to just be a feed of who dies when and at whose hand, not to mention the morbid news feeds all over everywhere), my friend Ken challenged me to write a work that outdid that vibe, taking the idea of murder to such an extreme that it wouldn't ever need to be written about again. That's somewhat hyperbole, but also not at all; and that intent definitely infected some of the initial aggravation of the voice that laces the book, and the intent to make particularly the opening section as heavy-handed and psychoses driven as my language would allow.
Ben: I've spent the entire afternoon yesterday reading your columns on Vice instead of working. There's about a million things I want to ask you about that, but I'll try to be brief and reasonable. You've written a beautiful essay on the legacy of David Foster Wallace stating that his post-mortem material is a problematic part of his canon because it was put together in a hurry by people wanting to make money and not by him, which I think is absolutely true although I have enjoyed The Pale King very much. How do you agree that Wallace has been turned into a commodity since his passing? People dissect his interview footage like it held the very meaning of life. The guy who sold me my copy of Infinite Jest couldn't even tell me why he was good. He tried to and when he noticed he didn't made any sense he said: "Whatever, man. Just read it." Do you think these people will affect the memory of Wallace if they become his primary voice?
Blake: Some of that tension about Wallace after death has lessened since then, either because there's little left to push or because people tend to forget so fast. There's this weird fervency that always happens right after a figure like that passes, so much of which seems to be designed for traffic, numbers, while also attending the responsibility to memorialize in print every significant action. There are all these organs who have daily feeds and numbers and it's almost now like everything that happens is just looking for a way to be reconstructed online to the point it's just more of the flesh than an actual ritual field. It's probably a large part of why it's hard to pay attention to anything for more than 50 seconds and hard to tell one day apart from the next, one tragedy from another, etc. All that said, all the flies and shit that accrues on a fresh corpse-moniker quickly find another, and the shape remaining again gets to breathe. The work is still the work and that will be the same no matter how long after. It's just up to a person to have the time and witness to absorb/connect/extend.
Ben: What is the work you think is most significant then? Personally I liked Brief Interviews, Oblivion and The Pale King a lot, yet I suspect the latter spoke to me because it was put together in more of a "building blocks" kind of way that Wallace would've eschewed. I thought otherwise the "other selves" Wallace talked about so often are best illustrated in his short stories and essays. "Forever Overhead" might be my favorite where the narrator clearly tells the story in hindsight and therefore captures the beauty of a moment nobody can really think as beautiful. Does that make sense? Also, what do you think about his essays?
Blake: Honestly it has been a while since I read him. Infinite Jest was the first book that made me want to be a writer, because before it I had never read anything that used fiction in the way that he did. I still consider that one that high water mark of his work, of most any written work, at least of its ilk. The essays are obviously great but also in some ways used to piss me off because it became this thing everyone always said, "The essays are great but idk about the fiction," when in my mind the fiction at its best blows all the rest out of the water. IJ also seems the end of an era in a way, or part of the end of an era, in which monolithic novels and a certain manner of approach to fiction in general seems to have become outdated in its ability to speak to large audiences, which in my mind makes it even more vital to continue to deform and destruct and fuck up the genre, until it feels like it's real again. In an era of supposed high end opportunity with so many small presses and deep academic pursuits, etc., I've never been more bored as a reader. Which I take as a good thing; it means (at least I imagine it means) there's another form of break somewhere ahead, a shatter of specter that can only come about through exhaustion, depletion, and then invigoration. Maybe. I don't know. I hope.
Ben: Another piece from you I really liked is the What is Obscene? discussion you had with Giancarlo DiTrapano. What is obscene to you? I know there are things I find obscene that almost nobody else does: I find it obscene that I'm turned into my dad over time. That I will most likely be forgotten in 100 years like I never existed at all. This might sounds self-centered, but I do find it obscene for just about everybody. What is obscene to you?
Blake: I guess the most obscene thing I can think of is ignorance of the other, a kind of self-centeredness that causes people's worldview and imagination to shrink to whatever most directly affect them and only them, somehow not aware they're not the only living breathing wanting thinking thing in any given area. Ignorance breeds laziness breeds horseshit. Usually the only time I feel offended is when it seems like someone is taking advantage of someone else or intentionally hurting or belittling someone else for their own benefit or vanity or just because their world is so small they feel free to. All that said, particularly in regards to art, I sometimes wish people were better at reading between the lines.
Ben: You've written a book with Sean Kilpatrick, who probably is my favorite movie reviewer of all-time. I've quite an intriguing and entertaining mix of style, but an unlikely one. How did you guys ended up working together? Were there incredibly lyrical arguments during the conception of Anatomy Courses?
Blake: Sean and I wanted to designed a disease on paper, so we took turns shitting into a sack and passing it back and forth huffing on it. Sean would breathe and huff it for like 3 days and I would take it back and huff it for 3 hours and go back. Sean is a master of sharting and all literature deserves a good shart so we two guys got pissy on laughs and axes for however long it took to feel ill to the ass. My main goal was to have a book featuring anal rape and Comcast on the same page. Sean would argue with me by completely rewriting his page every time I handed it to him so I'd have to rewrite mine and make it sicker. We didn't argue as much as kidney punch each other's computers via email then go lay around in some bushes until the bushes died and grew back as lice.
Ben: Do you find inspiration in non-artistic and non-narrative things? The only writer I can ever compare you with is David Foster Wallace really and it's not that good of a comparison even because you guys are about radically different ideas. But I've heard several musicians that inspire similar emotions. Who are the non-literary artists you look up to and why?
Blake: I look up to the bodies using leaf blowers outside my window every afternoon inspiring dreams of death. Also I like basketball and tennis. Lately I've been following the YouTube feed of a pro Hearthstone player named Kripparrian *.
Ben: Any plans of writing non-fiction post-Nothing? Your Vice columns range from great to fascinating. Will we ever see a collection of these?
Blake: I'd like to write a book about gambling eventually. I don't have any plans.
Ben: Can you tell us what you're working on now? I'm sure the underground club of obsessive literary cipher solvers (headed by myself) is dying to know.
Blake: Last week I finished somewhere around the fiftieth and hopefully somewhat nearly approaching final draft of a new novel called Void Corporation.
Ben: Thanks for your time, Blake! It's been quite enlightening!
* Editor's note - That Kriparrian guy is an actual person.