"We don’t realize what we’re walking on half the time.”

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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.

—David Rice

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.

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