January 08, 2011
“Dislodged from family and self-knowledge and knowledge of your origins you become free in the most sinister way. Some call it having a restless soul. That’s a phrase usually reserved for ghosts, which is pretty apt. I believe that my eyes filter out things that are true. For better or worse, for good or merciless, I can’t help but go through life with a selective view. My body does it without conscious thought or decision. It’s a problem only if you make it one.”—page 5
“Safeway at sunrise: we storm through the doors; totally wasted we run for the back, behind the scenes. We barricade the door so Josh can menace the bag boy. What would happen if you harnessed the sexual energy of hobo junkie teens? The world would explode and settle on the surface of another planet in a brown paste, is what. Cockroaches would lick it up and a new wave of narcissistic gypsy-slut shitheads would hatch out of tiny pores on their backs.”—page 6
“Jacob said that nobody but Jacob owns his body. He decides who it fucks and who it pummels. ‘We own nothing but what’s inside. It’s the middle of the night in here,” he said, pointing to his chest. This is what we own: our thoughts, orange and sickly. You feed it nothing but sorrow and it grows and stars come out and you are the King of your own Island of Night!”—page 36
“We never stopped dying all those nights ago in the Northwest. Remember how we sang? Remember how we danced? How we fell and lost our lives? Remember those who got cut down, who got left dying on the grass, in the sun? What do you see when you look at one another now — tell me, little boy, where will you run?”—page 96
“I peeled off those two pieces of dried scotch tape like two corneas, opened the tiny shutters to a new world. The plastic coating was removed so I saw out of two twin coins gleaming thousands of miles into the future. Only two small pieces of scotch tape as the barrier of the girl and the world. And they leaked so.”—page 121
The Orange Eats Creeps (Two Dollar Radio) by Grace Krilanovich has been getting a lot of attention. When Steve Erickson says about your book, “…if a new literature is at hand then it might as well begin here,” you know that this is something different. Set in the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s this is the story of a band of “hobo vampire junkies” who roam the woods strung out on meth, cruising underground rock concerts, in a hallucinatory daze. This is the story of a girl with “drug-induced ESP” who is searching for her lost foster sister, a surreal vision of her lost life, a narrative that is disjointed, fragmented, and surprisingly touching.
I have to admit that I struggled with this book at first, until I realized that I had to let go what I thought a book should be, what a story should be, and just let the book take me over. This book has been compared to such challenging and visionary voices as William Burroughs, William Blake, Céline and Henry Rollins, and reading the blurbs by Steve Erickson and Brian Evenson, I was immediately reminded of their work as well. It’s a wild ride, and this book is not for everyone. Knowing that this was going to be a challenging read for me, I reached out to Blake Butler, to get a conversation going about this unique novel.
Blake Butler is the author of Ever; Scorch Atlas; and two forthcoming titles from Harper Perennial. He is also an editor at HTML Giant, Lamination Colony and No Colony. He’s widely published in print and online. Blake isn’t afraid to write dark, surreal material as well. He plays with function and form, and I knew he was a fan of this book.
What follows is our conversation via e-mail:
RICHARD THOMAS: The Orange Eats Creeps is a unique book, one that caught me off guard. I wasn’t prepared for it, Blake, to be quite honest, and it took me a while to figure out how to approach it, how to place it in a context (relevant to past books I’ve read, for example) so I could digest it. When did you first realize that TOEC was something unique, something special? And what do you think makes it different, if you do in fact feel that way?
BLAKE BUTLER: I think I was immediately intrigued by TOEC as an object first: the package, the compelling copy description invoking Twin Peaks, cough syrup, G.G. Allin, hypersenses, etc., and the blurbs from Evenson and Erickson and Jackson; I don’t usually get super stoked on the idea of something from its delivery as pitch alone but in this instance it seemed so fresh and up my alley right there that I think I went after a copy as soon as I finished about reading it the first time. That to me is an important lesson in bookmaking among the thousands of even specifically aimed small press titles coming out every year: if you really do a killer job making something intriguing sound intriguing from the outside, you have a much better chance of helping it find its audience. I wish more places were as adept at that cut as Two Dollar proved to be with TOEC, and I wish more books followed through as killingly as TOEC did on the high water it had before I even opened the book, as I was very happy to find even a dozen pages in that this wasn’t a trumped up mediocrity sold on verve, it was the real deal. In that I mean, it was not only compelling on a language and image level, but it was fun as hell to read. So many books are only one or the other: work or play. This, line by line, worked. Every line from beginning on was placed there by a wise, surprising hand. I think it was also a question of texture: I was constantly trying to figure out where I was as the thing went on, but didn’t feel left in the dark.
Did you feel that way? Did you get an immediate sense of voice or place, without the usual traps that those structures entail?
RT: I have to agree that there were a lot of external items that influenced me before I even cracked it open. The art definitely did something to me; it was very unsettling. When I saw the blurbs by Erickson and Evenson I knew this was going to be something different, something unique. The introduction by Erickson actually made me put it back down for a minute, because I thought to myself, “Damn, he’s really impressed, blown away. I may need to prepare myself.”
On top of that was the context I immediately put this book in, having read several books by Evenson, and several by Erickson as well. I’ve definitely struggled with some of their work, as I did with TOEC, but I cannot deny the power of it. I think you could call all three surreal in many ways, and I can remember, with Erickson especially, reading passages where I was totally lost, but okay with that, choosing to just float in the emotion, the ether, and then BAM a paragraph, a page, a chapter would just hit me, and I’d think, “This is genius.” I’d be practically in tears, and sometimes I wasn’t sure why. Same thing with TOEC. There are passages where it feels somewhat normal, you follow this girl on her underground, drug-addled, lost and lonely trek, only to have the narrative go off the tracks into one delusion or another, unsure of what is real or what is happening. You have to pay attention.
Still speaking about first impressions and context, it wasn’t far into it that I thought of Burroughs, and when I paused to go back and read the blurbs again to see if it would help me ground the story I was reading, I saw Evenson had mentioned Soft Machine, which I haven’t read, but I have read Naked Lunch, and that’s what popped into my head. Once I had Naked Lunch in mind, I think I was prepared to be open to whatever Grace had in mind for me.
I’m just going to refer to the author as Grace, even though I don’t know her, since I hate calling people by their last names, seems so cold. We’ll just keep this informal.
As far as voice, for sure, I got her, and was immediately in the scene, running from convenience store to the woods to underground concerts, I could definitely get a sense of the outdoors and the lifestyle they were living. You have a sympathy, or at least I did, even if she is putting herself in these situations, doing drugs, having sex, getting paid for it sometimes, getting raped, passed around while at the same time trying to be normal, find her friend/sister Kim, not really wanting to get back to the real world, and a normal life, but also drifting in this scene where anything can happen. You could be a vampire, or it could be all in your head. People could be dying at your feet, or maybe you’re just really wasted and imagining it all. That can be really exciting and freeing, or it can be hell. And I think we go back and forth between those two places: bliss and torture.
At some point I thought to myself, “Well, she’s either this manipulative, really fake author who is using me, and just throwing random surreal imagery at me, OR (and I think this is probably the case) she’s brilliantly taken me into the mind of an unstable, lost, hallucinating girl who is really coming unhinged.” I think that’s the beauty of this novel. To really honor her protagonist, and her state of mind, she has to put you in there, with jump-cut scenes, jumbled thoughts, surreal imagery that makes no sense (at first) because that’s what is must be like to be her. To give us a simple account of this experience, well, that would be a recording, a diary – boring. She wants us to live it.
Do you agree with that, Blake?
BB: I think the feeling of coming in and out of images and even monologues without a cue or a wholly clear landmark is one of the things that garner the references to Burroughs: if there’s anything TOEC shares with The Soft Machine or any of the cut up books of Burroughs it is that, this sense of images compiling and configuring in the brain of the book while you are both gathered up into it and at times placed aside to watch the organism squeal. I really like when books can do that, that duality of total immersion and sudden ejections. You always hear how you shouldn’t defunct the reader’s attention from more traditional writing schools, but I think some of the most powerful movements in writing in my experience have been that manipulation of the back and forth. Why should we pretend we aren’t in a human/object/human relationship here? Why can’t the function of language through object be used to our advantage rather than pushed under the cloth? There’s a whole lot of potential affect missed when you try to dodge that function, and TOEC does a wonderful job instead of harnessing it, and in a different kind of way.
In addition to that, I know Grace used cut up methods a la Burroughs in the creation of some of the meat of the book, random pairing and “accidental” collisions of words used to generate material from a structural or idea standpoint that then gets folded into the body of the book by the author. Having done some of that kind of thing myself, I think it’s pretty interesting the way these outside elements being abducted into the text can make new angles or layers to what was already without even the more intuitive-based writer’s means and approaches become uprooted, and force them to invent again. There’s a lot of chaos and hyper-sensory acting and sometimes even ranting compiled into this overall idea that the book’s copy does so well to codify, which in expanding in that manner allows it to become not a book one reads and own as a story or even image, but one you are forced to eventually revisit and find new again, to interpret, to walk through, or at least to have that semi-field in your head that then allows you, to me, to expand as both a writer and a person. Reading what I don’t fully understand from dot to dot but still feel this weird affect by results in some sensational experience, transcending even “actual life,” which should be the aim of a lot of art, I think. To be an actual place that exists only through this conduit of words. Like you say, “to live it.” I know this will be a book I read again and again over the years; it will not be artifice on my shelf, it will be a space.
Another thing a lot of people talk about is “voice.” I think voice is an overrated construct, in the way it is usually presented: here’s how this character talks, which shows you who he is, etc. But that’s all really just more placeholder material. Voice in TOEC for me operates not out of the want to define its character, or locate it, but to build architecture to that space of the above, a kind of codifying of walls as parsed through human speech and seeing. Any sentence in here is so well honed, but also sometimes shocking in how it moves, because you are really feeling that shift of wall to wall within a building. It’s experiential language rather than language as experience. This enables her to operate on levels many books fail when touching, such as the amazing scenes of the house shows, the G.G. Allin performances, etc., that aren’t codified by a “scene” or an act, but as another room in the building. I almost always hate fiction that tries to evoke music in this way, and yet the approach of defining space with it, in the fold of that voice, results in something really magical and mutative.
Did you find yourself surprised a lot while reading TOEC?
RT: Interesting that you mention compiling and configuring, as I took a little bit of time to do a search for common words in this novel, and got this list in return:
body = 113
night = 91
black = 83
inside = 75
mouth = 71
blood = 62
fuck = 60
dead = 60
tiny = 49
forest = 46
leaves = 40
shit = 34
I mean, that really says a lot right there. So even if you were totally unaware of this compilation, the accruing of certain words, looking at it now, I definitely get a sense of a lot of tactile descriptions (body, inside, mouth) as well as the darkness that carries through this book (night, black, blood, dead, shit). You also get a bit of the sexuality that is woven throughout the book (inside, mouth, fuck) and the environment too (night, black, forest, leaves). It’s just a list of words, but even looking at these 12 words I get an almost electric response, jolting me back into the novel.
You also mention the cut up methods via Burroughs. I read something online about that, the use of a deck of cards, I’ll quote the passage and also give you the link:
“I even made a deck of cards to help in the writing of the novel – three ‘suits’ for Settings, Characters and Afflictions. I would deal a ‘hand’ and write the scene that emerged from the juxtaposition of the three – something like ‘cat-rat,’ ‘7-Eleven,’ ‘sleep paralysis,’ for instance.”
The first time I read that I was really bothered by it, again, going back to this idea that Grace was just experimenting, playing with us, that this was more of an exercise than a fully formed narrative, a POV. But the more I sat with this, chewed on it, the more I realized that once again, she might be on to something. What would be more chaotic than a random situation that is dictated by a deck of cards? Sure, she made the deck, so she has some input and control over the content, but it’s dealt out in a random configuration.
Were you aware of her using this deck of cards, and what do you think of this?
You mention voice, and it was something that I was definitely aware of, and it did give me pause at times. But I suppose if Cormac McCarthy can use an elevated language to give a voice to his characters who are poor, lost, and uneducated, why can’t Grace use expansive language to convey the thoughts and emotions of a girl lost in the outskirts of society, hallucinating, and out of her mind? In some ways, that voice becomes the voice of God, or authority, a testimonial, and if we can allow it to exist, it gives us so much more than what you might typically get from a wasted teenager.
I don’t want to forget your last question. Was I surprised a lot? Constantly. By everything. And yet, at times, the scenes play out as they have to, right? The grocery stories, the convenience stores, the sex and drugs, getting passed around, raped, the music, the shows, the sense of disorientation. I was most surprised by that scene towards the end in the shack, that and the end of the book, the final scene. Were you surprised a lot, Blake?
That kind of leads me into what I wanted to talk about, ask you about, next: reality.
I’m not sure if it matters, but what did you think was “real”? I could never be sure if they were actually vampires, especially that scene in the shack on the beach, or if they just felt damned, only coming out at night, feeding off of each other, this illusion that they created. What was her relationship to Kim? Were they friends, lovers, sisters, and did Kim even exist? The end with the House Mom, and the way that scale and scope changes, to the point that people are not people, they’re bones and rags, and thrown over a shoulder, left at a bus stop. Did you come to any conclusions about what “really happened” in this book, and does it matter? Life is never a tidy experience; it’s open-ended, and messy, and often ends with tragic results. I’m not sure if our protagonist even knows what is real, so how can we, the audience, know either, right?
BB: I had heard her talk a little bit about the making of the cards. I found it interesting, in that yeah, you wouldn’t necessarily have gathered that from reading it at all; it is integrated as an idea tool rather than as like a plot machine, and the nature of the creation of memory and sensual elaboration is so dreamlike and hazy that I think that the book in creation must have really lent itself to being furthered by that; the chaos rupturing chaos, etc.
And ultimately, yeah, it leads to the feeling of constant surprise, though this is more a function of the language play and the constant physical motion of the sentences, I think, than idea elaborations. So many sentences made me laugh out loud at how raucous they were even as what they were willing to say, how to say it. The cards then are a kind of vehicle for this magic speaking, a form around which the language can quilt.
Here are some sentences from the book that are just doing things I don’t think I’ve seen elsewhere:
“Cockroaches would lick it up and a new wave of narcissistic gypsy-slut shitheads would hatch out of tiny pores on their backs.”
“The corpulent membrane blew up like a balloon and sat empty like an incubator of death trapped at the bottom of the trees—which hissed, Remember it’s black, it’s always black…”
“I drank so much cough syrup that I went into a coma and I lost part of my hearing and my vision in my right eye, which is now obscured by a big brown spot.”
All of these also are examples of how what really matters here to me, and why the book will transcend, is that what actually happens isn’t as important as the vehicle of the speaking. I don’t think I could answer any of your questions about what really happened, both because my memory is bad even in the moment of reading, and because ultimately it is the texture and the motion of the language that really stirs here. It’s like something actually happening. When a book is really coming at you, it becomes part of your life, I think. And I don’t often sit wondering what my life means, I just live in it. I am glad for books that I can live with, not inside of, or during, but like they are a room on my house.
Did you feel that way about this book? Are there books you’ve felt that way about?
Steve Erickson, in the introduction, says, “If a new literature is at hand then it might as well begin here.”
I think this book is definitely part of a motion of a sort where affect is taking more hold, language is being used not only for its sound, but for manipulation of brain meat, directly, life-wise. What do you think?
RT: Those are some great examples of her writing transcending the story. They’re surreal, for sure, and poetic in the use of language. I think that’s why it triggered a memory of other surreal, poetic authors when I read it.
You make a good point about the prose lulling you into this experience, hypnotic in its use of imagery and depiction of events that may or may not have happened. And coming from an extremely unreliable narrator, maybe “the truth” about what “really happened” isn’t all that important.
Great questions, and they lead me to my next thought, something I had jotted down on my desk days ago. Let me get to your question first.
This book definitely manipulated me, emotionally, and it was jarring to my mental abilities. Not that it takes much to do that. I think of other books that did that to me, Erickson, Evenson for sure, Burroughs, even BEEs American Psycho. TOEC does take on a larger presence, it is more than a story, a series of events. When you say you live with it, that they become like a room in your house, what do you mean?
I was just talking to a friend of mine about a trilogy of books by Will Christopher Baer, one of the best neo-noir authors going (in my opinion) and how whenever we pick that first book up (Kiss Me, Judas) we invariably have to read the whole thing, and that leads to reading all three books. That first book especially is like an old friend, it triggers a response from me when I pick it up, and I do slip into it, that world, and it doesn’t take much for that book to envelope me. Is that what you’re talking about, a book having a physical presence in your life?
This leads me to that next question I had been thinking about. This book is not for everyone, that’s for sure. In fact, I think it is the kind of book that will get violently different responses from people. I can see it on Amazon or Goodreads with half of the responses being 4 or 5 stars and the rest being 1 star. It is a polarizing book, I think. Who would you suggest this too?
I’d have to say anybody that is into experimental writing, fans of the surreal. Anybody that seeks out books that are NOT accepted by the masses, would probably enjoy this. Somebody posted up on Big Other or someplace, I forget who, saying that he actually seeks out books that have this kind of polarizing response, or even books that get horrible ratings, just to read something different, not mainstream. I’d also say this is a great book for those that enjoy the work of not only the authors that blurb it, but those that have similar voices: Erickson, Evenson, Burroughs, your work, Murakami, Calvino, Borges, Amelia Gray, Sam Pink, etc.
What do you think?
BB: Hm, I’m not sure who I think would like it. I’m all for giving things to people whether I think they’d like it necessarily or not. Yeah, nothing’s for everyone, but I also think nothing’s not for anyone, meaning you can learn to like something, or being exposed to things can make you think differently, even over time, so I’d probably recommend it to whoever. What I think is great about a book like this, and yes, Evenson or Erickson or Jackson or whatnot, is that not only is the prose unusual or trying new things, languagey, but it does it in such a way that it doesn’t feel schoolish, or even like work, which is the kind of book that gets people to read even when they hadn’t realized they wanted to. Fun, I think, can be undervalued, even in the most serious writing. I’d like to see this book on the Today Show. I’d like to see it at the dentist’s office waiting room. People need a chance to get fucked up by words whether they like it or not. I’m all for less assimilation and more junk in the trunk of the face of the ass of America.