September 24, 2009

Hell by Robert Olen Butler

I'm a fan of what James calls "infernals" - novels that are either set in hell, or about the devil or some such thing. Huge fan of the Inferno, which goes without saying, but I also loved I, Lucifer by Glen Duncan and A Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, which, though strictly speaking not an infernal was close enough to appeal. Given my taste for this uplifting subject, I was pretty interested when James picked up Robert Olen Butler's new novel, Hell. It is indeed about hell - one person's hell in particular, set in everyone else's hell - and there was a lot to like about it. But I can't get much more enthusiastic than that.

Robert Olen Butler won a Pulitzer Prize for his book, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. He is also, now that John Cheever's gone, one of our foremost short story writers. The bar on anything he publishes is pretty high, and for good reason. This is a man who has mastered his craft and yet, for a man who has mastered his craft, Hell is pretty slap dash.

Briefly put, Hell is the story of Hatcher McCord, a newscaster in life, and now head anchor on Satan's own Evening News from Hell. Rather than Dante's lakes of molten fire, Butler's hell is like an extremely bad day that never ends. Good sex is impossible, sulpherous rains fall from the sky, there is no meat to be had and physical harm is done only long enough for denizens to suffer a bit. Then they reconstitute and go about their day. It's the suffering that's important, and the most damnable thing about Butler's hell is that the denizens are compelled to seek out the things that will make them suffer most. But Hatcher discovers that perhaps this is not, strictly speaking, how it has to be.

The widely held belief is that Satan can hear everything going on in everyone's heads so that each denizen gets punished according to his thoughts. But during an interview with Satan for Hatcher's "Why Do You Think You're Here" series, he discovers that Satan cannot hear his thoughts. This opens up a world of mental freedom and self-discovery for Hatcher, a journey he undertakes with the hope of eventually finding a way out.

All of that is excellent. It's a great premise - that we suffer because we expect to, that hell is our own assumed response to perceived external threat. The problem is that Butler doesn't explore it. He doesn't even really pay attention to it. He's too busy piling on the cameos to care.

Butler's hell is a who's who of everyone who ever lived. Hatcher's girlfriend is Anne Boleyn, who still carries a torch for Henry VIII, despite her detachable head. The BeeGees make an appearance with J. Edgar Hoover as Satan's powder-blue suited minions, Dick Nixon is Satan's chauffeur, Chaucer is a failed novelist and Chaucer's girlfriend, Beatrice, is screwing Virgil on the side. Etc. Etc. Etc. It's all clever, but overdone. What's worse is that the cameos, which Butler clearly loves, distract, perhaps intentionally, from the premise that could be so compelling. He fails to develop the story, and so it fails to have a point, let alone any intellectual or emotional resonance.

In the end, Hell is thought-provoking (if you look hard enough), but hardly thoughtful - very careless work for a writer of Butler's stature. The story's potential, though not totally wasted, fails to get fulfilled. I'd recommend reading it if your looking for light diversion, but not wanting to be totally consumed. If what you want is an infernal with a little more bite - emotional or philosophical - I'd look somewhere else. Dante's always good.


Anonymous said...

Is the novel perhaps not so good because he's better at short stories?

On the subject of these books - have you ever read "Job - A Comedy of Justice" by Heinlein and if so, do you think it fits into this category?

maddie said...

That's an interesting question - the novel might be not-so-good because he's better at short stories. They're definitely two different critters as far as form goes.

As for "Job - A Comedy of Justice", I haven't read it but it sounds like I definitely should. Just based on the title, I'd say it could probably be called an infernal. I think of infernals as any work of fiction that involves suffering and Christian theology :)

JimDesu said...

Job would just barely qualify as an infernal, but barely.

Anonymous said...

Now that both of you have defined what you mean by Infernal I can say that Job covers the theology angle well, but not the suffering.

Good read though.

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