Thursday, December 5, 1996

An Interview with Robert Olen Butler

An interview with Robert Olen Butler, discussing his book Tabloid Dreams
Published December 5th, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

Elvis Tribe Found!

By Robert Olen Butler
Henry Holt, $22.50

“JFK Secretly Attends Jackie Auction,” “Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot,” “Doomsday Meteor is Coming,” “Titanic Victim Speaks Through Waterbed.” Do any of these tabloid headlines sound like subject matter for great literature? To Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler, they do.

Taking his cue from works such as Oedipus the King and Hamlet, Butler works under the premise that if it is to be meaningful, literature has to connect in some way with mass culture.

“I think you can look at the enduring works of great literature and see them in a certain way,” Butler said in an interview during his book-tour stop in Minneapolis. “Take this for instance: ‘King Inadvertently Marries Own Mother, Plucks Out Eyes,’ or ‘Prince Sees Ghost of Dead Father, Who Fingers Own Murderer.’ I haven’t done this systematically yet, but I suspect that every great work of enduring literature in the world can be expressed as a really good tabloid headline.”

Butler’s new collection of stories, Tabloid Dreams, takes twelve such tabloid headlines and explores them in ways that the National Enquirer never imagined. Stories such as “Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover” and “Nine-Year-Old is World’s Youngest Hit Man” are no longer simply third-hand reports of some Albanian scientist’s research. Like the stories in Butler’s last collection, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, they’re real literature inhabited by real characters.

“The themes that were most urgent from A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain,” Butler says, “one could describe as cultural exile, loss, aspiration, the search for self and identity, and those themes were still kicking around in me after I’d finished the book. And one late night a the 24-hour Kroger’s in Lake Charles, near where I live, those themes leaped out and attached themselves while I was standing in line, shifting a cold bottle of milk from hand to hand—they leaped out and attached themselves to one of the headlines down there on that bottom rack. I think that night it was probably ‘Boy Born with Tattoo of Elvis.’ And I suddenly realized that the tabs had consistently been getting the headlines right, but they’d been getting the stories wrong. So this book sets the record straight on a dozen important issue of our time.”

In writing these stories, Butler reclaims some of our culture’s greatest myths. He treats Elvis, the Titanic, and extraterrestrials with the respect they deserve, rescuing them from the banality to which constant exposure has subjected them. Citing the upcoming Broadway musical about the Titanic as a prime example of how amazing things can become little more than a joke, Butler returns the potency to his subjects. People love Elvis, Marilyn, and JFK for a reason, and Butler looks past their superficial treatment in the tabloids to see why these mythical figures elicit such powerful responses in the public.

“I think that this particular penchant in our society, our culture,” Butler says, “is very deeply related to mythology, folklore, urban belief tales, which we know to take seriously. Human beings need to feel as if the intensities of their mundane daily lives are connected to something larger, and we do this by projecting our daily concerns into much larger dramas—peopled by much larger figures or wildly extended circumstances. I think that’s the impulse that creates myths, and it’s an impulse that creates an interest in these kinds of stories.”

The best stories in this collection are the ones that dissect awesome events to find, at their heart, an intense human connection. The story “Doomsday Meteor is Coming” and the sister stories “Titanic Victim Speaks Through Waterbed” and “Titanic Survivors Found in Bermuda Triangle” portray the intense need for connection that impending doom necessitates.

In the meteor story, two twentysomethings, Linus and Janice, spend the day at a Gen-X “Zima Garden,” where Linus overhears a report about the doomsday meteor. While Linus goes through astonishing levels of existential dread, the oblivious Janice keeps pestering him to get his nipple pierced as a symbol of their commitment. Although her request at first sounds pathetically small in comparison to the weight of the meteor, ultimately Linus decides to go through with it.

“The implication of this story,” Butler says, “is that the imminent end of the world does not drive him to religion or to notions of a higher being. In a way he accepts the randomness, as it were—and recognizes that all he can hold on to is his girlfriend, is this other person here, who is oblivious and remains oblivious, but for whom he makes a serious gesture of connection, to the point of being prepared to mutilate his body. And so the flesh that is so vulnerable to this imminent death he then willingly violates.”

The Titanic pieces may be even better. Probably the collection’s best-written stories, they portray both the immensity of the 1912 tragedy and its effects on two very human characters. But unlike in “Doomsday Meteor is Coming,” the characters in these stories never quite get it.

Butler calls the Titanic “the symbol of man’s technological hubris at the beginning of this century. But ultimately what is most important and what lingers and what literally haunts this disembodied spirit in the first story and the woman in the last has nothing to do with all those grandiose macro things, but indeed has to do with a moment of connection—that Linus has sense enough to seize, but these two people do not, to their everlasting regret.”

For their inability to connect, the man is forever doomed to haunt waterbeds, cups of tea, and toilets, while the woman is doomed to live in an unknown time, with no chance at ever reclaiming her lost connection.

Despite the collection’s frequent zaniness, Tabloid Dream is a very serious look at the way Americans live. Butler does have a lot of fun with them, but he doesn’t make fun of these absurd dramas. He sees them as a way into our collective psyche, and if he’s laughing, he’s laughing with us.

“The jokes in this book all come from inside the characters,” Butler says. “There are no one-liners in these stories. It’s a very funny book, but it’s also as serious a book as I’ve ever written. … A lot of what we call postmodern novel writers have drawn on the popular culture, but they have done it, far too often, from the position of aloofness, scorn—or satire, parody. But I think artists need to get inside the popular culture, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to use these headlines as ways into the enduring themes that artists have always been concerned with.”

With HBO turning the book into a series, Butler is truly interacting with the popular culture, giving as much back to it as he has taken from it. This is the function of a sincere mythmaker, and Butler succeeds, although in different ways than the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen, in making the seemingly outlandish cultural phenomena come alive in a very real and useful way. But like those writers, Butler looks to be in this for the long haul.

“I’ve got so many other headlines that are exciting me still,” Butler says. “I have a hunch I’m gonna write another book of these. I’ll probably call it More Tabloid Dreams Found on Mars.”

—David Wiley

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