Amy Wilder's Reviews > Hell

Hell by Robert Olen Butler
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's review
Dec 22, 2009

really liked it
Read in December, 2009

New Yorker capsule review got my attention. The premise alone is great - a newscaster in hell does a series of celebrity interviews - just one question: "Why Do You Think You're Here?"
Perversely profound, though we are lured into the novel at the prospect of being a voyeur of someone else's eternal damnation, Butler leads the reader quickly to contemplate the source of all suffering.

In the opening scene Hatcher McCord, the narrator and anchorman of the Evening News from Hell, describes a television commercial in hell which shows to each individual some of his most treasured possessions - for Hatcher it's a complete series of some toy he owned as a child - but if you call the number on the screen, you are forced to relive a litany of miserable moments from your real childhood. Immediately, I felt called into hell myself. Those tortured moments when you realize you can't go back to childhood because now you know that it wasn't even that great.

In additional to delivering humorously some pretty profound meditations on life, suffering and human nature, Butler has a lot of fun with language - playing with different genres as Hatcher visits denizens from different eras. Bush, Hitler, J. Edgar Hoover, Clinton, Henry VIII, Humphrey Bogart - he does them all with aplomb.

He also lets us enjoy peeking at the suffering of many people we can all feel superior to - like members of the paparazzi who are forced to wear hideous, ill-fitting women's bathing-suits. These are like treats he hands out along the way to keep the mood light - and it works - is this how Dante's Inferno read to contemporaries, I wonder? If so, it is well-named the Divine Comedy.

The plot isn't exactly a page-turner - but Hatcher roams far enough and muses on enough topics as he goes that it is also never boring. And there is a plot and the characters have arcs and you get a sense of resolution - although not in the way you might imagine. Not with trumpets from heaven.

Consequently I never felt that urgency to get through a chapter to see what happens (after all - you pretty much know eternal suffering is what's most likely to happen) but I never felt like I wanted to put it down, either. To call it a light-hearted romp through the bowels of hell contained within the human psyche would not be entirely wrong.
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