A Confession

Purple neon lights that read "Is This Just Fantasy"
Photo by Mudassir Ali from Pexels

I have a confession to make. I’m a recovering genre snob. When I was young, I read mostly genre stuff — Grisham and Cornwell and Grafton and Rex Stout and King (though I reckon he’s considered literary by now). Then I went off to college and got real big for my britches. I read some philosophy and a lot of Victorian capital-L Literature (ignoring the fact that favorites like Hardy and Dickens were sort of the pulp of their time). I read Shakesepeare and Milton and for a while entertained ambitions of becoming a scholar of non-Shakespearean Renaissance drama. I tried to like the Modernist poets, and it turned out late in college and after that I did like the big postmodern tomes. Science fiction and fantasy, though? Meh, those were for people who preferred beach reads, not for a literary dynamo like me.

Occasionally in adulthood, I would condescend to read something non-literary. I read a lot of Martin’s Game of Thrones series, though whether I did so out of real interest or in anticipation of the television series I don’t recall. When trailers for the Narnia movies and the Lord of the Rings movies came out, I read those. When I learned that Philip Pullman was a heathen like me, I read his Dark Materials books. But these were just little side ventures. I dipped into these and then got right back to reading the great pillars of the canon.

Eventually I sired children, and eventually they grew out of board books and strictly little-kid books. I read aloud to them religiously, often for an hour or more a night. We read the Harry Potter books of course, and the Lemony Snicket books. We read bits and pieces of other series. I was exposed to a lot more fantasy and sci-fi by reading to my kids. I read aloud fully half of the Wheel of Time series before wanting a change of scenery. I read Lord of the Rings a few times. We read a lot of McCaffrey’s Pyrne series. And we read the first several books in Brandon Sanderson’s pretty marvelous Mistborn series together. In a fit of nostalgia (for I had read these when I was young), I dipped back into Rex Stout and some of the hard boiled detective fiction writers a few years ago, and having seen that sometimes fantasy and sci-fi and detective writing could be engaging and lovely and not just pulpy after all, I started going out of my way to read more of it in earnest and for my own sake rather than for that of my kids.

N.K. Jemisim was an obvious contemporary pick. Her Broken Earth trilogy is great, my favorite (especially the first two books) of all of hers. Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti series (YA books) are worth a read. LeGuin of course is worth a read; I’ve got a lot more of her to read yet, but I especially enjoyed her Earthsea series. In other kid’s books, Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series was a treat. Some of William Gibson’s books I enjoyed, and of some of Dick’s. Stephenson is spotty for me. A few years ago, my son wanted to start playing Dungeons & Dragons, which I had never gotten into as a kid. I learned how to play and started reading some relevant fantasy, notably R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt series, which I enjoyed quite a lot. I had read Dune not too long after college and reread that again (to my son, but also for myself) in the last couple of years.

So, I have become, if not a convert, at least a willing and open-minded reader of genre fiction. I’ve found a lot of these books a real pleasure to read, and many of them aren’t as light or noncerebral as I might’ve imagined when I knew everything during and shortly after college.

Still, I find myself instinctively assuming that fantasy and science fiction will be light or easy reading — more craft than fine art — and I think that colors how I approach them. That is, instead of automatically looking for what’s ingenious or lovely in the writing, I think I find myself looking for what’s simple or straightforward in the writing and perhaps sneering a little at it. Because I think of genre fiction as being driven by plot more than by aesthetics or capital-L Literariness, I’m more likely to read right over elegance or economy of language in these books. When reading McCarthy’s The Road, I might think of the language as spare and solemn and thus evocative and fitting given the austerity and general quietude of the book. But I might unfairly read similar prose in a genre book as merely utilitarian or simplistic by default.

These are the biases I’ll have to self-consciously push against while reading Butler’s work. She is a writer of genre fiction in my mind, and I’ll have to keep nudging aside my tendency to dismiss in her writing what I might see as significant in the writing of an author I’ve been told writes literary fiction. The first step to recovery, it’s said, is to admit that you have a problem. I here admit it. I’d like to recover. And I hope that reading some of Butler’s books along with a community of careful readers will help me pay attention in this fiction to the things I might look past otherwise and help me put aside once and for all my ridiculous knee-jerk snobbery.

Discord

I thought I’d try out Discord for potential synchronous discussion and additional community building. It may not take off. If you’re familiar with Discord and would like to join the server I’ve spun up, you can do so here.

If you don’t know what Discord is, it is, in a nutshell, a platform that facilitates synchronous discussion. There are options to chat via text (if you use Slack or something similar, this will be familiar) or audio/video. If you’re interested, get yourself a Discord account and join via the link above.

I do a lot of text chat for my day job, and mostly I’m not interested in continuing that deep into my evenings. So I’m unlikely to be super duper active on Discord. If just a handful of people show up and it’s all tumbleweeds and me deleting pictures of wangs, I’ll probably tear the server down or at least let it die a natural death. But maybe it’ll take off and we’ll add a dimension to our little book club. I suppose what happens’ll be largely up to y’all.

Hop in if you’re game, and let’s see where if anywhere this thing goes.

Octavia Butler

A few weeks ago, I asked about spinning up another group read, and based on the comments and my own interests, I’ve decided to host a group read of some Octavia Butler books, Kindred, Parable of the Sower, and Parable of the Talents. I read the second of these a few years ago and felt pretty meh about it, enough so that I didn’t read the follow-up. I’ve not read Kindred. My hope is that by reading these along with you smart folks, I’ll learn what I missed in Parable of the Sower and make sure I give the other two a fair shake.

Pictured above are the editions I’ll be using, but each is broken up conveniently into sections and subsections, so it shouldn’t matter too much which edition you get. Any who have written here before are most welcome to do so again. If you’ve not written here before but think you could add a neat perspective, please reach out to me in the comments or at infinitezombies at gmail. I would love particularly to include the perspective of a person or people of color (generally, not just for these books!).

If there’s interest at some point in a discussion via Zoom, perhaps we could do that (I’m sure we all need more Zoom in our lives), but I’ll play that by ear. I might also set up a Discord server if a few people express interest in such a thing.

Here’s a proposed reading schedule:

DateBookSection
March 1, 2021KindredRead through “The Fall”
March 8, 2021KindredRead “The Fight”
March 15, 2021KindredFinish the book
March 22, 2021Parable of the SowerRead 2024 and 2025
March 29, 2021Parable of the SowerRead 2026 – 2027 (through ch. 18)
April 5, 2021Parable of the SowerFinish (2027 ch. 19 – end)
April 12, 2021Parable of the TalentsRead 2032
April 19, 2021Parable of the TalentsRead 2033
April 26, 2021Parable of the TalentsRead 2035 through ch. 18 (2034 is skipped, apparently)
May 3, 2021Parable of the TalentsRead 2035 ch. 19 – end

If anybody more familiar with the books than I am suggests that that schedule is too ambitious or moves along too slowly, I may adjust it. Dates are the dates by which I’ll figure it’s safe to write spoilers about the given sections.

Hope to see y’all as we dive in come March. If you’ll be reading along and have the means and a local or independent book shop you can patronize, please do. Bezos is doing just fine without us.

Another Round?

Let’s imagine that in a few weeks or months, I felt game to host another group read here. And let’s say that I wanted the selected book to introduce greater diversity of authorship here than we’ve had to date. What might we read? Who among you would come along for the ride? How much do we care about reading big long books vs. shorter books?

My preference is to read something I haven’t read before, literary (probably, but not necessarily, fiction [but also probably not nonfiction prose]), ideally by someone still living. Some ideas, not all of which honor those constraints:

These are just a few I’ve been thinking about reading. I’m open to other ideas. Some obvious living omissions (given the general tendency of my list) such as Jemisin and Whitehead and Adichie and Coates are missing because I’ve read their work pretty recently and am not quite ready to dip back in yet, though I could likely be convinced to.

What do you think? Might you join in on another read? Does anything listed above appeal to you? Do you have other suggestions (preferably ones that break the chain of white men we’ve read to date)? I’m just noodling on this for now, and whether/what I host another read soon depends pretty much entirely on apparent interest and input in the comments, so do speak up if you’re game.

A Couple Conversations I Wish We Could Have Had

Zombies are still around the day after, right? Or at least still have their notifications on?

I think for me the reading schedule Daryl set for Bubblegum was just about perfect. But the trade-off I always find myself making in timeline-governed reads like this is that I often have a hard time making time to write more than one post in a week. (Hell, I haven’t even managed to finish all of these that I’ve participated in.) And with the kinds of books we read here, there’s more than one thing in a week worth talking about!

To that end, I wanted to drop a little note here with a couple thoughts I never had the chance (or I guess made the opportunity) to air with the group, in case anybody else has anything to say about them.

I know we were mostly or all struck by the ventriloquizing in “Jonboat Speaks.” Knowing, as we do in retrospect, that it was Belt’s words, I’m even more intrigued by this bit from about page 613:

The only real effort I ever spent on you was on resisting the occasional urge I felt to kick the shit out of you. The urge to kick the shit out of you for being so needy and weak and available to harm. I didn’t quite understand where that urge came from, but I knew it was universal. Not just among the other kids at our school, and not just toward you—I’m not trying to be insulting—but toward every being like you in every kind of social circle in every last species of the animal kingdom. Herd, pack, murder, flock. Universal, this occasional urge.

So Belt understands bullying, although he universalizes it (at least he has Jonboat universalize it), which I know we’d all like to hope is inaccurate. How closely does that urge that he describes here line up with cure overload? It feels like the text is making an inexact association between Belt and cures, but I note that the characteristics the urge is attributed to—”being so needy and weak and available to harm”—don’t include cuteness, which is apparently the key factor in overload.

And speaking of cuteness! It’s canonically registered in juvenile features: the more something resembles certain characteristics of human babies especially (big eyes, high foreheads, short noses, small chins), the cuter it is usually judged to be. Those features are a part of neoteny in humans (Rob, copyediting note for you: the Kindle version, at least, has neotonic and neotony where it should have neotenic and neoteny), which means that compared to other primates, our somatic maturation is slow relative to our sexual maturation. This is not a common word! But it was introduced to us by the axolotl poster in Dr. Kleinstadt’s office. (Axolotls are a standard example of neoteny.) How does that play with the fact that cures actually grow cuter as they age? There’s almost a kind of hyper-neoteny in play there, and I don’t know what it means.

I’m also curious about something that I’m pretty sure would take an actual academic article to work all the way out, but I’d love to hear if anybody has anything to say about it. Here we go: Is there a relationship between Bubblegum and New Sincerity? That’s a contested term, actually (I found a dissertation that gave me a lot to think about); but one very relevant use of it is to describe what we might broadly and therefore imprecisely call the Wallace/Franzen/Eggers nexus of literature. Not comfortable yet concluding whether or how much I think Bubblegum is or isn’t connected to New Sincerity. But what sparked the thought was some feeling of relevance, and the germ of an idea that if the novel is to some extent related but resistant to New Sincerity, Belt’s thought processes—his tortured and spiraling efforts to achieve total transparency—could be dramatizing that affinity and conflict.

And I guess I still owe y’all a post about conceptual art!

My Head Is Filled with Things to Say

When I finished Bubblegum the other day, I closed up my Kindle case and just sat there. My husband looked up five or ten minutes later and asked if I was OK, and I told him I didn’t really know. I was still trying to figure out how I felt.

I’m still working through my thoughts and feelings on the book. There’s a lot to process, and I think some parts of it are deliberately in tension with some others; I didn’t expect a neat resolution, so that’s not really a surprise, but it is surprising to me how refractory it is. It leads you in directions and then ditches you just before you arrive at an identifiable place, so you end up with emotional responses cued and no concrete framework to process them in.

Paul said he feels like this book is part one of something bigger, and I feel that feel, bruh. Only to me it’s more like, say, parts one, two, four, seven through nine, and twelve of something bigger. We get a lot of setups that aren’t followed through on, and it’s hard to say why I think that is.

For instance: Gender identity gets activated as a site of at least some salience. Paul caught the references to the Wachowski sisters—and as a matter of fact, in our world Lilly didn’t even come out as trans until 2016, and that was under threat of being outed. In that respect, Bubblegum “does well,” if you see what I mean by such a stupid term. But then the same book uses Fondajane to create a social split and actually names one side of that split “anti-beauty/pro–trans beauty.” So why? Why turn those engines on and then walk away with the keys in the ignition? What’s the function of creating an imaginary world where the Wachowskis are apparently uncontroversially women but also choosing to replicate transphobia—and blame it on the one identified intersex character?

Or here’s a big one: Dr. Kleinstadt the vet. Late in the novel we meet a man who has actually been trained to understand cures. He says cures were only even part of the veterinary-school curriculum for a few years in the 90s, which, fine, right? But that means that this knowledge—that cures are even capable of developing cancer, for one huge obvious thing, but also just the understanding, even if only partial, of what cures are and how they work—is available. It’s out there, it was officially taught in courses regulated by state licensing boards. How is this so irrelevant to the book that it comes up in this one episode and is never referred to? Dr. Kleinstadt even looks Blank in the face, for some period of time, and doesn’t apparently feel the urge to slaughter him. It’s been very strongly implied, I’d say, that Belt is (or believes himself to be) special or maybe even unique in his ability to not want to kill Blank. But lookee here, there are others. Whom we won’t spend any time with or on.

Or: After spending the whole book troubled by how people treat cures, Belt decides to use a drug made from spidge without filling us in on any qualms. Was he that altered by his exposure to A Fistful of Fists? It didn’t seem like it. He was concerned enough about Blank to find Dr. Kleinstadt, which was a hassle.

I guess a big part of why I feel so confounded by the book is that I feel like stuff is missing that I need. Like I’ve just spent two months visiting in a house with a lot of rooms locked, and now I’m supposed to figure out how its owners live in it.

There really is a lot in here that I appreciated, not that you’d know it from the emotional reactions I keep having on these pages. Clyde’s admission that he feels like he and Belt are too old to keep playing the roles of father and son is something I wish I saw more of in stories about father-son relationships. Sandrine’s whip-quick connection of No Please Don’t‘s Bam Naka figurine to Lisette seems like it promises to be worth more thought. Obviously pretty much everything about Annie Magnet is gold (except for her fridging). There’s more.

And obviously I wouldn’t have spent two months reading this and feeling as intensely as it made me if it didn’t connect with me. It’s an uneasy connection, for sure, but the book is powerful and I’m glad I got to read it along with everybody here.

Hitting Back on the Brickhorse

With this week, the book comes to an end and I can’t help but feel disappointed by the ending.  At some point a few years ago I realized that endings are often the worst part of a book.  Endings can’t ever do what the reader really hopes will happen, especially if the reader has a different idea of what the book is doing.  I must have had a very different idea of what this book was a bout because I left that last page with so many questions–questions that Levin clearly had no intention of answering.

Like what if the entire book from after Belt gets his cure until the very end is all in his head.  He is just crazy and none of these things happened.  There are no cures.  Everything that seems off about his world is because his perception is skewed.  He has the wrong date and perpetrator of 9/11.  He misunderstands The Matrix, he believes he was given hundreds of thousands of dollars from the creator of The Matrix.  His father is dating the mother of the wife of an author that he likes.  But really he’s just in Costello house imagining he’ll meet up with Lisette someday.

I don’t really think that’s what happened, but there’s so much left out after the ending, that I have to fill it in somehow.

I was particularly interested in this first section being called AOL.  There has been no real explicit nudge from the author that there is no internet in the book, but this title was clearly a wink at us.  Particularly since Belt doesn’t know what it stands for either.

But before we find out, Belt explains that it’s November 5, 2013.  He’s finished up the transcript, he has 350 pages of his memoir written and he wants to celebrate with someone.  He thought of all the people he could celebrate with.  Fon? (not a chance in hell); Denise? (he didn’t have her number); Lotta Hogg? (she was with Valentine);, his father? (at work); Burroughs? (it seemed wrong, somehow), Herb? (he didn’t want to seem like he was badgering Herb about Lisette); Eli Khong, his older editor at Darger? (in a 12-step program).  There was no one left.  He considered going to Arcades and buying (is that the verb?) a good prostitute.  But rather, he decided to buy a really good bottle of Scotch.

Last week everyone said how much they loved the names of the Scotch he buys: MacGuffin 12 and Glenfibbly 21.  This time the liquor store owner suggests a MacGuffin 18-Year-Old Sherry Cask (I have no idea what that means) which cost $293.  Its flavors: “honey and leather, then butter and apricots, and then, at last–and this was the best part–deep Robitussin cherry.”

He had also been spending more time with Blank lately.  But Blank was still off.  Belt was worried that he was boring his cure.  So he thought he’d buy a present for Blank.  He went to the new A(cute)rements Warehouse (formerly A(cute)rements PerFormulae/CureWear/ EmergeRig-vendor), a supermarket sized warehouse.

The place is abuzz with hostility because they don;t have enough Independence in.  When Belt tells the clerk that’s not what he;s there for, the clerk relaxes.  But they have no toys for cures, of course.  They mostly have things to hurt your cure with and lots of Formulae.  When he tells the clerk he wants to buy a present for his cure, the clerk says “That’s adorab–” but he is cut off because someone is furious hat they don;t have any Independence.  Belt says he didn’t see a sign saying so, and the clerk says its’ because his manager thought that people would come in an anger-shop.

Belt is surprised so many people want their cures to not need them.

But then the clerk mentions AOL.  Which, he explains, stands for Auto Over Load.  You give the Cure Independence and NeedyBuddy, put it in front of a mirror and it commits suicide.  The clerk is so excited for Belt to watch this–they have homemade clips of cures AOLing on a loop in the store.

Belt purchases a six month supply of pellets and a new PillowNest.  He has to watch some of the clips while he is online, although he can’t handle it (after all of that Fistful) and neither can I.  I did enjoy the young kids in the store arguing about what happens in the clips (and also the color coding of the items in the 75 cent bin).

When Belt gets home there is a package from Gus (whose full name is Gus Aronov-Katz [hey, maybe there is a connection to the bubblegum music after all]. It contains three handkerchiefs and a letter about his book.  I feel like Gus sums up my reaction to Bubblegum.

The most confused I got was at the end.  The end made me sad, and I do not know why, don’t know was I even supposed to be sad. Maybe it was just a personal reaction I had, specific to myself.

Belt put aside the letter and presented Blank and presented with the new PillowNest, which Blank was very excited about.  Until her sneezed green mucus and said merf.  Belt takes Blank to a vet (very few vets know how to tend to cures, obviously) and is convinced he has a Cure disease but that he can be fixed.  Even in this very sad scene there some amusement.  Like the cat magazine (Cats’n’Jamming Monthly), and the fact that Belt’s “T” looks like an “A” and the vet tech calls him “Bela.”

There’s also the woman with her exotic cats Cadman and Uk (I don’t get this joke).  She believes she should go before Belt to see Dr Kleinstadt (small town) who deals with exotic pets.  Her cats are, you see, Savannah, as in from Africa.  But nope, they are still just cats after all and she will be seeing Dr. Mills.

In the vet’s room, Belt stares at a poster of an Axolotl (which is neotonic).  The doctor had one a a patient named Ghostheim. Gave him the creeps.

The doctor says that few people know how to treat cures anymore, but he studied them.  And after a cursory exam, the doctor determines that Blank has cancer–probably from second hand smoke.  Ouch.

He also tells belt that pain singing is a misnomer.  They don’t sing when they are in pain, they sing when they are afraid.  Yikes!  Is it worse to get off on someone’s pain or someone’s fear?  Is there a difference?

And then the unthinkable and to me wholly unexpected event occurs: Kablankey dies.

The next section is called “Settlement” and it is mostly about Clyde.   First we learn that Grandmother Magnet has also died.  “(DUI, maple)” is simultaneously hilarious and insanely callous. Speaking of hilariously callous, it’s on page 695 in a footnote that we learn that Belt’s mother’s name was Annie.

Then we learn that Clyde had gotten into a terrible accident at work.  I can’t quite determine what an impeller does, but essentially a machine tossed off a heavy bitch block when it wasn’t supposed to.  And if Clyde hadn’t tried to stop it, it would have crushed Leif’s foot and killed Mikey.  Clyde is basically a hero, saving these two, but something bad happened to his body.  He assumed he’d had a heart attack and as he was dying. He imagined haunting Billy.  But then he came to and found out he’d been in a coma because he was allergic to morphine.  “They specified mild coma to get me to think twice about to causing major legal trouble.”

He had what’s called sudden-onset impeller’s twist.  The doctor says he should be fine as long as he never impels again, “which, why the fuck would I ever impel again, anyway?”  So basically, Clyde is retiring five years earlier than he planned with a huge financial settlement.

After rehab, he told Belt that he was going to take a trip to St. Wolfgang, in Austria, the village from which his parental grandfather had emerged.  Between the two of them we learn that Austria is known for coffee, mountains, Mozart, opera, delicate pastries:  “All of that stuff. Everything you’ve always lived for, plus Hitler.”

Clyde asks if Belt wants to go to.  He doesn’t.  Has no interest in it.  And then he tells his dad that he has to “get back to the bricks.”

Get back to the bricks–that’s not what that means.  That doesn’t mean anything  What you wanted to say was get back on the horse.”
“You sure about that?”
“What you really wanted to say, though,” he said, “was hit the bricks which means hit the road which is what I’m proposing.”

Later, Belt says that he was drinking and thinking beside Blank’s grave  because it “might somehow help me hit back on the brickhorse” (hilarious).

Belt complains that Clyde is only going their because his father wanted to go there and he, Belt, “wasn’t raised to care about that kind of stuff–origins–and it was you who raised me. I think you probably care even less than I do, truth be told.”

Clyde asks Belt why he sounds so angry.  What happened to him?  Belt snaps:

Oh, right, sure.  Belt.  You called me Belt.  You called me by my name.  I’m melting. Little boy blue and the man in the moon.  Come on.  Enough big ropes.  We’re not having a moment here, and I’m not going to Austria.

Belt is standing up for himself now, too.

Belt then reveals to us that he is on his second recent dry spell of writing.

This includes an outstanding footnote about The Matrix.  I think it’s awesome that he uses this film because his re-writing of the film is great, but also because The Wachowski Sisters are trans women (and were The Wachowski Brothers when they made the film).  In Belt’s version of The Matrix, Neo (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is a talented cuddlefarmer/formulae designer.  He realizes that cures are actually part of a larger hive mind bent on taking over the world (after destroying all of the cats).

Holy cow that must have been fun to come up with.

There’s a hugely (to me) surprising payoff to this section when sometime later he sells all of his footage of Blank to Lilly Wachowski for a future Matrix film.

[If, in reality, the Wachowski Sisters make a film out of this novel, the self-referentialism will be out of this world].

The dry spell led to him re-reading his memoir and he found he no longer had any empathy for himself.  He bought and read other recently released memoirs to bolster his spirits about writing memoirs.   And his take on memoirs pretty much mirrors my own:

the author overcame adversity with virtue.  As a reader, you’d either 1) spent your life being complicit in the systemic injustice that had caused the adversity, but now that you’d read the book, you’d been awakened to the role you played and are thus made virtuous (perhaps even brave) or 2) you’d spent your life being a victim of the same systemic injustice as the author while being equally virtuous, but it wasn’t until you read the memoir that you were able to realize just how virtuous you’d always been, just how much adversity you’d already overcome.  Congratulations either way.

Belt gave up on writing and thought maybe he needed a new Curio.  So he cloned Blank, but it did nothing for him.  He brought it to Lotta’s mom who tried to cold shoulder him.  He explained what he was giving her and when she said he wasn’t very nice to her daughter, he said:

“I just gave you something you value. And Valentine seems like a really good guy.  I don’t need your fucken guiltmouth, Catrina.”

Clyde left for Austria and then sent a postcard.  The upshot is the Austria is boring so he’s going to Paris.  It was signed “Clyde, the Dad.”  In the next postcard, he is in Paris which he loves.  The people are bitchy but deservedly so.  He’s especially enamored of the bread–is there a conspiracy against Stateside bread eaters?

Then there’s another letter from Paris.  Essentially he went to a bookstore where an American author was reading. It turned out to be Adam Levin (ha) reading his book Self-Titled.  Clyde didn’t think much of the title and the book looked really short.

[That would be the most hilarious advanced promotion for a new book if he actually released such a book (it sounds great)].

So as Clyde was looking for a book to buy Belt he happened upon a book called Estrangement Effect by Camille Bordas.

[I have read four stories by her and loved every one of them].  I was really surprised to see her name in this book.  And then to find out that in the book Levin is married to her.  He is in real life, as well.  She does not have a book with such a title, but again, that would be a hilarious promotion for an upcoming book if she is indeed writing one called that (and judging by Clyde’s reaction, she certainly should).

Long story short, Clyde hits it off with Camille’s mother Sandrine (no idea if that’s Camille’s mother;s real name) and the four of them go out together.

Levin tells Clyde he was always upset he never got to see a swingset murder in person–he’d lived so close but never went to one.

Clyde writes that day after tomorrow Sandrine was flying to the South of Spain to ______________ and Clyde is going with her. He also sent Belt an open-ended ticket to go there.  Signing this one, “Love, Clyde.”  He had recently told Belt that he felt they were better as friends rather than father and son, and that sounds about right.

Belt realized that he was a few days late on handing in his transcript.  So he called Burroughs who came over.  Belt and Burroughs have some MacGuffin 15 (confit plums, custard and pine) and Burroughs explains that Triple J had cancelled the screening of A Fistful of Fists.

Belt guesses that the museum couldn’t handle the content of Fistful, but that’s not it at all.  In fact, they loved it.  But once people started showing films of their cures AOLing, he felt his film was redundant.  Burroughs says:

One of the Yachts–the less bright Chaz–I think it was Jr. but can never keep them straight–so Chaz or Chaz Jr whichever, just a few days after the initial airing of the second AOL clip, he brought over his Executioner Set along with a cure he’d previously taught to perform executions on other cures … [after seeing all of this and realizing everyone would be doing it] …Trip has a major crisis is the point.  Artistic, moral. Crisis, Deep.  Feels almost attacked… [by] everything. The universe.

And then it feels like the book is talking to all of us who weren’t sure what we thought about Trip:

He’s barley fifteen years old, and he’s smart, this kid.  Whatever you or anyone else might think of him, he is sharp as a tack, highly introspective.  But yeah, barley fifteen years old. Ideological in that way younger people tend to be.

Technology has done what he was planing to do with art.  Technology–at which he failed–has beaten him at what he worked so hard for.  He feels like moral shitbag.

So anyway, Trip replaced it with Colorized War Crimes, which sounds ten times worse than Fistful.  Trip gave Belt a copy of this horrorshow of a film on DVD and Burroughs explains that if he shows “this DVD to anyone else, now or later, we’d thoroughly destroy your life and so forth.”  Belt doesn’t really want it but Burroughs really hopes he’ll take it,

That way I can tell Trip you took it, if he asks.  And not for nothing, he’s really proud of this and I think right to be.

Again, I love Burroughs.

Finally Burroughs tell Belt that he’d given Trip some Panacea and he felt a lot better–clear headed and clever.  Belt says he would love a panacea not realizing it is an actual thing.

“Right, sure. Please do that, Burroughs.  Bring me my panacea posthaste.”
“I don’t get the tone, he said, lowering the phone.

Once again, Belt has no idea what anyone is talking about.  Panacea is not a drug (according to the FDA) it is a food.  Burroughs offers to send him a several month supply (they have tons).

And as the conversation ends, Belt offers money for Panacea and Burroughs gets annoyed

“Wait.  What?  What do you take me for Belt?  You just fed me fine Scotch and listened to me spill my guts for…” he said and looked at his watch “Oh dear, no time to take umbrage, I have to get back.”  He stood, I stood, we shook hands and shoulder-clapped “I’ll have some Panacea sent over.”

And that’s the last we’ll see of Burroughs.

The final section is The Only Wrong Person.

It starts out with yet another very funny sequence in which we learn that Grandmother Magnet used to take them out to see a terrible movie every Christmas. Belt wanted to see Clue the first year he was “sure it would be one of the all-time great comedies, an instant classic that nothing else playing could possibly compete with–a movie about characters from a board game, ingenious!”  This year he’d guessed it would be The Three Amigos which he was “sure would be one of the all-time great comedies, an instant classic that nothing else playing could possibly compete with–a movie about characters mistaken for characters those characters played in movies; ingenuous.”  The punchline that she got them tickets to see Platoon on Christmas is hilarious.

But Belt’s mom didn’t want him to see Platoon so they went to see The Golden Child.  Belt’s mom also didn’t like like Eddie Murphy’s stand up “every other punch line is faggot.”  [She’s not wrong–he was incredibly homophobic].  But they saw it and Belt misheard a punchline that made him laugh and laugh.  I couldn’t imagine what his had to do with anything.  Eddie Murphy asks the golden child, who is very chill in a moment of panic. “Did someone give you a Valium or what?”  Belt heard it as “did someone give you a volume or what?” and believed it was Eddie Murphy signalling to the world that other people heard voices and that he could use this volume knob to turn them down.

When the Panacea arrives it warns of Temporary Paradoxical Effects–sleepiness, lucid dreaming, anxiety loss of appetite and or loss of sex drive.  Belt slept for a half a day and then woke up feeling that everything was awesome.

He reread his memoir and loved it.  Loved th opening and then, once again, showing that everyone here was on to something, he praises the genius that is “thats.”  And I’ll let those of you who latched onto this usage gloat and explain it.

The Panacea lets Belt imagine that he can open and close his gates and can see them opening and closing allowing him to communicate with inans.  The desk he’s sitting at starts to complain and Belt closes his gates on it.  Unfortunately, he can never do it again.

Because later when he picks up a copy of No Please Don’t (which he hadn’t read it since it was published) the book itself yells at him.  Because a book waits all its life to be picked up and have its pages slowly turned, but not by the author of the book–the exact wrong person.

Poor Belt.

Since Belt can’t write anything, he thinks about Adam Levin raving about how great the swingset murders were.  he decides that’s what his real calling is.  But he promised his mother he would never destroy other people’s property again.  So he decides to buy the rusty swingsets.  However, the first one he tries to buy, the woman assumes he;s a junk removal truck and pays him–could this be his new source of income?

He hits the swingset with a bat and immediately thinks he’s having a heart attack (like father, like son).  He realizes he hadn’t really cared about swingsets for years and gives up on that idea pretty quickly.

When he decides to get writing done, Herb contacts him.  He has the number of Dr Abed Patel who remembers Belt, of course.

Belt calls Abed and Abed’s tone to Belt is fascinating.  He asks if the voices stopped, and what kind of drugs he took to get better (no they haven’t, and none).  Abed read No Please Don’t and was very impressed by it–especially since he thought Belt was crazy.

Finally we learn her full name: Lisette Banks.  Lisette has been in touch with Abed many times over the years looking for Belt.  Abed could never give out her information.  She sounds unwell–but Belt thinks her reactions are “funny unwell” like she was back in the study.  She lives at the Costello House Intermediate Care Facility. There had been a real murder there back in 2002.

At the Costello House there are several people with Tardive dyskinesia causes repetitive, involuntary movements, such as grimacing and eye blinking which is caused by long-term use of neuroleptic drugs used to treat psychiatric conditions.

There’s also a person who ask:

“You want to know who it is?  Who it really is, buddy?  Who you’re saying those things to?  That’s Judah Maccabee, buddy. That’s who you’re hurting.”

If you haven’t read Levin’s The Instructions, Judah Maccabee is the father of the main character, Judah is a famous defense attorney and is especially known for defending horribly racist people (and women).  He is currently defending a neo Nazi–not because he is a self-hating Jew but because he believes in justice.

Belt calls Lisette–who assumes it is him calling.  And they agree to meet off site.

When he sees her he is dismayed at her appearance (is it shallowness or because she is clearly crazy)?  She doesn’t recognize Belt and introduces herself as Hulga. He says his name is Clyde and she make a Pac Man joke, which went over my head until she explained it (duh, I might have made the same joke–how did I miss it?)

Then she starts talking about something… aliens?  When he asks what she’s talking about, she says “The black gum.  The old marks.”  And you can’t believe there is only one page left in the book

She says they are circles but they are not really circles and they are clustered and your eyes are always making triangle out of them.  But they are always just awkward triangles.  She calls them pavement melanoma.

And then she goes to wait for Belt.  And how can that be the end?

 ♦
♦          ♦

Was this really just a story of lost romance?

What of Trip and the Yachts?

What of the memoir (I guess he wrote it if we are reading it).

What of Clyde and Sandrine?  Did they get married?  Is Belt going to hang out with his step brother in law Adam Levin?

What of Burroughs?

And what about the hundreds of questions we had about Cures and how we are supposed to think about them?

I feel like this book was part one of something even bigger.

The more I think about the ending the more questions I raise.  So I’m just going to see what other people wrote before I go crazy.


♦          ♦

Incidentally, I co-posted this on my own site which includes a “Soundtrack” for each post.  All of the posts for Bubblegum have “featured” bubblegum pop songs.  This week’s final song is The Rock And Roll Dubble Bubble Trading Card Co. Of Philadelphia – 19141 -“Bubble Gum Music” (1968).  A great band name and a wonderfully self-referential song.

About suffering they were never wrong

Well, we’ve made it to the end, and I now feel the lift of having finished a rewarding book and the burden of feeling as if I should have something profound or tidy to say about it. Reader, I do not. There is simply too much to work with. I have a million questions, many of them inane (e.g.: what should I make of the conflicting information we get from sources each credible in their own way about the existence of Cure bone marrow?). Of course I have my conspiracy-ish theories about how various things in the book might connect to one another and to the rest of the canon and so on. But a pat summation of the themes and aesthetic pleasures of the book offered within a couple of thousand words is not something I think I’m up for.

There is a thread I’ll unravel a little bit, though. It’s not a profound find. In fact, it’s pretty glaringly obvious: Suffering.

First, a brief and not exhaustive catalog of suffering or suffering-adjacent things represented in the book:

  • Cures barbecued, popsicled, AOLed, dacted in various creatively sadistic other ways, and so on, documented in (but not only in) a transcript that composes some 12% of the book.
  • Various people losing parents, especially when young, and any fallout from that.
  • Belt’s mom’s pain and her father’s pain. (Another unrelated and likely inane question I haven’t sorted out an answer to: What are we to make of the fact that we learn her name only very late and in a footnote? This is clearly by design.)
  • The kids in the Friends study and their various ailments.
  • Presumably fisting itself for some, though to categorize that in a blanket way as a sort of suffering is surely simplistic and possibly a sort of straightwashing (I’m not sure).
  • The horrors depicted in Trip’s film Colorized War Crimes.
  • The suffering of many of the inans Belt encounters.
  • Even the joke about Jesus and Peter (page 565) seems to fit.
  • Fondajane’s given name is Dolores, which means “sorrow” or “pain.”
  • Blank’s apparent years-long suffering from second-hand smoke and the awful realization that Belt, by being so protective of Blank and prolonging its life, was in fact prolonging its suffering (and: the Woody Allen coughing thing turns out, if I’m not making a bad inference, to be not a cute and at times annoying tic but a sign of Blank’s discomfort amid Belt’s constant smoking).
  • “A Hunger Artist” and the panther that was probably not in fact all right.
  • Potentially Mouth the bird, kept perpetually hungry so that it could be made to learn to say things.
  • Various and sundry people in the referenced “The Hat Act” suffer various indignities and pains.
  • A panacea is a cure-all.

So, as I said, the thread here seems pretty ready for tugging, even if a couple of the things in my little catalog may require a bit of a reach.

But that’s not so uncommon, really, is it? Suffering is the human condition. Go back to Gilgamesh and you’ll read about suffering. Conflict — a key ingredient in the vast bulk of fiction — implies some measure of suffering. So again, there’s nothing profound in what I’ve pointed out. More surprising would be a nearly-800-page novel devoid of suffering.

I don’t know how well-known the word “theodicy” is, so I’ll quote Milton by way of brief definition: theodicy is “to justify the ways of God to man” (though Belt by the end, in his cups, perhaps identifies more with Housman’s suggestion that “malt does more than Milton can/To justify God’s ways to man”). Theodicy doesn’t quite do for my purposes, as (I understand) it’s explicitly concerned with questions of theology that don’t much come up in Bubblegum. Still, the general concept is useful and seems relevant: How can we extract meaning from suffering so that it seems like maybe it’s not all for nothing? Peter’s suffering in the joke Trip tells was meaningless, and what makes the joke funny is the realization of that meaningless in the face of Peter’s travails and how it (the meaninglessness) runs counter to our expectation of what divine truths we imagine Peter is suffering to hear Jesus whisper to him.

In a few places, Levin confronts the relationship between suffering and meaning pretty directly. From page 681:

According to my guilt, my cure was ill because I’d been careless, and to sit around panicking was a way to avoid accepting responsibility for my carelessness. According to my panic, my cure was ill because the world was random and randomly brutal, and thinking in terms of responsibility was just a way to avoid facing the fearsome truth: that, as always, and like everyone else, I lacked control over just about everything, my death was encroaching, as was the death of anyone else I cared about, the death of everyone I didn’t care about, eventually the death of all living things, thus the death of memory, and so the end of meaning, of the illusion of meaning.

And then again a few pages later on page 690:

And though a part of me (obviously) wanted to cry — for Blank, in front of Blank, and perhaps toward the cause of “making my peace” or “saying my goodbyes” — I hadn’t cried in Blank’s presence in a great many years, and I feared that if I cried I would make Blank afraid, that it would suffer dread along with its meaningless pain, perhaps even connect the two, the dread and the pain, and thus grant the pain meaning, and so make the pain worse, which I understand, reader, might sound a little off to you, for people like to think they prefer their pain meaningful, readers in particular, especially those readers not currently in pain, but people are people, and people are mistaken, readers are mistaken, misguided by empathy, spun around, confused. They believe they’d like to be more like the characters they love, yet they love only those characters they’re already like; they love those characters only for being like them. And despite what they may think when they aren’t in pain, people always prefer their own pain to be meaningless; they prefer only others’ pain to be meaningful. They think they want machines that behave as though alive, but what they want are living beings that behave like machines.

And then a little later on 705:

Blank had begun to seem like an appendage that had just been cut from me, and more like a long-lost friend; like someone I’d cared for a great deal at one point, but wouldn’t have expected to be in contact with, and so someone whose absence from my life didn’t create much impossible longing. And maybe that was shitty of me? Maybe I wasn’t honoring Blank’s memory? What did that mean, though? To honor Blank’s memory? Maybe, I thought, I needed to try a little harder to suffer more thoroughly.

And then toward the very end of the book, on page 751, after all this pretty heavy stuff about suffering and meaning, Belt gives us this:

By the time I’d gotten my first driver’s license — in fact, well before that — I’d all but completely ceased to care about the suffering of rusting swingsets, or, for that matter, about the suffering of inans in general. I’d known the rusting swingsets were suffering — I’d seen it nearly every day — and I would have liked it if they weren’t suffering, but I hadn’t cared enough to put in even a fraction of the effort that would have been required to end even a fraction of their suffering. Their suffering might as well have been AIDS or the Taliban or animal cruelty or homelessness or African famine or Indian famine or opioid addiction or nuclear proliferation or rising sea levels or California droughts or Lotta Hogg’s hurt feelings. Had I cared enough about the suffering of rusting swingsets, I would have started a rusting swingset-hauling business, but I’d cared so little about the suffering of rusting swingsets, I hadn’t even thought to start such a business. I’d had other things to do: reading, writing, smoking, pining for and seeking out the girl who talked to inans…

This takes me back to Belt’s conversation with Dr. Manx starting on about page 225. I’ll spare you another long quote, but Belt and Manx (another inane question: A Dr. Manx appears in some of Levin’s short stories; is it just a name he likes or is he, with these connections and the crossover between Bubblegum and The Instructions building sort of a cross-referential universe here?) talk about helping swingsets vs. helping homeless people and what it means to really help someone. This is the conversation that reminded me of some recent reading in Singer and that Jeff pointed to as sort of Biblical. Young Belt goes on to itemize a few things (including homelessness and AIDS) that he thinks it’s overwhelming to try to imagine fixing and the tradeoffs of trying to fix all those things. He ends his spiel with “so what would be the point of anything, you know? I mean…” (the ellipsis here is Levin’s and not mine).

Belt’s catalog above makes me think too of Auden’s poem that Jeff brought up and from which I’ve borrowed a line for the title of this ramble. As those who might have seen the fall of Icarus carry on with their work-a-day lives, Belt had other things to do than continue caring overmuch about the suffering of swingsets.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

These are just the instances of meaning and suffering together that I happened to note during a first read. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there are more that I missed. There’s one more little piece I’ll try to click into place here: Memory.

Interestingly, we see very little of Belt suffering in the book. What we do see comes mostly through the filter of his memory. This is a memoir, after all, which comes from the French word for “memory.” A few weeks ago, I made some connections (quite possibly specious) between Levin’s book and Proust’s magnum opus with respect to their treatment of memory. And in two of the passages I quote above, memory comes up with respect to suffering. These associations began to crystallize for me a bit when I read of Belt’s arrival at the compound, where we learned that the three dots provide a visual representation of the blobs of bubblegum that, seen years later, sent Belt careering back through time to a memory not only of his childhood but of his mother (about whose suffering we have only recently read when we get to this part of the book).

The blobs return at the end of the book too, in a strange conversation between Belt and Lisette, each linked to the other by distant memory. I haven’t really worked out yet what to make of this closing interaction. But again these people who both have suffered — who were brought together by a study of those suffering psychological trauma and were torn asunder by the the onset of Belt’s mother’s suffering (and, presumably, his own subsequent mourning) — ponder these blobs together. Lisette puts a pretty negative spin on the blobs. They’re pavement melanomas. Or they come from gross or wounded mouths and are generally gross. And we can’t help making triangles out of them when we see them, which to me is a sort of making of meaning where there is none. And then after making much more of the gumstains than they really merit, she concedes that the gum is just plain old gum: “Of course it’s just old gum. It’s completely meaningless. Doesn’t stop me, when I see it, from thinking [of them as pavement melanomas], though.”

As I said at the top, I don’t offer here a coherent theory of what the book means. I do see a set of loose associations between suffering, meaning, and memory, and it’s tempting to me to try to tie those somehow to the title and to whatever the gum blobs signify, though whether that significance pertains to memory or the grotesque, or indeed whether there’s any thread still left here to pull I’m really not sure.

It’s the Little Things

You know what I didn’t expect to find in the Pellmore-Jason compound? Tenderness. Little moments of genuine kindness. But there are lots of them! We’ve already seen Fondajane being friendly to Belt and trying to put him at ease, and later instantly recognizing that seeing himself in A Fistful of Fists would be hurtful because of what he was going through at the time he was recorded.

Then in this week’s chunk we get a number of displays of empathy and caring from male characters, which to be honest I don’t think I was expecting. Outside of Belt (who’s clearly an outlier from his own society), the men in the novel have tended to be “masculine” in that way that means feelings are for other people to worry about. Whenever we’ve seen people actually trying to treat each other well, it’s been female characters (again, excepting Belt): Belt’s mom. Stevie Strumm. Ms. Clybourn. Maybe Janie Sez and Maggie Mae.

(Please let me know if I’m shortchanging any of the guys. I left the Yachts and their Charity Parties off the list because those are both performative and random, rather than “genuine,” and because I find them ghoulish, even though I know the Yachts themselves don’t.)

For instance, I was genuinely touched during the little exchange between Belt and Jonboat about the box of cereal. Jonboat’s efforts to make Belt feel unstigmatized about whatever meds he may or may not be on was a really sweet effort, but even better was just before that:

“I was saying about your gift,” I said, pointing at the Crunch box. “I brought you a gift.”

“A box of cereal?”

“They really didn’t tell you?”

“They who, Belt?” he said.

“That’s not—never mind. The gift’s under the cereal. Under the bag inside the box, I mean.”

That “they who”/”that’s not—never mind” caught me. What‘s not what? And I thought I realized what it meant, but now as I’m typing another possibility occurs to me. Both are about inans, but the difference is in whether Jonboat knows that Belt converses with them, which I don’t know whether we have evidence about one way or the other! (Belt’s inference that Denise didn’t read the “about the author” blurb on No Please Don’t because it would have raised some questions she would definitely have felt she had to ask suggests that it’s possible Jonboat could know, especially with the fabulous capabilities that come with obscene wealth.)

  • Possible meaning #1: Jonboat knows Belt has conversations with inanimate objects. When Belt asks if “they” told Jonboat about the present Belt brought, Jonboat asks conspicuously neutrally, “They who?” Doesn’t want to upset Belt by sounding judgmental or disparaging, but obviously needs to clarify whether Belt’s operating in a shared reality with him or not. Belt gets the implication and waves it off, starting to say “That’s not what I meant, I was talking about the tribe of he-men you employ whom I had to tell one by one why I brought a partial box of cereal to brunch,” then decides instead to skip the explanation and go right to the giving.
  • Possible meaning #2: Jonboat is actually genuinely just like “wut who? There have been so many people in this compound today, and I just got off the phone with Dubai and then slipped out, I don’t know which ‘they’ you even mean. Why would I be talking to someone about cereal.” Which Belt self-consciously misinterprets as an oblique reference to his condition, and waves it off, starting to say, etc. etc.

I mentioned this moment in the first place because my interpretation on reading it was #1, and I was touched by what I read as Jonboat’s delicacy. But we know Belt’s personalizing really hard in this section, so I may be wrong.

Paul mentioned that Burroughs shot up his list of favorite characters in this section, and I similarly appreciated his quiet, sly solidity. (I’m always a sucker for an invincibly capable body man, even more when he has a fierce, deadpan wit.) His job is security, but he doesn’t take a brute approach to it when he doesn’t have to—he could have just told Belt if he gets a Quill out one more time, he’s on the street, but instead he empathizes over the nicotine craving and gives some down-to-earth advice about riding it out. (Not too far off from how he advises Belt on how to recover from the concussion he was unfortunately forced to administer to Belt.) And Burroughs and Trip double-team Chad-Kyle when he takes Belt to task for not saying hi. Paul called it “jump[ing] to Belt’s defense,” and that’s exactly how it feels. They’re defending him, and they certainly don’t have to.

For that matter, from the moment Trip arrives in the office, it feels like he’s already adopted Belt as one of his crew, down to mouthing his opinion of Chad-Kyle at Belt and serendipitously choosing the same insult Belt came up with back when he had whorehouse pizza with Lotta. (One of the less instantly obvious pleasures of this book: the truly outlandish and totally accurate things you can say in summarizing episodes from it.) Obviously he’s already committed 100,000 of his dad’s dollars to Belt, but it doesn’t feel like a business-relationship kind of closeness, not even a teenager’s idea of a business relationship. It feels like he’s treating Belt as a pal.

There’s more kindness in this week’s chunk of reading—the lengths Herb goes to to make Belt feel better about Stevie’s being married, and then his frank vulnerability to Jill about fearing “the chickens of his own irregular flossing habit one day coming home to roost,” are especially sweet. But I really wanted to highlight the welcome Belt received at the Compound. It took me totally by surprise.

Of course he repaid it by trying to beat someone to death with a souvenir of his host’s and former best friend’s space travels… But still.