That Is Why I Am So Confident in Concluding That My Thesis Is Correct

There’s a story I’ve had on my mind a lot this week, for reasons Bubblegum and otherwise: Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

Maybe you’ve read it before, maybe you haven’t; it’s quite short, so if you want to, it won’t take you much time. It’s pretty famous. It’s also nauseatingly sad, so, y’know, have some chocolate or a lazy dog or something on hand to help you get back up afterward.

The parallels to our situation in this country are, I hope, obvious, and that’s not what I want to (…can bear to) write about right now anyway. What I want to write about right now is that beautiful pair of letters to Belt from his mom—including some truly startling flashes of my own life on those pages (don’t worry for me, they weren’t about mental illness or suicide). Or what the hell Fondajane is doing in this book at all, because I’ll tell you, Triple-J’s essay on her is, I think, an effective set piece in a bunch of ways, and there are definitely novels I’d enjoy seeing it in as one star in the constellation—but for now, I’ve got no idea how to answer the question why is she here?, and that’s the kind of burr under my saddle that always keeps me bouncing.

But what I’m going to write about is Triple-J’s other essay.

In the first place, it’s funny. Triple-J is, as Paul notes, an intermittently formal writer. Cued perhaps by Hal Incandenza, I was expecting that these papers of Triple-J’s would be evidence of his genius. I would say I am…unconvinced. There’s an affability to the intellect he shows in them—I might like him!, although then again the kidney stomping weighs the other way—so I don’t think Bubblegum is making fun of him, but I do think we’re supposed to see both standard development-in-progress-type immaturity and a level of critical obliviousness. But in an affectionate way.

We learn quite a lot that we need to know from reading this essay, or at least the two versions of the Graham&Swords manual that it juxtaposes. None of that is what Triple-J is analyzing. His thesis—”that some people will say anything to sell you what they’re trying to sell you, especially if those people are corporations, and it’s shady”—rings of callow disillusionment, that feeling of conviction and righteousness (maybe even superiority) that I imagine we all experience when we’re 14ish and make some of our early critical judgments of the world around us. It’s not out of place for the character or anything, and I wouldn’t even say it’s incorrect, it just has very little to do with the material he’s using. (No, you’re remembering that paper you thought was awesome but your freshman-English TA thought deserved a D because it didn’t make any actual argument.)

Apart from the…what could we call it, data? bread crumbs?…about cures as material objects in the world of the novel, here’s the part that I think is essential. And it’s a little long, but that’s because Triple-J has already intuitively mastered linguistic recursion, so blame him for the size of this box you’re about to see:

There’s no way [people stop buying cures and using them and seeing them as robots] because by the time the “Cures are people! They’re people!” people start getting attention, not only is the whole Cute Economy happening and making everyone in the USA richer, but everyone in the USA and most of the rest of the world has already overloaded a bunch of times and enjoyed doing it, and has learned to want to keep doing it, and, like I said, if it turned out that cures/Botimals weren’t machines made of flesh but real animals or animal-humans or whatever and that it therefore wasn’t okay to do what we all do to them, not only would the economy get messed up, but we’d all hate ourselves and commit suicide because we’d see that we’d been monsters all along. We’re not monsters, though. And that’s how we know cures are robots.

I take Triple-J in good faith: I think his prior here is a naïve and honest certitude that “we’re not monsters.” And from that, it follows that cures must not be alive.

But of course we’re not kids reading this, and Levin’s a sophisticated technician. We can see self-serving rationalization when it begs us to tell it how innocent it is. And this is where I come back to the Le Guin story, especially because we learn here that cures aren’t just bread and circuses, they’re meat and drink. The national economy is built on the disposability of cures. It’s good at least that Triple-J lets us know there are in fact groups that protest their on-a-whim destruction. I wasn’t sure there was anybody but Belt (and at least some of us readers, including me) who had a problem with it. Because we’re not monsters, right?

Black Lives Matter

I don’t have some insightful think piece to share about the murder by police of black people in America. I’m a white man of privilege. There’s nothing original I can say that adds value to the national dialogue or that amounts to much more than virtue signalling.

I think maybe the best thing I can do is to signal boost a couple of things that I’ve seen going around. Probably you’ve already seen them. But maybe you haven’t.

One is a list of organizations that aim to help people who get into legal trouble. So, say you’re a protester who gets arrested but you don’t have bail money or money for legal fees. These organizations will help. The list is organized by state, if you like to funnel your money to local groups.

I’ve also seen a couple of book lists going around — things one might read to self-educate about racism. This list seems like a good starting point if you’re inclined to do some work in this area.

Juxtaposition

This week’s section is a doozie. Belt’s mom is dying, and she leaves for him a pair of letters, the longer of which (in particular) is really gorgeous. They’re heart-breaking and earnest and full of frankness and respect for this remarkable and troubled kid who is about to be motherless, whose mother is making the tough decision to accelerate his motherlessness. The letters are beautiful for what they say about an ugly thing, and they are even more beautiful for their careful lyricism. They are finely wrought, and when I got to the end of the letter section, I stopped and took a few slow deep breaths and just sat with it for a few minutes. Here was the first big emotional peak of the novel.

And then suddenly we find ourselves in Triple-J’s less lapidary teenagerly essays. The contrast in emotional and lyrical content between Belt’s mom’s letters and Triple-J’s essays is stark. Levin is an author playing with genre, nesting manuals (and essays) within essays within a memoir within a novel, and it’s hard to imagine that this juxtaposition of style is coincidental (though it may be). I was thinking this even before I got to the second essay (“Living Isn’t Functioning”) in which Triple-J himself writes about juxtaposition and at the beginning of which he literally (the origin of “juxtapose” coming from words meaning “to place next to”) juxtaposes two brochures from different times in the history of cures.

Image by Flickr user Steve Jurvetson under a Creative Commons license.

The side-by-side manuals as promised show a number of significant contrasts between the BOTIMALS® of 1988 and the CURIOS® of 2012. I won’t go through the contrasts in detail, but generally the earlier brochure is more soft and cuddly and the later more sterile and corporate and cautious in describing the cures.

There are some other less explicit juxtapositions too. The chapter title “Letters and Facts” dividing the emotional content of the letters from the more factual content of the essays is a sort of juxtaposition.

It’s not too much of a stretch to compare Belt’s mom’s frankness with her son to Fondajane’s frankness with her stepson.

In the letter on pages 297 and 298, Belt’s mom compares and contrasts Belt, Clyde, and herself:

[Y]ou’ve begun to (accurately) sense just how different you are from one another. He’s loud, outgoing, aggressive even, doesn’t read much, prefers to fish, to watch boxing, is excited by certain forms of circumscribed violence. You, like me, are quiet, a little too shy, content to walk around and think, to sit upstairs in your room and think. In sum (if I haven’t already reduced you guys enough): he tends to hate being alone, and you often need to be alone… Despite your differences, you’re not at odds.

Fondajane has a penis placed next to her vulva in a physical juxtaposition of sex organs.

As usual, I do not here have a confident and tidy theory about what any of this might mean, if it means (art doesn’t have to mean). My method in general is to latch onto something that catches my attention and then to be sort of tuned into it and to look for like things, and to write them down. This week, my radar was tuned to look for juxtaposition.

Image by Flickr user flclk8 under a Creative Commons license.

I think this tendency is pretty natural. In fact, I think it’s fundamental to the human experience. I’ve sometimes thought that human beings are basically little more than meat-based pattern-matching machines. We see familiar shapes in clouds, Jesus in toast, figures in stars, butterflies in inkblots, faces in all sorts of inanimate objects. We make decisions based on precedents, using patterns we’ve seen before to govern our next behavior. Language too seems to me to be reducible in some degree to pattern matching (else sentences wrong the with words their order in bother would us not). And what does pattern matching rely upon but juxtaposition of the pattern with its potential match?

All of which is to say ultimately that maybe I’m seeing things that aren’t there because that’s what I’m primed to see this week. Maybe Levin is intentionally throwing these specific juxtapositions at us to prompt thoughts about, I dunno, duality or sameness in lieu of difference (e.g.: Is it worse to abuse a robot that seems sentient than, say, a dog?). Or maybe it’s not even something Levin meant to do, but an innate proclivity to group and compare things led him even without specific intent to juxtapose these sections.

It doesn’t really matter to me what’s intentional or not here. The letters were a high point of the book for me (it’s weird to say this, I guess, given their content), and it was fun to think about these juxtapositions in any case.

Sometimes One Looks Like The Other, Bad Taste and Stupidity

This weeks reading was really intense.  It also showed things that I never imagined would come up in this story.

  • A lengthy and carefully edited suicide note.
  • A lengthy treatise on transgendered persons/prostitution/homosexuality
  • Academic papers that are simultaneously well-written and yet obviously the work of a child.

Part Two, Section 5 of the book is called “Letters and Facts.”

This was an interesting place to stop/resume reading because, although they reference the same incident, the beginning of this section differs from the end of the previous section.

The previous section ends:

Abed was palming the top of my head, saying something hummy in Urdu or Hindi

Whereas this section opens with

“Then Abed put his hand in top of my head and sang or said something in Indian or Arab that was probably either a prayer or a spell–here comes dad with Rich and Jim.”

The book explains that the quote above was the “last line I wrote in my daily journal for weeks.”

Belt’s mother had been diagnosed with cancer more or less throughout her body.  It devastated her quickly: “My mother was dying, and before I got used to that, my mother was dead.”

But before she dies, they spend some time together at home.  She gave Belt a copy of Franny and Zooey that she’d bought for him.  He read that while she read Breakfast of Champions because she knew he liked it.  She also asked to read his journals to get a better sense of him.  She promised not to show his father.  And also later said what a strong writer he was

This whole sequence is remarkably tender–especially for a book that has some really strange and vulgar sequences.

His parents thought it would be best if he went back to the study (they needed the study to pay for his treatment).  Rick and Jim drove him.  I love that Jim called him “duke” a couple of times.  Nice throwback to “the duke of puke” which Belt didn’t learn about until present time.

This is his last day at the study.  He sees Lisette who tells him that her rat, Misty Cunningham, is dead.  She loved it so much she squeezed it to death–just like Stevie wanted to do to Blank when she first saw it.  When he says he is sorry, she says, “you don’t think I’m lying?”  He says no, but when she asks to see Blank, Belt wouldn’t let her and she stormed off.

Later when he told her that his mother had cancer, Lisette yells that he’s full of it.  James overheard the argument and supported Belt.  But Belt turned around and punched him in the face.  James says, “I knew you were a hitter.”

Belt didn’t return to the study, even though Manx said he could.

At home, he tells his father that he beat up a kid.  Clyde is partially delighted:

The doctor seemed to think the kid you hit must’ve deserved it, or at least he didn’t argue when I said that was probably what it was so I’m gonna go ahead and say “Good job.”

Later Belt has restless sleep.  In a scene that reminded me of the scene in David Foster Wallace’s “Backbone” sequence, Belt tries to get full access to his body parts–working one muscle at at time: wiggling his ears, getting his scrotum to jump, flexing his pecs.

That’s when when his father presents Belt with two notes from his mother.  Belts’ father also got two notes.  One was typed and one was handwritten.  The handwritten one is dated 1/21/99 1:07AM-2:49AM from the living room couch.

This letter says that she can no longer speak.  But she still wants to communicate.  Most importantly, she wants him to know she loves him.  She wanted to make sure he read this note before reading the typed note–her formal suicide letter.

The typed note was written 1/25-30/88.  It is … impressive.

Part 2, Section 6 is “Look at Your Father.”

While Belt and his father are watching TV (Sledge Hammer!)they switch the channel and there’s a promo for 20/20.  A Botimal is onscreen with the announcer asking what the creature is and what could bring a boy to ends its life.  Belt says he thinks it is Miles, no Niles.  He didn’t know Niles, Niles was in the study in a different section.  But Niles wore a Belinda Carlisle shirt (not a lot of junior high-school aged boys would admit to their Belinda Carlisle fandom let alone be willing t advertise it).  The episode was about how   Niles did whatever he did (we don’t know specifically yet) for the Sandburg Middle School Talent Show.

Belt’s father is mad because Barbara Walters told half the world that the only people who have Botimals are a few “psychotically disturbed kids” enrolled in the study.  Clyde says belt has his blessing, no he is instructing him to break any kid’s nose who gives him a hard time about that.  You got that, Billy.

But nobody talked to him–people gave him a wide berth.

For timeline purposes: This was all just before the “Jonboat say” T-shirt incident happened.

Part III is called Portfolio.

Earlier in one of the sections Jonboat ‘s son Jonny Pellmore-Jason Jr. (Triple J) asked Belt to read his manuscripts and watch his film.  Well, now we get to see them.

On Private Viewing was written Feb 15, 2013 for an independent study class.

It is an essay about Private Viewing “the last important work of art of the twentieth century.”  It was created by Triple J’s stepmom Fondajane Henry.

There is so much going on in this essay which is way too long to recount.

I love that it written as a largely thoughtful and well-written, more or less academic paper.  There’s footnotes, and a bibliography and the language that Triple J uses (for the most part) is thoughtful.  There’s even a citation to Camille Paglia, the perfect choice for a turn of the century era sexuality writer who would have an opinion on everything, and the wonderfully postmodern title of Fondajane’s book C(unt)ock.

But I also love that he is a high school kid (right, freshman in high school?) who is throwing in completely nonacademic personal asides and notes to his teacher (a lengthy parenthetical paragraph directly addresses his teacher).  Plus it is about his stepmother and one of his source is her talking to him about things for most of his life.

And that the essay is probably supposed to be about five pages and he handed in about 70.

There is so much in here to unpack.  Most of it seems to have nothing to do with the story per se–about Curios and Belt’s life.

Fodajane is an intersex artist.   She wrote the book Flesh and Bone Robots You Think are Your Friends when she was twenty-two, which earned her a PhD.  It was the catalyst for the decriminalization of prostitution.

We also learn in a total throwaway line that Jonboat had “just come back from his fifth mission to outer space.”  And that he officially separated from his birth mother to be in a couple with Fondajane.  And that he was the last man involved in her art performance, Private Viewing, in February 2000.

There’s also the fascinating statement that America was attacked on September 13, 2001 and that congress legalized gay marriage and prostitution the same week it authorized troops to be sent to Yemen for Operation Enduring Freedom.

Later, in Triple J’s second essay he says that back then “our whole country ha[d] been almost broke because of Reagan who made it cheaper to make cars in Mexico or wherever, so there’s less and less jobs in the USA.”  Luckily Curios launched a Cute Economy.  [I was a young teenager during the 80s and have lots of thoughts about Reagan, but I don’t specifically recall anything to do with cars and Mexico].

So, is this more of people getting their historical facts wrong, like Chad-Kyle did with Nobel?  Or are we living in a different timeline where things are similar but not the same (obviously there’s no internet, but maybe that’s not the only difference).

Belt knew some thing was incorrect about Chad-Kyle’s account of Nobel, but we don’t know which parts.  We don’t know (yet) if Triple J is wrong about history (of course, he wouldn’t be so wrong about homosexuality and prostitution being legalized, which would certainly be obvious enough for him to know).

The appendix to the essay is the speech that she said to each oft he participants in Private Viewing. She would say the exact same thing to each of them. It is basically her life story.

She was born in 1975 with ambiguous genitalia and given up for adoption.  Her adoptive parents were each in their second marriage.  They also each had had a daughter named Dolores who had died.  So they named her Dolores and didn’t seem to care about her genitalia.

Unexpectedly this appendix actually refers to Cures.  She threatened to destroy her mother’s cure, Jamey.  They were still fairly expensive then and cathartic overload hadn’t caught on yet.  She didn’t overload on it and felt better about herself.

Years later, she met transgender friends in New York City.  She met Janie Sezz and Maggie Mae (this name is a little disappointing).  She told them she was Lola even though she’d never used that name before. (It seemed crazy that her name would be Lola when there was that Kinks song–too coincidental to be real).  They kept telling Lola that they were not fond of her name.

Over time her name became Fond, then Fonda, then Fondajane.

The second essay is Living Isn’t Functioning written June 3, 2012 for Freshmen Honors Writing and Rhetoric.

The first 2/3 of this essay present a side by side comparison of the 1988 Botimal manual with the 2012 Curio manual.

I’m curious how many people will read these two manuals in their entirety.  I don’t even read manuals of things I own, and yet I loved reading this.  And I loved finding out that according to Triple J, I read it the way he intended–section by section to compare and contrast them (that’s why they were printed side by side instead of one after the other).

His thesis is that “people will say anything to sell you what they are trying to sell you, especially if those people are corporations. It’s shady.”  He shows the comparison to demonstrate how G&S is trying to sell things.

There are many contrasts, but I like that right in the beginning the phrasing is changed from Botimal: the flesh-and-bone robot that thinks it’s your friend to CURIO: the lifelike best friend that believes it’s your pet.  Compare those tow Fondajane’s book: Flesh and Bone Robots You Think are Your Friends

The 2012 manual also introduces PerFormulae, specifically (and I thought of George Saunders with the way these were written: SwimHands®, RooLegs®, Chunker®, MegaChunker®, Dwarfer®, PinnochiNose®, Fanger®, FiveHead®.  The mind reels with what some of these might do.

There’s also the fabulous origin story possibilities of the Curio.  The person who “created” them was Dr Burton Pinflex, Former head of the R&D team and Graham&Swords LiveTech Division.

They posit that he may have been designing drone-capable soft automation fighters bomb defusers and information gathering.  There’s the great slogan: Since 1911, Graham&Swords has been America’s #1 Most Trusted Supplier of Armaments®.

There’s also a bit about cuteness in the 1988 manual (that is not mentioned in 2012).  Yes, your Curio will be objectively cuter and more adorable as it goes on.

The 2012 manual address the Hobunk issue but as Triple J says it seems like they didn’t know much about them or thought they would scare people, but “the way they talk about them now, it’s almost like they’re saying “user: if you don’t do what it takes to make hobunks, you’ll really be missing out on some fun.”

I love how once again, Triple J is taking an honest academic approach to the subject but with personal asides. Botimals is “an ugly-sounding word that sounds like lobotomy.”  There’s also another wonderful example of overthinking an issue (this time by Triple J not Belt).  This one is about Triple J’s friend who only wants to eat microwaved pizza instead of “handmade.”

I thoroughly enjoyed this discussion and the many levels it had, (although it is too lengthy to repeat here but options:

  • he’s not low on funds (Triple J will pay)
  • he’s not too hungry to wait (handmade takes about a long)
  • he’s not worried about Triple J spending too much money (he’s happy to have Triple J buy expensive things)
  • it’s not cooler to like microwaved (It’s bland and cheap and “somehow girl-repelling.”)
  • he may hate Triple J and thrill at watching Triple J eat microwaved who would rather eat handmade.  (That would be almost psychopathic)

.He has to conclude that his friend is just not that bright.  His observation is that “sometimes one looks like the other, bad taste and stupidity and it might be that sometimes they’re actually the same thing.”

Then we find out that triple J is connected to the Swords of Graham&Swords!

Tessa Sword is the daughter of Baron Swords who is the son of Xavier Swords. Baron Swords is Triple J’s godfather.  Xavier Swords is Triple J’s grandfather’s cousin by marriage.  Tessa told him that Cures were supposed to be like other pets only not smell as bad or need much.

By 2012 Graham&Swords “stopped lying and started emphasizing the truth about how cures/Botimals were really just robots that whatever you did to them was totally okay.”

I also loved the circular logic of this:

everyone in the USA and most of the rest of the world has already overloaded a bunch of times and enjoyed doing it, and has learned to want to keep doing it, and, like I said, if it turned out that cures/Botimals weren’t machines made of flesh but real animals or animal-humans or whatever and that it therefore wasn’t okay to do what we all do to them, not only would the economy get messed up, but we’d all hate ourselves and commit suicide because we’d see that we’d been monsters all along.  We’re not monsters, though.  And that’s how we know cures are robots.

Also note that the idea of Botimals being made of real flesh sort of came up as flesh and bone robots, but could they be made of humans?  Interestingly Triple J is not so concerned about that:

They never say in that FAQ answer that cures/Botimals aren’t made of human and bird DNA or whatever… the DNA stuff is beside the point.

This story just went from one thing to something else entirely and I’m really looking forward to how these ideas are going to unpack further.  I’m foreshadowing a lot of potentials here.  What’s a red herring and what’s just a fun throwaway idea?

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Incidentally, I co-posted this on my own site which includes a “Soundtrack” for each post.  All of the posts for Bubblegum will “feature” bubblegum pop songs.  This week’s is The Fun and Games with “Elephant Candy.”

Ever Heard of a Pass/Fail Personality Test?

You know in Belt’s interview with Dr. Lionel Manx (Daryl, there’s another name for you that’s also an object!), when Manx says, “I want you to tell me the truth”? I’m pretty sure that’s a superfluous request. This is such a great scene, and part of that greatness for me is Belt’s radical and self-aware honesty.

Belt’s a bright kid (“capable of insight,” Manx says—”of self-reflection”), and when this scene started, I was at least partly expecting it to follow that trope of the child prodigy and the mental-health professional who doesn’t expect the child’s prodigious intellect, and it’s an antagonistic/patronizing encounter at first that may or may not resolve into a respectful and possibly even warm relationship once they get each other’s measure. And to be fair, there is some of that present; Belt gets his hackles up at Manx’s profession of being confused (“You don’t have to talk to me like I’m a baby, alright? … I’ll answer all your questions, but just please don’t ask them to me like I’m stupid”), and although there’s definitely something to be said—especially in a therapeutic context!—for nonconfrontational diplomatic-type pointing out of contradictions, Belt’s objection has merit too. He’s clearly capable of understanding contradictions and double binds (which, I’ve just learned, were conceptualized in the context of schizophrenia research) and cognitive dissonance. He’s just demonstrated that in detail. I’m sure he could handle a less coddling approach to the inconsistencies Manx wants to address.

But it seems like the main reason there’s a thread of friction in this interview is Belt’s expectation that there will be (or maybe ought to be? Does it feel for anyone like he’s working partly from a cultural script he may have encountered?). Belt starts off tetchy because of his protective instinct toward his mom, whom he thinks Manx is slighting. Then he gets a little defensive about the question of whether it’s easier to die than solve one’s problems, and he reflects the perceived attack back at Manx with a parable about his method of helping swingsets that also accuses Manx of not selling his possessions and giving to the poor. It comes across like he wants Manx to feel bad about it, even though at the same time he’s explaining what’s unrealistic about it. I read it as a little conversational fencing. Belt ends up coming around on Manx, not least because Manx will talk with him about animals’ buttholes.

What I love most in this scene, though, is Belt’s impressively thorough ethical reasoning. You can disagree with his choices—he largely expects you to, based on your lack of access to his interior experience of communication with the inans—but he can defend all of them with the ethical calculus he undertook before making them. As a 12-year-old! There’s a beautiful little bit of recursive empathizing when he describes the swingsets’ pleas for euthanasia as the swingsets asking for help in a way that, having considered him and his capabilities, they think he might be able to perform. When he gets to digging into his reasons for picking and choosing which objects to help, it really sounds like he’s considering moral obligations to the whole world—”Plus the people who love you—you’d hurt them. They’d miss you. You wouldn’t have time for them. You’d be damaging them.” No wonder he’s prone to analysis paralysis, if he operates in a moral universe where the ripples of his actions propagate infinitely.

That said, he’s also intensely considered questions of pragmatism, with a pretty sharp eye toward his own failings. Would he repair the swingsets instead, if they asked? Well, if he were the kind of person who knew how to do that, he would be a different person from the one he knows, so it’s hard to say—but if he were basically otherwise still himself, of course he would! Unless it was too much work to be really plausible. “Maybe I wouldn’t repair them if they asked me to repair them. I don’t know. I guess it would depend. Like on how easy it would be to repair them.” That admission about the limits of his own desire to actually do good is something lots of adults would struggle to let themselves make. It’s so honest and unglamorous.

Then just about at the end of the assessment part of the interview, he has this moment that struck me as so touching: “And I understand that maybe I hallucinate. I can see how that’s possible. I can see why you believe that, and even why maybe I should believe it. But I don’t believe it, not usually at least.” We’ve been glancing at this question in comments, whether Belt hallucinates or not, so it’s good to know that Belt’s confronted it too. But aside from that, I find it so mature and sad that he believes it’s real but also has that part of himself that doubts because he should. It’s that normative claim, the recognition of the persuasiveness of the available evidence in the face of his refusal or inability to be persuaded, that gets me.

The interview finishes with a really good change of rhythm from Belt’s long, searching speeches to a rapid-fire bit where he and Manx try to settle on what kind of companion animal he’s going to get. It’s a nicely sharp contrast to the really complex, emotional, philosophically sophisticated dialogue that preceded it. And thanks to its pacing and blunt, surprise punchlines, this, I think, is a perfect way to end the scene:

“Monkeys?”

“That’s slavery.”

“Cats?” said Manx.

“Dumber than everyone says, plus buttholes.”

“I couldn’t agree with you more,” Manx said. “Let’s head upstairs to the kennel, shall we?”

Douglas Coupland and Botimals

As I’m reading Bubblegum, I am also reading Kitten Clone by Douglas Coupland.

It’s a non-fiction account of him visiting the Alcatel-Lucent plants in New Jersey, France and China.

Over 150 odd pages he makes observations about technology and how it will impact us in the future, etc.  He also throws in some speculative fictional ideas.

It’s an enjoyable book, in part because he wrote it in 2014, so it’s kind of dated, but not as much as you might think.

Anyhow, at the end, he creates this future scenario

The year is 2245.  Your name is Saager, and you’re just getting back to work after a snack break. … You visit your son, who works for the same company, except in the Kerguelen Islands in the middle of the Antarctic ocean.  Well, technically he’s not your son–he’s your clone, and one of many, as you carry around a mutant gene that made you unreceptive to a strain of influenza K that swept through the world thirty years previously. The overlords decided to make your DNA go wide.

So you call your clone son.  he says

“I just had my work break and it was great.  Number seventeen and I re-chipped the canteen’s sucrose dispenser, and tricked it into cranking out zygotes.  I made thirty-seven great-grandchildren, but then the bell rang and here I am, back to work.”
“What did you do with the zygotes?”
“I ate them.”

I’m not sure why he ate them, there’s no reason given.  But I put that in here as prep for the end of the story.

The father says he found feline DNA from the archives.  It’s maybe three hundred years old. The son sequences it and attempts to rebuild it (it takes 30 seconds).

The father watches the son remove a small fluffy kitten from the tank. It’s wet but healthy.  The father asks him what it looks like.

“It’s very–what’s the word… cute.  Yes.  I think it’s what people used to call ‘cute.'”
You look at the kitten.  It’s a… well, it’s a kitten.  Just like in the Grand Archive images.
“What do I do with it now, Dad?”
“What do you mean, what do you do with it?  … I don’t know.  Make it a pet?”
“People haven’t had pets in over a hundred years.”
“Can you give it as a birthday present?”
“The Kerguelen Islands are a No Small Mammal Zone.”
“Well then…”
“Holy crap!  My boss is coming this way!  What do I do with the kitten?”
“You better eat it.  Hurry!”
“Good idea”
You watch your son eat the kitten in four quick bites.  A chip off the old block.

Coincidence overload.

Not exactly the same idea I realize, but come on.
 

They fuck you up, your mum and dad

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” So opens Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse,” which I’ll quote in full below because it’s short and marvelous:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

It’s a favorite of mine, and I thought about it a lot in this week’s reading, particularly with parents like Clyde Magnet and his mother and Stevie Strumm’s father and grandfather in mind.

Clyde sometimes shows a faint veneer of consideration for Belt, but it generally rings pretty hollow to me. Sure he intended to overload on that cure with Belt as a treat. He didn’t even remember to leave Belt money while off fishing during Belt’s birthday week. At times, he gave off what I took to be a sort of abusive vibe with his comments about “taking it on the chin” and the bullying vibe he directs at Belt about the water glass on pages 86 – 87, where Belt says that with “my father behind me, especially in a hallway, I always felt as though I were about to flinch, and I knew that if I flinched or even seemed to him to be on the verge of flinching, he’d enjoy my flinching… and he’d attempt to make me flinch again and again…” This does not feel like a healthy dynamic. And generally, Clyde’s advice in the book is pretty old-fashioned (though less so when it’s set in the late ’80s) and tending toward being brutish.

(A quick coda regarding Clyde, added after I originally wrote this piece a few days ago and added just prior to publication: At the book club Zoom call last night, the host proposed that Clyde shows love through aggression, and this does sort of hold water for me. I show affection for friends by teasing them, and sometimes that teasing, without full context, could be construed as a little cruel. Maybe Clyde is just sort of old-fashioned, of the toxic masculinity school of parenting, and is unsure how to express positive emotion in a way that doesn’t seem kind of aggressive and off. I still sort of think, based on what we’ve read through this week’s milestone, that this flinchy type behavior is pretty awful, but I think the book club host is probably right and that Clyde isn’t actually as bad as he so far seems. Still, that kind of thing can fuck you up (they may not mean to, but they do), so I’m keeping Clyde on my shit list in spite of my initial over-simplistic read of his behavior.)

Clyde’s mother wasn’t so nice either (but they were fucked up in their turn), sort of bragging to her 12-year-old grandson when he’s just learned that his mother has had a seizure about how she (Grandmother Magnet) brooked no nonsense from a young Clyde of the sort Belt has demonstrated. And then there’s the fact that she took her young grandson to a mobster’s house for an overnighter. This is all very funny, but none of it’s going to win her Grandmother of the Year.

Stevie Strumm’s family tree is composed of at best negligent parents and at least of a purportedly murderous Nazi grandfather.

One can imagine that Jonboat isn’t the greatest of fathers either, though it’s early yet to say, so I may be projecting some of his cruddy youthful behavior onto the adult.

I think most novels deal with parenthood and childhood in some way or another — most of us have at least been the child of a parent — so it’s hard to escape as an essential part of the human experience when writing a book. And I don’t have any profound insights about parenthood or childhood in the book. But I do think there’s more here than just a few displays of crummy parenting.

On page 236, Dr. Manx explains to Belt and his mother that the Botimal will need to be cuddled for a couple of hours per day, which sounds to Belt’s mother like a big commitment. Just a moment before, Belt has asked if he can swap the Botimal for a sugar glider in a month. His next line after Manx explains what’s required to nurture this tiny cuddly creature, which must imprint much as birds do on their parents, is “I want it.” That’s a pretty sudden turnaround.

On the next page, Belt relates a story about a visit with his mother when he was younger to the natural history museum. He had learned that dinosaur models were made sometimes of plastic. This was disillusioning for him, and yet he felt that he must protect his mother from being disappointed in his disillusionment. He compares this phenomenon to another:

I was six or maybe seven years old, and for as long as I was able to remember, I’d pretended that when she blew air on a flesh wound — a bee-stung knee, say, or rugburned elbow — the pain went away. It was important she believe I believed in her magic.

It’s such a tender thing, this protective instinct the child has for the parent. Belt goes on to overcompensate for his disillusionment when they visit the aquarium on that same disappointing day, but it’s clear that his mother doesn’t fall for it; he has failed to make her believe. This is a sad memory for him, his saddest still at the age of 12, in fact, and so ill-equipped is he as a child to separate his own sadness from his mother’s that he thinks it must be her saddest memory too.

After leaving Manx (years after those other museum trips), Belt and his mother go to the Science and Industry museum, where they see chicks hatching from eggs and a wall of fetuses at different stages of development, and this prompts Belt to tell his mother he can’t wait to have a kid:

I said it again in front of week 38, and I saw she was crying. I assumed that she figured I was hamming it up; assumed she’d remembered that time at the Shedd, and that all the authentic enthusiasm I’d shown since we’d arrived a the museum — maybe even since Manx had assigned me the Botimal — now appeared false to her.

Of course I was wrong. The problem was she did buy my excitement for fatherhood. The degree to which I misunderstood was almost comical.

He carries on trying to convince her. The misunderstanding of course (unless I am once again being a doofus and reading simplistically) is that she has just brought her psychotic son from an appointment where they’ve learned that good outcomes for similar patients include maybe being able to do a little for themselves as they head toward middle-age. Being a father is not likely in Belt’s future, she knows, and his clear enthusiasm for doing so no doubt makes her sadder with each of his cheerful reassurances.

In the pages that follow, Belt and his mother watch the Botimal ovum’s progress very carefully, and it looks very much like the anxiety and wonder with which parents-to-be track the progress of their children-to-be.

How many limbs would it have? How many fingers? What color velvet? Would it think it was a person? Would it think I was a Botimal? What was it like to be something’s best friend? Was reciprocity a foregone conclusion? And what if somebody tried to steal it? Wouldn’t somebody try to steal it? What if somebody tried to hurt it? How could I protect it? And when — when exactly — would it hatch?

Although different in some (but not all) of their particulars, these are the obsessions of parents-to-be. And then on page 245, Belt looks for changes in the ovum’s squiggles and finds “three roughly parallel slashes, two green and one blue, across the horn of each anvil.” This sounds an awfully lot like the sorts of signs you look for when reading a pregnancy test.

Belt’s anticipation and hope stand in stark contrast to the pretty lackluster parenting we’ve seen so far in the book, and I wonder if this contrast will begin deeper into the novel to resonate more directly with threads pertaining to sentience and suffering, and with yearning for connection for beings not yourself. At any rate, there seems to be a lot happening early in the book that positions Belt as a nurturer with pretty parental instincts and associations, and I’m curious to see what if anything will come of that.