The Hat Act

I’m going to cheat just the tiniest bit here on the schedule and mention something from the end of the first week’s reading, on page 75. It’s not especially spoilery — indeed I’m not really going to write about Bubblegum very much at all — and I think it might help sort of set the table a little. If you’ve read anything about Bubblegum, you’ve likely read that the book does a bit with metafiction. Levin’s first lengthy novel, The Instructions, has been compared to work by Pynchon, Gaddis, Barth, Wallace — you know, the big writers of metafictional and postmodern bricks (we’ve written about books by three of them here; maybe we should add Barth to the list at some point). It is no stretch to imagine that Levin might continue in a similar vein in Bubblegum.

Cue on page 75 the mention of a story called “The Hat Act” by Robert Coover, another of the grandsires of metafiction. I didn’t remember this story, but it turns out that I had read it some years ago in Coover’s collection Pricksongs and Descants, which I happen still to own a copy of. I unshelved the book and gave the story a read.

Coover’s story starts with a sort of a mise en scène:

In the middle of the stage: a plain table.

A man enters, dressed as a magician with black cape and black silk hat. Doffs hat in wide sweep to audience, bows elegantly.


From there it escalates, alternating between magician and audience reaction, with the magician doing increasingly impossible things and the audience amping up its response, booing when things go wrong, catcalling the magician’s assistant, and so on as the magician’s act, which starts with a simple rabbit-out-of-a-hat trick, becomes increasingly impressive and ultimately troubling and unsatisfying.

It doesn’t take much imagination to suggest that Coover is here writing about writing, about how you try to do all these neat tricks to write something new and unconventional, and the more fantastic your tricks the more you must continue to amp up the tricks and the greater the demands of the audience until ultimately everyone winds up in a panic or a snit and is, in the end, unsatisfied somehow. Such a lack of imagination does it take to suggest as much that I suspect it’s a facile reading of the story and that more is going on here than I’ve got the smarts to detect.

Facile or not as a reading of Coover’s work, I still think it’s worthwhile to keep this little reference and context in mind as you wade into Levin’s book. He is a writer working within, or maybe trying to work beyond (I don’t know yet), a tradition that itself seeks to inspect and play with traditions. Levin includes the reference at a point in his narrative at which it is especially fruitful to think about signal and noise, call and response, action and reaction, actor and acted-upon, interpretation and misinterpretation. It’s very clever and feels pretty richly layered to me.

All of which is to say here as I wrap up this first post proper that — acknowledging first that I’m only 81 pages into a nearly-800-page book and that there are acres of room for me to be off base here — I think it’ll be useful to think in particular, as we read, about things like who is manipulating whom. Is it more interesting that the magician creates the audience’s response or that the audience’s response influences the magician’s actions? What does this mean about Levin as an author, and about us as readers, and about us as readers responding to one another’s writing about this book that seems to be responding in part to other work? How should we (or should we even) think about this stuff with respect to how we exist in the world? When reading a book set in a world (mild spoiler, but again, if you’ve read a blurb for this book, you know this already) without the internet, how should we (or should we even) think about this stuff with respect to how we exist in a world in which so many of us live staring at these little mechanical devices hooked up to a vast network of call and response, action and reaction, tweet and subtweet, and so on? I don’t know. Maybe it’s a throw-away reference, a little shibboleth winking at metafiction without all the import I’m here assigning it. But maybe not. We’ll see as we go. Turning it over in my mind has been a pretty fun exercise at any rate, and I’m enjoying the book a lot so far.

3 thoughts on “The Hat Act

  1. Maturin August 28, 2022 / 11:30 pm

    He does it again in Mount Chicago, page 192. I found this while trying to learn more about The Hat Act. Your interpretation helped greatly and is slightly unnerving because Levin deploys the reference in almost the exact same way for the exact same effect.

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