Turn and Face the Strange: On Bubblegum

The very existence of science fiction proves that people love weird, imaginative shit. As long as it rings true to the author, as long as it functions within its own logic, someone else out there in the world will also dig it. Like Dune, there are moments in Adam Levin’s Bubblegum where you will have no idea what is going on with the whole book. There are moments where you won’t have any context and things just seem postmodern a la Moe Szyslak’s definition: “weird for the sake of weird.” Hang in there, I am telling you. The structure of the novel artfully sifts together many divergent strands with the “main” story of Belt Magnet and his cure.

Why do we read books like this at all? Everyone has their own answer, but for me, part of it is to face the strangeness head on. In fact, I think there is no limit to the amount of strange, weird shit people will read or watch or look at. Have you ever stared at a Breughel painting or a Cy Twombly or Kandinsky painting and wondered not only what the thing was trying to communicate to you and the rest of the world, but also what sort of mind produced this particular image at that particular time? That’s a little bit of how I felt reading Bubblegum. As as sort of intro to the book, if you haven’t started yet or if you have only read a few pages, I encourage you to stay curious about the story and the storyteller.

Throughout this novel, you will see Adam Levin reveal himself as the artist in the picture (another postmodern / metafictional necessity), and some of the adolescent characters and their argot might be familiar if you have read The Instructions. But to me, there was enough substance in the book that resembled nothing I’d read before. That said, literary critic / icon Steven Moore notes in the introduction of the first volume of his book The Novel: An Alternative History that “avant-garde, experimental novels are not a 20th-century development, as is commonly believed, but instead have a long, rich history, one never properly told.” This style of storytelling, if it seems strange and new enough, is proof that it has been around forever. With its varying pieces sewn together with multiple characters and subplots, Bubblegum is a throwback in some ways, but, like all great novels, it feels completely a product of its moment in history.

Every book we read fits into the landscape of previous books we’ve read. If you’ve just spent months with Ahab and Ishmael and Queequeg occupying your every waking thought, and then you jump into something like Ducks, Newburyport or My Struggle, your brain might take a few clicks to recalibrate to the 21st Century, but soon enough you will start to see similarities, overlaps, parallels, symbolic analogies, harmony, etc. partly because of the whaling fiction already burned into your retinas and partly because that’s how brains work: seeking patterns, fitting together loose parts in order to make sense.

There will be much for us to sort out in Bubblegum. What are these furry little creatures called Cures? What’s wrong with Belt Magnet? It’s a strange book, a strange object, but I’ve always liked this quote from Donald Barthelme:

‘“The aim of literature”, Baskerville replied grandly, “is the creation of a strange object covered with fur which breaks your heart.”’

7 thoughts on “Turn and Face the Strange: On Bubblegum

  1. Chase Edmond May 8, 2020 / 4:22 pm

    This is an excellent article. It reminds me of reading Gravity’s Rainbow (the reminder comes not from Bubblegum, but from Matt’s description in the article: “to face the strangeness head on.” I enjoy “difficult” books as much for the experience as for the content, so it rings true.

    Cheers, and stay safe everyone,

    • Chase Edmond May 8, 2020 / 4:32 pm

      Hey, buddy. 🙂 Just waiting for my copy of Bubblegum. I dug your Great Concavity podcast with Mr. Levin.

      • Matt Bucher May 8, 2020 / 5:15 pm

        Good to hear from you! Thanks for listening to the show and reading this article. See you in the comments section ha ha.

  2. Paul Debraski May 8, 2020 / 5:20 pm

    Thanks Matt.
    I had read the very first short section (about the T shirts) when I first got the book a few weeks ago. Then I put it aside for a week or so waiting for this read.
    But I had the book figured out… a story of school just like The Instructions ( in other words wonderfully hyper real).
    Then I read more and … what? A cure?
    This is going to be something else entirely. I can’t wait.

  3. Jeff Anderson May 13, 2020 / 8:11 pm

    Matt, I know this is somewhat beside the point you’re making here, but you remind me (more than once!) of Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent”—part I, anyway. What’s especially fun is that I see it activated here with respect both to the writer, in terms of Bubblegum being a part of a specific history of a specific subgroup of novels, and to the reader, in your discussion of how what you’ve read before influences what you’re reading now.

    This is my first Levin, and so far I’ve only gotten as far as Daryl asked us to for this week. But already I’ve seen the book shapeshift in my hands a few times from one strange object covered with fur to a different one. Fingers crossed it ends up breaking my heart, I guess!

    • Matt Bucher May 14, 2020 / 2:11 pm

      Hi Jeff,
      Thanks for pointing me to Eliot’s essay. I hadn’t read it but I do see some parallels in terms of “traditions.”

      There is one part of the book in particular, involving Belt’s mother, that I do think is a real heartbreaker.

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