As this book opens I couldn’t help but focus on names. I have always been attuned to the names authors use. When I used to attempt fiction, I could spend as much time trying to come up with the perfect meaningful name (see how the name comments on the action?) as with a story itself. So when I see an author using especially peculiar names, my reading senses tingle.
This story is just full of unusual names. And on several occasions names, or lack of names is significant.
Before starting on names though I have to chime in and say that “shut your piehole, cakeface” is hilarious. And the whole argument about punctuation on T-shirts had me cracking up.
First of all, with a comma before “cakeface,” the shirt would have to be considered “officially punctuated” which would require a period be placed after “cakeface,” not to mention a colon, if not another comma, after “Jonboat Say,” and quotation marks around the catchphrase itself…. This, believed Jonboat, was more punctuation than a T-shirt could abide.
But back to names.
Part 1 Section 1 “Jonboat Say” starts off with the character named Jonboat. I suspect most people have heard the nickname Jonboy, but I have personally never heard Jonboat before and I liked it immediately–weird and memorable. There’s also his full name Jonny Pellmore-Jason and that his father is named Jon-Jon Jason.
It’s also interesting how the narrator introduces his family. Since his family name [Magnet] is an everyday object that could be used as a descriptive word as well, introducing his family as “My family’s. We Magnets'” is certainly not the most direct way of providing information. My first thought was that it was metaphorical and that his family were the kind of people magnetically attracted to trouble. This doesn’t even address his first name yet. in fact, his first name won’t come for a long time.
The other prominent name in this section is Blackie Buxman. This name doesn’t specifically signify anything to me at this point, but they all strike me as meaningful. Most of the characters aren’t named common Anglo-Saxon names (well, okay, Jonny, but he is Jonboat).
So is “Blackie” a nickname like Jonboat or a given name? There’s no way to know yet and maybe we never will as he doesn’t seem to be very important after the tetherball match. I looked up the origin of Buxman and learned it’s the Americanized spelling of German Buchsmann, a topographic name from Middle High German buhs(boum) ‘box (tree)’ + man. That doesn’t seem significant–although later he does punch the main character “in the asshole.”
Just after the first black dot triangle section break, there’s a geographically made up name: “Wheelatine Township” in the Chicagoland area. Is the made up use of Wheelatine an indication that things are not real right from the start? (I don’t know anything about Chicago, so if it’s a play on a region, it is lost on me). Or is it just a simple narrative device to prevent people from fact-checking details?
Also, what the heck does Wheelatine mean?
Then there’s the main invented plot device, the “cures.” The way these are introduced puzzles in the same way as “magnet”: “There I had my cure rustling around in its PillowNest.” [shades of George Saunders with this naming convention]. This is deliberately confusing, there’s no question. No capital, no italics, no capital C, there’s no indication that it is significant. I had to read this sentence a few times just to see what I could possibly be missing.
Cure is short for Curio (which makes a lot of sense both as the real name and as an abbreviation). It is a pet of sorts. And he has named his Blank. The Curio’s full name is Kablankey–named at his mother’s suggestion for the sound of its sneeze. But ever since he’d “vented his temples” (?) he’d changed it to Blank, which was less childish but retained connections to his missing mother.
Curios had originally been called Botimals
By the way, “rear ejection” is what they call its waste. Ha.
There are a whole bunch of names for things that happen to Curio owners. More words that have mundane meaning which are clearly used differently. For instance, kids “go into overload” (which gets them on the news). This is bad.
All of this in the first ten pages.
Then we finally get to the main character’s name. Or what his name isn’t:
“Billy, listen–” said my father.
“That’s not my fucking name.”
Chapter 1 Section 2 is called “Two Hundred Some Quills”
I feel like I’ve heard the name Quills before for cigarettes, but the only thing a quick search provides is in a Stephen King story (which might be where I heard it).
As this section opens, our 38 year old narrator gets a birthday present from Clyde the Dad (his father is finally given a name). Clyde is away (fishing with friends) and not-Billy is on his own. Usually Clyde leaves money in the Marvin Hagler bust, be he has forgotten.
We also meet Grandmother Magnet who calls to wish him a happy birthday. The narrator doesn’t feel like talking to her so he messes with her and she twists the Magnet/Jonboat piehole phrase to “Plug your dirty sheeny coinslot, ovensmear.”
Grandmother Magnet is full of racist name-calling, which is a shame because “ovensmear” is a wonderfully weird insult.
Not-Billy goes to the White Hen to by Quills from Pang, the owner (okay, sure) of the establishment. Pang says that not-Billy is not creditworthy. Instead Pang gives him a piece of Dubble Bubble (which not-Billy muses about and speculates could have been called bubbleychew). Speaking of gum, I’m glad Levin has settled the age-old debate that the plural of Bubblicious is Bubbliciousi.
Not-Billy returns home without his Quills only to find “a check for $1,100 made out to my father. My SSDI check.” So he takes it to the bank. Names are crucial at the bank as well.
The teller who helps him doesn’t have a nameplate up. He is however, “wearing a pinstriped vest and decisive mustache … with a golden chain that disappeared inside the watchpocket.” We soon learn his name is Chad-Kyle or C.K.
This fellow is just full of name brands:
“the most buzzed about line of Graham&Swords PlayChanger PerForumulae for Curios since 2008’s SloMo or perhaps even 1993’s BullyKing.”
He also passes out fliers at shows for DJ Crystal Worm. And of course Crys-Dub’s style of sleazebeat was a revolution on the scale Wang Kar Pourquoi’s first forays into fuzzdub or even Murder-ers’ trademark-infringement days when they were still called Murderers Jr. The fliers are for a party at Killer Queen Marmalade’s, sponsored by Que Padre Mezcal.
The teller is offering to give not-Billy an advance of the new Curio forumlae “Independence.” He has already given it to his cure Tiddlywinks. But when not-Billy says he doesn’t want to show off his Cure, the teller assumes that Blank is a hobunk.
Finally they get around to the transaction. Not-Billy doesn’t have an ATM card. When he shows C.K. his state ID, C.K says, “Now that is a name.”
Turns out the check is a problem because of names:
It’s my SSDI check. I’m the beneficiary. My father’s my guardian, though, so it’s made out to him.
Outside of the bank we formally meet Lotta Hogg (a name that is hilarious, offensive and absurd but not out of the realm of believability).
Unless I missed it earlier, Lotta is the first person to say not-Billy’s full name: Belt Magnet. She says it in full at least three times and addresses him by his first name many times during the conversation. She even gives this name a series of nicknames: Beltenhauer, Magnetron, Beltinya Magnetovich [that one is inspired].
It turns out that Lotta and her friends (we finally have conventional names here: Kelly, Jenn and Ashley) were somewhat in awe of him back in 1987 [Belt was 12, Lotta was 9, give or take]. His actions caused them all to menstruate at the same time [?].
They talk about the return to town of Jonboat and his fiancee (?) named Fondajane. [There’s a lot to unpack with that].
As this conversation ends, Lotta wants to see his cure, but he tells her it is a hobunk and “could tear your friends to pieces.”
Chapter One Section 3 is called “About the Author.”
He tells us that he deliberately did not reveal his name at the beginning. He didn’t want to write “My name is Belt Magnet, and sometimes I’m psychotic–at least that’s what they say.”
This section is a mostly a series of questions in interview format.
His psychotic symptoms manifest in being able to converse with inanimate objects or “inans.” He needs to have his “gate” open to receive their messages (which are written in between vertical lines: ||Maybe that’s your own problem||.
The next question concerns Lotta Hogg and how she and her friends all had “the onset of puberty” at the same time because of what he did. What he did has been named “the swingset murders.” He essentially destroyed a series of swing sets with a bat, and they are continually referred to as “murders.”
In the newspaper article the girl who describes him as “so cute” is not named: “identified only, to my great frustration, as a “member of the popular set at WJH.” Earlier it was said that the team name is Washington, so it’s safe to guess Washington Junior High.
Belt has an abetter in his murders, an eight grader named Rory Riley. Belt had just destroyed the Blond family swing set. Their son Ron Blond high-fived Belt for doing so (he hated that old swing set). Riley also hated the swing set and proposed he fins another for Belt to murder. Chuck Schmidt lived in “Old Wheelatine” where Feather lived, and they encouraged him to murder the Feather swingset. This murder is what got the newspapers’ attention.
A question asks about his psychosis.
When discussing his medication, he talks about Eileen Bobbert who likes pun-driven jokes (and gave him Risperdal). His prior doctor was named Emil Calgary who liked more scatological pun-driven jokes (and gave him Haldol).
There’s not much more in the way of names after this (even the doctor names aren’t revelatory I don’t think). But one of the questions in this section stresses the naming of the Curios as botimals. It was called a Botimal, a “robot made of flesh and bone,” but it was a pet to him–a new kind of pet. He has never been able to think of Blank as a robot.
There’s more unusual word choice here though. People “kill” their cures, regularly. In fact, that seems to be what you’re supposed to do to it. Earlier Belt said he had never so much as hurt Blank before. Belt has been unable to do so, but he never prevented anyone else from doing it. Nevertheless:
Blank was my pet, though. My friend. My sibling. I didn’t want to kill it, even when I did.
Belt has possibly the oldest living Curio. The oldest publicly stated Curio was owned by a monk and named Basho (17th century Japanese haiku master).
Finally, Belt reveals that he is an author. His novel is named No Please Don’t. It was published by Darger Editions (Henry Darger was an American writer, novelist and artist who worked as a hospital custodian in Chicago, Illinois). It concerns a character named Gil MacCabby who has lost his most favorite toy, and intergalactic smuggler called Bam Naka (which seems Star Wars inspired).
Belt also wrote an essay for Harper’s which was not published (although it is printed here) called “The Magnets, the Birds and the Balls” (June 2006) about his Grandma Magnet having an affair with a mobster by the name of Salvatore “Sally the Balls” DiBoccerini. The Balls had an African Gray parrot named “Mouth” who would repeat just about anything (including lots of curse words).
There’s a lot to look at with all these names. Most are probably not significant. Many are probably just there for a joke. And there’s nothing wrong with that either.
I don’t imagine there will be too many more significant new characters introduced,so I doubt there’s going to be many more new names to look at.
Nevertheless, with Levin’s clear love of language, I’ll bet whatever names he does come up with will be entertaining.
As a writer, he reads a lot. Here’s a list of the stories he mentions
Donald Barthelme “Balloon”
Franz Kafka’s “Blumfield”
Jeff Parker “Our Cause”
Robert Coover “The Hat Act”
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 Archie’s “Sugar Sugar.”