A Hunger Artist

Often enough, I read the epigraphs to books and then pretty quickly forget them or fail to tie them super meaningfully back to the main text. As a device, they seem like heavy things, clues to the meaning of the novel maybe, but I still leave them behind or write them off as puzzles pretty regularly. Sometimes they seem to me almost like inside jokes, meaningful to the author while writing the book or to put a nice little bow on things, but more puzzling than useful to me. Bubblegum has three epigraphs, two of which it’s easy to connect to specific things in the book pretty early.

The quote from King Lear about killing things for sport calls to mind overloading on cures. Cures don’t seem to be that hard to come by, and people consume them like drugs, for entertainment or diversion — you know, for sport.

The quote from Skinner also mentions a fly, so it sort of connects to the Shakespeare epigraph. But the great behaviorist Skinner generally haunts the part of the book in which Belt describes conditioning Blank to perform his gags (though I’ll confess that I wondered if it wasn’t Blank who was conditioning Belt, especially when I thought about my reading of “The Hat Act” and the idea that artist and audience influence the behavior of one another reciprocally). (Have I taught my dog to go to the door when she wants to go outside or has she taught me to take her outside when she goes to the door?)

But what about the quote from Kafka?

The panther was all right.

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Photo courtesy of Jason Liebig at CollectingCandy.com.

That doesn’t seem to connect to anything right away. It seems kind of random. I hadn’t read “The Hunger Artist” in many years. It’s short, so I took a little side trip through the story. In brief, it’s about a man whose job — whose art — is to be put publicly on display starving himself for 40-day periods. He’d like to starve himself for longer than that, but his handler won’t generally allow it. It’s very important to the hunger artist that his audience see that he’s not cheating by sneaking food. He has a sort of integrity as an artist. In the end, he dies, forgotten in his cage, and is replaced by a panther that roars and carries on as if it has a joy for life.

There are several common interpretations of the story. One, which Belt refers to at the end of this week’s reading on page 176, is that the artist was pure and suffered, alone, for his art. Another puts a more religious spin on things, the suffering akin to that of Christ. Yet another, which I lean toward, is that Kafka is poking a little fun at the self-indulgence of artists. The hunger artist takes such care to maintain his artistic integrity, even being sort of ostentatious about it, but nobody’s really interested in that integrity. It doesn’t make his art any better. And toward the end, he reveals that his real reason for starving was that he couldn’t find any food that he liked. That is, his integrity was a sort of self-indulgence disguised as integrity. And he died, and no one cared, and he was replaced by a popular exhibit of a creature with an authentic zeal for life. The panther was all right. Of course, it’s also possible that Kafka, who edited the story from his deathbed while unable to eat thanks to laryngeal tuberculosis, was just very hungry. Kafka was not, by this time, all right.

On page 97, Belt is spending some time in a playground feeling “lonesome and lonely and unimportant,” when the slide strikes up a conversation with him and asks him to try to communicate without speaking aloud, by merely thinking. This is not something Belt has ever been able to do, but he tries. The slide ridicules his effort, describing the communication it received like so:

First there was this field of, like, screechy, pulsing, kind of blindingly fluorescent gray thats hue cooled down until the whole thing resolved into this scene from a traveling circus or carnival. A shiny black panther inside a small cage was pacing and roaring, and people were crowding at the front of the cage, lots and lots of people, a hundred maybe, standing nine- and ten-deep, watching it move, listening to it roar, whistling and cheering and clapping and so on. They couldn’t look away. Then the panther, it reared up on its hind legs and roared so loudly that the image started shaking, and the crowd got even more enthusiastic, and the roar got even louder and that blinding gray field closed in from the edges, blotting everything out, muting the roar, and when the gray cooled down again and resolved, there was no more panther, no more cage, no more crowd…

“You didn’t catch a single word?”

||There was one wordy moment, right at the beginning, during the panther part. Some voice in the crowd said, |Ma, what’s it mean?| and then another voice responded, |It’s saying, ||I’m freeeeee! I’m freeee! I’m free-ee-ee!|| Isn’t that beautiful?|…||

I noted this passage and its probable connection to the epigraph when I first read it, but only when getting to page 176 with the explicit reference to Kafka’s story (which I then reread) did what seemed like a sort of non sequitur on the part of the slide about a panther (for this is essentially a retelling of the end of Kafka’s story) seem a little less random.

Belt makes his reference to the story on page 176 in passing, as he describes looking back at his own novel and Triple-J’s misinterpretation of it. But if we take epigraphs to signify important things about the work, then we should not take the reference in passing. We’re early yet in the book, so it’s early to come to any big conclusions. I do have some questions, though, and rather than writing a full-on interpretive essay here, I think I’ll end on some questions this whole little side quest brings to mind. Maybe one will catch your eye and you’ll have thoughts, or more questions, and we can take them up together in the comments.

If you’ve read “A Hunger Artist,” what’s your interpretation of it? Do you make anything of the epigraph based on what we’ve read so far of Bubblegum?

I’m really stuck on this idea of artist/audience reciprocity that Levin seems to me to be pointing to in the reference to “The Hat Act” and now “A Hunger Artist” (both about performances). There are echoes of this reciprocity and escalation in Belt’s account of his destruction of the Feather swingset, as the kids go into a frenzy, hand him an ax and rally him onward, influencing his performance and its escalation. Is this a theme? Am I reaching here?

The slide seems maybe to have access to Belt’s memory stream. It seems to be tapping into his recollection of the panther in Kafka’s story and possibly also into something — though something a little fractured — about the glass of water Belt writes about on page 174, which in turn maybe connects to the weird episode with Clyde and the glass of water on the table on page 86. Is this a curiosity or is it significant? Maybe I’m seeing something that’s not really there?

Levin is doing a lot with interpretation and the influence of lived experience on authorship in the late part of this week’s reading. Is this just some sort of metafictional authorial navel-gazing or might it be significant with respect to the stuff in the book about empathy (with cures and inans at least)?

Are the epigraphs Belt’s (as this document we’re reading is purportedly his memoir) or Levin’s? Does that change what and how they mean?

15 thoughts on “A Hunger Artist

  1. Rob May 23, 2020 / 2:35 am

    (I wrote this a week ago but didn’t post it. You recently expressed a desire for more people to participate.)

    I’m maybe 40 pages past the book-club cutoff, and I’m intrigued. The idea of cures and “overloading” is highly salient — uncomfortably salient — for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me yet. I guess I read “overloading” as akin to orgasm and that’s icky. I can’t be the only one?

    I wondered if part of the genesis of the cures idea is to actualize one of the truly strange things that people now do on screens, something that involves “emotional” investment over time — for example, virtually managing things like pets — and embody one of those screen-investments in the physical world. Which is rich ground for commenting on technology (a hobby horse of mine) while largely removing the technological foreground.

    The cures are robots, of course, but the story mostly minimizes this, suggesting a long curve of emotional history that everyone in this culture has with these things. The impersonal pronouns used for Blank, like “it” and “which”, are jarring for me; the same way I find it jarring when people say “let the dog out, it’s hungry” or “the baby is tired, put it to bed” (you know, in certain contexts people will refer to a baby as “it”, incl. not knowing the gender).

    ***
    Since I wrote my comment on the first week’s section, I listened to the podcast episode with Levin in it. I feel like he confirmed my third-paragraph speculation.

    Yet, I don’t quite understand people referring to this as “speculative fiction”. I may not be up to speed on the sense of this term, but it’s not the lens through which I view the book. I came to it with a Blank slate, having not even read the blurb before starting. (via wallace-l)

    I have more to say, probably, but I don’t know which post to post it under and have posted enough for now…

    Oh yeah, one thing. I view the cures as ~two inches tall. This is apparently not canonical. If they can easily crawl around one’s clothing and hang out in a sleeve, I figured they can’t be that big. It works for me.

    Oh, another thing. I am curious how much of the plot of NO PLEASE DON’T will be given in the real book. I had the intuition that Belt’s book will eventually be revealed in a different light; like, the bits of plot revealed will be most easily interpreted a certain way, but something else is really going on. This was in response to trying to glean something from that title. I am probably wrong.

    • Paul Debraski May 23, 2020 / 11:52 am

      I think it was in the third week’s section, (since it’s the Saturday before the Monday of the third week, I can let this very minor spoiler slip). Belt says something to the effect of imagining a camera that could also do calculations and make phone calls.

      I try not to read jackets if I can help it. I feel like reading that it’s a world with no internet makes that very “OBVIOUS” when I read the book. I’d prefer if that information came organically. [Of course, you have to market the book somehow, right?]

      This kinda throwaway joke about phones is possibly an easy nod to his readers, but I found it very funny in the context of a character in Belt’s world trying to imagine the most absurd thing you could think of.

      I am reading a 2013 book by Douglas Coupland [Kitten Clone] in which he talks about Lucent technologies and Bell Labs, etc. He says that predicting the future is so hard because future inventions tend to come incrementally off of previous inventions. It’s hard to imagine something whole cloth.

      His example is how no future-set story ever predicted the technology of a cell phone. Even in Star Trek, the tricorder was there to record data, not to communicate (hence the chest thingy) or even to look up information (that’s what the on-ship computer was for).

      I suppose Douglas Adams is pretty close with the Hitchhiker’s Guide, but that does have a much more limited scope than the internet.

      Wow, that was a tangent,.

      Anyhow, yes, overloading does seem like an orgasm. And yes, that’s icky.

      It also sounds like the old Lays commercial, crunch all you want, we’ll make more.

    • Daryl L. L. Houston May 24, 2020 / 10:17 pm

      Yeah, I definitely read overloading as orgasmic, and it’s definitely icky.

      I’m not up on “true” meaning of speculative fiction, but I suppose this speculates about what a future without the internet might look like (though not, so far, so baldly), and the Cures seem pretty science fictiony and sort of speculative. But then I guess I would think of speculative fiction as fiction that foregrounds those sorts of things as the main points of interest with perhaps some subtext about the human condition or whatever, and here it’s the problems of suffering and empathy that are foregrounded, with speculative much more backgrounded. But then maybe that’s just my reading of it because I’m expecting this to be a Literary book more than a Speculative one, and somebody coming to it with those emphases reversed would read it differently.

    • Jeff Anderson May 25, 2020 / 2:26 pm

      I had a whole lede for an abandoned version of my first post that got into speculative fiction! As I understand it, it’s an umbrella term for fantasy, science fiction, horror, weird fiction, supernatural, slipstream, alternate history, etc. In which case I see two explicit reasons for including Bubblegum, although one is provisional, and a big tacit one. That last, of course, is the whole “world with no internet” thing, which so far at least I agree seems insufficiently developed to really matter for anything.
      However! The provisional one is the question of whether Belt is actually communicating with the inans or just hallucinating. So far it looks like we’re none of us decided one way or the other on the question, which tells me we’re all at least willing to accept the possibility that it’s true.
      And then the undeniably speculative element is the cures. That first round of cures was distributed in the mid-90s, right? I remember a friend in high school—in the…early late 90s, let’s say—having a Tamagotchi, which I believe was a very early entrant into the “digital pet” category. My point is that real life was only just at the point of software-based pet simulators when Bubblegum gives us fully realized robot creatures that can learn and feel.
      And oh my god here’s a hot dystopian take (more speculative fiction!): Whose word do we have so far on “flesh-and-bone robot” for the cures? Just the manufacturer’s? Have we seen anything yet to disprove the possibility that they’re real live genetically engineered creatures that people have been indoctrinated into believing are merely disposable consumer products?
      (I see what you mean about overload and orgasm. I’ve been seeing it more as a drug rush, although I confess that’s partly because I don’t usually look for substitutes for orgasm in a book when the real thing is still perfectly available. My first connection was between “cure overload” and “Cute Overload,” which was a massively popular website during the time that Levin was conceiving the book.)

      • Jeff Anderson May 25, 2020 / 2:39 pm

        oh man I screwed up that paragraph formatting

      • Daryl L. L. Houston May 26, 2020 / 10:34 pm

        Really great thoughts, here, Jeff. The first wave of Botimals came out closer to 1988, so even farther back than your mid-90s (and thus more speculative). What you say about our willingness to accept the possibility that Belt is communicating with inans helps clarify what you mean by speculative fiction.

        I sort of hope that the dark dystopian question you raise isn’t ever resolved. That makes this sort of thing so much fun to chew on.

  2. Paul Debraski May 23, 2020 / 11:40 am

    I always read everything in a book. epigraphs, footnotes, acknowledgements. I’m strangely obsessive about that. And yet I never think how the epigraphs tie to the books. i always assume it’s some sort of vague summary of what the author had in mind. Never thought that they would have relevance to actual text in the story.

    I have also never read The Hunger Artist, so this post was totally eye-opening to me.
    That whole panther/inan thing. was just gibberish to me and it actually irritated me how long and nonsensical it was (since everything else seemed relevant).

    I love the idea of Blank conditioning Belt, especially since Blank is a robot. Is there some sort of nefarious motive behind the creators of the cures that is trying to condition everyone? (I hadn’t thought of that until just now).

    So I (as I’m sure other have as well) wondered if the inans are actually speaking to him or if he is imagining them doing so. Them having access to his memories leads on in the direction of him imagining them speaking. And yet, he is touching them when he talks to them, so maybe there is a physical access to Belt’s mind?

    How would Belt know about the girl(s) who can communicate with inans? Or is it his hope that there is an ideal girl out there for him?

    I suspect I’ve got some short stories to read this week.

    • Rob May 24, 2020 / 3:21 am

      I’m going to track down those short stories too (given their age, easy enough I expect). What a great time (points at everything) to read what Kafka I haven’t, but I’m kind of worried about getting through *this* tome without distractions. (I wonder if one can do italics and stuff in this comment box? I doubt it.)

      Did you miss the bit where the inans “passed along” the knowledge of the girl who could speak to them, and it eventually made its way to Belt? He mused on the telephone-game aspects of this, wondering if he could trust the accuracy of that information. And the inans communicate slowly, because they can only talk to inans they’re in contact with. So it is said.

      I think the ambiguity of Belt is psychotic (not otherwise specified) vs Belt can talk to inans is nice and I hope it’s not “resolved”.

      • Daryl L. L. Houston May 24, 2020 / 10:20 pm

        The Kafka and the Coover are pretty short, at least, so if you dip into those, it won’t be a huge investment.

    • Daryl L. L. Houston May 24, 2020 / 10:20 pm

      I’m a compulsive reader of all the things too, down to the ISBN entries. I have no idea about the questions you ask. I haven’t yet decided whether Belt is really psychotic and hallucinating or whether inans really do speak to him. I’d also be ok with never being certain.

  3. Rob May 24, 2020 / 3:30 am

    “about the glass of water Belt writes about on page 174”

    This is the bit where Belt, or rather I think the protagonist of Belt’s novel, has a memory of childhood, right? I loved this bit, and it most strongly reminded me of Wallace of anything in the book so far. The character in Belt’s book believes that his mother would not let him use a glass that could shatter… ah, I can’t even repeat the involutions of thought that are involved that led him to attempt to break the glass as a show of trust in his mother. Without re-reading it. But it reminded me strongly of the type of thing seen in Wallace’s short stories (especially?) where characters are recounting situations that have various degrees of nested assumptions about human behavior in them. “Another Pioneer” comes to mind, but I’ve a poor memory, which makes these comments of mine vague unless I do a few hours of “research” first.

    But the crazy “glass-of-water-wouldn’t-break” thought process is pure Wallace, IMO.

    • Daryl L. L. Houston May 24, 2020 / 10:24 pm

      Yep, that’s the thing I’m thinking about here. What makes the link tenuous between the inan’s description of Belt’s attempt to transmit his thoughts without speech is that it’s this viscous water, so it’s at least a twisted version of the memory. So it might be nothing.

      Involution of thought makes a pretty pronounced appearance in The Instructions too, at times enough so that it annoyed me a little. I like this sort of involution precisely because it maps to a lot of how I think, but too much of it can feel a little performed and ultimately forced. I don’t think we’ve gotten to that point in Bubblegum, at least not relative to my threshold.

  4. Jeff Anderson May 25, 2020 / 2:51 pm

    Daryl, thanks for doing this with “The Hunger Artist”! If you hadn’t, who knows when I would have twigged that “The panther was all right” wasn’t being said in a 60s kind of way, like the way Jesus or the kids are all right.

    I like your description of the panther as having “an authentic zeal for life.” For me, that ties into the idea of involution of thought, although it requires a little sidestep. (Keep in mind that I haven’t read “The Hunger Artist.”) I see the selection of that sentence for an epigraph as drawing a comparison between the panther and Belt. The panther, as you say, is living. It represents pure drive, unfiltered and unhindered by intellect, compared to Belt, who ties himself up in knots over nearly every action and even interpretation. The panther is all right; Belt is generally not.

  5. Daryl L. L. Houston May 26, 2020 / 10:28 pm

    At the book club event I posted about yesterday, I learned that my reading of Kafka’s story missed a pretty big thing. I was so focused on my interpretation of the hunger artist as sort of a poser that I totally missed the irony in the line “The panther was all right.” The interpretation of the panther’s roaring as his roaring happily — while caged and gawked at — is ironic. The story two or three times in its final paragraph (where the panther is introduced) mentions the panther’s freedom. While it is caged. So, a couple of cartons of egg on my face for missing this.

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