Folks, I don’t like spending time with Belt Magnet!
All right, that was inflammatory and unnuanced, I admit. Here’s the more considered version: Although I find him an engrossing storyteller and an interesting and perceptive writer, being with Belt and his thoughts makes me uncomfortable.
I noticed it in our first week’s reading. Belt’s first trip to the bank felt…suffocating. Unpleasant for me as a reader. Made me think of George Saunders in his tragic mode, but somehow crueler. And then came the “About the Author” section, that big Q&A section where Belt spoke directly to us and shared his essay about meeting Sally the Balls, and suddenly I could breathe freely again.
It happened again in the second week’s reading. The whole stretch with his dad and the loose screw in the carpet transition strip and drinking the glass of water was excruciating for me. But then in the next section, with the playground and all the inans and teens Belt interacts with, I was all in again.
The trouble I’m having is with being inside Belt’s head too much. When he has someone to interact with and engage his mind with—including more overt interpellation of a reader, like with his novel and his essay—I really like how things go! But when he has nothing to catch his flailing thoughts on except themselves, it much tougher going. (I suspect this is also true for Belt himself, that the more there is other than his own thinking to think about, the greater the relief.) There’s something about his endless indecision trees that hits me as both tedious and dread-inducing, like Cthulhu preparing his taxes. It’s quite possibly a very good depiction of a kind of maladaptive thinking that may even be related to his diagnosis, but I find it so paralyzing, for Belt and me both, that it makes those parts hard to read.
Now. I say all that and it makes it sound like I’m not enjoying the book. I am, overall! I’m eager to pick it back up every time. I’ve liked Belt’s previous writing (the stories-within-a-story), and he seems to interact with the inans in a much more direct and authentic way that I think is really effective, and his flashbacks and reminiscences have been appealing. I just wish he could get out of his head once in a while in the present frame of the novel.
My first thought here was that I felt like the loose screw thing was excruciating because of Clyde and not because of Belt. But then I suppose it’s the interior noodling on the screw and not the ominous presence of Clyde that’s really tripping you up there.
I find Belt with Chad-Kyle and Lotta to be painful, but Belt with Gus to be delightful. Belt and his dad are painful.
The endless decision trees make sense to me; that is to some degree how I think. Seeing this kind of thinking in novels makes me feel a little less alone, I guess, in being kind of a hand-wringer. Which doesn’t mean that reading this kind of stuff can’t be a little excruciating. A couple of the characters in The Instructions do some of this a bit too, and somewhere in the halfway to two-thirds mark in that book, he lays it on a little heavy, to the point that it’s a little annoying or tic-ish (maybe not quite excruciating).
The Saunders comparison seems apt (and I know just what you mean about his tragic mode). If I’m not mistaken, Levin studied with or has some other connection to Saunders, so seeing a little ghost of a Saunders fingerprint may make a little sense.
I’ll be really curious to see what you think of a section that’s coming up (in the “Facts and Letters” chapter) in light of how this stuff lands for you.
Well oof, I hope it didn’t feel like I was shitting on you when you read this post! God knows I have my share of traits that I’ve been relieved to feel seen from reading depictions of…
Yeah, for me the unpleasantness of Clyde was a separate and additional aversive stimulus in that whole business with the screw. (In passing, I’m still surprised that Clyde didn’t make an explicit “screw loose” joke. He said the one thing about “what we do with loose screws in this house,” but I honestly expected him to rag on Belt for having a screw loose too.) Honestly, I guess there’s not a huge difference between Belt’s recursive thinking and, say, Ken Erdedy’s early monologue in Infinite Jest (“Where was the woman who said she’d come”). But of course in IJ we’re supposed to suffer along with the people we’re reading about, right?
Maybe that’s a follow-up question to the response I’m having here! To what extent do you think we’re supposed to feel like Belt’s thought processes are in any degree disordered or maladaptive versus just very careful? I think I’m especially interested to hear your take on that, since you can identify with it and have a much better sense for its positive possibilities. It sounds like there’s a whole lot of room I’m not giving it that I could be.
Haha, not at all. I am of course charming and pleasant in spite of it all. 😉
I thought of Erdeddy too when you mentioned this!
I don’t really know yet if the internal monologues here are supposed to be maladaptive or careful. I think it’s possible for them to be both. My wife assures me that it’s annoying and maladaptive when I let some of the internal monologue leak out when, say, we’re trying to plan a simple trip and I spew out all the things that’ll almost certainly inconvenience us (though my intent is generally to be careful and anticipate those things so that we can have a nice trip). I do think Belt is a sympathetic character, so I’m inclined to read it pretty sympathetically (which isn’t to say it’s not annoying). Whether it’s pathological or just quirky I don’t know, though.
I think it’s ok to find it annoying or frustrating, for what it’s worth. This sort of thing can grow pretty tiresome.