This week’s section is a doozie. Belt’s mom is dying, and she leaves for him a pair of letters, the longer of which (in particular) is really gorgeous. They’re heart-breaking and earnest and full of frankness and respect for this remarkable and troubled kid who is about to be motherless, whose mother is making the tough decision to accelerate his motherlessness. The letters are beautiful for what they say about an ugly thing, and they are even more beautiful for their careful lyricism. They are finely wrought, and when I got to the end of the letter section, I stopped and took a few slow deep breaths and just sat with it for a few minutes. Here was the first big emotional peak of the novel.
And then suddenly we find ourselves in Triple-J’s less lapidary teenagerly essays. The contrast in emotional and lyrical content between Belt’s mom’s letters and Triple-J’s essays is stark. Levin is an author playing with genre, nesting manuals (and essays) within essays within a memoir within a novel, and it’s hard to imagine that this juxtaposition of style is coincidental (though it may be). I was thinking this even before I got to the second essay (“Living Isn’t Functioning”) in which Triple-J himself writes about juxtaposition and at the beginning of which he literally (the origin of “juxtapose” coming from words meaning “to place next to”) juxtaposes two brochures from different times in the history of cures.
The side-by-side manuals as promised show a number of significant contrasts between the BOTIMALS® of 1988 and the CURIOS® of 2012. I won’t go through the contrasts in detail, but generally the earlier brochure is more soft and cuddly and the later more sterile and corporate and cautious in describing the cures.
There are some other less explicit juxtapositions too. The chapter title “Letters and Facts” dividing the emotional content of the letters from the more factual content of the essays is a sort of juxtaposition.
It’s not too much of a stretch to compare Belt’s mom’s frankness with her son to Fondajane’s frankness with her stepson.
In the letter on pages 297 and 298, Belt’s mom compares and contrasts Belt, Clyde, and herself:
[Y]ou’ve begun to (accurately) sense just how different you are from one another. He’s loud, outgoing, aggressive even, doesn’t read much, prefers to fish, to watch boxing, is excited by certain forms of circumscribed violence. You, like me, are quiet, a little too shy, content to walk around and think, to sit upstairs in your room and think. In sum (if I haven’t already reduced you guys enough): he tends to hate being alone, and you often need to be alone… Despite your differences, you’re not at odds.
Fondajane has a penis placed next to her vulva in a physical juxtaposition of sex organs.
As usual, I do not here have a confident and tidy theory about what any of this might mean, if it means (art doesn’t have to mean). My method in general is to latch onto something that catches my attention and then to be sort of tuned into it and to look for like things, and to write them down. This week, my radar was tuned to look for juxtaposition.
I think this tendency is pretty natural. In fact, I think it’s fundamental to the human experience. I’ve sometimes thought that human beings are basically little more than meat-based pattern-matching machines. We see familiar shapes in clouds, Jesus in toast, figures in stars, butterflies in inkblots, faces in all sorts of inanimate objects. We make decisions based on precedents, using patterns we’ve seen before to govern our next behavior. Language too seems to me to be reducible in some degree to pattern matching (else sentences wrong the with words their order in bother would us not). And what does pattern matching rely upon but juxtaposition of the pattern with its potential match?
All of which is to say ultimately that maybe I’m seeing things that aren’t there because that’s what I’m primed to see this week. Maybe Levin is intentionally throwing these specific juxtapositions at us to prompt thoughts about, I dunno, duality or sameness in lieu of difference (e.g.: Is it worse to abuse a robot that seems sentient than, say, a dog?). Or maybe it’s not even something Levin meant to do, but an innate proclivity to group and compare things led him even without specific intent to juxtapose these sections.
It doesn’t really matter to me what’s intentional or not here. The letters were a high point of the book for me (it’s weird to say this, I guess, given their content), and it was fun to think about these juxtapositions in any case.