Juxtaposition

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.

Image by Flickr user Steve Jurvetson under a Creative Commons license.

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.

Image by Flickr user flclk8 under a Creative Commons license.

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.

10 thoughts on “Juxtaposition

  1. ellieharrisonblog June 2, 2020 / 8:25 am

    I really like your thought process about all of this! I’ve been noticing and enjoying the themes of mental health throughout the novel too. Belt and Levin do a good job of attempting to de-stigmatize schizophrenia, suicide, etc. Yes, Belt may have this diagnosis but (like another poster discussed), he’s capable of extremely thorough reasoning. And yes, suicide may be a one-way ticket to hell in some circles, and just plain selfish in others, but Belt’s mom (although selfish) seems to be protecting her loved ones from having to see her in pain. It seems to me that the characters who seemingly have mental health struggles are more humane than the other folks in the novel…

    • Daryl L. L. Houston June 4, 2020 / 4:57 pm

      Thanks for speaking up, Ellie. I agree regarding Belt’s mom in particular; there is self-interest in her decision, but there’s also that protective instinct you mention. I wonder if you make anything of the kids in the study with Belt. Some of them seem a little less stable than Belt, and I’m not sure what I think about this. I wonder if there’s not a little element of humor at the expense of the mentally ill in some of the things the kids do. Of course there can be a difference between things people do that are funny and the circumstances that contributed to their doing them being funny. It’s hard maybe to know where the line between those things is sometimes.

      • Ellie Harrison June 9, 2020 / 9:37 am

        I hadn’t really considered the portrayal of the kids in the study until you mentioned it. I worked for some time in an inpatient unit, and honestly, most of the kids in Bubblegum don’t seem schizophrenic so much as autistic – but that’s the armchair psychologist in me coming out. In the inpatient unit, their behavior would be fairly normal, and while it is funny to some extent, I think that says more about our society and the disenfranchisement of mentally ill folks than it does about the behavior itself. I’d almost compare it to being on the subway in NYC when someone who’s kind of clearly not okay is in the same train – yes, some of what they do might be funny, but when you encounter someone with severe mental illness in “the wild,” there’s also this kind of tension that emerges due to the sheer unpredictability of their behavior. I hope this makes sense; it was my stream of consciousness response to what you said.

      • Paul Debraski June 17, 2020 / 2:46 pm

        My wife works in a school with fourth and fifth graders and the stories she tells me about some of them are fascinating. In 2020, it seems like half of the students are diagnosed with something. And while in some respects that is great that they can get help, in others it really complicates things and makes it very hard to have any kind of baseline. Either for academic achievement or just acceptable behavior.

        Does the kid who curses all the time have an impulse problem? It’s hard to say, since he also seems to be empathetic (and intelligent enough to call Belt Suspendersed). But his mother’s reaction (oh dear, we don’t talk like that) is both comically unhelpful but also completely realistic for a parent dealing with a child who you can;t control with kind words).

        Levin seems to be always pushing boundaries with what it’s okay to say (there’s a later Antisemite section, not to mention the whole thing with Foucault (writing this after I read that section). Although it’s hard to judge his Point about it. I got a lot of that from the Instructions–what’s he doing? why is he saying this? Is it okay for me to laugh at this?

      • Daryl L. L. Houston June 17, 2020 / 4:57 pm

        Yeah, the “is it ok to laugh at this” question is really hard to confront. It kind of goes back tot he “are we monsters” question that keeps coming up. How can you even know? Books that make me do this kind of navel-gazing tend to really float my boat, even if they also make me feel a little uncomfortable about myself.

  2. Paul Debraski June 17, 2020 / 2:39 pm

    Belt’s mom’s letter was really amazing. I really commend Levin for the degree of sensitivity in it. I imagine he must have spent a very long time honing it. Unless it came from experience, in which case I feel very sorry for him.

    It’s tempting to say that Levin is just showing off with his ability to write well in so many different styles. But most of the time I forget about him and just accept that this letter is from belt’s mom and this essay is from Triple-J. And I think that commends him as a writer. Whatever the story makes you feel, the craft is excellent.

    Daryl, I love the way you latch on to things because it really makes me step back and see things too. I tend to get caught up in details and miss out on bigger pictures. Like how could I miss that Fondajane’s two sex organs is another juxtaposition. Wow.

    • Daryl L. L. Houston June 17, 2020 / 5:03 pm

      Yeah, I hear you with respect to showing off. I think it’s ok to do that, the same as it’s ok to include set pieces mostly because they’re fun. But it can also be annoying. Like you, I’m not finding it annoying in this book. The point seems still to be what the words say and not the fact that Levin is capable of writing the words. The letter from Mom feels authentic (if a little improbable) to me rather than feeling like a show of pyrotechnics. It connected in a way that I think a more showy effort might not’ve. All of which is to say that I agree with you.

      I’m glad my latching-on is useful. Sometimes I feel either like I focus too narrowly and maybe miss the broader point or range too far afield and lose coherence. Thanks for the vote of confidence!

      • Jeff Anderson June 19, 2020 / 4:30 pm

        I love how both of you approach the reading! I think it’s a particularly useful two-handed kind of arrangement with the things we group-read here, y’know? I want to call it maximalist literature. It’s big and exuberant and crammed full of all kinds of things. So on the one hand, there are hooks left and right for Daryl’s thematic and, hmm, associative? reading to grab on to. But on the other, there’s just so much data to keep organized in order to be able to synthesize a reading; I know I often refer to Paul’s posts to help me structure what I read in Bubblegum in a given week while I’m putting together my own ideas and posts.

        And hard agree with both of you on Belt’s mom’s letter. So far I think it’s the set piece from the novel that’s going to stick with me the most. I’d like to be able to come out of this book thinking that letter is kind of the novel’s core statement, in terms of what matters to it and how to address those things that matter.

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