I think it’s awfully tempting to read an author like Levin with his influences front of mind. I’ve intended generally to try to read Levin-as-Levin rather than reading him as Levin-as-Literary-Descendant-of-X, except where he seems openly to invite such comparisons (a nod to Coover from someone working in metafiction invites a reading with Coover in mind). In short, although I initially heard of Levin many years ago through some association with or comparison to David Foster Wallace, and I was turned on to Bubblegum when it came up on the wallace-l email list and when Levin was interviewed on the podcast The Great Concavity, I have generally tried not to read him as a DFW acolyte. I have tried to give him his space from Wallace. But in this week’s reading, he invited the comparison very nearly explicitly and I think a bit puckishly.
A Fistful of Fists is a transcript of a documentary that is itself made up of a bunch of short video selections. I initially resisted the urge to read it as a nod to Wallace’s filmography in Infinite Jest. But then I got to page 395, where Levin is very clearly portraying a Wallace-ish character (or maybe a Wallace characterish character), complete with pursed lips, linguistic prissiness, careful use of “nauseate” (a thing for Wallace, though I forget where it came up), self-(that is, Dave-self)-reference, and the kicker: “And but so.” Further, it’s only tangentially related to the rest of the smaller films the documentary comprises, a bit of a curiosity within the parade of horrors.
I take this to be Levin saying something like “I know, I know. Wallace did something similar in IJ with his filmography, and if I don’t make it very clear that I know this, and that I know that people who know Wallace’s work might think this section seems a little derivative of his filmography, then that’s what people will focus on rather than my fucking book and it’ll be annoying. So I’ll just tip the old hat and move on with writing the book I want to write, which happens to include a list of film clips.” I mean, maybe it was just fun to put this in, though.
Thinking about this sent me down a bit of a rabbit hole whose terminal point was the question: But why make this sort of list anyway? What purpose does it serve to go on at such length (this transcript makes up about 12% of Bubblegum‘s page count), for Levin or for others?
At the top of the rabbit hole, I started thinking about other works that make big productions of listing things. There’s Infinite Jest, of course. Bolaño 2666 came to mind too, as it offers its own parade of horrors that is in its way more analogous to the content of Levin’s transcript than Wallace’s filmography is. Melville has his list of extracts. So at least four of the books we’ve covered here do some form of this long listing thing. Then I thought of the rambling description of Achilles’s shield in The Illiad. For a little while I conflated two ideas:
- Long lists of things.
- Descriptions of other works of art, chiefly visual, which (this sort of description) is also known as ekphrasis.
In the Bolaño, we have simply a long catalogue of crimes, and to me, its purpose seems to be to make it extremely hard to ignore a very real set of horrific crimes. I can understand why Bolaño wrote about the crimes at length and in such detail. The purpose of this list strikes me in intent as more journalistic than aesthetic.
In Moby-Dick, I can discern some meaning behind the extracts. They set the tone and establish a long literary tradition, among other things. They make sense to me as a grand gesture (much grander than how most extracts or epigraphs land for me). These in general are not examples of ekphrasis (though the book, in its description of a couple of paintings, does offer examples of ekphrasis).
The purpose of the filmography in Infinite Jest is more slippery for me. I love that end note, to be clear. It adds depth and texture and humor and of course also its share of horror (I’m looking at you, Accomplice!). I think it was probably fun to dream up and to write, and maybe that’s reason enough to include it. The filmography is a list of ekphrases, some of them about (or not) a film that cannot be described because to see it in order to describe it (were it even widely available) is to succumb to it. So maybe that’s the point of the whole thing — to provide a pretext for including that little irony.
This is ostensibly a post about Bubblegum, though, so I should maybe write about the novel in question a bit. My problem is that while I can reasonably defend these other lists and ekphrases, I’m having a little trouble wrapping my head around why Levin goes on for 12% of the book with these transcripts. They serve a similar purpose to Bolaño’s, maybe, but by comparison, they are trivial. If we consider the cures to be stand-ins for animals and Levin to be on a soapbox, I suppose we can stretch this section a bit to say that he’s really trying to hammer home the atrocities of mistreating animals. But I really don’t think that’s what he’s doing. In spite of how gross a lot of this section is, some of it’s funny too. The “Compliments of the Yachts” vignettes are oddly sort of charming and funny. The science fair presentation made me make laughing sounds a lot. There is gross stuff here, yes, but it does not strike me as preachy stuff, or stuff that works in the way that “The Part About the Crimes” in 2666 works.
Yet it goes on for a long time. In spite of the humor, and in spite of the variety of episodes described, this is almost 100 pages of cruelty described often in great detail. Maybe it was fun to dream up and to write and that’s reason enough for including it. But I do feel like there might wind up being more to it than that, with the self-conscious nod to Wallace’s work, the general nesting of genre (recall that this transcript of a film composed of smaller bits of footage is itself a document that Belt has included in his memoir, which this novel purports to be), the things that Belt has said so far about interpretation, the fact that Belt has been asked to read and critique this document.
So, as is my way, I have nothing terribly tidy to conclude here, but I have questions (weigh in if you’ve got thoughts!) and a very satisfying sense of curiosity about what’ll follow.