Well That Was Fucking Awful

Do y’all know the movie Pillow Talk? I’ve gotten to see it on the big screen once. There’s a movie theater in Glendale (California), the Alex Theatre, where every other month—in other days, anyway—the Alex Film Society screens classic films. My husband and I happened to walk past the theater one Valentine’s Day, and saw on the marquee that Pillow Talk was playing with just enough time left for us to grab a bite to eat first.

I’d seen the movie before; we own it, it’s fun. There’s a part where Doris Day is heartbroken to have been deceived by Rock Hudson, and she has Tony Randall drive her from the would-be love nest in Connecticut back to New York. It’s an intercut sequence—back and forth, showing Doris Day in the car 20 minutes farther down the road each time, crying just as hard at the end of the drive as she was when she got in the car. I’ve never thought of her as a tragedian or anything, but this bit of the movie has always really affected me. She’s just hurting so much.

Then there we were at the Alex, watching it on a full-size movie screen, and each time it cut back to her still crying, there was a bigger laugh from the audience. It had literally never occurred to me that this could be a comedic sequence.

This is all, as you may have figured out by now, a let’s say roundabout way of getting into the point, which is that if not for this here joint read-along, I would have quit this book during A Fistful of Fists. Y’all, I hated this section. It was relentless and horrible and cruel and interminable and disgusting and just an out-and-out misery to experience.

Daryl and Paul have both noted some of the humor in it, and I mean, I guess I can see it. But in the context of all the rest of the just truly outrageous cruelty—I can’t even call it sadism, because there’s no acknowledgment even that the cures’ suffering hurts them—it’s hard even to look at the humorous parts without seeing mean-spiritedness. (Why, for example, does Maya Mehta, who is legitimately unterrible, have to be medically ridiculous even to the point of injuring herself in the middle of our watching her? She’s not a cure, what’s the point of hurting her for us to laugh at?)

There are things to say about this section, of course. My overriding reaction is just plain revulsion, but there’s analysis that can be done too. For instance: I’m less and less convinced that “flesh-and-bone robot” makes any sense. I had been thinking of it as meaning something like a cyborg. But now that we’ve seen how spidge is made, we know that a cure isn’t a mix of machine and organic parts, it’s all meat and bone and fluids. So where does robot come into it? Is it just supposed to refer to their brains, how they’re like little behaviorist computers inside cute warm soft squishy cases? Because Maya’s spycam footage of her cures shows that they feel embarrassment, sympathy, humor, and injustice to go along with the recognition of self that lets them learn from watching her watch the videos of them. Robots don’t feel shame about doing what they’re programmed to do, but a cure will let itself die rather than knowingly be observed pooping.

Ugh, I don’t know. I know there’s more to tease out from all this (such as the very rigid refusal to admit that dosing cures with PerFormulae is plain and simple drugging them for entertainment), but I just feel so grieved by the whole thing. At the very least, cut some of those videos, like the one where the sister was upset because it was supposed to be her turn. That felt like the punch line was written first, then more setup than it could support. Have some mercy, y’know? (As if.)

8 thoughts on “Well That Was Fucking Awful

  1. Daryl L. L. Houston June 14, 2020 / 10:24 pm

    I hear you, Jeff. I wasn’t as affected by it as you, I guess in part because it seems sufficiently divorced from reality that I didn’t take it so much to heart, and also because I fixated after the first couple of dozen pages on the question of why this thing was included. Even for me though it was sort of relentless. Maybe it could’ve been 50 pages shorter and still worked (but then maybe that would’ve defanged it and undermined its purpose).

    I’m staying about a week ahead of the reading, though I write one week’s post before reading ahead. If it helps any, I can report that the coming week’s milestone has some really quite lovely stuff in it, though there’s more grit too. But I read the first few pages of the coming week’s selection as sort of a breather and almost as a reward for having gone through the slog. I’m still not at all sure this’ll be a particularly happy story in the end (or that I want it to be; I think I prefer the sad ones).

    I’m with you regarding where the “bot” in Botimals comes into play. It seems abundantly clear that they are flesh and bone and not robotic at all. Even the pretty lifelike Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation had computery stuff inside. Maybe the cockamamie ideas in the more recent user manual for cures turn out to be true after all.

    Thanks for sticking with it so far in spit of how this section left you feeling. I like having your ideas here and hope you’ll feel like you can stay through the end (but will understand completely if you throw in the towel).

    • Paul Debraski June 17, 2020 / 3:37 pm

      That whole thing about animal and human DNA maybe or maybe not being a part of cures is still sticking out for me. I hope that will be addressed.

      As to whether this will be a happy or sad story, I hadn’t even considered that. Huh. Was The Instructions happy or sad?

      • Daryl L. L. Houston June 17, 2020 / 4:41 pm

        I actually sort of hope the question of whether cures are bots or not remains unresolved. It’s fun to ponder and less fun for me if Levin comes right out and tells us.

        I suppose the story need not be either happy or sad. It can be both to some degree or neither. So the dichotomy I’m creating there may be sort of a category error or at any rate be overly reductive. The Instructions is hard to put in a bucket too. Is it tragicomedy? Sort of a farce, maybe? Maybe these books are simply more complex than what my distinction allows for. Your good question makes me figure maybe I’m trying to draw boundaries around the book that aren’t really called for.

      • Jeff Anderson June 19, 2020 / 4:48 pm

        I had a thought the other day, related to the idea of what kind of ending this book might have. I generally don’t do a lot of predicting when I’m reading—it’s this one weird TOTALLY uncritically receptive thing I do as a reader. But suddenly it occurred to me that I will feel really disappointed if this book ends with Belt overloading on Blank. (It’ll feel like when we read that Avi novel Nothing but the Truth in fifth grade, which felt so political and exciting, and then at the end it turns out he’s not refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance out of any conviction but just because he doesn’t know the words. Suuuuuch a letdown.) I hope that doesn’t happen.

      • Daryl L. L. Houston June 20, 2020 / 3:27 pm

        Woo boy, I’ve been on pins and needles about Blank since Belt left him (yeah, I said it) at home unsupervised with Clyde in a generous mood. Will he go home to find Clyde having decided they should overload on the cute little fucker together but then lack the willpower to control himself. I was almost sick with the thought of it pretty much the moment Belt left home.

    • Jeff Anderson June 19, 2020 / 5:00 pm

      I’m definitely sticking with it! I really appreciated the invitation to participate, and I’m enjoying the conversations we’re having. And you’re right, the following week’s reading I was glad for in the moments of reading and afterward—and I wouldn’t have gotten there if this project and group didn’t give me a reason to push through A Fistful of Fists.

  2. Paul Debraski June 17, 2020 / 3:35 pm

    Humor is my one weakness/defense mechanism. I will try to find anything funny if it can mitigate some hardship (talk about psychological evaluation). If you’ve ever seen Woody Allen’s interiors (no further comment about Allen), it is an unceasingly bleak film. But there;s one character who is brash and inappropriate. i watched the film in a film class and she says a line that is brash and inappropriate and I laughed out loud, probably the only one in the room , possibly the only one ever to laugh at this movie. So yea, I’m going to look for a smile where I can find it.

    I do agree though, that there’s no reason for poor Maya to get hurt, although i didn’t actually question it at the time.

    Jeez, maybe I’m the monster.

  3. Rob Vandiver June 18, 2020 / 10:45 am

    I agree wholeheartedly, Jeff. This was as discomforting as anything I have read. All the more so because the entire premise lead me to question my own cruelty and my own blindness and justification of it.

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