About suffering they were never wrong

Well, we’ve made it to the end, and I now feel the lift of having finished a rewarding book and the burden of feeling as if I should have something profound or tidy to say about it. Reader, I do not. There is simply too much to work with. I have a million questions, many of them inane (e.g.: what should I make of the conflicting information we get from sources each credible in their own way about the existence of Cure bone marrow?). Of course I have my conspiracy-ish theories about how various things in the book might connect to one another and to the rest of the canon and so on. But a pat summation of the themes and aesthetic pleasures of the book offered within a couple of thousand words is not something I think I’m up for.

There is a thread I’ll unravel a little bit, though. It’s not a profound find. In fact, it’s pretty glaringly obvious: Suffering.

First, a brief and not exhaustive catalog of suffering or suffering-adjacent things represented in the book:

  • Cures barbecued, popsicled, AOLed, dacted in various creatively sadistic other ways, and so on, documented in (but not only in) a transcript that composes some 12% of the book.
  • Various people losing parents, especially when young, and any fallout from that.
  • Belt’s mom’s pain and her father’s pain. (Another unrelated and likely inane question I haven’t sorted out an answer to: What are we to make of the fact that we learn her name only very late and in a footnote? This is clearly by design.)
  • The kids in the Friends study and their various ailments.
  • Presumably fisting itself for some, though to categorize that in a blanket way as a sort of suffering is surely simplistic and possibly a sort of straightwashing (I’m not sure).
  • The horrors depicted in Trip’s film Colorized War Crimes.
  • The suffering of many of the inans Belt encounters.
  • Even the joke about Jesus and Peter (page 565) seems to fit.
  • Fondajane’s given name is Dolores, which means “sorrow” or “pain.”
  • Blank’s apparent years-long suffering from second-hand smoke and the awful realization that Belt, by being so protective of Blank and prolonging its life, was in fact prolonging its suffering (and: the Woody Allen coughing thing turns out, if I’m not making a bad inference, to be not a cute and at times annoying tic but a sign of Blank’s discomfort amid Belt’s constant smoking).
  • “A Hunger Artist” and the panther that was probably not in fact all right.
  • Potentially Mouth the bird, kept perpetually hungry so that it could be made to learn to say things.
  • Various and sundry people in the referenced “The Hat Act” suffer various indignities and pains.
  • A panacea is a cure-all.

So, as I said, the thread here seems pretty ready for tugging, even if a couple of the things in my little catalog may require a bit of a reach.

But that’s not so uncommon, really, is it? Suffering is the human condition. Go back to Gilgamesh and you’ll read about suffering. Conflict — a key ingredient in the vast bulk of fiction — implies some measure of suffering. So again, there’s nothing profound in what I’ve pointed out. More surprising would be a nearly-800-page novel devoid of suffering.

I don’t know how well-known the word “theodicy” is, so I’ll quote Milton by way of brief definition: theodicy is “to justify the ways of God to man” (though Belt by the end, in his cups, perhaps identifies more with Housman’s suggestion that “malt does more than Milton can/To justify God’s ways to man”). Theodicy doesn’t quite do for my purposes, as (I understand) it’s explicitly concerned with questions of theology that don’t much come up in Bubblegum. Still, the general concept is useful and seems relevant: How can we extract meaning from suffering so that it seems like maybe it’s not all for nothing? Peter’s suffering in the joke Trip tells was meaningless, and what makes the joke funny is the realization of that meaningless in the face of Peter’s travails and how it (the meaninglessness) runs counter to our expectation of what divine truths we imagine Peter is suffering to hear Jesus whisper to him.

In a few places, Levin confronts the relationship between suffering and meaning pretty directly. From page 681:

According to my guilt, my cure was ill because I’d been careless, and to sit around panicking was a way to avoid accepting responsibility for my carelessness. According to my panic, my cure was ill because the world was random and randomly brutal, and thinking in terms of responsibility was just a way to avoid facing the fearsome truth: that, as always, and like everyone else, I lacked control over just about everything, my death was encroaching, as was the death of anyone else I cared about, the death of everyone I didn’t care about, eventually the death of all living things, thus the death of memory, and so the end of meaning, of the illusion of meaning.

And then again a few pages later on page 690:

And though a part of me (obviously) wanted to cry — for Blank, in front of Blank, and perhaps toward the cause of “making my peace” or “saying my goodbyes” — I hadn’t cried in Blank’s presence in a great many years, and I feared that if I cried I would make Blank afraid, that it would suffer dread along with its meaningless pain, perhaps even connect the two, the dread and the pain, and thus grant the pain meaning, and so make the pain worse, which I understand, reader, might sound a little off to you, for people like to think they prefer their pain meaningful, readers in particular, especially those readers not currently in pain, but people are people, and people are mistaken, readers are mistaken, misguided by empathy, spun around, confused. They believe they’d like to be more like the characters they love, yet they love only those characters they’re already like; they love those characters only for being like them. And despite what they may think when they aren’t in pain, people always prefer their own pain to be meaningless; they prefer only others’ pain to be meaningful. They think they want machines that behave as though alive, but what they want are living beings that behave like machines.

And then a little later on 705:

Blank had begun to seem like an appendage that had just been cut from me, and more like a long-lost friend; like someone I’d cared for a great deal at one point, but wouldn’t have expected to be in contact with, and so someone whose absence from my life didn’t create much impossible longing. And maybe that was shitty of me? Maybe I wasn’t honoring Blank’s memory? What did that mean, though? To honor Blank’s memory? Maybe, I thought, I needed to try a little harder to suffer more thoroughly.

And then toward the very end of the book, on page 751, after all this pretty heavy stuff about suffering and meaning, Belt gives us this:

By the time I’d gotten my first driver’s license — in fact, well before that — I’d all but completely ceased to care about the suffering of rusting swingsets, or, for that matter, about the suffering of inans in general. I’d known the rusting swingsets were suffering — I’d seen it nearly every day — and I would have liked it if they weren’t suffering, but I hadn’t cared enough to put in even a fraction of the effort that would have been required to end even a fraction of their suffering. Their suffering might as well have been AIDS or the Taliban or animal cruelty or homelessness or African famine or Indian famine or opioid addiction or nuclear proliferation or rising sea levels or California droughts or Lotta Hogg’s hurt feelings. Had I cared enough about the suffering of rusting swingsets, I would have started a rusting swingset-hauling business, but I’d cared so little about the suffering of rusting swingsets, I hadn’t even thought to start such a business. I’d had other things to do: reading, writing, smoking, pining for and seeking out the girl who talked to inans…

This takes me back to Belt’s conversation with Dr. Manx starting on about page 225. I’ll spare you another long quote, but Belt and Manx (another inane question: A Dr. Manx appears in some of Levin’s short stories; is it just a name he likes or is he, with these connections and the crossover between Bubblegum and The Instructions building sort of a cross-referential universe here?) talk about helping swingsets vs. helping homeless people and what it means to really help someone. This is the conversation that reminded me of some recent reading in Singer and that Jeff pointed to as sort of Biblical. Young Belt goes on to itemize a few things (including homelessness and AIDS) that he thinks it’s overwhelming to try to imagine fixing and the tradeoffs of trying to fix all those things. He ends his spiel with “so what would be the point of anything, you know? I mean…” (the ellipsis here is Levin’s and not mine).

Belt’s catalog above makes me think too of Auden’s poem that Jeff brought up and from which I’ve borrowed a line for the title of this ramble. As those who might have seen the fall of Icarus carry on with their work-a-day lives, Belt had other things to do than continue caring overmuch about the suffering of swingsets.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

These are just the instances of meaning and suffering together that I happened to note during a first read. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there are more that I missed. There’s one more little piece I’ll try to click into place here: Memory.

Interestingly, we see very little of Belt suffering in the book. What we do see comes mostly through the filter of his memory. This is a memoir, after all, which comes from the French word for “memory.” A few weeks ago, I made some connections (quite possibly specious) between Levin’s book and Proust’s magnum opus with respect to their treatment of memory. And in two of the passages I quote above, memory comes up with respect to suffering. These associations began to crystallize for me a bit when I read of Belt’s arrival at the compound, where we learned that the three dots provide a visual representation of the blobs of bubblegum that, seen years later, sent Belt careering back through time to a memory not only of his childhood but of his mother (about whose suffering we have only recently read when we get to this part of the book).

The blobs return at the end of the book too, in a strange conversation between Belt and Lisette, each linked to the other by distant memory. I haven’t really worked out yet what to make of this closing interaction. But again these people who both have suffered — who were brought together by a study of those suffering psychological trauma and were torn asunder by the the onset of Belt’s mother’s suffering (and, presumably, his own subsequent mourning) — ponder these blobs together. Lisette puts a pretty negative spin on the blobs. They’re pavement melanomas. Or they come from gross or wounded mouths and are generally gross. And we can’t help making triangles out of them when we see them, which to me is a sort of making of meaning where there is none. And then after making much more of the gumstains than they really merit, she concedes that the gum is just plain old gum: “Of course it’s just old gum. It’s completely meaningless. Doesn’t stop me, when I see it, from thinking [of them as pavement melanomas], though.”

As I said at the top, I don’t offer here a coherent theory of what the book means. I do see a set of loose associations between suffering, meaning, and memory, and it’s tempting to me to try to tie those somehow to the title and to whatever the gum blobs signify, though whether that significance pertains to memory or the grotesque, or indeed whether there’s any thread still left here to pull I’m really not sure.

5 thoughts on “About suffering they were never wrong

  1. Rob June 29, 2020 / 11:03 am

    In his interview with The Great Concavity podcast Levin says something about undermining the belief that reading novels helps build empathy. It’s a complex point and I don’t think I fully understand it. But maybe it’s about the way we delude ourselves into thinking we are better, more selfless people than we really can be. I don’t know.

  2. Minn June 29, 2020 / 4:53 pm

    Dolores is also the name of titular Lolita in Nabokov’s Lolita who was a definitely a victim in Lolita, despite Humbert’s sleazy voice too.

  3. Jeff Anderson July 2, 2020 / 4:45 pm

    I think that’s a wise move, not trying to present a coherent theory of what the book means. I have a suspicion it intends to mean a lot of things that can’t really be made coherent in a single overarching analysis (and again we arrive at some of the special functions of maximalist literature, which dramatizes much better than it explains).

    Does anything new come of pulling on this thread if you also consider the suffering of the reader? At a minimum, it seems hard to dispute that A Fistful of Fists is intended to be difficult to read, at least in parts—perhaps even gratuitously so, or at least in ways that are hard to justify even if you feel some indistinct likelihood that such a justification exists.

    You’re super close with “theodicy.” It sounds like what you’re talking about is the problem of evil, which theodicy is one method of answering. (And in making sure I’m talking about what I think I’m talking about, I came across this: “Stephen de Wijze has argued that torturing and killing what you know to be a lifelike robot would be evil even if the robot has no conscious life.”) The gist, of course is: Suffering exists—why? But that question gets sharper, doesn’t it?, when we’re talking about fiction, where everything is invented. Yes, as you say, conflict—and its built-in component of dukkha—is a building block of fiction. Without it, often we either don’t recognize the world we’re reading about or aren’t moved by it. But there’s a line past which it can feel excessive, and then the question of why it exists can become a question to the author: Why are you doing this? What is the function or goal of doing this to your readers? (This is my version of the “wtaf” you suggested I might ask this evening. Spoiler!)

  4. Jeff Anderson July 2, 2020 / 4:47 pm

    Maaaaaan, comment jail again! Is it based on length, d’you know, or using HTML, or number of links included? Sorry!

    • Daryl L. L. Houston July 2, 2020 / 5:18 pm

      Ah, just checked and it’s the number of links, and that’s the culprit. I’ve increased it by a few (though not by too much — hopefully enough to stop jailing you). I’ve also approved the other comment.

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