Hitting Back on the Brickhorse

With this week, the book comes to an end and I can’t help but feel disappointed by the ending.  At some point a few years ago I realized that endings are often the worst part of a book.  Endings can’t ever do what the reader really hopes will happen, especially if the reader has a different idea of what the book is doing.  I must have had a very different idea of what this book was a bout because I left that last page with so many questions–questions that Levin clearly had no intention of answering.

Like what if the entire book from after Belt gets his cure until the very end is all in his head.  He is just crazy and none of these things happened.  There are no cures.  Everything that seems off about his world is because his perception is skewed.  He has the wrong date and perpetrator of 9/11.  He misunderstands The Matrix, he believes he was given hundreds of thousands of dollars from the creator of The Matrix.  His father is dating the mother of the wife of an author that he likes.  But really he’s just in Costello house imagining he’ll meet up with Lisette someday.

I don’t really think that’s what happened, but there’s so much left out after the ending, that I have to fill it in somehow.

I was particularly interested in this first section being called AOL.  There has been no real explicit nudge from the author that there is no internet in the book, but this title was clearly a wink at us.  Particularly since Belt doesn’t know what it stands for either.

But before we find out, Belt explains that it’s November 5, 2013.  He’s finished up the transcript, he has 350 pages of his memoir written and he wants to celebrate with someone.  He thought of all the people he could celebrate with.  Fon? (not a chance in hell); Denise? (he didn’t have her number); Lotta Hogg? (she was with Valentine);, his father? (at work); Burroughs? (it seemed wrong, somehow), Herb? (he didn’t want to seem like he was badgering Herb about Lisette); Eli Khong, his older editor at Darger? (in a 12-step program).  There was no one left.  He considered going to Arcades and buying (is that the verb?) a good prostitute.  But rather, he decided to buy a really good bottle of Scotch.

Last week everyone said how much they loved the names of the Scotch he buys: MacGuffin 12 and Glenfibbly 21.  This time the liquor store owner suggests a MacGuffin 18-Year-Old Sherry Cask (I have no idea what that means) which cost $293.  Its flavors: “honey and leather, then butter and apricots, and then, at last–and this was the best part–deep Robitussin cherry.”

He had also been spending more time with Blank lately.  But Blank was still off.  Belt was worried that he was boring his cure.  So he thought he’d buy a present for Blank.  He went to the new A(cute)rements Warehouse (formerly A(cute)rements PerFormulae/CureWear/ EmergeRig-vendor), a supermarket sized warehouse.

The place is abuzz with hostility because they don;t have enough Independence in.  When Belt tells the clerk that’s not what he;s there for, the clerk relaxes.  But they have no toys for cures, of course.  They mostly have things to hurt your cure with and lots of Formulae.  When he tells the clerk he wants to buy a present for his cure, the clerk says “That’s adorab–” but he is cut off because someone is furious hat they don;t have any Independence.  Belt says he didn’t see a sign saying so, and the clerk says its’ because his manager thought that people would come in an anger-shop.

Belt is surprised so many people want their cures to not need them.

But then the clerk mentions AOL.  Which, he explains, stands for Auto Over Load.  You give the Cure Independence and NeedyBuddy, put it in front of a mirror and it commits suicide.  The clerk is so excited for Belt to watch this–they have homemade clips of cures AOLing on a loop in the store.

Belt purchases a six month supply of pellets and a new PillowNest.  He has to watch some of the clips while he is online, although he can’t handle it (after all of that Fistful) and neither can I.  I did enjoy the young kids in the store arguing about what happens in the clips (and also the color coding of the items in the 75 cent bin).

When Belt gets home there is a package from Gus (whose full name is Gus Aronov-Katz [hey, maybe there is a connection to the bubblegum music after all]. It contains three handkerchiefs and a letter about his book.  I feel like Gus sums up my reaction to Bubblegum.

The most confused I got was at the end.  The end made me sad, and I do not know why, don’t know was I even supposed to be sad. Maybe it was just a personal reaction I had, specific to myself.

Belt put aside the letter and presented Blank and presented with the new PillowNest, which Blank was very excited about.  Until her sneezed green mucus and said merf.  Belt takes Blank to a vet (very few vets know how to tend to cures, obviously) and is convinced he has a Cure disease but that he can be fixed.  Even in this very sad scene there some amusement.  Like the cat magazine (Cats’n’Jamming Monthly), and the fact that Belt’s “T” looks like an “A” and the vet tech calls him “Bela.”

There’s also the woman with her exotic cats Cadman and Uk (I don’t get this joke).  She believes she should go before Belt to see Dr Kleinstadt (small town) who deals with exotic pets.  Her cats are, you see, Savannah, as in from Africa.  But nope, they are still just cats after all and she will be seeing Dr. Mills.

In the vet’s room, Belt stares at a poster of an Axolotl (which is neotonic).  The doctor had one a a patient named Ghostheim. Gave him the creeps.

The doctor says that few people know how to treat cures anymore, but he studied them.  And after a cursory exam, the doctor determines that Blank has cancer–probably from second hand smoke.  Ouch.

He also tells belt that pain singing is a misnomer.  They don’t sing when they are in pain, they sing when they are afraid.  Yikes!  Is it worse to get off on someone’s pain or someone’s fear?  Is there a difference?

And then the unthinkable and to me wholly unexpected event occurs: Kablankey dies.

The next section is called “Settlement” and it is mostly about Clyde.   First we learn that Grandmother Magnet has also died.  “(DUI, maple)” is simultaneously hilarious and insanely callous. Speaking of hilariously callous, it’s on page 695 in a footnote that we learn that Belt’s mother’s name was Annie.

Then we learn that Clyde had gotten into a terrible accident at work.  I can’t quite determine what an impeller does, but essentially a machine tossed off a heavy bitch block when it wasn’t supposed to.  And if Clyde hadn’t tried to stop it, it would have crushed Leif’s foot and killed Mikey.  Clyde is basically a hero, saving these two, but something bad happened to his body.  He assumed he’d had a heart attack and as he was dying. He imagined haunting Billy.  But then he came to and found out he’d been in a coma because he was allergic to morphine.  “They specified mild coma to get me to think twice about to causing major legal trouble.”

He had what’s called sudden-onset impeller’s twist.  The doctor says he should be fine as long as he never impels again, “which, why the fuck would I ever impel again, anyway?”  So basically, Clyde is retiring five years earlier than he planned with a huge financial settlement.

After rehab, he told Belt that he was going to take a trip to St. Wolfgang, in Austria, the village from which his parental grandfather had emerged.  Between the two of them we learn that Austria is known for coffee, mountains, Mozart, opera, delicate pastries:  “All of that stuff. Everything you’ve always lived for, plus Hitler.”

Clyde asks if Belt wants to go to.  He doesn’t.  Has no interest in it.  And then he tells his dad that he has to “get back to the bricks.”

Get back to the bricks–that’s not what that means.  That doesn’t mean anything  What you wanted to say was get back on the horse.”
“You sure about that?”
“What you really wanted to say, though,” he said, “was hit the bricks which means hit the road which is what I’m proposing.”

Later, Belt says that he was drinking and thinking beside Blank’s grave  because it “might somehow help me hit back on the brickhorse” (hilarious).

Belt complains that Clyde is only going their because his father wanted to go there and he, Belt, “wasn’t raised to care about that kind of stuff–origins–and it was you who raised me. I think you probably care even less than I do, truth be told.”

Clyde asks Belt why he sounds so angry.  What happened to him?  Belt snaps:

Oh, right, sure.  Belt.  You called me Belt.  You called me by my name.  I’m melting. Little boy blue and the man in the moon.  Come on.  Enough big ropes.  We’re not having a moment here, and I’m not going to Austria.

Belt is standing up for himself now, too.

Belt then reveals to us that he is on his second recent dry spell of writing.

This includes an outstanding footnote about The Matrix.  I think it’s awesome that he uses this film because his re-writing of the film is great, but also because The Wachowski Sisters are trans women (and were The Wachowski Brothers when they made the film).  In Belt’s version of The Matrix, Neo (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is a talented cuddlefarmer/formulae designer.  He realizes that cures are actually part of a larger hive mind bent on taking over the world (after destroying all of the cats).

Holy cow that must have been fun to come up with.

There’s a hugely (to me) surprising payoff to this section when sometime later he sells all of his footage of Blank to Lilly Wachowski for a future Matrix film.

[If, in reality, the Wachowski Sisters make a film out of this novel, the self-referentialism will be out of this world].

The dry spell led to him re-reading his memoir and he found he no longer had any empathy for himself.  He bought and read other recently released memoirs to bolster his spirits about writing memoirs.   And his take on memoirs pretty much mirrors my own:

the author overcame adversity with virtue.  As a reader, you’d either 1) spent your life being complicit in the systemic injustice that had caused the adversity, but now that you’d read the book, you’d been awakened to the role you played and are thus made virtuous (perhaps even brave) or 2) you’d spent your life being a victim of the same systemic injustice as the author while being equally virtuous, but it wasn’t until you read the memoir that you were able to realize just how virtuous you’d always been, just how much adversity you’d already overcome.  Congratulations either way.

Belt gave up on writing and thought maybe he needed a new Curio.  So he cloned Blank, but it did nothing for him.  He brought it to Lotta’s mom who tried to cold shoulder him.  He explained what he was giving her and when she said he wasn’t very nice to her daughter, he said:

“I just gave you something you value. And Valentine seems like a really good guy.  I don’t need your fucken guiltmouth, Catrina.”

Clyde left for Austria and then sent a postcard.  The upshot is the Austria is boring so he’s going to Paris.  It was signed “Clyde, the Dad.”  In the next postcard, he is in Paris which he loves.  The people are bitchy but deservedly so.  He’s especially enamored of the bread–is there a conspiracy against Stateside bread eaters?

Then there’s another letter from Paris.  Essentially he went to a bookstore where an American author was reading. It turned out to be Adam Levin (ha) reading his book Self-Titled.  Clyde didn’t think much of the title and the book looked really short.

[That would be the most hilarious advanced promotion for a new book if he actually released such a book (it sounds great)].

So as Clyde was looking for a book to buy Belt he happened upon a book called Estrangement Effect by Camille Bordas.

[I have read four stories by her and loved every one of them].  I was really surprised to see her name in this book.  And then to find out that in the book Levin is married to her.  He is in real life, as well.  She does not have a book with such a title, but again, that would be a hilarious promotion for an upcoming book if she is indeed writing one called that (and judging by Clyde’s reaction, she certainly should).

Long story short, Clyde hits it off with Camille’s mother Sandrine (no idea if that’s Camille’s mother;s real name) and the four of them go out together.

Levin tells Clyde he was always upset he never got to see a swingset murder in person–he’d lived so close but never went to one.

Clyde writes that day after tomorrow Sandrine was flying to the South of Spain to ______________ and Clyde is going with her. He also sent Belt an open-ended ticket to go there.  Signing this one, “Love, Clyde.”  He had recently told Belt that he felt they were better as friends rather than father and son, and that sounds about right.

Belt realized that he was a few days late on handing in his transcript.  So he called Burroughs who came over.  Belt and Burroughs have some MacGuffin 15 (confit plums, custard and pine) and Burroughs explains that Triple J had cancelled the screening of A Fistful of Fists.

Belt guesses that the museum couldn’t handle the content of Fistful, but that’s not it at all.  In fact, they loved it.  But once people started showing films of their cures AOLing, he felt his film was redundant.  Burroughs says:

One of the Yachts–the less bright Chaz–I think it was Jr. but can never keep them straight–so Chaz or Chaz Jr whichever, just a few days after the initial airing of the second AOL clip, he brought over his Executioner Set along with a cure he’d previously taught to perform executions on other cures … [after seeing all of this and realizing everyone would be doing it] …Trip has a major crisis is the point.  Artistic, moral. Crisis, Deep.  Feels almost attacked… [by] everything. The universe.

And then it feels like the book is talking to all of us who weren’t sure what we thought about Trip:

He’s barley fifteen years old, and he’s smart, this kid.  Whatever you or anyone else might think of him, he is sharp as a tack, highly introspective.  But yeah, barley fifteen years old. Ideological in that way younger people tend to be.

Technology has done what he was planing to do with art.  Technology–at which he failed–has beaten him at what he worked so hard for.  He feels like moral shitbag.

So anyway, Trip replaced it with Colorized War Crimes, which sounds ten times worse than Fistful.  Trip gave Belt a copy of this horrorshow of a film on DVD and Burroughs explains that if he shows “this DVD to anyone else, now or later, we’d thoroughly destroy your life and so forth.”  Belt doesn’t really want it but Burroughs really hopes he’ll take it,

That way I can tell Trip you took it, if he asks.  And not for nothing, he’s really proud of this and I think right to be.

Again, I love Burroughs.

Finally Burroughs tell Belt that he’d given Trip some Panacea and he felt a lot better–clear headed and clever.  Belt says he would love a panacea not realizing it is an actual thing.

“Right, sure. Please do that, Burroughs.  Bring me my panacea posthaste.”
“I don’t get the tone, he said, lowering the phone.

Once again, Belt has no idea what anyone is talking about.  Panacea is not a drug (according to the FDA) it is a food.  Burroughs offers to send him a several month supply (they have tons).

And as the conversation ends, Belt offers money for Panacea and Burroughs gets annoyed

“Wait.  What?  What do you take me for Belt?  You just fed me fine Scotch and listened to me spill my guts for…” he said and looked at his watch “Oh dear, no time to take umbrage, I have to get back.”  He stood, I stood, we shook hands and shoulder-clapped “I’ll have some Panacea sent over.”

And that’s the last we’ll see of Burroughs.

The final section is The Only Wrong Person.

It starts out with yet another very funny sequence in which we learn that Grandmother Magnet used to take them out to see a terrible movie every Christmas. Belt wanted to see Clue the first year he was “sure it would be one of the all-time great comedies, an instant classic that nothing else playing could possibly compete with–a movie about characters from a board game, ingenious!”  This year he’d guessed it would be The Three Amigos which he was “sure would be one of the all-time great comedies, an instant classic that nothing else playing could possibly compete with–a movie about characters mistaken for characters those characters played in movies; ingenuous.”  The punchline that she got them tickets to see Platoon on Christmas is hilarious.

But Belt’s mom didn’t want him to see Platoon so they went to see The Golden Child.  Belt’s mom also didn’t like like Eddie Murphy’s stand up “every other punch line is faggot.”  [She’s not wrong–he was incredibly homophobic].  But they saw it and Belt misheard a punchline that made him laugh and laugh.  I couldn’t imagine what his had to do with anything.  Eddie Murphy asks the golden child, who is very chill in a moment of panic. “Did someone give you a Valium or what?”  Belt heard it as “did someone give you a volume or what?” and believed it was Eddie Murphy signalling to the world that other people heard voices and that he could use this volume knob to turn them down.

When the Panacea arrives it warns of Temporary Paradoxical Effects–sleepiness, lucid dreaming, anxiety loss of appetite and or loss of sex drive.  Belt slept for a half a day and then woke up feeling that everything was awesome.

He reread his memoir and loved it.  Loved th opening and then, once again, showing that everyone here was on to something, he praises the genius that is “thats.”  And I’ll let those of you who latched onto this usage gloat and explain it.

The Panacea lets Belt imagine that he can open and close his gates and can see them opening and closing allowing him to communicate with inans.  The desk he’s sitting at starts to complain and Belt closes his gates on it.  Unfortunately, he can never do it again.

Because later when he picks up a copy of No Please Don’t (which he hadn’t read it since it was published) the book itself yells at him.  Because a book waits all its life to be picked up and have its pages slowly turned, but not by the author of the book–the exact wrong person.

Poor Belt.

Since Belt can’t write anything, he thinks about Adam Levin raving about how great the swingset murders were.  he decides that’s what his real calling is.  But he promised his mother he would never destroy other people’s property again.  So he decides to buy the rusty swingsets.  However, the first one he tries to buy, the woman assumes he;s a junk removal truck and pays him–could this be his new source of income?

He hits the swingset with a bat and immediately thinks he’s having a heart attack (like father, like son).  He realizes he hadn’t really cared about swingsets for years and gives up on that idea pretty quickly.

When he decides to get writing done, Herb contacts him.  He has the number of Dr Abed Patel who remembers Belt, of course.

Belt calls Abed and Abed’s tone to Belt is fascinating.  He asks if the voices stopped, and what kind of drugs he took to get better (no they haven’t, and none).  Abed read No Please Don’t and was very impressed by it–especially since he thought Belt was crazy.

Finally we learn her full name: Lisette Banks.  Lisette has been in touch with Abed many times over the years looking for Belt.  Abed could never give out her information.  She sounds unwell–but Belt thinks her reactions are “funny unwell” like she was back in the study.  She lives at the Costello House Intermediate Care Facility. There had been a real murder there back in 2002.

At the Costello House there are several people with Tardive dyskinesia causes repetitive, involuntary movements, such as grimacing and eye blinking which is caused by long-term use of neuroleptic drugs used to treat psychiatric conditions.

There’s also a person who ask:

“You want to know who it is?  Who it really is, buddy?  Who you’re saying those things to?  That’s Judah Maccabee, buddy. That’s who you’re hurting.”

If you haven’t read Levin’s The Instructions, Judah Maccabee is the father of the main character, Judah is a famous defense attorney and is especially known for defending horribly racist people (and women).  He is currently defending a neo Nazi–not because he is a self-hating Jew but because he believes in justice.

Belt calls Lisette–who assumes it is him calling.  And they agree to meet off site.

When he sees her he is dismayed at her appearance (is it shallowness or because she is clearly crazy)?  She doesn’t recognize Belt and introduces herself as Hulga. He says his name is Clyde and she make a Pac Man joke, which went over my head until she explained it (duh, I might have made the same joke–how did I miss it?)

Then she starts talking about something… aliens?  When he asks what she’s talking about, she says “The black gum.  The old marks.”  And you can’t believe there is only one page left in the book

She says they are circles but they are not really circles and they are clustered and your eyes are always making triangle out of them.  But they are always just awkward triangles.  She calls them pavement melanoma.

And then she goes to wait for Belt.  And how can that be the end?

♦          ♦

Was this really just a story of lost romance?

What of Trip and the Yachts?

What of the memoir (I guess he wrote it if we are reading it).

What of Clyde and Sandrine?  Did they get married?  Is Belt going to hang out with his step brother in law Adam Levin?

What of Burroughs?

And what about the hundreds of questions we had about Cures and how we are supposed to think about them?

I feel like this book was part one of something even bigger.

The more I think about the ending the more questions I raise.  So I’m just going to see what other people wrote before I go crazy.

♦          ♦

Incidentally, I co-posted this on my own site which includes a “Soundtrack” for each post.  All of the posts for Bubblegum have “featured” bubblegum pop songs.  This week’s final song is The Rock And Roll Dubble Bubble Trading Card Co. Of Philadelphia – 19141 -“Bubble Gum Music” (1968).  A great band name and a wonderfully self-referential song.

8 thoughts on “Hitting Back on the Brickhorse

  1. Minn June 29, 2020 / 9:08 pm

    The fact that so there are so many questions concerning the cures, which are the most important features of this alternative society, left unanswered, reminds me of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, in a sense that this is a mere memoir of somebody who doesn’t have the knowledge of an alternative universe where there are no cures. It caught me up especially when the conversation between him and Jonboat is purely hypothetical

  2. Rob July 1, 2020 / 2:02 am

    I agree with your introductory comments Paul and I fear the comment section, where I hang out, might end with a thud too.

    Regarding your thoughts about even taking the story at face value… When I read about Belt selling his Blank tapes (heh) to Wachowski I said to myself, “this isn’t ‘really’ happening”. It’s too much. And if it isn’t “real”, I’m disappointed in the undercutting of the story and character in that way.

    You know, I’m also disappointed in Belt for never contacting his father. Or doing even more than that. The text sets it up as such an *obvious* thing to do that it is clearly highlighting his lack of doing so. Belt ends his story being an asshole to his dad and to a lesser extent with Lisette via denying his identity. I wanted to empathize with him in the book and I guess — as someone said Levin commented on that podcast — that empathy was undercut somewhat, and maybe Levin wanted that? I dunno. Belt is almost two people — I feel there’s something missing in the center, where the integration into one person would happen. Hard to explain. I guess he is far from a ‘reliable memoirist’, huh. And yeah, Bam Naka WAS Jonboat. This follows from all the above, lol.

  3. Daryl L. L. Houston July 1, 2020 / 11:25 pm

    Ooh, I forgot completely about Gus’s response to Belt’s book, which I suppose could be a hint that some feeling of dissatisfaction or ambivalence or sadness or something is by design? Or maybe that it’s not so much by design but is bound to happen for some readers anyway, so fuck it, let’s just embrace it? Or maybe people complained about the ending of The Instructions and this is a response to that. It could be any number of things, I guess. I’m glad I’m not the only one who didn’t entirely get it.

    I’m also ok with not getting it. I like when books leave things a little untidy in part because it helps me live with them a little longer as I try to process what I’ve missed and in part because I’ve always had a sweet spot for things that flout convention. Many readers of this site and of Levin will no doubt recall books by certain other authors I won’t here name whose endings left plenty of people frustrated and confused. To me, reading a book of this sort is, to paraphrase a meme, less about the treasure or destination than about the friends we made along the way. Trip was a trip, Gus a dapper delight, Clyde a pleasure to change my mind about, Belt a bit of a curiosity, Blank fun to try to imagine, and Burroughs someone to sort of admire. There were of course other notable friends too. And Annie’s letters. And the creativity all around. And the set pieces. And pissing through a boner, cakeface.

    So, it’s a weird ending to a strange book (Matt set us up for that in the beginning), but for me that didn’t diminish the pleasure of the whole. I figure it’ll make more sense on a reread or it won’t, and I’m ok either way. Which of course doesn’t mean it’s not ok to not be ok either way. I would have been disappointed if Levin had tied everything up neatly, though.

    Putting aside the ending, I’ll say that the tongue twisting of hitting back on the brick horse amused me in the moment and seemed familiar, but it didn’t occur to me until I read your post here that what it made me think of was some of the vaguely Spooneristic things that Gaddis’s Jack Gibbs says when in his cups or worked up in J R. I won’t insist that that’s by design, but I love the Gibbs character (though not unreservedly), so I was glad you hit on this tongue twister, which put me in mind of Gibbs.

    And I’ll let those of you who latched onto this usage gloat and explain it.

    Ha! I won’t gloat, but I will confess that it was a particular thrill to see Belt come back to this. The one thing I wonder is whether “thats” as a possessive pronoun is a common utterance. I had never heard anyone say it (much less seen anyone write it) before encountering it in this book. Yet in the book club Zoom a few weeks ago, Levin seemed surprised to hear that it wasn’t common. It’s possible he was joshing to avoid spoiling this moment for us. Belt too seems to think it’s a thing people say. Is Belt wrong? Is Levin? Am I? Is it a regionalism? Who knows? I don’t care; it was neat.

    • Rob July 2, 2020 / 2:33 am

      I certainly agree about (most of) the journey. It was good. I could have done with a 10-20% shorter trip overall, but yeah. A little much on the Curios in the end–early on I expected them to be more of a background thing. That expectation was based on the very abstract introduction to Blank, where the reader had to parse what kind of “pet” was being described and why so vaguely and impersonally. (Again, I didn’t even read the blurb for this book or any other sort of “hint” about its contents, so that introduction in the book itself was all I had. I’d encourage folks to go back and read Blank’s introduction cold, it’s a strange passage read completely cold.)

      So “thats”, which I didn’t even notice until it was pointed out here, inhabits similar ground with the thing I *did* notice and pointed out here. “Thats” appropriately depersonalizes the inanimate, compared to e.g. “the car whose tires were flat was red”. I would be surprised if no historical dialect of English had ever said “thats”, actually. Because it makes enough sense to me that I read right over it without noticing it. It would be an interesting question for a(n) historian of the language.

      Similarly, consistently referring to Blank as “it/its” rather than “he” or “she” depersonalizes Blank, whereas I would expect a pet-like thing to be described with pronouns for pets, as most people do. It is particularly odd, given Belt’s unusual, long-lived attachment to his cure, that *he in particular* doesn’t refer to Blank with something other than “it”. (There was one exception to that in the text, which I noted here and took to be a copy-editing oversight in an otherwise intentional set of word choices.) Perhaps the larger point here is more interesting: that cures are never gendered by anyone, at least that I noticed.

  4. Rob Vandiver July 2, 2020 / 2:12 pm

    The whole book had me tense and awaiting the day that Belt would overload on Blank. Even while stressing about this I felt strong empathy towards Belt: he was clever, funny, had an interestingly odd way of fully realizing thoughts that are usually a layer or two below the surface for most of us. This is contrasted by the early depictions of Johnboat, Triple-J, and Clyde to name a few, they all were written to be lacking some basic humanity. As the story progressed these characters gained sympathy and depth, all while partaking in horrible cruelty towards Curios. Finally Belt was also revealed as a monster despite his ability to resist the urge to overload. He didn’t care enough about the last, silent swingset to finish the murder, he inexplicably refused to communicate with his father (who turned out to be a pretty amazing guy), and most horribly he walked out on Lisette just because she was “dumpy”. This is a woman that he has obsessed over for decades, who has obsessed over him for decades, who is funny and insightful in similar ways to Belt, who LIKELY COULD SPEAK TO FREAKING INANS, and he turns tail and runs because…. she is “dumpy”?
    One of the things that my mind keeps circling around is a passage on pg. 718.

    “I enjoyed the night air. Since the freeze had lifted some five weeks earlier, many days had highs in the upper sixties, and there hadn’t been an evening that had dropped below fifty. And I knew some people were alarmed about that – our freakish weather – and I knew those people would think that I was shallow – or would claim to think that I was shallow – for shamelessly enjoying our weather rather than condemning the causes of our weather and worrying about what it said about the state of the world and the shrinking capacity for human beings and other food-chain higher-ups to survive in the world, and maybe they’d be right, those other people, maybe it was shallow, and maybe my father’s unbridled delight in his harvest of the fruits of southern Europe’s economic collapse was similarly shallow, maybe we Magnets were in bad taste, enjoying the things we were able to enjoy when we should have been berating ourselves for enjoying them…
    Maybe we were, in our little ways, helping to hasten the rise of tyrants, the rise of sea levels, the fall of man, the end of humanity. Or maybe just I was. In my little way. How could I know? How could anyone know? I’m not saying I couldn’t. I’m saying I didn’t. I’m saying I don’t and, because I don’t I fail to imagine how others might. Yet others seemed to. They seemed to know. They seemed to think they knew what was right and what was wrong, what was good and what was bad, and what impact they made on what and who, and how to destroy the least amount of good, how to prevent the most amount of evil, how to progress toward solving the world if only everyone else would listen, and all I knew was what I liked and didn’t like, what moved me and what didn’t, what I found beautiful and what I found ugly, who I found attractive and who I found repellent, and I wasn’t very good at knowing even those things, but the point is, reader, it was nice outside, to me it felt nice…”

    At the time I loved this passage, and it spoke to me in the time and place where I was. I lived in a society that educated me and could afford me the comfort to relax and the wealth to buy a book that I was thoroughly enjoying while the sun was on my face and the world burned down around me, and I didn’t want to feel guilty about it, in part because I had no idea how to fix it. It wasn’t the same Belt’s discussion earlier with Dr. Manx where he justifies his lack of wanting to help the swingsets by using homelessness as an example (which I plan on doing a fair bit of writing about). Here Belt is not apathetic, but just overwhelmed and ignorant. Exactly what I told myself. Overwhelmed and ignorant, give me this little zen-stoic moment where I can detach and enjoy.
    All of this during a run-up where Levin was drawing all the convergent lines for a nice, happy ending where Lisette and Belt run off to Spain to live happily ever after. Not to say that I fully bought it; my mind knew that Bubblegum would not end like that, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t FEEL like it was going to end like that. And then, not just a tragic ending: Belt is revealed to be someone who should be reviled. And now I feel a little like I should be as well.
    I will reread this again, hopefully soon. The things I want to make note of are:
    I couldn’t quite tell if the voice of Belt changed throughout the novel, but he gives us clear points on when he completed certain sections. I would like to contrast what was written with when he wrote it. The last section will remain a question. When did he write it? What happened to allow him to begin to write again?
    One of the things that struck me is humanity didn’t seem markedly changed by the cruelty to cures. I think it would be easy to have written in that violent crimes went up/down as people became desensitized/had an outlet, but it seems to be that people just wholesale slaughtered Cures, it was a great hobby but it didn’t seem to affect us socially/psychologically. I want to see if this holds true on a second read.
    Finally, just because it bugged me, I want to keep an eye out for clues about the creation of the Curios. We know that they were created by an arms manufacturer (trying to weaponize cuteness or what?). And it mysteriously burned down. And that’s all I can recall reading about it, and it’s bothering me. It’s minor and probably unanswerable, but it’s a fun thing to wonder about.

    • Daryl L. L. Houston July 2, 2020 / 2:38 pm

      I couldn’t quite tell if the voice of Belt changed throughout the novel, but he gives us clear points on when he completed certain sections. I would like to contrast what was written with when he wrote it. The last section will remain a question. When did he write it? What happened to allow him to begin to write again?

      I wound up reading the end with more puzzlement than certainty about how it actually ended. I mean, he does treat her with at least surface kindness and wave rather than ignoring her. Maybe he does go in later, or call her up again later. I’m not especially convinced he does. I guess part of me didn’t want to think he was the jerk it seems like he’s being here, so I chose to be open to more optimistic futures. But then there’s how he treated his dad. Maybe it would in a way have been crueler (if less direct) to sort of lead her on by engaging with her as Belt than to cut bait early (or maybe that sort of thinking would just be convenient self-delusion).

      What the quoted parts of your comment brought to mind for me was: He chose to show us this ending. Are we to take from this fact the idea that he’s ok with or resigned to people thinking he’s a monster? If so, what’re we to make of it? Maybe he’s just a sociopath? Maybe he’s resigned to it? Maybe cruelty and a realization that even 25 years of resisting cruelty only to have Blank meet the end he met left Belt resigned? Maybe there’s a message here (though Levin doesn’t strike me as a particularly messagey or preachy author) about many minor cruelties (I’m looking at you, Twitter) desensitizing even reasonably ok people to the point ultimately that they become ok with perpetrating larger cruelties? I’m not advancing any of these as theories, I’m just thinking aloud, sort of riffing on a thought that your comment brought to mind (thanks for that).

  5. Jeff Anderson July 2, 2020 / 6:04 pm

    This is just a couple small notes rather than a real reply, because I’m tryna get my own post up. ;p

    Your opening what-if reminds me of the most depressing interpretation of the Harry Potter series I’ve ever seen offered: that it’s a record of the imaginings of a boy who’s so abused that he’s forced to spend his nights locked under the stairs with the spiders, so he creates a fantasy world where he’s actually a hero and has people in his life who care about him. (He’s like a sadder, more limited successor to Tommy Westphall.

    And on the funny scotch names: My thought is that just like Bubblegum‘s September 13 is the real world’s 9/11, MacGuffin is (the) Macallan, Ardvag is a profane version of Ardbeg, and Glenfibbly is Glenfiddich.

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