A Couple Conversations I Wish We Could Have Had

Zombies are still around the day after, right? Or at least still have their notifications on?

I think for me the reading schedule Daryl set for Bubblegum was just about perfect. But the trade-off I always find myself making in timeline-governed reads like this is that I often have a hard time making time to write more than one post in a week. (Hell, I haven’t even managed to finish all of these that I’ve participated in.) And with the kinds of books we read here, there’s more than one thing in a week worth talking about!

To that end, I wanted to drop a little note here with a couple thoughts I never had the chance (or I guess made the opportunity) to air with the group, in case anybody else has anything to say about them.

I know we were mostly or all struck by the ventriloquizing in “Jonboat Speaks.” Knowing, as we do in retrospect, that it was Belt’s words, I’m even more intrigued by this bit from about page 613:

The only real effort I ever spent on you was on resisting the occasional urge I felt to kick the shit out of you. The urge to kick the shit out of you for being so needy and weak and available to harm. I didn’t quite understand where that urge came from, but I knew it was universal. Not just among the other kids at our school, and not just toward you—I’m not trying to be insulting—but toward every being like you in every kind of social circle in every last species of the animal kingdom. Herd, pack, murder, flock. Universal, this occasional urge.

So Belt understands bullying, although he universalizes it (at least he has Jonboat universalize it), which I know we’d all like to hope is inaccurate. How closely does that urge that he describes here line up with cure overload? It feels like the text is making an inexact association between Belt and cures, but I note that the characteristics the urge is attributed to—”being so needy and weak and available to harm”—don’t include cuteness, which is apparently the key factor in overload.

And speaking of cuteness! It’s canonically registered in juvenile features: the more something resembles certain characteristics of human babies especially (big eyes, high foreheads, short noses, small chins), the cuter it is usually judged to be. Those features are a part of neoteny in humans (Rob, copyediting note for you: the Kindle version, at least, has neotonic and neotony where it should have neotenic and neoteny), which means that compared to other primates, our somatic maturation is slow relative to our sexual maturation. This is not a common word! But it was introduced to us by the axolotl poster in Dr. Kleinstadt’s office. (Axolotls are a standard example of neoteny.) How does that play with the fact that cures actually grow cuter as they age? There’s almost a kind of hyper-neoteny in play there, and I don’t know what it means.

I’m also curious about something that I’m pretty sure would take an actual academic article to work all the way out, but I’d love to hear if anybody has anything to say about it. Here we go: Is there a relationship between Bubblegum and New Sincerity? That’s a contested term, actually (I found a dissertation that gave me a lot to think about); but one very relevant use of it is to describe what we might broadly and therefore imprecisely call the Wallace/Franzen/Eggers nexus of literature. Not comfortable yet concluding whether or how much I think Bubblegum is or isn’t connected to New Sincerity. But what sparked the thought was some feeling of relevance, and the germ of an idea that if the novel is to some extent related but resistant to New Sincerity, Belt’s thought processes—his tortured and spiraling efforts to achieve total transparency—could be dramatizing that affinity and conflict.

And I guess I still owe y’all a post about conceptual art!

One thought on “A Couple Conversations I Wish We Could Have Had

  1. Daryl L. L. Houston July 3, 2020 / 11:31 pm

    I’m right there with you in terms of picking what to write about and leaving so much behind. There’ve been whole big things I felt like I could just about have written monographs about but left behind because I wanted to return to something else shiny and had only so much time in the week to focus on this stuff. A sort of potluck post works for me.

    The thing to me about Belt’s ventriloquism here is that it’s like being between a pair of mirrors in a way. He’s imagining sort of the worst about what Jonboat may be thinking. But he takes it to such extremes that he’s sort of showing us the worst about himself. But surely it’s based on some of his history with Jonboat (the clothing as peace offering was pretty dickish, for example). But doesn’t the extreme to which Belt takes it show that his capacity for thinking this stuff goes far beyond anything Jonboat ever actually did or said? And doesn’t that say an awfully lot about Belt? It just keeps bouncing back and forth between these infinity mirrors for me as I try to figure out again who’s the real asswipe and how these projections and insinuations reflect any external reality vs. how they reflect Belt’s capacity for imagining cruelty.

    So caught up was I in this little infinity and the shock at what I thought Jonboat was saying that it didn’t even occur to me to correlate this neediness and weakness and availability to harm (what a phrase) as a link between Belt and cures. But there it is. I’m glad you saw it and pointed it out here.

    Your notes about neoteny and the reversal sort of blew my mind. I don’t really have anything useful to add. The useless thing I’ll add is just sort of a fanciful and idle pointer to Dorian Gray. It’s not quite parallel since if I recall correctly, age and beauty in his case are stalled rather than reversed; still, there’s this sort of cost on the back end. With cures too there’s this tendency over time toward extreme desirability, but its cost is the perpetration of extreme and systemic cruelty. I don’t know then what to make of Fondajane, who has presumably also grown more desirable with the various modifications she’s had made but who seems to’ve suffered little enough for it. I don’t think there’s a coherent thesis here, but your notes sent me idly down this path.

    I’ve heard the term New Sincerity often enough but haven’t ever dug real deep and don’t know how well equipped I am to say much intelligible, but I’ll offer an observation or two at least. First, I think we have some good and proper sincerity in the little epistolary bits of the novel. Annie and Clyde’s letters are about as sincere without being saccharine as I can imagine anything being. And they are highlights of the book for me. Belt’s efforts toward transparency (and similar things, which I’m guilty of myself sometimes, I’m a little ashamed to say) strike me as performed sincerity. That’s not to say that they’re not sincere in their way. But I think that going to great pains to perform that sort of sincerity can wind up being sort of self-indulgent and can wind up meaning more like “I want you to believe that I am sincere about X and to admire me for that sincerity” than “I am sincere about X.” Wallace confronted this some in (at least) Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by showing us some guys playing sincere to get laid. Belt’s transparency isn’t quite the same, but performed sincerity seems like a related species, if not quite so nasty a species. I suppose that in BIWHM, there is irony at play because these men aren’t saying what they really mean. Still, there’s a performative element to that that seems present in and maybe kin to Belt’s efforts at transparency. It’s not my sense that New Sincerity is anything like a project for Levin, but I do think it’s useful to think about the affinity and conflict you mention.

    I’ll await with eagerness a post on conceptual art.

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