They fuck you up, your mum and dad

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” So opens Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse,” which I’ll quote in full below because it’s short and marvelous:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

It’s a favorite of mine, and I thought about it a lot in this week’s reading, particularly with parents like Clyde Magnet and his mother and Stevie Strumm’s father and grandfather in mind.

Clyde sometimes shows a faint veneer of consideration for Belt, but it generally rings pretty hollow to me. Sure he intended to overload on that cure with Belt as a treat. He didn’t even remember to leave Belt money while off fishing during Belt’s birthday week. At times, he gave off what I took to be a sort of abusive vibe with his comments about “taking it on the chin” and the bullying vibe he directs at Belt about the water glass on pages 86 – 87, where Belt says that with “my father behind me, especially in a hallway, I always felt as though I were about to flinch, and I knew that if I flinched or even seemed to him to be on the verge of flinching, he’d enjoy my flinching… and he’d attempt to make me flinch again and again…” This does not feel like a healthy dynamic. And generally, Clyde’s advice in the book is pretty old-fashioned (though less so when it’s set in the late ’80s) and tending toward being brutish.

(A quick coda regarding Clyde, added after I originally wrote this piece a few days ago and added just prior to publication: At the book club Zoom call last night, the host proposed that Clyde shows love through aggression, and this does sort of hold water for me. I show affection for friends by teasing them, and sometimes that teasing, without full context, could be construed as a little cruel. Maybe Clyde is just sort of old-fashioned, of the toxic masculinity school of parenting, and is unsure how to express positive emotion in a way that doesn’t seem kind of aggressive and off. I still sort of think, based on what we’ve read through this week’s milestone, that this flinchy type behavior is pretty awful, but I think the book club host is probably right and that Clyde isn’t actually as bad as he so far seems. Still, that kind of thing can fuck you up (they may not mean to, but they do), so I’m keeping Clyde on my shit list in spite of my initial over-simplistic read of his behavior.)

Clyde’s mother wasn’t so nice either (but they were fucked up in their turn), sort of bragging to her 12-year-old grandson when he’s just learned that his mother has had a seizure about how she (Grandmother Magnet) brooked no nonsense from a young Clyde of the sort Belt has demonstrated. And then there’s the fact that she took her young grandson to a mobster’s house for an overnighter. This is all very funny, but none of it’s going to win her Grandmother of the Year.

Stevie Strumm’s family tree is composed of at best negligent parents and at least of a purportedly murderous Nazi grandfather.

One can imagine that Jonboat isn’t the greatest of fathers either, though it’s early yet to say, so I may be projecting some of his cruddy youthful behavior onto the adult.

I think most novels deal with parenthood and childhood in some way or another — most of us have at least been the child of a parent — so it’s hard to escape as an essential part of the human experience when writing a book. And I don’t have any profound insights about parenthood or childhood in the book. But I do think there’s more here than just a few displays of crummy parenting.

On page 236, Dr. Manx explains to Belt and his mother that the Botimal will need to be cuddled for a couple of hours per day, which sounds to Belt’s mother like a big commitment. Just a moment before, Belt has asked if he can swap the Botimal for a sugar glider in a month. His next line after Manx explains what’s required to nurture this tiny cuddly creature, which must imprint much as birds do on their parents, is “I want it.” That’s a pretty sudden turnaround.

On the next page, Belt relates a story about a visit with his mother when he was younger to the natural history museum. He had learned that dinosaur models were made sometimes of plastic. This was disillusioning for him, and yet he felt that he must protect his mother from being disappointed in his disillusionment. He compares this phenomenon to another:

I was six or maybe seven years old, and for as long as I was able to remember, I’d pretended that when she blew air on a flesh wound — a bee-stung knee, say, or rugburned elbow — the pain went away. It was important she believe I believed in her magic.

It’s such a tender thing, this protective instinct the child has for the parent. Belt goes on to overcompensate for his disillusionment when they visit the aquarium on that same disappointing day, but it’s clear that his mother doesn’t fall for it; he has failed to make her believe. This is a sad memory for him, his saddest still at the age of 12, in fact, and so ill-equipped is he as a child to separate his own sadness from his mother’s that he thinks it must be her saddest memory too.

After leaving Manx (years after those other museum trips), Belt and his mother go to the Science and Industry museum, where they see chicks hatching from eggs and a wall of fetuses at different stages of development, and this prompts Belt to tell his mother he can’t wait to have a kid:

I said it again in front of week 38, and I saw she was crying. I assumed that she figured I was hamming it up; assumed she’d remembered that time at the Shedd, and that all the authentic enthusiasm I’d shown since we’d arrived a the museum — maybe even since Manx had assigned me the Botimal — now appeared false to her.

Of course I was wrong. The problem was she did buy my excitement for fatherhood. The degree to which I misunderstood was almost comical.

He carries on trying to convince her. The misunderstanding of course (unless I am once again being a doofus and reading simplistically) is that she has just brought her psychotic son from an appointment where they’ve learned that good outcomes for similar patients include maybe being able to do a little for themselves as they head toward middle-age. Being a father is not likely in Belt’s future, she knows, and his clear enthusiasm for doing so no doubt makes her sadder with each of his cheerful reassurances.

In the pages that follow, Belt and his mother watch the Botimal ovum’s progress very carefully, and it looks very much like the anxiety and wonder with which parents-to-be track the progress of their children-to-be.

How many limbs would it have? How many fingers? What color velvet? Would it think it was a person? Would it think I was a Botimal? What was it like to be something’s best friend? Was reciprocity a foregone conclusion? And what if somebody tried to steal it? Wouldn’t somebody try to steal it? What if somebody tried to hurt it? How could I protect it? And when — when exactly — would it hatch?

Although different in some (but not all) of their particulars, these are the obsessions of parents-to-be. And then on page 245, Belt looks for changes in the ovum’s squiggles and finds “three roughly parallel slashes, two green and one blue, across the horn of each anvil.” This sounds an awfully lot like the sorts of signs you look for when reading a pregnancy test.

Belt’s anticipation and hope stand in stark contrast to the pretty lackluster parenting we’ve seen so far in the book, and I wonder if this contrast will begin deeper into the novel to resonate more directly with threads pertaining to sentience and suffering, and with yearning for connection for beings not yourself. At any rate, there seems to be a lot happening early in the book that positions Belt as a nurturer with pretty parental instincts and associations, and I’m curious to see what if anything will come of that.

Bubblegum Book Club Tonight on Zoom

Just now, I was sitting on the couch watching TV and multi-tasking by looking at Facebook on my phone, as one does if one does not live in the world of Bubblegum. I happened to run across — purely via serendipity — a Facebook event page advertising a Zoom call tonight at 7pm Central in which people will be discussing this very book. Levin will be joining after an hour for some Q&A.

I would like to attend, though also I am afraid to attend. I can live with spoilers, but I also like forming my own conclusions about books before being exposed to much more than a light summary of them. So I might attend, or I might not.

But if you’re not sick of Zoom calls already and have an opening in your evening and would like to attend, details are available at the link above. I’d love to hear from anybody who does attend.

Iterating

I used to write code, and when you write code, you talk a lot about iterating. This means that you write an early version that’s not perfect but that sort of works. Then you keep improving it. It’s like revision, in a way.

When this site kicked off officially on Bloomsday of 2009, it was a spur off of the popular Infinite Summer project. There was a fair bit of hype for that project, and we were lucky to sort of cruise along in its slipstream, so we had pretty lively discussion in the comments for that read and some of the ones that followed. I suppose there must have been Reddit or Slashdot or maybe Digg for discussion sites back then, but I think it also wasn’t all that uncommon for people to comment on sites like this. I suspect a lot more people use Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, and even Instagram to discuss things now. But then we stopped discussing books for a few years, the hype died down, and I suspect people moved on to other ways of engaging with the web. Heck, these days a lot is happening on Zoom or Discord.

Before I say more, I’ll say this: What follows is not a complaint, though I worry that it’ll sound a little like one. But it’s not. Hear me out.

I’ve felt a little so far like I’m just broadcasting about Bubblegum. And that’s fine — I’m happy to do it if it’s interesting to whoever’s reading. It’s rewarding to me to read the book carefully and to organize my thoughts about it, and having declared publicly that I’ll do so gives me some useful accountability and helps me read with more focus than I likely would otherwise. So these projects are good for me personally. But I suspect that there are people reading who might have really neat things to contribute, but who aren’t doing so because it seems sort of old-timey to comment on a blog, or there’s a barrier to entry (creating an account, etc.), or this just isn’t their discussion platform of choice.

So I thought maybe it was worth considering iterating on the approach, to see if the bigger community of readers here might engage more if there were a different way to engage. I don’t think I’m super interested in moderating discussions across many different platforms, but if I got the sense that more people might speak up if we opened up discussion elsewhere, I’d consider it. So, if you’re reading along and feel like you might share your insights, questions, etc., if we opened up discussion elsewhere, I’d be grateful if you’d leave a comment, reach out to me at @infinitezombies on Twitter, or send me an email at infinitezombies@gmail.com to let me know how or where you’d be more likely to jump in with your thoughts. We’ve got six more weeks of reading (with the prospect of doing other books in the future if there seems to be interest), and if we can stir up more discussion, I’d love to, as I know it’d enrich my reading further and might do the same for others.

If you’ve just been shy about commenting or wasn’t sure what protocol was, I’d like to encourage you to jump in. Point out things we’ve missed, riff on things we share, reach out to me if you’ve got an idea for a post you’d like to write, and so on. And if you’re really just not interested in discussion but are reading anyway, thanks for reading!

A Hunger Artist

Often enough, I read the epigraphs to books and then pretty quickly forget them or fail to tie them super meaningfully back to the main text. As a device, they seem like heavy things, clues to the meaning of the novel maybe, but I still leave them behind or write them off as puzzles pretty regularly. Sometimes they seem to me almost like inside jokes, meaningful to the author while writing the book or to put a nice little bow on things, but more puzzling than useful to me. Bubblegum has three epigraphs, two of which it’s easy to connect to specific things in the book pretty early.

The quote from King Lear about killing things for sport calls to mind overloading on cures. Cures don’t seem to be that hard to come by, and people consume them like drugs, for entertainment or diversion — you know, for sport.

The quote from Skinner also mentions a fly, so it sort of connects to the Shakespeare epigraph. But the great behaviorist Skinner generally haunts the part of the book in which Belt describes conditioning Blank to perform his gags (though I’ll confess that I wondered if it wasn’t Blank who was conditioning Belt, especially when I thought about my reading of “The Hat Act” and the idea that artist and audience influence the behavior of one another reciprocally). (Have I taught my dog to go to the door when she wants to go outside or has she taught me to take her outside when she goes to the door?)

But what about the quote from Kafka?

The panther was all right.

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Photo courtesy of Jason Liebig at CollectingCandy.com.

That doesn’t seem to connect to anything right away. It seems kind of random. I hadn’t read “The Hunger Artist” in many years. It’s short, so I took a little side trip through the story. In brief, it’s about a man whose job — whose art — is to be put publicly on display starving himself for 40-day periods. He’d like to starve himself for longer than that, but his handler won’t generally allow it. It’s very important to the hunger artist that his audience see that he’s not cheating by sneaking food. He has a sort of integrity as an artist. In the end, he dies, forgotten in his cage, and is replaced by a panther that roars and carries on as if it has a joy for life.

There are several common interpretations of the story. One, which Belt refers to at the end of this week’s reading on page 176, is that the artist was pure and suffered, alone, for his art. Another puts a more religious spin on things, the suffering akin to that of Christ. Yet another, which I lean toward, is that Kafka is poking a little fun at the self-indulgence of artists. The hunger artist takes such care to maintain his artistic integrity, even being sort of ostentatious about it, but nobody’s really interested in that integrity. It doesn’t make his art any better. And toward the end, he reveals that his real reason for starving was that he couldn’t find any food that he liked. That is, his integrity was a sort of self-indulgence disguised as integrity. And he died, and no one cared, and he was replaced by a popular exhibit of a creature with an authentic zeal for life. The panther was all right. Of course, it’s also possible that Kafka, who edited the story from his deathbed while unable to eat thanks to laryngeal tuberculosis, was just very hungry. Kafka was not, by this time, all right.

On page 97, Belt is spending some time in a playground feeling “lonesome and lonely and unimportant,” when the slide strikes up a conversation with him and asks him to try to communicate without speaking aloud, by merely thinking. This is not something Belt has ever been able to do, but he tries. The slide ridicules his effort, describing the communication it received like so:

First there was this field of, like, screechy, pulsing, kind of blindingly fluorescent gray thats hue cooled down until the whole thing resolved into this scene from a traveling circus or carnival. A shiny black panther inside a small cage was pacing and roaring, and people were crowding at the front of the cage, lots and lots of people, a hundred maybe, standing nine- and ten-deep, watching it move, listening to it roar, whistling and cheering and clapping and so on. They couldn’t look away. Then the panther, it reared up on its hind legs and roared so loudly that the image started shaking, and the crowd got even more enthusiastic, and the roar got even louder and that blinding gray field closed in from the edges, blotting everything out, muting the roar, and when the gray cooled down again and resolved, there was no more panther, no more cage, no more crowd…

“You didn’t catch a single word?”

||There was one wordy moment, right at the beginning, during the panther part. Some voice in the crowd said, |Ma, what’s it mean?| and then another voice responded, |It’s saying, ||I’m freeeeee! I’m freeee! I’m free-ee-ee!|| Isn’t that beautiful?|…||

I noted this passage and its probable connection to the epigraph when I first read it, but only when getting to page 176 with the explicit reference to Kafka’s story (which I then reread) did what seemed like a sort of non sequitur on the part of the slide about a panther (for this is essentially a retelling of the end of Kafka’s story) seem a little less random.

Belt makes his reference to the story on page 176 in passing, as he describes looking back at his own novel and Triple-J’s misinterpretation of it. But if we take epigraphs to signify important things about the work, then we should not take the reference in passing. We’re early yet in the book, so it’s early to come to any big conclusions. I do have some questions, though, and rather than writing a full-on interpretive essay here, I think I’ll end on some questions this whole little side quest brings to mind. Maybe one will catch your eye and you’ll have thoughts, or more questions, and we can take them up together in the comments.

If you’ve read “A Hunger Artist,” what’s your interpretation of it? Do you make anything of the epigraph based on what we’ve read so far of Bubblegum?

I’m really stuck on this idea of artist/audience reciprocity that Levin seems to me to be pointing to in the reference to “The Hat Act” and now “A Hunger Artist” (both about performances). There are echoes of this reciprocity and escalation in Belt’s account of his destruction of the Feather swingset, as the kids go into a frenzy, hand him an ax and rally him onward, influencing his performance and its escalation. Is this a theme? Am I reaching here?

The slide seems maybe to have access to Belt’s memory stream. It seems to be tapping into his recollection of the panther in Kafka’s story and possibly also into something — though something a little fractured — about the glass of water Belt writes about on page 174, which in turn maybe connects to the weird episode with Clyde and the glass of water on the table on page 86. Is this a curiosity or is it significant? Maybe I’m seeing something that’s not really there?

Levin is doing a lot with interpretation and the influence of lived experience on authorship in the late part of this week’s reading. Is this just some sort of metafictional authorial navel-gazing or might it be significant with respect to the stuff in the book about empathy (with cures and inans at least)?

Are the epigraphs Belt’s (as this document we’re reading is purportedly his memoir) or Levin’s? Does that change what and how they mean?

Marks and Meaning

This week’s reading brings us up to page 81, and boy is there a lot of stuff one could chomp into here — behaviorism, reliability of the narrator, stories within stories, the difference between aloneness and loneliness, what we mean by sentience, fun with names, comparison with certain other authors to whom I plan largely not to compare Levin during this read, and a fair few others. But what I’m going to focus on for my first post proper about Bubblegum is Levin’s use of marks on the page.

First, I want to look back at Levin’s first novel, The Instructions, in which he in several places uses words to form pictures. These word pictures grow more and more elaborate as the book goes on, but here’s a simple one from the first half of the book:

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I mention this to establish that Levin seems to be willing to use words and letters to signify more than the simple words that stream along the mental ticker tape that plays in our heads when we read. In this picture, Levin uses words to create physical models of what they represent rather than merely abstract symbols that our brains translate for us into their physical referents.

I have not yet run into anything quite so concrete in Bubblegum, but having seen this sort of concrete poetry in Levin’s past work, I was primed to think about Levin’s use of marks on the page in Bubblegum as more than the simple utility dots and strokes that I think we usually take them for.

The first that really caught my eye occurs on page 4:

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We see here three dots that, if connected, would form an isosceles triangle, right? I didn’t think so. The rightmost dot looked just a little closer to the top dot than the leftmost did. I didn’t measure the distances initially, but I marked the dots in my book to remind me to come back to them later. I wondered if the configuration of the dots might change somehow as the book went on and be imbued thus with some sort of meaning. So far, they seem to’ve kept this same configuration. I did wind up breaking out a ruler and measuring the distances later, and indeed the rightmost dot is closer to the top dot than the leftmost dot is, by just a little bit. But what does it mean? I have no idea. Belt on page 52 describes his Cure as a single-legged triped. Does this little three-dot section-divider represent something like the points Blank’s “peds” would make when it stands on all three of its limbs? Whether or not that’s the idea, why the subtle difference in distance?

The next close attention to marks in the book is the argument between Belt and Jonboat about commas and hyphens in the phrase they plan to ink onto tee-shirts:

I, however, was of the opinion that, absent “gaylord,” the comma should be restored to its original position between “piehole” and “cakeface,” whereas Jonboat claimed restoring it would ruin the shirt. He said that, first of all, with a comma before “cakeface,” the shirt would have to be considered “officially punctuated,” which would require a period be placed after “cakeface,” not to mention a colon, if not another comma, after “Jonboat Say,” and quotation marks around the catchphrase itself, i.e….

This, believed Jonboat, was more punctuation than a t-shirt could abide… But I did suggest that a hyphen be placed between “piehole” and “cakeface”… Jonboat wasn’t sure. He thought a  hyphen might suggest “official punctuation,” giving rise to the problem that ditching the comma had already solved. Then again, it might not. A hyphen might be more like a spelling thing — more like an apostrophe.

I’ve cut out a fair bit here, and the two boys talk about it further later. Later still, on page 50, Belt explains that he has taken some liberties in his reproduction of conversations he has had with Lotta and Chad-Kyle:

I’ve reported Lotta saying what she said the first way rather than reporting it the second or third way not because the first way seems to me to more accurately depict what Lotta said or who Lotta is than do the second or third way, but because all three seem to me to be highly and equally accurate depictions and, to my ear at least, the first way sounds better (it’s more in keeping with the rhythm of the paragraph from which I’ve excerpted it, and it comes across more clearly with regard to pronouns) than the second or third way.

So, Belt via Levin is paying special attention to how he puts things on the page, to how the arrangement of the marks on the page sort of regulates the flow of the ticker tape of meaning. The how of the saying is as important as the why to Belt, the way you hear it in your own private head as important as what what you hear means.

Belt’s mention here of pronouns takes me back to page 3, when a word in the second sentence caught my attention: “The piehole thats shutting he’d demand was rarely mine, though.” We’re accustomed to using “whose” as an inanimate possessive pronoun, or using something twisted like “The piehole of which he spoke of the shutting of was rarely mine, though.” We don’t know it yet when we get to this 23rd word of the novel, but there’s a lot of meaning in this weird “thats.” It’s as if Belt is sort of promoting the inanimate by giving them a real pronoun of their own, calling attention to the lack of one and thus, perhaps, to their sort of second-class status. When later we learn that Belt not only talks to inanimate objects but pities them, tries to help them — in short that he treats them as if they are sentient — his use of this odd new possessive pronoun makes pretty good sense.

The use of a whole new pronoun is a bit of a digression from the use of individual utility marks, which I’ll return to now.

On page 38, Levin introduces the || and | marks as substitutes for double and single quotation marks when inans speak to Belt. It makes a certain amount of sense. Belt tells us that they communicate directly into his brain. Why not indicate this via weird punctuation marks? Well, sure, I guess. But there are plenty of books in which people think to themselves (direct in-brain communication) and in which that thinking is written using regular old quotation marks or italics. I suppose there aren’t as many books in which inanimate objects communicate directly in-brain via something called a gate, though. Maybe that merits the use of a different mark. When I first ran across these marks on page 38, I jotted in the margin the word “caesura,” which is the name given to a big pause in the middle of a line of poetry. When marking the rhythm of poetry, you use the || to indicate where a caesura falls. Maybe Belt via Levin chose this mark to indicate some sort of mental pause bookending the injection of the inans’ communication into Belt’s brain. Or maybe he just wanted to use a different set of marks to set them off more starkly.

The final mark I’ll mention is one that’s missing. Belt’s book No Please Don’t should have a comma after “No.” I’m not just being picky about grammar myself here. Belt has demonstrated from as far back as middle school that he is a person who thinks about correct punctuation and punctuation’s influence on how you’d speak a phrase. He is also not stingy with commas on the whole. This title demands a pause — a caesura — after its “No.” It’s hard to imagine that the Belt who argued with Jonboat over commas and hyphens or the Belt who deliberated over the rhythm he used to relate Lotta’s telling of a story would omit the comma here. But he does.

While I don’t have a clear thesis about this stuff, I think there is an assumption I can acknowledge: that marks on the page that we don’t think of as signifiers themselves are  easy to not pay much attention to or assign much value to. They are utilitarian in that they help us navigate what we’re reading, offering pacing, rhythm, boundaries, and so on. But they are not, in general, the point.

To stretch a bit, I’ll suggest that the same is true of things like book jackets, which draw you in but then become largely an annoyance. My Bubblegum jacket sits limply now on a pile of neglected books on my nightstand, as I don’t want to have to fool with it as I lug the book around from room to room. A couple of people mentioned in comments here wondering if a faint whiff of bubblegum smell was real or imagined. Levin confirmed in a conversation on the podcast The Great Concavity that the jacket had been made with a heat-activated scent. The slight warmth of your hands on the jacket causes the jacket to smell faintly of bubblegum (the warmth of your skin in the world of Bubblegum also happens to keep cures alive). It’s kind of marvelous. And it also, to me, works as sort of a functional rhyme with some of what’s happening with the various marks I’ve made note of here. ||Attend more closely,|| these things seem to say to me, ||things that do not usually garner much attention are more significant than you think.||

On page 44, Belt says a fair bit about the phenomenon of his destruction of the Feathers swingset:

There were writers who insisted in their Herald op-eds that the swingsets functioned as symbolic metaphors of juvenescence… And I don’t know — maybe. But to me, those explanations seemed overblown… I think it was probably all a lot simpler. I think the aesthetic pleasures of watching a boy destroy a swingset were vastly underrated by our town’s editorialists. I think those kids found the act to be beautiful — not its “meaning” (at least not so much its “meaning”), but what the act looked like, sounded like, felt like…. And what I’m getting at is that while the “meaning” of a group of children standing around to watch a boy murder a swingset with a bat might not be much, if any different from the “meaning” of a group of children standing around to watch a boy murder a swingset with an ax, the experience of seeing the boy use a bat differs markedly from that of seeing the boy use an ax.

On pages 21 – 24, Belt mediates on bubblegum, its function and its meaning.

I still wasn’t sure Dubble Bubble stood for anything. I still wasn’t sure what I wanted it to stand for.

This feels pretty familiar to me. I have no tidy thesis here, but part of me wants to make an airtight case that calling our attention to easily-skipped-over marks on the page causes us to treat these marks, in a way, as Belt treats inans — giving them attention, engaging with them as items worth engaging with, and that in doing so, Levin is writing a book whose form at times sort of mirrors the content. Pope played with this in his “Essay on Criticism“, using a long slow Alexandrine (twelve syllables, alternating unstressed and stressed, with a caesura in the middle) to demonstrate how an Alexandrine could be long and slow:

A needless Alexandrine ends the song,
That, like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along.

Pope writes several similar lines in which the content demonstrates the precept he’s sharing (soft, whispery sounds in a line about the blowing wind, for example). Maybe Levin is doing something similar, giving marks on the page we would usually skim over more significance, as Belt grants inans and cures more significance and even a sort of sentience.

Or maybe he’s just playing around. Maybe I’m looking for significance where there is none. Still, it’s fun. Whether there’s meaning in these things or not, the possibility of meaning, the experience of reading a book that allows me to try to tease these sorts of things out, has so far been rewarding.

The Hat Act

I’m going to cheat just the tiniest bit here on the schedule and mention something from the end of the first week’s reading, on page 75. It’s not especially spoilery — indeed I’m not really going to write about Bubblegum very much at all — and I think it might help sort of set the table a little. If you’ve read anything about Bubblegum, you’ve likely read that the book does a bit with metafiction. Levin’s first lengthy novel, The Instructions, has been compared to work by Pynchon, Gaddis, Barth, Wallace — you know, the big writers of metafictional and postmodern bricks (we’ve written about books by three of them here; maybe we should add Barth to the list at some point). It is no stretch to imagine that Levin might continue in a similar vein in Bubblegum.

Cue on page 75 the mention of a story called “The Hat Act” by Robert Coover, another of the grandsires of metafiction. I didn’t remember this story, but it turns out that I had read it some years ago in Coover’s collection Pricksongs and Descants, which I happen still to own a copy of. I unshelved the book and gave the story a read.

Coover’s story starts with a sort of a mise en scène:

In the middle of the stage: a plain table.

A man enters, dressed as a magician with black cape and black silk hat. Doffs hat in wide sweep to audience, bows elegantly.

Applause.

From there it escalates, alternating between magician and audience reaction, with the magician doing increasingly impossible things and the audience amping up its response, booing when things go wrong, catcalling the magician’s assistant, and so on as the magician’s act, which starts with a simple rabbit-out-of-a-hat trick, becomes increasingly impressive and ultimately troubling and unsatisfying.

It doesn’t take much imagination to suggest that Coover is here writing about writing, about how you try to do all these neat tricks to write something new and unconventional, and the more fantastic your tricks the more you must continue to amp up the tricks and the greater the demands of the audience until ultimately everyone winds up in a panic or a snit and is, in the end, unsatisfied somehow. Such a lack of imagination does it take to suggest as much that I suspect it’s a facile reading of the story and that more is going on here than I’ve got the smarts to detect.

Facile or not as a reading of Coover’s work, I still think it’s worthwhile to keep this little reference and context in mind as you wade into Levin’s book. He is a writer working within, or maybe trying to work beyond (I don’t know yet), a tradition that itself seeks to inspect and play with traditions. Levin includes the reference at a point in his narrative at which it is especially fruitful to think about signal and noise, call and response, action and reaction, actor and acted-upon, interpretation and misinterpretation. It’s very clever and feels pretty richly layered to me.

All of which is to say here as I wrap up this first post proper that — acknowledging first that I’m only 81 pages into a nearly-800-page book and that there are acres of room for me to be off base here — I think it’ll be useful to think in particular, as we read, about things like who is manipulating whom. Is it more interesting that the magician creates the audience’s response or that the audience’s response influences the magician’s actions? What does this mean about Levin as an author, and about us as readers, and about us as readers responding to one another’s writing about this book that seems to be responding in part to other work? How should we (or should we even) think about this stuff with respect to how we exist in the world? When reading a book set in a world (mild spoiler, but again, if you’ve read a blurb for this book, you know this already) without the internet, how should we (or should we even) think about this stuff with respect to how we exist in a world in which so many of us live staring at these little mechanical devices hooked up to a vast network of call and response, action and reaction, tweet and subtweet, and so on? I don’t know. Maybe it’s a throw-away reference, a little shibboleth winking at metafiction without all the import I’m here assigning it. But maybe not. We’ll see as we go. Turning it over in my mind has been a pretty fun exercise at any rate, and I’m enjoying the book a lot so far.

Bubblegum Timeline

My copy of Bubblegum arrived today, and I’ve had a chance to flip through it and come up with a timeline for reading it. I figure that about 100 pages a week should be doable, and the book breaks down fairly neatly into sections of about that length. Here’s what I propose:

Date Read Through Page
May 11 81
May 18 176
May 25 282
June 1 377
June 8 476
June 15 583
June 22 660
June 29 767

That means it’s fair game to write or comment about the first 81 pages on May 11, the first 176 on May 18, and so on. I’m not going to worry too much about spoilers, but I suppose it’d be a kindness to readers sticking close to this pace to avoid any huge or far-future spoilers as we write about and discuss the book.

If you’re planning to write posts along with me and have done so here in the past, your account should still let you do so. If you’ve not written here in the past and would like to, send me a note at infinitezombies at gmail or comment here and I’ll be in touch. Anyone of course is welcome — indeed encouraged — to comment. The more ideas we toss around in the comments, the more I think we’ll get out of the book.

The schedule’s not set in stone, so if you’re a would-be writer and this simply won’t work for you, let me know. I’m open to making some adjustments over the next few days. Otherwise, I’m looking forward to kicking things off in earnest the week of May 11.