Octavia Butler

A few weeks ago, I asked about spinning up another group read, and based on the comments and my own interests, I’ve decided to host a group read of some Octavia Butler books, Kindred, Parable of the Sower, and Parable of the Talents. I read the second of these a few years ago and felt pretty meh about it, enough so that I didn’t read the follow-up. I’ve not read Kindred. My hope is that by reading these along with you smart folks, I’ll learn what I missed in Parable of the Sower and make sure I give the other two a fair shake.

Pictured above are the editions I’ll be using, but each is broken up conveniently into sections and subsections, so it shouldn’t matter too much which edition you get. Any who have written here before are most welcome to do so again. If you’ve not written here before but think you could add a neat perspective, please reach out to me in the comments or at infinitezombies at gmail. I would love particularly to include the perspective of a person or people of color (generally, not just for these books!).

If there’s interest at some point in a discussion via Zoom, perhaps we could do that (I’m sure we all need more Zoom in our lives), but I’ll play that by ear. I might also set up a Discord server if a few people express interest in such a thing.

Here’s a proposed reading schedule:

March 1, 2021KindredRead through “The Fall”
March 8, 2021KindredRead “The Fight”
March 15, 2021KindredFinish the book
March 22, 2021Parable of the SowerRead 2024 and 2025
March 29, 2021Parable of the SowerRead 2026 – 2027 (through ch. 18)
April 5, 2021Parable of the SowerFinish (2027 ch. 19 – end)
April 12, 2021Parable of the TalentsRead 2032
April 19, 2021Parable of the TalentsRead 2033
April 26, 2021Parable of the TalentsRead 2035 through ch. 18 (2034 is skipped, apparently)
May 3, 2021Parable of the TalentsRead 2035 ch. 19 – end

If anybody more familiar with the books than I am suggests that that schedule is too ambitious or moves along too slowly, I may adjust it. Dates are the dates by which I’ll figure it’s safe to write spoilers about the given sections.

Hope to see y’all as we dive in come March. If you’ll be reading along and have the means and a local or independent book shop you can patronize, please do. Bezos is doing just fine without us.

Another Round?

Let’s imagine that in a few weeks or months, I felt game to host another group read here. And let’s say that I wanted the selected book to introduce greater diversity of authorship here than we’ve had to date. What might we read? Who among you would come along for the ride? How much do we care about reading big long books vs. shorter books?

My preference is to read something I haven’t read before, literary (probably, but not necessarily, fiction [but also probably not nonfiction prose]), ideally by someone still living. Some ideas, not all of which honor those constraints:

These are just a few I’ve been thinking about reading. I’m open to other ideas. Some obvious living omissions (given the general tendency of my list) such as Jemisin and Whitehead and Adichie and Coates are missing because I’ve read their work pretty recently and am not quite ready to dip back in yet, though I could likely be convinced to.

What do you think? Might you join in on another read? Does anything listed above appeal to you? Do you have other suggestions (preferably ones that break the chain of white men we’ve read to date)? I’m just noodling on this for now, and whether/what I host another read soon depends pretty much entirely on apparent interest and input in the comments, so do speak up if you’re game.

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.

Who’s the Asswipe?

There are two things I want to touch on for this week’s reading. The first is asswipery. Clyde repeatedly and affectionately calls his friend Herb an asswipe, but it’s not Clyde or Herb I’ve got in mind. It’s Belt and Jonboat.

Many years ago, I wrote a thing about basically insecurity and envy in which through comic hyperbole I characterized this imaginary person who was good at everything, likable, ambitious, kind and generous and even actually heroic, and so on. They could do no wrong. Thinking about myself next to this fictive person — who I suppose must have had some elements stolen from personalities of people I did truly admire — made me feel pretty cruddy, as I felt when thinking of myself next to these purloined personalities. And the point of the exercise was to think through this feeling very positive about successful, good people and simultaneously feeling like I was warmed-over sewage by comparison, which led to a little paradox of both admiring and — well, the word “hating” is rather strong for it, but I’ll say hating or feeling a sort of misanthropic envy of them.

This is sort of how I feel about Jonboat. He was an entitled teenager, sure, but it’s not so uncommon for teenagers to be kind of shitty. So I went into this week’s reading not really prepared to like him very much out of envy if nothing else, with his ridiculous compound, his sirenesque wife and their ridiculous banter, his goddamn obnoxious leather loafers and flower-print board shorts and rolled linen sleeves, his immense wealth and disturbing (if in some ways also sort of likable) son, his career as a record-setting astronaut, his jet-setting. Everything leading up to the meeting with him really telegraphs that he’s probably an entitled jerk. And, well, there is a bit of that — the name-dropping and insufferable telling of tales about King Hussein and Chuck Yeager, his showing off of the helmet. But then, these are noteworthy achievements and engagements and souvenirs. The human body is a horrifying biological hellscape sloughing off skin and filth, so I wouldn’t want to wear his helmet as Jonboat invites so many other people to do, but it’d be neat to see it, maybe to heft it. And he does seem genuinely to feel affection for Trip and Fondajane. He regrets things like his childhood use of the term gaylord. Maybe he’s not such a bad guy. Maybe my instinct to dislike him is just projected envy of a basically good person.

But then he really goes off on Belt about the incomprehensibility to Belt of their income disparity. For ten pages he spews vitriol in one of the most condescending rants I can recall ever having read. Dickishness confirmed.

Only then it turns out that this is what Belt took away from an arched eyebrow, the signing of a check, and a simple question. And maybe Belt’s not so terribly wrong about Jonboat’s sentiment toward him. Jonboat does a couple of times try to run him off, for example. And Jonboat did uncharitably misread Belt’s book and didn’t respond to his letters. But boy, the viciousness of Belt’s interpretation here, the lengths to which Belt went to make me think Jonboat a colossal asswipe makes me begin to rethink how I feel about Belt.

I’ve liked Belt so far. He’s kind of a dud who as Jeff points out can be tough to live inside the head of. But he’s also thoughtful, generally not on the cruelty-to-cures bandwagon, and goodness knows he’s trying here. But now here suddenly I don’t know if I like Belt so much after all. Maybe he was writing about Jonboat in No Please Don’t. Maybe what have seemed mostly like petty aggressions (e.g. Pang) signify a greater pathology of personality. Maybe, that is, Belt is the asswipe.

In any case, we see this sort of symmetry of toxic assumption on the part of both Jonboat and Belt. Jonboat read Belt’s book in the worst possible way. Belt received Jonboat’s gesture somehow in worse than the worst possible way. Maybe everybody is an asswipe.

The second thing I wanted to touch on is that Belt seems maybe at last to be growing up. I wrote a few weeks ago about Belt’s mom’s sadness at Belt’s optimism about having kids next to her probable assumption that he would never be self-sufficient enough to function as an autonomous adult capable of having children.

In this section, Belt begins to grow up after sort of reckoning with his own childhood friend (after having had sort of a play date with that friend’s child and that child’s surrogate mother, complete with snacks, games, and TV). He earns an income. He does taxes, makes much more adultish banking transactions than the one early in the book, gets his driver’s license, buys a car, and starts seeing a woman. He hangs out with grown-ups and buys fancy (and hilariously named) booze. And he seems pretty capable of doing all of this without, apparently, much assistance.

While undergoing some of this development, he begins to leave behind his relationship to Blank. Whose name is Kablankey. Which sounds a lot like blankie. Which is a thing little kids hang onto and finally let go of as they begin to be big kids. Maybe I’m leaning too much on a word game here. Still, whether the blankie thing holds water or not, there is in this section what seems to me to be a very rapid growing up of a heretofore stunted (if eloquent and complicated) character, which makes me wonder whether it might be fruitful to begin thinking of Bubblegum as essentially a stalled bildungsroman.

A Chat with the Author

I’ve reached out to Levin and asked if he’d be willing to engage with our little Infinite Zombies community somehow, and in fact he is. This is pretty neat, as we’ve always read dead people before, and here we have an opportunity to chat directly with the author.

On July 2 at 8pm Eastern, I’ll host a Zoom call in which Levin will read a selection from Bubblegum and then field questions.

I’ll share the Zoom link in a comment the day of the event on this post, via the @infinitezombies Twitter account, and in an event I’ll create on the IZ Facebook page. So, get Zoom on your phone or computer and I’ll hope to see you at the first ever live IZ event. If you do think you’ll be able to make it, I’d love to hear from you so that I can get an idea of whether it’ll wind up being just me awkwardly asking Levin about the weather after I run out of simpleton questions about punctuation and the anxiety of influence or whether we’ll have a pretty good turnout.

I don’t plan to record the event. I don’t like being recorded myself and don’t feel comfortable asking others to let me record them to memorialize their off-the-cuff comments forever on the internet.

I’m really looking forward to meeting a few IZ folks face-to-face and of course am also curious what selection Levin’ll choose to read and eager to be part of what (if the prior event is any indication) I imagine’ll be a pretty neat conversation.

Remembrance of Things Past

There is a lot going on in this week’s reading, and there were two big things I especially wanted to touch on, though I feel like I could write about a hundred pages on this section alone.

The first thing answers the question I posed last week: Why did Levin spend 12% of the book on the film transcript? It turns out that it’s vital to this big ambitious project Triple-J is doing that Belt has signed on to help with. Rob commented on my post last week that he was confused by the stark difference in writing style between what we’ve seen of Triple-J’s work before and the style of the transcript. Rob went on to say that he couldn’t see how Trip was the author of the descriptions. And, well, it seems very likely he’s right. It’s not confirmed yet, but by this week’s reading milestone, Belt is on the cusp of signing the contract to write the descriptions, and unless something goes sideways in the meeting with Jonboat and the notary, it seems likely that this transcript is Belt’s work (he received the film and not the transcript, recall). And suddenly the transcript is relevant not only because it deals with cures and with this heretofore minor character but because it is Belt’s work. Further, it becomes important not merely as documentation of cure abuse (indeed sort of explicitly not as documentation of abuse as abuse) but of Belt’s big artistic project — it is intentionally an ekphrasis designed as part of the art itself to aid in distribution that Trip thinks will further his project.

So that’s that. I could say a lot more about Trip’s project and the conversations about it in this week’s reading. Books that talk about art really ring my cherries, so normally I would latch onto this bit a lot harder. But instead, I’m going to turn to something probably more trivial and the rabbit hole it sent me down.

Back in week one, I focused on little things like punctuation and the strange dots separating subsections of the book. And during the Zoom book club after which Levin engaged in a delightful conversation with the handful of attendees, the question of these dots came up. Levin declined to explain the significance of the dots or their slightly-off spacing, I presume to do us the kindness of not spoiling what became suddenly clear in this week’s reading.

Belt describes the scene of his arrival at Jonboat’s compound 25 years earlier, ending with the spitting out of gum wads by three of Jonboat’s pals. This section is followed on page 501 by the three dots and a new section whose (thats) opening describes Belt’s recent arrival at the compound and which I’ll quote:

A quarter-century later, when I showed up for brunch, the spat gum was still there, in the middle of the cul-de-sac, three black near-circular stains on the pavement before which I paused, overcome by a memory, a long-lost memory: first sensory, then narrative: a breathtaking recollection of my mother. Of my mother in profile. My mother’s left temple. She’d had a trio of birthmarks (that’s what she’d called them — my father’d called them beauty spots, I’d called them freckles) that you could see only one of unless she tied her hair back. Like those gum stains, her birthmarks were arrayed in such a way that, were you to connect them — as I (I suddenly remembered) once had; I’d used an eyebrow pencil — they’d form an obtuse, scalene triangle.

The dots do signify something! I lacked the memory of basic geometry to call the triangle formed by the dots a scalene triangle when I wrote about them, but I recalled enough to know that they did not form an isosceles triangle. This visual correspondence to a thing in the book connecting past to present and Belt to mother was thrilling to me.

It also made all kinds of sirens go off. I had never read Swann’s Way (the opening book of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, or In Search of Lost Time depending on the translation) until the last year or two. Honestly, I found it a bit of a snooze, even if some of the opening bits at least were lyrical and evocative. I don’t remember much of it (heh), but something about the setup Levin gives us here brought the “Overture” chapter of Proust’s book right to mind. I re-skimmed that opening chapter alongside my manic annotations of this portion of Bubblegum and found a number of things that feel an awfully lot like correspondences, or very happy coincidences. Page numbers to Proust’s book given below refer to this edition.

I do want to be careful to say that I’m ascribing no intent to Levin here. Maybe he’s intentionally looking back to Proust and maybe he’s not. Either way, I went back to Proust, and reading the two together enriched the reading of both books for me. And this is a marvel. This sort of thing is one of the things I love most about reading.

I feel a little bit like somebody hunting down conspiracy theories when I do this sort of inter-textual comparison, but here goes anyway, more a list of things I noticed than any sort of analysis.

Dramatization of me reading these two selections.

The most obvious correspondence is that we’re dealing here with childhood memories of mothers. Proust’s young Marcel longed for his mother’s goodnight kisses and has what started as a sort of traumatic experience of being denied these kisses while company was visiting that then turned into a lovely evening of motherly tenderness. Belt too recalls a tender, intimate moment with his mother in which she allows him to connect her birthmarks with an eyebrow pencil.

But more than that, both books show us sudden recollections many years later, provoked by very specific vaguely culinary things — in Belt’s case, it’s the titular bubblegum, in Marcel’s a petite madeleine dipped in tea. And in both, the memory begins as a sensory memory and shifts to a more narrative one.

This week’s reading opens with Belt waking and talking to his pillow. In the opening of Swann’s Way, Marcel writes about waking and drowsing in and out of dreams and memories. He mentions his pillow (a weak connection and an obvious object to mention in a passage about sleeping and waking, I know; it’s not nearly as significant as Belt’s conversation with his own pillow).

Marcel tells us about a magic lantern he had as a child that when placed upon his lamp projected scenes he could flip through and enjoy but which also left him feeling sort of uncomfortable because of how bathing the room in these scenes disrupts the familiar context of his bedroom. Belt watches Trip’s series of scenes and feels, he says, compromised because he had enjoyed parts of the film (the cuteness of the cures) “independent of its context, independent of its cause” (494).

Marcel’s grandmother is a bit of a hard-ass. So is Belt’s.

Marcel and Belt too share at times a discursiveness and obsessiveness of thought. But what writerly character doesn’t?

Young Marcel upsets his mother’s expectations of him by first sending an unsolicited note to her and then lurking in the hall only to be caught. He fears that he has “committed a sin so deadly that [he] expected to be banished from the household” (40). But his father shows some unexpected generosity and tells Mamma to stay with him for the night — “a far greater concession than I could ever have won as the reward of a good deed” (40). Belt’s sin too seems bigger to him perhaps than to us. He has failed to watch Trip’s film and twists himself up about it a little obsessively, as Marcel does about his sin. But Belt too is rewarded unexpectedly in spite of his sin, with a very lucrative contract.

Both young men give consideration to the impact of their actions on their mothers, whose approval they seek. Marcel’s bedtime indiscretion leaves him feeling that he “had with an impious and secret finger traced a first wrinkle upon her soul and brought out a first white hair on her head” (41). This called to mind for me Belt’s concern for his mother’s feelings about his disappointment in various museum exhibits and his urge to protect her from his disillusionment.

When describing his mother’s reading aloud, Marcel says the following on page 46:

She found, to tackle them in the required tone, the warmth of feeling which pre-existed and dictated them, but which is not to be found in the words themselves, and by this means she smoothed away, as she read, any harshness or discordance in the tenses of verbs, endowing the imperfect and the preterite with all the sweetness to be found in generosity, all the melancholy to be found in love, guiding the sentence that was drawing to a close towards the one that was about to begin, now hastening, now slackening the pace of the syllables so as to bring them, despite their differences of quantity, into a uniform rhythm, and breathing into this quite ordinary prose a kind of emotional life and continuity.

Compare to Belt describing his representation of monologues people like Chad-Kyle and Lotta aim at him:

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.

There’s a similar sensibility here, no?

I’m beginning to run out of yarn and pushpins to hold up all these probably ridiculous associations I’m sticking up on the wall, though I jotted down a few more. I’ll leave you with one more. In Swann’s Way, we read this interesting bit on page 47:

I feel that there is much to be said for the Celtic belief that the souls of those whom we have lost are held captive in some inferior being, in an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate object, and thus effectively lost to us until the day (which to many never comes) when we happen to pass by the tree or to obtain possession of the object which forms their prison. Then they start and tremble, they call us by our name, and as soon as we have recognized their voice the spell is broken. Delivered by us, they have overcome death and return to share our life.

And so it is with our own past. It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) of which we have no inkling. And it depends on chance whether or not we come upon this object before we ourselves must die.

It, again, is not my intent to insist that Bubblegum is informed by Proust’s book (intentionally or not), but this certainly seems sort of relevant, doesn’t it?

Lists and Ekphrasis and Lists of Ekphrases

I think it’s awfully tempting to read an author like Levin with his influences front of mind. I’ve intended generally to try to read Levin-as-Levin rather than reading him as Levin-as-Literary-Descendant-of-X, except where he seems openly to invite such comparisons (a nod to Coover from someone working in metafiction invites a reading with Coover in mind). In short, although I initially heard of Levin many years ago through some association with or comparison to David Foster Wallace, and I was turned on to Bubblegum when it came up on the wallace-l email list and when Levin was interviewed on the podcast The Great Concavity, I have generally tried not to read him as a DFW acolyte. I have tried to give him his space from Wallace. But in this week’s reading, he invited the comparison very nearly explicitly and I think a bit puckishly.

A Fistful of Fists is a transcript of a documentary that is itself made up of a bunch of short video selections. I initially resisted the urge to read it as a nod to Wallace’s filmography in Infinite Jest. But then I got to page 395, where Levin is very clearly portraying a Wallace-ish character (or maybe a Wallace characterish character), complete with pursed lips, linguistic prissiness, careful use of “nauseate” (a thing for Wallace, though I forget where it came up), self-(that is, Dave-self)-reference, and the kicker: “And but so.” Further, it’s only tangentially related to the rest of the smaller films the documentary comprises, a bit of a curiosity within the parade of horrors.

I take this to be Levin saying something like “I know, I know. Wallace did something similar in IJ with his filmography, and if I don’t make it very clear that I know this, and that I know that people who know Wallace’s work might think this section seems a little derivative of his filmography, then that’s what people will focus on rather than my fucking book and it’ll be annoying. So I’ll just tip the old hat and move on with writing the book I want to write, which happens to include a list of film clips.” I mean, maybe it was just fun to put this in, though.

Thinking about this sent me down a bit of a rabbit hole whose terminal point was the question: But why make this sort of list anyway? What purpose does it serve to go on at such length (this transcript makes up about 12% of Bubblegum‘s page count), for Levin or for others?

At the top of the rabbit hole, I started thinking about other works that make big productions of listing things. There’s Infinite Jest, of course. Bolaño 2666 came to mind too, as it offers its own parade of horrors that is in its way more analogous to the content of Levin’s transcript than Wallace’s filmography is. Melville has his list of extracts. So at least four of the books we’ve covered here do some form of this long listing thing. Then I thought of the rambling description of Achilles’s shield in The Illiad. For a little while I conflated two ideas:

  1. Long lists of things.
  2. Descriptions of other works of art, chiefly visual, which (this sort of description) is also known as ekphrasis.
The Shield of Achilles

In the Bolaño, we have simply a long catalogue of crimes, and to me, its purpose seems to be to make it extremely hard to ignore a very real set of horrific crimes. I can understand why Bolaño wrote about the crimes at length and in such detail. The purpose of this list strikes me in intent as more journalistic than aesthetic.

In Moby-Dick, I can discern some meaning behind the extracts. They set the tone and establish a long literary tradition, among other things. They make sense to me as a grand gesture (much grander than how most extracts or epigraphs land for me). These in general are not examples of ekphrasis (though the book, in its description of a couple of paintings, does offer examples of ekphrasis).

The purpose of the filmography in Infinite Jest is more slippery for me. I love that end note, to be clear. It adds depth and texture and humor and of course also its share of horror (I’m looking at you, Accomplice!). I think it was probably fun to dream up and to write, and maybe that’s reason enough to include it. The filmography is a list of ekphrases, some of them about (or not) a film that cannot be described because to see it in order to describe it (were it even widely available) is to succumb to it. So maybe that’s the point of the whole thing — to provide a pretext for including that little irony.

This is ostensibly a post about Bubblegum, though, so I should maybe write about the novel in question a bit. My problem is that while I can reasonably defend these other lists and ekphrases, I’m having a little trouble wrapping my head around why Levin goes on for 12% of the book with these transcripts. They serve a similar purpose to Bolaño’s, maybe, but by comparison, they are trivial. If we consider the cures to be stand-ins for animals and Levin to be on a soapbox, I suppose we can stretch this section a bit to say that he’s really trying to hammer home the atrocities of mistreating animals. But I really don’t think that’s what he’s doing. In spite of how gross a lot of this section is, some of it’s funny too. The “Compliments of the Yachts” vignettes are oddly sort of charming and funny. The science fair presentation made me make laughing sounds a lot. There is gross stuff here, yes, but it does not strike me as preachy stuff, or stuff that works in the way that “The Part About the Crimes” in 2666 works.

Yet it goes on for a long time. In spite of the humor, and in spite of the variety of episodes described, this is almost 100 pages of cruelty described often in great detail. Maybe it was fun to dream up and to write and that’s reason enough for including it. But I do feel like there might wind up being more to it than that, with the self-conscious nod to Wallace’s work, the general nesting of genre (recall that this transcript of a film composed of smaller bits of footage is itself a document that Belt has included in his memoir, which this novel purports to be), the things that Belt has said so far about interpretation, the fact that Belt has been asked to read and critique this document.

So, as is my way, I have nothing terribly tidy to conclude here, but I have questions (weigh in if you’ve got thoughts!) and a very satisfying sense of curiosity about what’ll follow.

Black Lives Matter

I don’t have some insightful think piece to share about the murder by police of black people in America. I’m a white man of privilege. There’s nothing original I can say that adds value to the national dialogue or that amounts to much more than virtue signalling.

I think maybe the best thing I can do is to signal boost a couple of things that I’ve seen going around. Probably you’ve already seen them. But maybe you haven’t.

One is a list of organizations that aim to help people who get into legal trouble. So, say you’re a protester who gets arrested but you don’t have bail money or money for legal fees. These organizations will help. The list is organized by state, if you like to funnel your money to local groups.

I’ve also seen a couple of book lists going around — things one might read to self-educate about racism. This list seems like a good starting point if you’re inclined to do some work in this area.


This week’s section is a doozie. Belt’s mom is dying, and she leaves for him a pair of letters, the longer of which (in particular) is really gorgeous. They’re heart-breaking and earnest and full of frankness and respect for this remarkable and troubled kid who is about to be motherless, whose mother is making the tough decision to accelerate his motherlessness. The letters are beautiful for what they say about an ugly thing, and they are even more beautiful for their careful lyricism. They are finely wrought, and when I got to the end of the letter section, I stopped and took a few slow deep breaths and just sat with it for a few minutes. Here was the first big emotional peak of the novel.

And then suddenly we find ourselves in Triple-J’s less lapidary teenagerly essays. The contrast in emotional and lyrical content between Belt’s mom’s letters and Triple-J’s essays is stark. Levin is an author playing with genre, nesting manuals (and essays) within essays within a memoir within a novel, and it’s hard to imagine that this juxtaposition of style is coincidental (though it may be). I was thinking this even before I got to the second essay (“Living Isn’t Functioning”) in which Triple-J himself writes about juxtaposition and at the beginning of which he literally (the origin of “juxtapose” coming from words meaning “to place next to”) juxtaposes two brochures from different times in the history of cures.

Image by Flickr user Steve Jurvetson under a Creative Commons license.

The side-by-side manuals as promised show a number of significant contrasts between the BOTIMALS® of 1988 and the CURIOS® of 2012. I won’t go through the contrasts in detail, but generally the earlier brochure is more soft and cuddly and the later more sterile and corporate and cautious in describing the cures.

There are some other less explicit juxtapositions too. The chapter title “Letters and Facts” dividing the emotional content of the letters from the more factual content of the essays is a sort of juxtaposition.

It’s not too much of a stretch to compare Belt’s mom’s frankness with her son to Fondajane’s frankness with her stepson.

In the letter on pages 297 and 298, Belt’s mom compares and contrasts Belt, Clyde, and herself:

[Y]ou’ve begun to (accurately) sense just how different you are from one another. He’s loud, outgoing, aggressive even, doesn’t read much, prefers to fish, to watch boxing, is excited by certain forms of circumscribed violence. You, like me, are quiet, a little too shy, content to walk around and think, to sit upstairs in your room and think. In sum (if I haven’t already reduced you guys enough): he tends to hate being alone, and you often need to be alone… Despite your differences, you’re not at odds.

Fondajane has a penis placed next to her vulva in a physical juxtaposition of sex organs.

As usual, I do not here have a confident and tidy theory about what any of this might mean, if it means (art doesn’t have to mean). My method in general is to latch onto something that catches my attention and then to be sort of tuned into it and to look for like things, and to write them down. This week, my radar was tuned to look for juxtaposition.

Image by Flickr user flclk8 under a Creative Commons license.

I think this tendency is pretty natural. In fact, I think it’s fundamental to the human experience. I’ve sometimes thought that human beings are basically little more than meat-based pattern-matching machines. We see familiar shapes in clouds, Jesus in toast, figures in stars, butterflies in inkblots, faces in all sorts of inanimate objects. We make decisions based on precedents, using patterns we’ve seen before to govern our next behavior. Language too seems to me to be reducible in some degree to pattern matching (else sentences wrong the with words their order in bother would us not). And what does pattern matching rely upon but juxtaposition of the pattern with its potential match?

All of which is to say ultimately that maybe I’m seeing things that aren’t there because that’s what I’m primed to see this week. Maybe Levin is intentionally throwing these specific juxtapositions at us to prompt thoughts about, I dunno, duality or sameness in lieu of difference (e.g.: Is it worse to abuse a robot that seems sentient than, say, a dog?). Or maybe it’s not even something Levin meant to do, but an innate proclivity to group and compare things led him even without specific intent to juxtapose these sections.

It doesn’t really matter to me what’s intentional or not here. The letters were a high point of the book for me (it’s weird to say this, I guess, given their content), and it was fun to think about these juxtapositions in any case.

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.