I’ve got a few things on my mind from this week’s reading.
One is the strife between enslaved women. Liza discloses Dana’s departure to win some sort of favor, but then Dana’s allies give her a beating in retribution. More interesting is the conflict between Alice and Dana once Alice recalls the truth of her enslavement. Alice lashes out at Dana but later catches herself (starting on page 167 in my edition):
“What’s the matter with you” she said wearily. “Why you let me run you down like that? You done everything you could for me, maybe even saved my life. I seen people get lockjaw and die from way less than I had wrong with me. Why you let me talk about you so bad?”
“Why do you do it?” …
“Because I get so mad… I get so mad I can taste it in my mouth. And you’re the only one I can take it out on — the only one I can hurt and not be hurt back.”
“Don’t keep doing it,” I said. “I have feelings just like you do.”
I have nothing profound to say about this strife, but it stood out to me. In a section titled “The Fight,” I wondered whether Butler meant to call attention to the physical fight that summoned Dana to the past or whether she might also mean to call attention to the infighting she portrays among the women (also perhaps to, you know, the fight for civil rights in Butler’s own lifetime).
The second thing on my mind this week was names. “Rufus” as a name for a red-haired person stood out to me as awfully obvious as a clue that names might have some specific meaning for Butler (as indeed they frequently do in fiction). Dana’s name too is interesting, since we learn at some point that it’s actually “Edana,” which isn’t a name I had encountered before. “Edana” is of Irish origin and means “fire” while “Dana” from the Hebrew means “arbiter” or “God is my judge” and from the Sanskrit means “generosity.” Dana is awfully generous, isn’t she? “Kevin” means “handsome” and “Carrie” interestingly means “free man” (though it’s a girl’s name). “Alice” means “noble or exalted” and “Nigel” can mean “champion” or “black.” I have no thesis about the names in the book but was just curious about how much significance the various names might have. I’d say the significance is mixed and that sometimes a name may just be a name without having to mean anything big.
The third main thing I turned my thoughts to this week was the notion of fairness. Etymologically, “fair” comes from a proto-Germanic word meaning “suitable, fitting, appropriate, nice.” That came into English with the sense of “beautiful, good-looking, attractive.” So when we say that someone is fair-skinned (as is Kevin, whose name happens, recall, to mean “handsome”), we’re saying they’re beautiful. The implications of this word association are problematic at best. But of course fairness also has to do with doing what’s fitting or equitable. And it’s a quality that Rufus insists his father has, in spite of his other failings. On page 134, Rufus tells Dana that Tom won’t whip her for following Rufus’s orders, since Tom is a fair man. Later, on page 181, when Dana has confronted Rufus about not sending her letters to Kevin, he reports that his father had written Kevin after all. The idea here is that Tom felt that Rufus should have kept his word and so kept it for him out of a sense of the importance of keeping your word. It’s not fairness precisely, but it’s a strange ethical hangup for a man who enslaves people, abused his child, and in general is just sort of a cantankerous cuss.
So what does it mean? Why is Butler drilling home the idea that Tom Weylin has a sort of decent moral or ethical center in spite of his flaws? Is he fair and honorable? Dana has this to say about him too (page 134):
His father wasn’t the monster he could have been with the power he held over his slaves. He wasn’t a monster at all. Just an ordinary man who sometimes did the monstrous things his soiety said were legal and proper. But I had seen no particular fairness in him. He did as he pleased. If you told him he wasn’t being fair, he would whip you for talking back.
Is he fair or not? Is Rufus simply a bad judge of character? Is Butler on board with the notion that people are a product of their time? How can she say at once that Weylin is not a monster and that he’d likely whip somebody for talking back? Is her purpose with this stuff to portray a complex character in Weylin? If so, does she succeed?
Something you see often enough in science fiction (putting aside whether Kindred actually is science fiction, or fantasy, or whatever) is time travel and its attendant paradox. Actually there are a number of flavors of temporal paradox, but the one I’m thinking of is the one in which, when going back in time, you might change things that would change your present and thus potentially impact you and your ability to go back in time to begin with.
If Dana goes back in time and changes enough about Rufus’s life, he might not turn out to be her progenitor, which in turn would prevent her from going back in time to make those changes. This is familiar territory for Marty McFly.
On page 51, Butler brings up another paradox as Dana and Kevin talk about her return from her second visit to Rufus. Recall that their theory is that, as a threat of Rufus’s death is what calls her to him, the threat of imminent death to her is what brings her back home. Dana says:
For instance, I would have used your knife against that patroller last night if I’d had it. I would have killed him. That would have ended the immediate danger to me and I probably wouldn’t have come home.
In short, in order to remain alive in order to attempt to return home, she may have to do something that will prevent the thing that enables her to return home. It’s a paradox.
A little later, on page 68 in my edition, Dana reflects on the man Rufus is likely to become:
As I hurried up the steps and into the house, I thought of Rufus and his father, of Rufus becoming his father. It would happen some day in at least one way. Someday Rufus would own the plantation. Someday, he would be the slaveholder, responsible in his own right for what happened to the people who lived in those half-hidden cabins. The boy was literally growing up as I watched — growing up because I watched and because I helped to keep him safe. I was the worst possible guardian for him — a black to watch over him in a society that considered blacks subhuman, a woman to watch over him in a society that considered women perennial children. I would have all I could do to look after myself. But I would help him as best I could. And I would try to keep friendship with him, maybe plant a few ideas in his mind that would help both me and the people who would be his slaves in the years to come. I might even be making things easier for Alice.
It’s horrifying, isn’t it? Dana not only must fight to stay free and alive in an environment inimical to that imperative but also bears the burden of trying to make things better for those who will both follow her (as time traveler) and produce her (as ancestors). She must be extraordinarily careful lest she change the past in a way that negates her future present (this stuff is hard to write about intelligibly). And she must grapple with how difficult it is to be the guardian of a child raised in a society that enslaves Black people and infantilizes women. It’s sort of an ethical double-bind wrapped within a temporal paradox.
I read this passage after listening to an episode of a podcast titled Hear to Slay, by Roxane Gay and Tressie McMillan Cottom. They label it “the Black feminist podcast of your dreams,” and it is very well worth listening to — fun, incisive, serious, and informative all at once. I’m a few episodes behind and today was listening to the February 1 episode entitled “It’s Our Country Too,” in which they chat with country music artist Rissi Palmer about country music and Black country music. They talk some about why Black women often do hard, extra labor, and in short, it’s so that others who follow can have it easier. Palmer came back to country music on her own terms in spite of getting screwed by the industry. At about the 30-minute mark of the episode, she says “I keep fighting, and I keep caring about it, because, while I’ve figured out a way to have a career and a life and be happy outside of it, people that look like me, and anybody else, if that’s what they want, they should be able to have it.” This seems to me to be directly related to what Dana’s doing in Kindred. Of course she is trying to survive, but she thinks too (and foremost) of Rufus’s safety and upbringing, of those generations between Rufus and the Dana of 1976, and of her husband Kevin (a white man). She is serving, to borrow a relevant phrase from Hurston, as the mule of the world, carrying the burdens of others.
Like many people in marginalized groups, Butler is carrying the burden herself, describing awful, painful details of enslavement in order to tell a story about the past and the legacy of being Black in America. Activists and other Black people who speak on social justice take on this burden not to improve their situations but to improve the situations of current and future others. This too strikes me as a sort of near-paradox: In order to put a stop to the horror and the damage it causes, people are made to immerse themselves in the horror and suffer the damage it causes.
I have a confession to make. I’m a recovering genre snob. When I was young, I read mostly genre stuff — Grisham and Cornwell and Grafton and Rex Stout and King (though I reckon he’s considered literary by now). Then I went off to college and got real big for my britches. I read some philosophy and a lot of Victorian capital-L Literature (ignoring the fact that favorites like Hardy and Dickens were sort of the pulp of their time). I read Shakesepeare and Milton and for a while entertained ambitions of becoming a scholar of non-Shakespearean Renaissance drama. I tried to like the Modernist poets, and it turned out late in college and after that I did like the big postmodern tomes. Science fiction and fantasy, though? Meh, those were for people who preferred beach reads, not for a literary dynamo like me.
Occasionally in adulthood, I would condescend to read something non-literary. I read a lot of Martin’s Game of Thrones series, though whether I did so out of real interest or in anticipation of the television series I don’t recall. When trailers for the Narnia movies and the Lord of the Rings movies came out, I read those. When I learned that Philip Pullman was a heathen like me, I read his Dark Materials books. But these were just little side ventures. I dipped into these and then got right back to reading the great pillars of the canon.
Eventually I sired children, and eventually they grew out of board books and strictly little-kid books. I read aloud to them religiously, often for an hour or more a night. We read the Harry Potter books of course, and the Lemony Snicket books. We read bits and pieces of other series. I was exposed to a lot more fantasy and sci-fi by reading to my kids. I read aloud fully half of the Wheel of Time series before wanting a change of scenery. I read Lord of the Rings a few times. We read a lot of McCaffrey’s Pyrne series. And we read the first several books in Brandon Sanderson’s pretty marvelous Mistborn series together. In a fit of nostalgia (for I had read these when I was young), I dipped back into Rex Stout and some of the hard boiled detective fiction writers a few years ago, and having seen that sometimes fantasy and sci-fi and detective writing could be engaging and lovely and not just pulpy after all, I started going out of my way to read more of it in earnest and for my own sake rather than for that of my kids.
N.K. Jemisim was an obvious contemporary pick. Her Broken Earth trilogy is great, my favorite (especially the first two books) of all of hers. Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti series (YA books) are worth a read. LeGuin of course is worth a read; I’ve got a lot more of her to read yet, but I especially enjoyed her Earthsea series. In other kid’s books, Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series was a treat. Some of William Gibson’s books I enjoyed, and of some of Dick’s. Stephenson is spotty for me. A few years ago, my son wanted to start playing Dungeons & Dragons, which I had never gotten into as a kid. I learned how to play and started reading some relevant fantasy, notably R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt series, which I enjoyed quite a lot. I had read Dune not too long after college and reread that again (to my son, but also for myself) in the last couple of years.
So, I have become, if not a convert, at least a willing and open-minded reader of genre fiction. I’ve found a lot of these books a real pleasure to read, and many of them aren’t as light or noncerebral as I might’ve imagined when I knew everything during and shortly after college.
Still, I find myself instinctively assuming that fantasy and science fiction will be light or easy reading — more craft than fine art — and I think that colors how I approach them. That is, instead of automatically looking for what’s ingenious or lovely in the writing, I think I find myself looking for what’s simple or straightforward in the writing and perhaps sneering a little at it. Because I think of genre fiction as being driven by plot more than by aesthetics or capital-L Literariness, I’m more likely to read right over elegance or economy of language in these books. When reading McCarthy’s The Road, I might think of the language as spare and solemn and thus evocative and fitting given the austerity and general quietude of the book. But I might unfairly read similar prose in a genre book as merely utilitarian or simplistic by default.
These are the biases I’ll have to self-consciously push against while reading Butler’s work. She is a writer of genre fiction in my mind, and I’ll have to keep nudging aside my tendency to dismiss in her writing what I might see as significant in the writing of an author I’ve been told writes literary fiction. The first step to recovery, it’s said, is to admit that you have a problem. I here admit it. I’d like to recover. And I hope that reading some of Butler’s books along with a community of careful readers will help me pay attention in this fiction to the things I might look past otherwise and help me put aside once and for all my ridiculous knee-jerk snobbery.
I thought I’d try out Discord for potential synchronous discussion and additional community building. It may not take off. If you’re familiar with Discord and would like to join the server I’ve spun up, you can do so here.
If you don’t know what Discord is, it is, in a nutshell, a platform that facilitates synchronous discussion. There are options to chat via text (if you use Slack or something similar, this will be familiar) or audio/video. If you’re interested, get yourself a Discord account and join via the link above.
I do a lot of text chat for my day job, and mostly I’m not interested in continuing that deep into my evenings. So I’m unlikely to be super duper active on Discord. If just a handful of people show up and it’s all tumbleweeds and me deleting pictures of wangs, I’ll probably tear the server down or at least let it die a natural death. But maybe it’ll take off and we’ll add a dimension to our little book club. I suppose what happens’ll be largely up to y’all.
Hop in if you’re game, and let’s see where if anywhere this thing goes.
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, 2021
Read through “The Fall”
March 8, 2021
Read “The Fight”
March 15, 2021
Finish the book
March 22, 2021
Parable of the Sower
Read 2024 and 2025
March 29, 2021
Parable of the Sower
Read 2026 – 2027 (through ch. 18)
April 5, 2021
Parable of the Sower
Finish (2027 ch. 19 – end)
April 12, 2021
Parable of the Talents
April 19, 2021
Parable of the Talents
April 26, 2021
Parable of the Talents
Read 2035 through ch. 18 (2034 is skipped, apparently)
May 3, 2021
Parable of the Talents
Read 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?