Pragmatics

There’s been some discussion already of Butler’s style, which I want to investigate a little in terms of how it functions to help create some interesting effects in the first sections of this book. (I agree with Paul that this book seems to demand less playfulness than I’d usually strive for in titling posts. For this post in particular, I know enough to know that I’m referring to an area of linguistics that relates to the points I want to make, but not enough to know how to lay out those connections myself! If anybody who does know more about pragmatics in the linguistic/semiotic sense wants to spell it out, I’d love to learn.)

I’ll start with a disclaimer: I’m going to do a bit of generalizing about Butler’s style, based not just on the first third of Kindred but also on the seven other books of hers I’ve read (the Patternist and Xenogenesis series). It’s been a couple years since I read those, so I’m working from memory; but that memory tells me that her style is largely consistent across books, with the possible exception of Wild Seed, which I remember as being somewhat more consciously beautiful.

So. In thinking about this little investigation, a rough dichotomy of styles occurred to me. On the one hand is a kind of writing that seems to show the author’s intellect visibly at work, or on the move. I’m thinking of Wallace, of course (and that sense so many readers describe of his writing being the voice in their brain), and Nabokov, and maybe Austen—and, frankly, myself: One of the things I value so much about these group reads is the opportunity to write about the books, because that’s how I find out what I think about them. Sometimes this style shows the writer themselves on a journey, or sometimes it shows them leading the reader on a journey that feels more planned. On the other hand is a kind of writing that’s trickier to pin down, but the best way I’ve come up with to describe the feeling that characterizes it is that the author has already made the journey, whatever kind of journey it is, and is sort of reporting from the place where they’ve settled. I’m thinking here of O’Connor, a lot of Morrison, Hemingway, and, relevantly, Butler. The characters still have places to go and things to learn (or not), but there’s a kind of density of conviction that underlies the writing, a feeling of experience rather than experiencing, if that distinction makes sense. (This is all sort of a provisional structure. If you have any refinements or additions or objections, speak up! For one thing, don’t think the gender skew of my examples has escaped me…)

There’s an incredible economy in the way Butler structures the first parts of this book. It’s clear that the structural logic and the narrative logic are largely aligned—Dana’s called to Rufus when he’s in mortal danger from something: a river, a fire in his bedroom, a fall from a tree. So we get a section for each of those: “The River,” “The Fire,” “The Fall,” and so on. (The flashbacks and present-time moments of Dana in 1976 are important, but in my reading that importance is narrative rather than structural.) The Prologue is two pages, beginning with “I lost an arm” and ending with two characters saying they don’t know what truly happened. Then comes “The River,” which introduces us to this pattern. Dana’s called away for just barely over a page, and there aren’t even six whole pages in the section. We’re moving fast, from event to event, and it’s deliberately bewildering. Butler’s giving us nothing that she isn’t also giving Dana, and what she’s giving Dana is a damn lot in a big hurry. “The Fire” is then about four times as long as everything combined that went before it, and then “The Fall” is another 20ish pages longer still.

I’m talking about page spans here because it’s quite literally a learning curve:

And that’s an important part of what we see: Dana learning. Learning what’s happening, especially, but also learning about living in the antebellum South as a Black woman, and learning as much as she can of what the Black people on and near the Weylin estate have grown up knowing. But also we see her taking action, and that’s some of where I come back to where I place Butler in that dichotomy I mentioned. We don’t watch Kevin decide to assemble a go bag for Dana; we skip right to her awaking with it already beside her. And then she iterates on its contents, trying to zero in on the optimal combination of supplies to bring with her. The thinking, here and throughout, is fully reconstructable (and indeed, not always withheld), but it’s kind of taken for granted that the thinking is indeed happening.

Even when we get more explicit cogitation, it reveals that there’s already a fully formed intellect underneath that’s doing the thinking: On page 28, when Dana’s putting together her tie to Rufus, she thinks, “Alice Greenwood. How would she marry this boy? Or would it be marriage?” (The italics are mine; Butler doesn’t do a lot of that kind of cuing.) From Dana’s 1976 perspective, that’s a reasonable question. But of course its real import isn’t whether Alice and Rufus solemnized their relationship—it’s whether Alice was given the power to consent at all. There’s no further elaboration on that point in Dana’s train of thought, though. On the Watsonian level, Dana already knows why she’s wondering, so there’s no need for her to rehearse it. And on the Doylist level, this is part of how Butler operates. It’s up to us as readers to be alert to the mass of the iceberg under the water. Whether that technique lands for you is more or less a personal question, but I’m finding it quite powerful.

A Couple Conversations I Wish We Could Have Had

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Head Is Filled with Things to Say

When I finished Bubblegum the other day, I closed up my Kindle case and just sat there. My husband looked up five or ten minutes later and asked if I was OK, and I told him I didn’t really know. I was still trying to figure out how I felt.

I’m still working through my thoughts and feelings on the book. There’s a lot to process, and I think some parts of it are deliberately in tension with some others; I didn’t expect a neat resolution, so that’s not really a surprise, but it is surprising to me how refractory it is. It leads you in directions and then ditches you just before you arrive at an identifiable place, so you end up with emotional responses cued and no concrete framework to process them in.

Paul said he feels like this book is part one of something bigger, and I feel that feel, bruh. Only to me it’s more like, say, parts one, two, four, seven through nine, and twelve of something bigger. We get a lot of setups that aren’t followed through on, and it’s hard to say why I think that is.

For instance: Gender identity gets activated as a site of at least some salience. Paul caught the references to the Wachowski sisters—and as a matter of fact, in our world Lilly didn’t even come out as trans until 2016, and that was under threat of being outed. In that respect, Bubblegum “does well,” if you see what I mean by such a stupid term. But then the same book uses Fondajane to create a social split and actually names one side of that split “anti-beauty/pro–trans beauty.” So why? Why turn those engines on and then walk away with the keys in the ignition? What’s the function of creating an imaginary world where the Wachowskis are apparently uncontroversially women but also choosing to replicate transphobia—and blame it on the one identified intersex character?

Or here’s a big one: Dr. Kleinstadt the vet. Late in the novel we meet a man who has actually been trained to understand cures. He says cures were only even part of the veterinary-school curriculum for a few years in the 90s, which, fine, right? But that means that this knowledge—that cures are even capable of developing cancer, for one huge obvious thing, but also just the understanding, even if only partial, of what cures are and how they work—is available. It’s out there, it was officially taught in courses regulated by state licensing boards. How is this so irrelevant to the book that it comes up in this one episode and is never referred to? Dr. Kleinstadt even looks Blank in the face, for some period of time, and doesn’t apparently feel the urge to slaughter him. It’s been very strongly implied, I’d say, that Belt is (or believes himself to be) special or maybe even unique in his ability to not want to kill Blank. But lookee here, there are others. Whom we won’t spend any time with or on.

Or: After spending the whole book troubled by how people treat cures, Belt decides to use a drug made from spidge without filling us in on any qualms. Was he that altered by his exposure to A Fistful of Fists? It didn’t seem like it. He was concerned enough about Blank to find Dr. Kleinstadt, which was a hassle.

I guess a big part of why I feel so confounded by the book is that I feel like stuff is missing that I need. Like I’ve just spent two months visiting in a house with a lot of rooms locked, and now I’m supposed to figure out how its owners live in it.

There really is a lot in here that I appreciated, not that you’d know it from the emotional reactions I keep having on these pages. Clyde’s admission that he feels like he and Belt are too old to keep playing the roles of father and son is something I wish I saw more of in stories about father-son relationships. Sandrine’s whip-quick connection of No Please Don’t‘s Bam Naka figurine to Lisette seems like it promises to be worth more thought. Obviously pretty much everything about Annie Magnet is gold (except for her fridging). There’s more.

And obviously I wouldn’t have spent two months reading this and feeling as intensely as it made me if it didn’t connect with me. It’s an uneasy connection, for sure, but the book is powerful and I’m glad I got to read it along with everybody here.

It’s the Little Things

You know what I didn’t expect to find in the Pellmore-Jason compound? Tenderness. Little moments of genuine kindness. But there are lots of them! We’ve already seen Fondajane being friendly to Belt and trying to put him at ease, and later instantly recognizing that seeing himself in A Fistful of Fists would be hurtful because of what he was going through at the time he was recorded.

Then in this week’s chunk we get a number of displays of empathy and caring from male characters, which to be honest I don’t think I was expecting. Outside of Belt (who’s clearly an outlier from his own society), the men in the novel have tended to be “masculine” in that way that means feelings are for other people to worry about. Whenever we’ve seen people actually trying to treat each other well, it’s been female characters (again, excepting Belt): Belt’s mom. Stevie Strumm. Ms. Clybourn. Maybe Janie Sez and Maggie Mae.

(Please let me know if I’m shortchanging any of the guys. I left the Yachts and their Charity Parties off the list because those are both performative and random, rather than “genuine,” and because I find them ghoulish, even though I know the Yachts themselves don’t.)

For instance, I was genuinely touched during the little exchange between Belt and Jonboat about the box of cereal. Jonboat’s efforts to make Belt feel unstigmatized about whatever meds he may or may not be on was a really sweet effort, but even better was just before that:

“I was saying about your gift,” I said, pointing at the Crunch box. “I brought you a gift.”

“A box of cereal?”

“They really didn’t tell you?”

“They who, Belt?” he said.

“That’s not—never mind. The gift’s under the cereal. Under the bag inside the box, I mean.”

That “they who”/”that’s not—never mind” caught me. What‘s not what? And I thought I realized what it meant, but now as I’m typing another possibility occurs to me. Both are about inans, but the difference is in whether Jonboat knows that Belt converses with them, which I don’t know whether we have evidence about one way or the other! (Belt’s inference that Denise didn’t read the “about the author” blurb on No Please Don’t because it would have raised some questions she would definitely have felt she had to ask suggests that it’s possible Jonboat could know, especially with the fabulous capabilities that come with obscene wealth.)

  • Possible meaning #1: Jonboat knows Belt has conversations with inanimate objects. When Belt asks if “they” told Jonboat about the present Belt brought, Jonboat asks conspicuously neutrally, “They who?” Doesn’t want to upset Belt by sounding judgmental or disparaging, but obviously needs to clarify whether Belt’s operating in a shared reality with him or not. Belt gets the implication and waves it off, starting to say “That’s not what I meant, I was talking about the tribe of he-men you employ whom I had to tell one by one why I brought a partial box of cereal to brunch,” then decides instead to skip the explanation and go right to the giving.
  • Possible meaning #2: Jonboat is actually genuinely just like “wut who? There have been so many people in this compound today, and I just got off the phone with Dubai and then slipped out, I don’t know which ‘they’ you even mean. Why would I be talking to someone about cereal.” Which Belt self-consciously misinterprets as an oblique reference to his condition, and waves it off, starting to say, etc. etc.

I mentioned this moment in the first place because my interpretation on reading it was #1, and I was touched by what I read as Jonboat’s delicacy. But we know Belt’s personalizing really hard in this section, so I may be wrong.

Paul mentioned that Burroughs shot up his list of favorite characters in this section, and I similarly appreciated his quiet, sly solidity. (I’m always a sucker for an invincibly capable body man, even more when he has a fierce, deadpan wit.) His job is security, but he doesn’t take a brute approach to it when he doesn’t have to—he could have just told Belt if he gets a Quill out one more time, he’s on the street, but instead he empathizes over the nicotine craving and gives some down-to-earth advice about riding it out. (Not too far off from how he advises Belt on how to recover from the concussion he was unfortunately forced to administer to Belt.) And Burroughs and Trip double-team Chad-Kyle when he takes Belt to task for not saying hi. Paul called it “jump[ing] to Belt’s defense,” and that’s exactly how it feels. They’re defending him, and they certainly don’t have to.

For that matter, from the moment Trip arrives in the office, it feels like he’s already adopted Belt as one of his crew, down to mouthing his opinion of Chad-Kyle at Belt and serendipitously choosing the same insult Belt came up with back when he had whorehouse pizza with Lotta. (One of the less instantly obvious pleasures of this book: the truly outlandish and totally accurate things you can say in summarizing episodes from it.) Obviously he’s already committed 100,000 of his dad’s dollars to Belt, but it doesn’t feel like a business-relationship kind of closeness, not even a teenager’s idea of a business relationship. It feels like he’s treating Belt as a pal.

There’s more kindness in this week’s chunk of reading—the lengths Herb goes to to make Belt feel better about Stevie’s being married, and then his frank vulnerability to Jill about fearing “the chickens of his own irregular flossing habit one day coming home to roost,” are especially sweet. But I really wanted to highlight the welcome Belt received at the Compound. It took me totally by surprise.

Of course he repaid it by trying to beat someone to death with a souvenir of his host’s and former best friend’s space travels… But still.

In Which Your Correspondent Counterweights His Late Complaints with Some Things He Liked in This Week’s Reading

I don’t have much of a reading this week—in terms of an argument to make—because it’s been a very eventful week for me. But I do have some scattered thoughts I want to share, especially in light of how down I was on the book last week. As Daryl promised in reply to my post last week, there was some much, much nicer stuff this week.

Here’s a strange thing to say about an 800-page book: There are a lot of things here I wish we got more of! The compound, for instance. Jonboat turned a small neighborhood into his residence. They don’t even have outbuildings there, like, say, a studio—the production house is an entire actual house. It’s essentially a 26-room mansion, except each of its 26 rooms is a house. Although I suppose what I want isn’t a tour of the different houses (we get a listing of some of them), but more of the compound as a setting. That’s a weird environment! I would have thought, for example, that if security is a grave enough concern to prompt the construction of a compound with ramparts and everything, you wouldn’t then let whole crowds in like the audience for Triple-J’s Neo-Gratification spectacle. I also want to know more about the logistics of a distributed home life like that, and how it might/would warp a kid’s ideas of how to be a person.

Somewhat related, I want to know more about the Archons. It didn’t occur to me that Burroughs would have a family. (…Which is not a fun thing to think about, my having supposed his entire identity was “driver/mentor.”) Who is the woman who gave birth to these hulks? Did we hear about her? Is there an Archon who didn’t want to go into personal security to the wealthy at all, and rebelled by, I don’t know, becoming a sportscaster or a marine biologist or a day trader? They have a house at the compound—and I’m curious how closely it resembles a Spartan barracks.

I thought the opening sentence of “Certain Something” was genuinely excellent:

If Mike told Brenda he’d dreamed she’d died, she might let him kiss her, he thought.

That’s in ballad meter! It also has some almost Keatsian sonics, and some beautifully balanced syntactic embedding that covers, what, four time frames and one conditional statement with an extra removed level of speculative likelihood. In seven beats. I’d be happy if I’d written that.

I also found it hilarious that Paul and I were right on the money about Bam Naka’s name.

And as I mentioned in a comment on Daryl’s Proust post, I do generally like Fondajane. I think I appreciate her critical performativity—when she’s doing Fon with respect to art and Theory—a lot more than her libidinal performativity, but I’m pretty sure that’s on me, not Levin.

Actually, to follow up on me not especially responding to how cataclysmically desirable Fon is: If I do have an objection for this week, it’s how woefully straight this all feels. I know that sounds weird when we’ve got this whole section on fisting (and god help me, as soon as I read “the French power guy” I knew it was Foucault), but stay with me here. So I haven’t read it myself, but it appears that this whole notion of fisting as a revolutionary invention is truly Foucault’s—and not, as I thought Bubblegum was saying, Fon’s friend David Ballard’s application of Foucault’s thought. (Y’all have to read this whole thread. It’s a doozy.) But from what I can tell without going to the source, it wasn’t this free-floating conception of “revolution.” In fact, that’s a nonsense idea, that revolution can exist without a system to roll back. I appreciate the point that Trip is channeling the revolutionary energy he felt from reading Ballard’s paper, but I can’t miss that he’s also taking it out of its very specifically queer context. It’s not just that fisting was supposedly a brand-new way of using the body for pleasure; it’s that it was a defiant way of relating sexually, one that took the phallus out of the equation altogether and therefore—in this almost comically on-the-nose poststructuralist, French theoretical way—short-circuited patriarchal control over oppressed bodies and marginalized sexual practices.

Lots of buzzwords there, and I cannot overstate that I’m working from secondhand and partial knowledge. But to see the inescapable queerness of this idea translated into “I want to innovate” is…disappointing. Especially when everybody’s straight. I’m not calling it appropriation, because that’s another nonsense idea when it comes to scholarship (mostly). I’ll just stick with “disappointing.”

I do love where we end up from that spark, though. Fon’s instant dismay when she learns that Belt is the boy in A Fistful of Fists whose mother was dying—that immediate, reflexive empathy for Belt—was really touching, and a good ironic counterpoint to Trip’s profession that empathy is the root of good art. (Ironic, of course, because Trip’s idea of empathy means the viewer seeing things through the artist’s eyes. It’s empathy as a cover charge for experiencing art, not as a requirement for creating it.)

But Trip’s art project? I am one hundred percent totally on board. I love conceptual art; it’s one of the most purely unnecessary things, which, for me, makes it an absolutely necessary outpost out past the borders of “regular” art to pound stakes down and keep room open for other kinds of art to exist in. (Oh man, I feel a whole separate post coming on. The gist of it is: I want to argue that what characterizes art as separate from not-art is some kind of superfluity. And conceptual art, by maximizing superfluity, holds space for other kinds of art to be some degree less extra and therefore some degree more essential. This is not a considered argument yet, just a ghost of what I’d want to think about.) A Fistful of Fists isn’t even his artistic statement, it’s the performance of scarcity in a relatively post-scarce environment (DVDs are more or less trivially reproducible, especially with his family resources) and the manipulation of the art world’s construction of that performance as a kind of authenticity. OK, listen, if I get time for an extra post, I’m coming back to Trip’s art project, because the more I type about it the more excited I get.

And now that we’re about to get to “Jonboat Speaks” (not “Jonboat Say”—that was the first section of the first chapter, or first chapter of the first section), I’m really looking forward to seeing how the relationship between grown-up Belt and Jonboat compares to the relationship between adolescent Belt and Jonboat.

Well That Was Fucking Awful

Do y’all know the movie Pillow Talk? I’ve gotten to see it on the big screen once. There’s a movie theater in Glendale (California), the Alex Theatre, where every other month—in other days, anyway—the Alex Film Society screens classic films. My husband and I happened to walk past the theater one Valentine’s Day, and saw on the marquee that Pillow Talk was playing with just enough time left for us to grab a bite to eat first.

I’d seen the movie before; we own it, it’s fun. There’s a part where Doris Day is heartbroken to have been deceived by Rock Hudson, and she has Tony Randall drive her from the would-be love nest in Connecticut back to New York. It’s an intercut sequence—back and forth, showing Doris Day in the car 20 minutes farther down the road each time, crying just as hard at the end of the drive as she was when she got in the car. I’ve never thought of her as a tragedian or anything, but this bit of the movie has always really affected me. She’s just hurting so much.

Then there we were at the Alex, watching it on a full-size movie screen, and each time it cut back to her still crying, there was a bigger laugh from the audience. It had literally never occurred to me that this could be a comedic sequence.

This is all, as you may have figured out by now, a let’s say roundabout way of getting into the point, which is that if not for this here joint read-along, I would have quit this book during A Fistful of Fists. Y’all, I hated this section. It was relentless and horrible and cruel and interminable and disgusting and just an out-and-out misery to experience.

Daryl and Paul have both noted some of the humor in it, and I mean, I guess I can see it. But in the context of all the rest of the just truly outrageous cruelty—I can’t even call it sadism, because there’s no acknowledgment even that the cures’ suffering hurts them—it’s hard even to look at the humorous parts without seeing mean-spiritedness. (Why, for example, does Maya Mehta, who is legitimately unterrible, have to be medically ridiculous even to the point of injuring herself in the middle of our watching her? She’s not a cure, what’s the point of hurting her for us to laugh at?)

There are things to say about this section, of course. My overriding reaction is just plain revulsion, but there’s analysis that can be done too. For instance: I’m less and less convinced that “flesh-and-bone robot” makes any sense. I had been thinking of it as meaning something like a cyborg. But now that we’ve seen how spidge is made, we know that a cure isn’t a mix of machine and organic parts, it’s all meat and bone and fluids. So where does robot come into it? Is it just supposed to refer to their brains, how they’re like little behaviorist computers inside cute warm soft squishy cases? Because Maya’s spycam footage of her cures shows that they feel embarrassment, sympathy, humor, and injustice to go along with the recognition of self that lets them learn from watching her watch the videos of them. Robots don’t feel shame about doing what they’re programmed to do, but a cure will let itself die rather than knowingly be observed pooping.

Ugh, I don’t know. I know there’s more to tease out from all this (such as the very rigid refusal to admit that dosing cures with PerFormulae is plain and simple drugging them for entertainment), but I just feel so grieved by the whole thing. At the very least, cut some of those videos, like the one where the sister was upset because it was supposed to be her turn. That felt like the punch line was written first, then more setup than it could support. Have some mercy, y’know? (As if.)

That Is Why I Am So Confident in Concluding That My Thesis Is Correct

There’s a story I’ve had on my mind a lot this week, for reasons Bubblegum and otherwise: Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

Maybe you’ve read it before, maybe you haven’t; it’s quite short, so if you want to, it won’t take you much time. It’s pretty famous. It’s also nauseatingly sad, so, y’know, have some chocolate or a lazy dog or something on hand to help you get back up afterward.

The parallels to our situation in this country are, I hope, obvious, and that’s not what I want to (…can bear to) write about right now anyway. What I want to write about right now is that beautiful pair of letters to Belt from his mom—including some truly startling flashes of my own life on those pages (don’t worry for me, they weren’t about mental illness or suicide). Or what the hell Fondajane is doing in this book at all, because I’ll tell you, Triple-J’s essay on her is, I think, an effective set piece in a bunch of ways, and there are definitely novels I’d enjoy seeing it in as one star in the constellation—but for now, I’ve got no idea how to answer the question why is she here?, and that’s the kind of burr under my saddle that always keeps me bouncing.

But what I’m going to write about is Triple-J’s other essay.

In the first place, it’s funny. Triple-J is, as Paul notes, an intermittently formal writer. Cued perhaps by Hal Incandenza, I was expecting that these papers of Triple-J’s would be evidence of his genius. I would say I am…unconvinced. There’s an affability to the intellect he shows in them—I might like him!, although then again the kidney stomping weighs the other way—so I don’t think Bubblegum is making fun of him, but I do think we’re supposed to see both standard development-in-progress-type immaturity and a level of critical obliviousness. But in an affectionate way.

We learn quite a lot that we need to know from reading this essay, or at least the two versions of the Graham&Swords manual that it juxtaposes. None of that is what Triple-J is analyzing. His thesis—”that some people will say anything to sell you what they’re trying to sell you, especially if those people are corporations, and it’s shady”—rings of callow disillusionment, that feeling of conviction and righteousness (maybe even superiority) that I imagine we all experience when we’re 14ish and make some of our early critical judgments of the world around us. It’s not out of place for the character or anything, and I wouldn’t even say it’s incorrect, it just has very little to do with the material he’s using. (No, you’re remembering that paper you thought was awesome but your freshman-English TA thought deserved a D because it didn’t make any actual argument.)

Apart from the…what could we call it, data? bread crumbs?…about cures as material objects in the world of the novel, here’s the part that I think is essential. And it’s a little long, but that’s because Triple-J has already intuitively mastered linguistic recursion, so blame him for the size of this box you’re about to see:

There’s no way [people stop buying cures and using them and seeing them as robots] because by the time the “Cures are people! They’re people!” people start getting attention, not only is the whole Cute Economy happening and making everyone in the USA richer, but everyone in the USA and most of the rest of the world has already overloaded a bunch of times and enjoyed doing it, and has learned to want to keep doing it, and, like I said, if it turned out that cures/Botimals weren’t machines made of flesh but real animals or animal-humans or whatever and that it therefore wasn’t okay to do what we all do to them, not only would the economy get messed up, but we’d all hate ourselves and commit suicide because we’d see that we’d been monsters all along. We’re not monsters, though. And that’s how we know cures are robots.

I take Triple-J in good faith: I think his prior here is a naïve and honest certitude that “we’re not monsters.” And from that, it follows that cures must not be alive.

But of course we’re not kids reading this, and Levin’s a sophisticated technician. We can see self-serving rationalization when it begs us to tell it how innocent it is. And this is where I come back to the Le Guin story, especially because we learn here that cures aren’t just bread and circuses, they’re meat and drink. The national economy is built on the disposability of cures. It’s good at least that Triple-J lets us know there are in fact groups that protest their on-a-whim destruction. I wasn’t sure there was anybody but Belt (and at least some of us readers, including me) who had a problem with it. Because we’re not monsters, right?

Ever Heard of a Pass/Fail Personality Test?

You know in Belt’s interview with Dr. Lionel Manx (Daryl, there’s another name for you that’s also an object!), when Manx says, “I want you to tell me the truth”? I’m pretty sure that’s a superfluous request. This is such a great scene, and part of that greatness for me is Belt’s radical and self-aware honesty.

Belt’s a bright kid (“capable of insight,” Manx says—”of self-reflection”), and when this scene started, I was at least partly expecting it to follow that trope of the child prodigy and the mental-health professional who doesn’t expect the child’s prodigious intellect, and it’s an antagonistic/patronizing encounter at first that may or may not resolve into a respectful and possibly even warm relationship once they get each other’s measure. And to be fair, there is some of that present; Belt gets his hackles up at Manx’s profession of being confused (“You don’t have to talk to me like I’m a baby, alright? … I’ll answer all your questions, but just please don’t ask them to me like I’m stupid”), and although there’s definitely something to be said—especially in a therapeutic context!—for nonconfrontational diplomatic-type pointing out of contradictions, Belt’s objection has merit too. He’s clearly capable of understanding contradictions and double binds (which, I’ve just learned, were conceptualized in the context of schizophrenia research) and cognitive dissonance. He’s just demonstrated that in detail. I’m sure he could handle a less coddling approach to the inconsistencies Manx wants to address.

But it seems like the main reason there’s a thread of friction in this interview is Belt’s expectation that there will be (or maybe ought to be? Does it feel for anyone like he’s working partly from a cultural script he may have encountered?). Belt starts off tetchy because of his protective instinct toward his mom, whom he thinks Manx is slighting. Then he gets a little defensive about the question of whether it’s easier to die than solve one’s problems, and he reflects the perceived attack back at Manx with a parable about his method of helping swingsets that also accuses Manx of not selling his possessions and giving to the poor. It comes across like he wants Manx to feel bad about it, even though at the same time he’s explaining what’s unrealistic about it. I read it as a little conversational fencing. Belt ends up coming around on Manx, not least because Manx will talk with him about animals’ buttholes.

What I love most in this scene, though, is Belt’s impressively thorough ethical reasoning. You can disagree with his choices—he largely expects you to, based on your lack of access to his interior experience of communication with the inans—but he can defend all of them with the ethical calculus he undertook before making them. As a 12-year-old! There’s a beautiful little bit of recursive empathizing when he describes the swingsets’ pleas for euthanasia as the swingsets asking for help in a way that, having considered him and his capabilities, they think he might be able to perform. When he gets to digging into his reasons for picking and choosing which objects to help, it really sounds like he’s considering moral obligations to the whole world—”Plus the people who love you—you’d hurt them. They’d miss you. You wouldn’t have time for them. You’d be damaging them.” No wonder he’s prone to analysis paralysis, if he operates in a moral universe where the ripples of his actions propagate infinitely.

That said, he’s also intensely considered questions of pragmatism, with a pretty sharp eye toward his own failings. Would he repair the swingsets instead, if they asked? Well, if he were the kind of person who knew how to do that, he would be a different person from the one he knows, so it’s hard to say—but if he were basically otherwise still himself, of course he would! Unless it was too much work to be really plausible. “Maybe I wouldn’t repair them if they asked me to repair them. I don’t know. I guess it would depend. Like on how easy it would be to repair them.” That admission about the limits of his own desire to actually do good is something lots of adults would struggle to let themselves make. It’s so honest and unglamorous.

Then just about at the end of the assessment part of the interview, he has this moment that struck me as so touching: “And I understand that maybe I hallucinate. I can see how that’s possible. I can see why you believe that, and even why maybe I should believe it. But I don’t believe it, not usually at least.” We’ve been glancing at this question in comments, whether Belt hallucinates or not, so it’s good to know that Belt’s confronted it too. But aside from that, I find it so mature and sad that he believes it’s real but also has that part of himself that doubts because he should. It’s that normative claim, the recognition of the persuasiveness of the available evidence in the face of his refusal or inability to be persuaded, that gets me.

The interview finishes with a really good change of rhythm from Belt’s long, searching speeches to a rapid-fire bit where he and Manx try to settle on what kind of companion animal he’s going to get. It’s a nicely sharp contrast to the really complex, emotional, philosophically sophisticated dialogue that preceded it. And thanks to its pacing and blunt, surprise punchlines, this, I think, is a perfect way to end the scene:

“Monkeys?”

“That’s slavery.”

“Cats?” said Manx.

“Dumber than everyone says, plus buttholes.”

“I couldn’t agree with you more,” Manx said. “Let’s head upstairs to the kennel, shall we?”

Gotcher Clickbait Right Here

Folks, I don’t like spending time with Belt Magnet!

All right, that was inflammatory and unnuanced, I admit. Here’s the more considered version: Although I find him an engrossing storyteller and an interesting and perceptive writer, being with Belt and his thoughts makes me uncomfortable.

I noticed it in our first week’s reading. Belt’s first trip to the bank felt…suffocating. Unpleasant for me as a reader. Made me think of George Saunders in his tragic mode, but somehow crueler. And then came the “About the Author” section, that big Q&A section where Belt spoke directly to us and shared his essay about meeting Sally the Balls, and suddenly I could breathe freely again.

It happened again in the second week’s reading. The whole stretch with his dad and the loose screw in the carpet transition strip and drinking the glass of water was excruciating for me. But then in the next section, with the playground and all the inans and teens Belt interacts with, I was all in again.

The trouble I’m having is with being inside Belt’s head too much. When he has someone to interact with and engage his mind with—including more overt interpellation of a reader, like with his novel and his essay—I really like how things go! But when he has nothing to catch his flailing thoughts on except themselves, it much tougher going. (I suspect this is also true for Belt himself, that the more there is other than his own thinking to think about, the greater the relief.) There’s something about his endless indecision trees that hits me as both tedious and dread-inducing, like Cthulhu preparing his taxes. It’s quite possibly a very good depiction of a kind of maladaptive thinking that may even be related to his diagnosis, but I find it so paralyzing, for Belt and me both, that it makes those parts hard to read.

Now. I say all that and it makes it sound like I’m not enjoying the book. I am, overall! I’m eager to pick it back up every time. I’ve liked Belt’s previous writing (the stories-within-a-story), and he seems to interact with the inans in a much more direct and authentic way that I think is really effective, and his flashbacks and reminiscences have been appealing. I just wish he could get out of his head once in a while in the present frame of the novel.

Take n+1

Oh man, y’all, I have been through so many false starts on this post. Did you know that when you’re only about 10% of the way through a book for the first time, it can be tough to corral your provisional assumptions and early observations into a proper argument?

Daryl and Paul took a much more sensible first-timer’s path, paying attention instead to what latched onto their reading experience like burrs on their socks and collecting the signals that suggested the future importance of marks and names. I’ma do that too, because the bell that keeps ringing in the back of my mind throughout this first week’s reading is empathy.

And listen, I know it’s thoroughly trodden ground to suggest that a novel might be concerned with empathy. That’s one of the original functions of fiction, right? Inviting empathy is one of the signature strengths especially of the novel as a form, with drama as the nearest competitor. There’s a lot that’s tedious about Percy Shelley, but this part of his Defence of Poetry has stuck with me for decades:

The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination.

Of course, he’s talking specifically about poetry (and, gross, specifically about men), but to Percy Shelley literally almost any creative expression of the will counted as one of “the kindred expressions of the poetical faculty”: “architecture, painting, music, the dance, sculpture, philosophy, and, we may add, the forms of civil life.” The point stands well enough, I hope.

(It looks like a scholar by the name of Suzanne Keen has done a lot of work in this field, which I’d love to read.)

But in Bubblegum it’s more explicit than that. Belt withholds from his readers the datum of his diagnosis out of a concern that it will make us unable to empathize with him. He’s afraid that instead of seeing him as a whole person, with varied motivations and experiences (y’all, I wanna quote my Whitman motto so bad right now), we’d only be able to think of him as a psychological disorder taking shape through time. The narrator of our book doesn’t trust us to extend him the empathy he deserves as a fellow human being—and (sad thought) that’s probably a conditioned distrust.

Speaking of conditioning! The cures are another site of empathy as a theme in this book, the way I see them. They were originally designed as therapy animals for children with psychotic disorders—am I remembering correctly that it was called the Friends Study?—who have to learn to understand their needs and care for them. And of course Belt appears to be unique in thinking of Blank as a pet and even a sibling. But “flesh-and-bone robot” is in the blurb we’ve all seen for the novel, right? So we already knew empathy was going to be an issue, specifically the question of who/what deserves it—because that’s why you put a robot in a story. Whatever your personal threshold is, whether it’s sentience or altruistic behavior or being alive or anything else, a story with a robot in it is intended to destabilize your certainty in that threshold.

(Briefly on sentience: The Turing test is our famous benchmark for identifying “intelligent” behavior indistinguishable from that of a human being. But note the formulation there. It’s not for measuring when a machine has become intelligent, it’s when that machine has become capable of behaviors that are consistent with intelligence such that a human observer infers the one from the other. This is a behaviorist test, right? Commonly, inaccurately used to “prove” the existence of something interior, which behaviorism would reject either the existence or the knowability of. Hence the excursus in Bubblegum on training your cure with conditioning methods, and all the documentation on cures that rigidly refuses to accord them any status but machines that produce outputs based on inputs.)

Belt’s threshold, it appears, is much lower than those of the people in the society around him. Much lower, we learn, because it’s not just other people he goes out of his nature into. It’s not just Blank and other cures. It’s…most things. When an inan may strike up a conversation with him at any moment, without warning or even previous identification as an inan rather than an inert object, it seems like there’s very little room for him to draw that circle that contains the empathizable-with and excludes the things that are beneath empathy. His swingset murders are mercy killings, specifically prompted by connecting to the suffering he perceives in the swingsets and their desire to be released from it.

On the other hand, he doesn’t really have any compunction about gaslighting his horrible racist grandmother into thinking she’s having dementia, so. Complicated subject. And I can tell I’m going to be thinking about it a lot!