Turn and Face the Strange: On Bubblegum

The very existence of science fiction proves that people love weird, imaginative shit. As long as it rings true to the author, as long as it functions within its own logic, someone else out there in the world will also dig it. Like Dune, there are moments in Adam Levin’s Bubblegum where you will have no idea what is going on with the whole book. There are moments where you won’t have any context and things just seem postmodern a la Moe Szyslak’s definition: “weird for the sake of weird.” Hang in there, I am telling you. The structure of the novel artfully sifts together many divergent strands with the “main” story of Belt Magnet and his cure.

Why do we read books like this at all? Everyone has their own answer, but for me, part of it is to face the strangeness head on. In fact, I think there is no limit to the amount of strange, weird shit people will read or watch or look at. Have you ever stared at a Breughel painting or a Cy Twombly or Kandinsky painting and wondered not only what the thing was trying to communicate to you and the rest of the world, but also what sort of mind produced this particular image at that particular time? That’s a little bit of how I felt reading Bubblegum. As as sort of intro to the book, if you haven’t started yet or if you have only read a few pages, I encourage you to stay curious about the story and the storyteller.

Throughout this novel, you will see Adam Levin reveal himself as the artist in the picture (another postmodern / metafictional necessity), and some of the adolescent characters and their argot might be familiar if you have read The Instructions. But to me, there was enough substance in the book that resembled nothing I’d read before. That said, literary critic / icon Steven Moore notes in the introduction of the first volume of his book The Novel: An Alternative History that “avant-garde, experimental novels are not a 20th-century development, as is commonly believed, but instead have a long, rich history, one never properly told.” This style of storytelling, if it seems strange and new enough, is proof that it has been around forever. With its varying pieces sewn together with multiple characters and subplots, Bubblegum is a throwback in some ways, but, like all great novels, it feels completely a product of its moment in history.

Every book we read fits into the landscape of previous books we’ve read. If you’ve just spent months with Ahab and Ishmael and Queequeg occupying your every waking thought, and then you jump into something like Ducks, Newburyport or My Struggle, your brain might take a few clicks to recalibrate to the 21st Century, but soon enough you will start to see similarities, overlaps, parallels, symbolic analogies, harmony, etc. partly because of the whaling fiction already burned into your retinas and partly because that’s how brains work: seeking patterns, fitting together loose parts in order to make sense.

There will be much for us to sort out in Bubblegum. What are these furry little creatures called Cures? What’s wrong with Belt Magnet? It’s a strange book, a strange object, but I’ve always liked this quote from Donald Barthelme:

‘“The aim of literature”, Baskerville replied grandly, “is the creation of a strange object covered with fur which breaks your heart.”’

Water on the Brain

This week I’ve seen Moby-Dick everywhere I turn. (I’m way behind in the reading.)

• I forgot that I had a Captain Ahab t-shirt and found that at the bottom of the laundry pile.

• I picked up a book in the library because it had a cool cover (The Secret of Lost Things by Sheridan Hay) and it turns out to be a novel about a woman searching for a lost Melville manuscript.

• A lunch companion happens to be a specialist in 19th Century American fiction and he recounts the anecdote that Melville was so obscure upon his death that one of his obituaries referred to him (Melville) as “Sherman” Melville.

• The great whale seems to be stalking my salt shaker.

• I come across this tidbit about the original Infinite Jest manuscript: it began with quotes and definitions about addiction. Wallace cut this Moby-Dick-like opening and decided to let Hal summarize his findings: “The original sense of addiction involved being bound over, dedicated, either legally or spiritually. To devote one’s life, plunge in. I had researched this” (IJ 900).

So yes, the novel pervades. It feels as if its influence has never been greater. The canon wars seem powerless against Moby-Dick’s timeless postmodernism. I keep trying to pinpoint what makes Moby-Dick feel so accessible and relevant. Clearly, it’s a combination of things: a linear narrative, first-person narration, vivid characters, empathy, theory of everything, and others. Or maybe not. I don’t know.

The first 40 or so chapters, with all the scene-setting, describing the characters, their jobs, the specific rooms on the Pequod, in some way this all reminds me of parts of The Life Aquatic, with the cutaway ship visuals and the straightforward introductions of the crewmembers. I know the influence is going the other direction, but sometimes your memory does not move chronologically. However, once we’re past chapter 50 and we’re into the complexities of whaling, the details of the characters’ lives, and the interspersed calm days on the water, I find myself thinking of another relatively contemporary work: Stanley Crawford’s Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine. In a way, Stanley’s book is Moby-Dick‘s polar opposite: only 100 pages, narrated by a woman, a madman in search of nothing, two people alone on a massive ship. And yet, since I’ve read Crawford’s book lately, I see the source of his inspiration in new light (really, you should check out Unguentine). Jeff expertly shows how the narration of Moby-Dick is constructed, and thinking about Stanley Crawford’s novel and Wes Anderson’s film leads me to think that maybe Moby-Dick is (also) a novel about “the narrator” and narration.

I cannot let this week pass without quoting one of my favorite passages :

All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.

Week 1: The Point of Departure

Hello, everyone! I’m Matt Bucher and you might remember me from such group reads as “Infinite Summer,” “Murder in the Desert: 2666 and You,” and “The Ontological Despair of Ramona Quimby (and Her Sister): A 32-week Read-Along Course.” I’m happy to be here with you all as we try to read Moby-Dick in six weeks of summer. My way of getting around this is by reading as fast and furiously as I can before the official starting bell rings. When I first tried reading Moby-Dick, I’d take my time with the first 100 pages or so, relishing the time Ishmael spends in Nantucket, on dry land, and getting on the ship. That’s how Melville hooks you. However, when we pushed off the docks and faced the endless horizon of the sea, I’d start to get a little panicky. I’d long ago read a comic-version of the story so I knew how awesome the ending was, but between Chapter 21 or so and the end was a pacific-wide stretch of story that I had trouble sinking my teeth into. This time around, with the compressed schedule and all, I’m taking the aggressive approach of licking my thumb and *skimming* the first 20 Chapters, just driving right up to the Pequod’s departure. In all fairness, I’ve probably read that first 20 Chapters a half-dozen times, and once partly this year when we went back and examined Father Mapple’s sermon for the 2666 read, and while I love it dearly, the heart of the novel, I believe, is that chase for the whale. I love stories of the sea, especially stories of people who are pushed to the very limits of human endurance and experience (polar explorers and Holocaust survivors mostly), but I would not automatically read any story about a whaling adventure (although I probably would watch any giving episode of “The Deadliest Catch”).

What makes Moby-Dick special is its characters. Melville’s ability to create a voice inside the head of Ishmael that is still able to align with the empathy and thought patterns of readers 150+ years later is truly a stunning achievement. What I mean by empathy there is causing the reader, even in some small way, to think, “That’s how I would react, too!” or “That’s exactly what I was thinking!” This leads me to make even broader generalizations and say that when we talk about the author’s “style” we end up talking about characters. Diction, word choice, point of view, all of it ends up being in service of creating memorable characters—especially when we end up seeing the story unfold through a particular character’s eyes. Which leads me to this: Who is the main character of Moby-Dick? Is it Ishmael, Ahab, or the whale? How is Melville playing upon traditional ideas of the hero or the hero’s quest (the odyssey) by having Ishmael appear to be a passive observer throughout much of the book?