A Hunger Artist

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

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

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

But what about the quote from Kafka?

The panther was all right.

Photo courtesy of Jason Liebig at CollectingCandy.com.

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

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

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

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

“You didn’t catch a single word?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sensory Reading

SOUND: CONFESSION: I don’t listen to podcasts. (That’s a lie. I do listen to The Great Concavity, but I haven’t listened to the interview with Adam Levin yet for fear of spoilers. But that’s an unrealistic fear isn’t it? Why would he spoil his book to an audience of listeners who would want to read it?) And, I’ve only listened to maybe three audiobooks in my life, but they were all narrated by the authors themselves and I still purchased a physical copy and read them again after listening. It isn’t because of any aversion to aural learning; I’m just a much stronger visual learner. When I listen to an audiobook, I tend to space-out, my thoughts wander, and although that might be the goal of speculative fiction, I’m often lost in my own world rather than the world so carefully constructed by the author.

However, I was so eager to start Bubblegum, that I signed up for Audible, used my two free credits to download it and Infinite Jest (an absolute bargain at 1 credit) and then promptly cancelled my subscription.

SOUND: I listened before bed and cracked up! I hadn’t found a book this funny since reading Infinite Jest. I mean, I couldn’t hear the line “Shut your piehole-cakeface, gaylord,” said Jonboat” without cracking a smile. And despite having a full knee-slapping guffaw at “It’s pissing through a boner,” I still passed out, earbuds in, audiobook playing.

I woke up to a dead phone. Apparently, 30% of the book had played before my battery died. All I remembered was a ridiculous character named Jonboat and something about a slogan on a T-shirt. Suffice it to say, my memory stopped at about 14 pages in, not 30%. NEWSFLASH: osmosis doesn’t work even when you have a direct link from the book to your body.

SMELL: My copy of the book arrived a few days later. And yes, it smelled like Bubblegum. I thought it was a scratch-and-sniff until I read the previous blog, which explains that it’s heat-activated.

TASTE: I ate a piece of Bubblegum in earnest when the book arrived. It’s not as great as anyone remembers.

SIGHT and SOUND: I decided to pair listening with reading. Although I could probably read it faster on my own, the voice of Mark Deakin had become Belt Magnet to me. The two seemed inseparable. So, I kept my slow and steady pace, learning from my mistakes, and pausing to sleep at page breaks. That is, until I got to Part II.

Part II is where we agreed to stop for this week. As such, the remaining discussion doesn’t spoil anything about Part II’s content. It is, however, the point at which my listening/reading experience was spoiled. So, I invite you, dear reader, to share in my misery, or to stop here.

Page Break

SIGHT: Read on. Join me in my obsessions.

SOUND: In Part II, I heard something I couldn’t unhear.

I heard a short, almost indecipherable hiss and then the first word of every sentence cut off. So, let’s say a sentence started with “So” I would only hear a faint hiss and then “ooo.” Or, “Or,” the faint hiss and then “rrr.” And once I noticed it, I couldn’t unnoticed it. I reasoned that Deakin was pronouncing the whole word, like any good voiceover artist would, but I couldn’t shake the idea that I heard the audio edits. Now, I’m not actively trying to dis the quality of the recording. My intentions here, are not to turn readers against the audiobook. I’m simply looking for solidarity, understanding, and to communicate/articulate my experience. Easy enough ask, right? That’s why I started with a disclaimer.

Either I’m a terrible auditory learner, or I’m super-sensitive, but the point is, I’m pretty sure it’s me! Maybe my “gate is open” to these auditory distractions. Maybe I can hear things no one else can. Maybe I’m as crazy as Belt Magnet. All I know is that once I noticed this quirk, it completely distracted me. I couldn’t pay attention to what was happening, so I stopped listening. And believe me, I sincerely mourn not hearing Levin’s grammar and syntax enunciated, as my interior reading voice does it no justice. Even the humor of the novel falls a little flatter reading it on the page instead of hearing it out loud.

TOUCH: On a brighter note though, I am now devouring the novel at my own ferocious reading pace. It’s been a real comfort to return to my natural reading habitat–reclined in bed, wrists cracking under the weight of a sweet-smelling hardcover, eyes racing back and forth across the page. And now I have a new obsession–The page break. It reminds me of Braille. Obviously, the spots aren’t raised, but I’m glad to have rediscovered my preference for a tactile experience. After all, Belt must ‘touch’ inans in order to communicate with them, so maybe the novel works the same way for me.

*I hope I haven’t ruined the audiobook for those of you who are still listening, and I hope I haven’t discouraged anyone from trying it out. More than likely, I’m the crazy one.

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!

A character by any other name.

As this book opens I couldn’t help but focus on names.  I have always been attuned to the names authors use.  When I used to attempt fiction, I could spend as much time trying to come up with the perfect meaningful name (see how the name comments on the action?) as with a story itself.   So when I see an author using especially peculiar names, my reading senses tingle.

This story is just full of unusual names.  And on several occasions names, or lack of names is significant.

Before starting on names though I have to chime in and say that “shut your piehole, cakeface” is hilarious.  And the whole argument about punctuation on T-shirts had me cracking up.

First of all, with a comma before “cakeface,” the shirt would have to be considered “officially punctuated” which would require a period be placed after “cakeface,” not to mention a colon, if not another comma, after “Jonboat Say,” and quotation marks around the catchphrase itself….  This, believed Jonboat, was more punctuation than a T-shirt could abide.

But back to names.

Part 1 Section 1 “Jonboat Say” starts off with the character named Jonboat.  I suspect most people have heard the nickname Jonboy, but I have personally never heard Jonboat before and I liked it immediately–weird and memorable.  There’s also his full name Jonny Pellmore-Jason and that his father is named Jon-Jon Jason.

It’s also interesting how the narrator introduces his family.  Since his family name [Magnet] is an everyday object that could be used as a descriptive word as well, introducing his family as “My family’s. We Magnets'” is certainly not the most direct way of providing information. My first thought was that it was metaphorical and that his family were the kind of people magnetically attracted to trouble.  This doesn’t even address his first name yet.  in fact, his first name won’t come for a long time.

The other prominent name in this section is Blackie Buxman.  This name doesn’t specifically signify anything to me at this point, but they all strike me as meaningful.  Most of the characters aren’t named common Anglo-Saxon names (well, okay, Jonny, but he is Jonboat).

So is “Blackie” a nickname like Jonboat or a given name?  There’s no way to know yet and maybe we never will as he doesn’t seem to be very important after the tetherball match.  I looked up the origin of Buxman and learned it’s the Americanized spelling of German Buchsmann, a topographic name from Middle High German buhs(boum) ‘box (tree)’ + man.  That doesn’t seem significant–although later he does punch the main character “in the asshole.”

Just after the first black dot triangle section break, there’s a geographically made up name: “Wheelatine Township” in the Chicagoland area.  Is the made up use of Wheelatine an indication that things are not real right from the start?  (I don’t know anything about Chicago, so if it’s a play on a region, it is lost on me).  Or is it just a simple narrative device to prevent people from fact-checking details?

Also, what the heck does Wheelatine mean?

Then there’s the main invented plot device, the “cures.”  The way these are introduced puzzles in the same way as “magnet”: “There I had my cure rustling around in its PillowNest.”  [shades of George Saunders with this naming convention].  This is deliberately confusing, there’s no question.  No capital, no italics, no capital C, there’s no indication that it is significant.  I had to read this sentence a few times just to see what I could possibly be missing.

Cure is short for Curio (which makes a lot of sense both as the real name and as an abbreviation).  It is a pet of sorts.  And he has named his Blank.  The Curio’s full name is Kablankey–named at his mother’s suggestion for the sound of its sneeze.  But ever since he’d “vented his temples” (?) he’d changed it to Blank, which was less childish but retained connections to his missing mother.

Curios had originally been called Botimals

By the way, “rear ejection” is what they call its waste.  Ha.

There are a whole bunch of names for things that happen to Curio owners. More words that have mundane meaning which are clearly used differently.  For instance, kids “go into overload” (which gets them on the news).  This is bad.

All of this in the first ten pages.

Then we finally get to the main character’s name.  Or what his name isn’t:

“Billy, listen–” said my father.
“That’s not my fucking name.”

Chapter 1 Section 2 is called “Two Hundred Some Quills”

I feel like I’ve heard the name Quills before for cigarettes, but the only thing a quick search provides is in a Stephen King story (which might be where I heard it).

As this section opens, our 38 year old narrator gets a birthday present from Clyde the Dad (his father is finally given a name).  Clyde is away (fishing with friends) and not-Billy is on his own.  Usually Clyde leaves money in the Marvin Hagler bust, be he has forgotten.

We also meet Grandmother Magnet who calls to wish him a happy birthday.  The narrator doesn’t feel like talking to her so he messes with her and she twists the Magnet/Jonboat piehole phrase to “Plug your dirty sheeny coinslot, ovensmear.”

Grandmother Magnet is full of racist name-calling, which is a shame because “ovensmear” is a wonderfully weird insult.

Not-Billy goes to the White Hen to by Quills from Pang, the owner (okay, sure) of the establishment.  Pang says that not-Billy is not creditworthy.  Instead Pang gives him a piece of Dubble Bubble (which not-Billy muses about and speculates could have been called bubbleychew). Speaking of gum, I’m glad Levin has settled the age-old debate that the plural of Bubblicious is Bubbliciousi.

Not-Billy returns home without his Quills only  to find “a check for $1,100 made out to my father.  My SSDI check.”  So he takes it to the bank.  Names are crucial at the bank as well.

The teller who helps him doesn’t have a nameplate up.  He is however, “wearing a pinstriped vest and decisive mustache … with a golden chain that disappeared inside the watchpocket.”  We soon learn his name is Chad-Kyle or C.K.

This fellow is just full of name brands:

“the most buzzed about line of Graham&Swords PlayChanger PerForumulae for Curios since 2008’s SloMo or perhaps even 1993’s BullyKing.”

He also passes out fliers at shows for DJ Crystal Worm.  And of course Crys-Dub’s style of sleazebeat was a revolution on the scale Wang Kar Pourquoi’s first forays into fuzzdub or even Murder-ers’ trademark-infringement days when they were still called Murderers Jr.  The fliers are for a party at Killer Queen Marmalade’s, sponsored by Que Padre Mezcal.

The teller is offering to give not-Billy an advance of the new Curio forumlae “Independence.”  He has already given it to his cure Tiddlywinks.  But when not-Billy says he doesn’t want to show off his Cure, the teller assumes that Blank is a hobunk.

Finally they get around to the transaction.  Not-Billy doesn’t have an ATM card.  When he shows C.K. his state ID, C.K says, “Now that is a name.”

Turns out the check is a problem because of names:

It’s my SSDI check. I’m the beneficiary.  My father’s my guardian, though, so it’s made out to him.

Outside of the bank we formally meet Lotta Hogg (a name that is hilarious, offensive and absurd but not out of the realm of believability).

Unless I missed it earlier, Lotta is the first person to say not-Billy’s full name: Belt Magnet.  She says it in full at least three times and addresses him by his first name many times during the conversation.  She even gives this name a series of nicknames: Beltenhauer, Magnetron, Beltinya Magnetovich [that one is inspired].

It turns out that Lotta and her friends (we finally have conventional names here: Kelly, Jenn and Ashley) were somewhat in awe of him back in 1987 [Belt was 12, Lotta was 9, give or take].  His actions caused them all to menstruate at the same time [?].

They talk about the return to town of Jonboat and his fiancee (?) named Fondajane. [There’s a lot to unpack with that].

As this conversation ends, Lotta wants to see his cure, but he tells her it is a hobunk and “could tear your friends to pieces.”

Chapter One Section 3 is called “About the Author.”
He tells us that he deliberately did not reveal his name at the beginning.  He didn’t want to write “My name is Belt Magnet, and sometimes I’m psychotic–at least that’s what they say.”

This section is a mostly a series of questions in interview format.

His psychotic symptoms manifest in being able to converse with inanimate objects or “inans.”  He needs to have his “gate” open to receive their messages (which are written in between vertical lines: ||Maybe that’s your own problem||.

The next question concerns Lotta Hogg and how she and her friends all had “the onset of puberty” at the same time because of what he did.  What he did has been named “the swingset murders.”  He essentially destroyed a series of swing sets with a bat, and they are continually referred to as “murders.”

In the newspaper article the girl who describes him as “so cute” is not named: “identified only, to my great frustration, as a “member of the popular set at WJH.”  Earlier it was said that the team name is Washington, so it’s safe to guess Washington Junior High.

Belt has an abetter in his murders, an eight grader named Rory Riley.  Belt had just destroyed the Blond family swing set.  Their son Ron Blond high-fived Belt for doing so (he hated that old swing set).  Riley also hated the swing set and proposed he fins another for Belt to murder.  Chuck Schmidt lived in “Old Wheelatine” where Feather lived, and they encouraged him to murder the Feather swingset.  This murder is what got the newspapers’ attention.

A question asks about his psychosis.

When discussing his medication, he talks about Eileen Bobbert who likes pun-driven jokes (and gave him Risperdal).  His prior doctor was named Emil Calgary who liked more scatological pun-driven jokes (and gave him Haldol).

There’s not much more in the way of names after this (even the doctor names aren’t revelatory I don’t think).  But one of the questions in this section stresses the naming of the Curios as botimals.  It was called a Botimal, a “robot made of flesh and bone,” but it was a pet to him–a new kind of pet.  He has never been able to think of Blank as a robot.

There’s more unusual word choice here though.  People “kill” their cures, regularly.  In fact, that seems to be what you’re supposed to do to it.  Earlier Belt said he had never so much as hurt Blank before.  Belt has been unable to do so, but he never prevented anyone else from doing it.  Nevertheless:

Blank was my pet, though.  My friend.  My sibling.  I didn’t want to kill it, even when I did.

Belt has possibly the oldest living Curio.  The oldest publicly stated Curio was owned by a monk and named Basho (17th century Japanese haiku master).

Finally, Belt reveals that he is an author.  His novel is named No Please Don’t.  It was published by Darger Editions (Henry Darger was an American writer, novelist and artist who worked as a hospital custodian in Chicago, Illinois).  It concerns a character named Gil MacCabby who has lost his most favorite toy, and intergalactic smuggler called Bam Naka (which seems Star Wars inspired).

Belt also wrote an essay for Harper’s which was not published (although it is printed here) called “The Magnets, the Birds and the Balls” (June 2006) about his Grandma Magnet having an affair with a mobster by the name of Salvatore “Sally the Balls” DiBoccerini.  The Balls had an African Gray parrot named “Mouth” who would repeat just about anything (including lots of curse words).

There’s a lot to look at with all these names.  Most are probably not significant.  Many are probably just there for a joke.  And there’s nothing wrong with that either.

I don’t imagine there will be too many more significant new characters introduced,so I doubt there’s going to be many more new names to look at.

Nevertheless, with Levin’s clear love of language, I’ll bet whatever names he does come up with will be entertaining.

♦          ♦

As a writer, he reads a lot.  Here’s a list of the stories he mentions

Donald Barthelme “Balloon”
Franz Kafka’s “Blumfield”
Jeff Parker “Our Cause”
Robert Coover “The Hat Act”

♦          ♦

Incidentally, I co-posted this on my own site which includes a “Soundtrack” for each post.  All of the posts for Bubblegum will “feature” bubblegum pop songs.  This week’s is The Archie’s “Sugar Sugar.”

Marks and Meaning

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”’

The Hat Act

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

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

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

In the middle of the stage: a plain table.

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


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

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

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

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