Remembrance of Things Past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dramatization of me reading these two selections.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s a similar sensibility here, no?

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

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

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

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

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.)

A Fistful of Fists is a Handful

After the academia and “high brow” thoughts of Triple J’s essays, this week’s transcription of Triple J’s film A Fistful of Fists: A Documentary Collage is rather tough reading.  It reminded me of reading something like David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men or Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (The Part About the Crimes) in that there’s some really horrible things to witness but their inclusion serves to prove a point and even to further the plot and fill in some gaps.

A Fistful of Fists is a collage of twenty-seven short films all about the joy of killing cures.  The transcription is a print version of what is seen on the videos, sometimes in graphic detail.

1.  The first is a Prelaunch announcement ad for PerFormulae during Super Bowl XXV.  It calls to mind the Super Bowl ad for Apple computers, with the use of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and 2001 imagery. The first PerFormulae are Chunker, MegaChunker and PinnochiNose.  The terrible tagline: Cuter Newer.

2. Next is a home video called Popsicles in which pencils are screwed into Curio exits.  The cameraman is Jeremy-Niles Nelson (presumably the Niles from Belt’s group who will appear in a later clip).  He is filming Doc Robbie as he demonstrates how to popsicle Scatty–a curio who blows kisses to the camera while also flipping off the camera. These two are real idiot characters: “immortalized forever on V to the H to the sweet-ass S.”  Scatty is in pain but also wants to please–it’s face contorting from pain to smiles.  The end of the clip has Niles and Robbie fighting over who will overload on Scatty.

3. This one made me laugh.  It’s PlayChanger product placement on Beverly Hills 90210 (1993).  In another twist on reality, Jared Leto is a main character in 90210.  The loser kid is David (who was the loser kid on the show).  David tries to do a skateboard trick but Jared Leto’s friends make fun of him.  Then Jared Leto lightens up and they bond over GameChanger, the PerForumlae line.  It’s a pretty genius parody of a 90210 bonding scene.

4. Shows the Garagenhauer R&D team making a Formula Trial.  For this this formula they are turning the painsong into barks.  Call it DogThroat?  No, Barker.

5. This is a college workshop, a linguistics class about defining the proper use of the word overload.  I loved the nod to David Foster Wallace by having the teacher (who I even considered might be Wallace) saying “And but so your answer….”  He wonders, Do we used “Dave overloaded” or “Dave went into overload.”  Is it elective or involuntary?   What if you are in a state of wanting to overload but are physically prevented from doing so.  Did you “overload” or not?

6. Called The Best.  In this home video a boy tapes a cure to a wall just out of reach of their cat, Frankenstein.  We know from the instruction manual that cats want to catch Curios, and that cures should never be left alone with a cat.  Adam is on screen while his sister Rachel is filming.  The cure is called Percy.  Percy whistles “Yellow Submarine.”  Frankenstein sees Percy taped up and begins hissing, jumping, spitting, wanting to get Percy.  Percy is bicycling its legs trying to get away, then going limp like it’s about to painsong.  Its “the best.”  Perfect tension!  You want something to happen, but if it does happen its over.

In the process they wake up their little sister Paula who pets Percy then crushes it.  Rachel starts crying. Adam says,” don’t cry it’s only a cure.”  Rachel says” it was my turn.”

7. The next is an R&D film from Graham&Swords.  Their “Chameleon Trials.” to test out a  Formula that make a cure turn the color of the object touching it.  The scientists look on as each subject dies…over and over.

8. The Story of Spidge Part 1 from an HBO film. We lean what spidge actually means and where it comes from.

There’s an interview with a man named Woof.  He and Burnsy were responsible for discovering spidge.  These two guys were trying to find a way to get high.  They tried to get high by ingesting PreFromulae but it didn’t work.  They thought that maybe the grieving chemicals that cures release when the dact would get them high.  So they swallowed a recently dead one (it was gross) but it didn’t do anything.  But when Woof pooped he saw the cure’s spine in his poop–you can’t digest it.  They thought the chemicals might be in the bones.  So they ground up some bones and snorted them, smoked them, put them in cookies and it was excellent.

They started a company called Burnsy&Woof. They were going to make the perfect spidge pipes and were eventually bought out by Graham&Swords.  They had their brand logo done by Jizzbrain.

Now, I’m guessing, since the metal band that Woof is talking about is pretty much Metallica, that Jizzbrain is probably Pushead the artist who dis a lot of early artwork for Metallica.  Woof explains

Metal band makes a classy black-and-white video for a song with a couple slow like acoustic parts in it [Metallica’s “One”] and they go number one, heavy rotation, platinum times ten and still every kid at their concert just knows he’s the only person in all the world who really understands their music, even while he’s thinking it from row nine million at a football stadium he paid fifty fucken 1991 dollars to be at even while all the fuckers who ever picked on him at school, razzing him over his haircut and boot and acne or whatever, they’re down in front of the stage high-fiving each other and like … aw man

Then we learn that Burnsy died in a mosh pit saving some eccentrically dressed probably gay kid who was getting kicked.

I think Burnsy went into that mosh pit that night partly because it was full of a bunch of fratboy-type jerks who were turning our beloved subculture…into a kind of mainstream date-rapey, baseball-cap-wearing travesty of bullying jock-type aggression–rather than the joyful celebratory-type aggression it once was. I’m saying he want to to reclaim it, you know.

As a fan of the subculture around the same time, I can totally relate to everything he’s saying here.

Turns out “spidge” was something Burnsy used to say for thingy or whatchamacallit: “Ladle me out a bowl of that spidge.”  When he introduced other to it others, “You should try this spidge I have with me.”  It just caught on.

9. Cuddlefarmer Harvest.  A school boy is beaten up for his cures. A girl makes him feel better by showing him her hobunk which destroys his remaining cure.  They walk off arm in arm.

10. A clip from 1992 shows soldiers handing out curios to citizens, presumably in Yemen (as the war was in Yemen).  One of the soldiers names is Clybourn (which is the name of the woman whose spade Belt destroyed).  They hand out “demons” to the locals and try to teach them to take care of them not to just kill them on the spot.  One does and they tell him he can’t have another one (although they relent and give him another).

11. Called The Afterbirth of Rock n Roll.  It’s the closing credits of 20/20 with a promo for Barbara Walters talking to Fondjane Henry next week.  In the video we see The P.A.L. (PerFormulae Abuse Labs) Brothers Donny Mark and Greg Biscuits.  They like to stack ’em and abuse ’em.  In this video they use BullyKing and Screamer in megadoses.  When dosed like this they get Bitchy Elvis.

12. More from The Story of Spidge this time a girl who dissects and removes the spines (in great detail) from Curios.  She grinds up just the spines and makes the purest spidge.  Most people use all the bones which dilutes it, since the good stuff is in the spines.  She makes a lot of money doing this.  People think it’s disgusting, but they are hypocrites.  She is also vegetarian saying it is disgusting to eat meat.

13. A clip called “Sacrament” from Come Again!? with Philip Daley Alejandro.  This is a sensationalist talk show about a cult figure who says that overloading is like a sacrament–teaching the beauty of selflessness.  Alejandro is having none of that.

14. This is the first of several “Yachts Joints.”  This one called Flick&Look:a Yachts Joint.  This is game to see who can hold out the longest from killing their cure after flicking it and making it painsong.  The Yachts are of course Chaz Jr, Chaz, 3-J. Lyle and Bryce.  3-J wins.

15. The opening of Inhuman Self Denial.  This one is about Basho the longest lived cure (aside from Belt’s) and the monk who owns it.  He is The One Who Sees Basho.  People from all around the world come to see Basho as well but it takes all of the monks to hold back the crowd from trying to overload on Basho.

16 Yachts Joint 2 is Charity Party.  The Yachts surprise a teacher by giving him a cure that is trapped in he teacher’s door handle singing painsong.  The teacher looks around and quickly destroys it.  The Yachts burst out snd shout surprise.  They never gave a hoot about World War II until this teacher’s class.  This is their way of saying thanks.

17. The next clip is a Public Service Announcement from PAVIOSI [Parents Against Violence In Our Schools Initiative].  Fondajane alluded to these PSAs in her speech to the art participants.  In this one, a boy is picked on and is about to get revenge.  But his friend gives him his cure and lets him overload instead.  It’s an easy way to prevent violence in school.

18. The next one was also mentioned earlier.  And Now, For What You Thought was The First Time Ever is the 20/20 segment that Belt and his father watched.  It enraged Clyde and Belt was sure he recognized Niles from his Belinda Carlisle shirt.   At the Carl Sandberg Middle School Talent Show, Niles shows off all the adorable things his cure can do and by the end he kills it in front of the horrified crowd.

19. This is the first part of the Silver-Medaling US National Science Fair Entry featuring Maya Mehta.  In this first part she nervously introduces herself and her methodology.  She is very shy and wants to study shyness in cures.  Are cures too shy to rear-eject in front of people?  She wants to see if she can film cures rear-ejecting at night.

She has four cures: Mick & Keith and Paul & John.  She thinks that they associate the camera with her, so when she put the camera in their nest, they were too shy to rear eject in front of it.  She has more work to do.

She is also clearly accident prone and at the end of the clip she loses her balance.  In the next clip she has her arm in a sling.

20. The next Yachts Joint is another Charity Party, this one called: Charity Party II: Charity Parties. They leave a cure tied in a urinal for a man to drown.  They do another one in the girls’ bathroom.  A girl happily kills it but when the Yachts jump out she is annoyed that they are in the girls room: “What the fuck, you guys?  You’re not supposed to be in–oh, hey Triple J.”  The final one is in Triple-J’s house, a gift to Oliver.

21. Part two of the Silver-Medaling video.  This is a pretty funny/adorable sequence of the cures hiding their rear ejections.  The cures who had never seen a video camera before had no problem rear-ejecting in front of a camcorder at night–victory for science!

She puts the camera in with the cures who were shy of the camera and after several days they finally started rear-ejecting. Keith grabbed Mick to cover him while he rear-ejected.  The funnier one is Paul who rear-ejects in his sleep right onto John’s abdomen.  He is so embarrassed that he puts it behind John’s rear and then sleeps near the other two.  John is pissed.  But sadly, John dacts after 8 days without a rear-ejection.

22. This clip is from a home cooking video from Timmy and Tommy Kamanski.  They BBQ everything: they never heat without fire.  Except this time they are going rogue because they are going to crock pot a cure to soften it for eventual BBQ.  We already know that cures taste terrible, but maybe with some BBQ work they’ll be edible.

23. Schrödinger’s Curio is another home video from Robbie.  This time he is filming his popsicle’d cures as an extra credit project for Dr. Martin.  I was amused that, like in Triple J’s paper, much of the video is taken up with Robbie addressing his teacher–this time apologizing for bad behavior in class.

When he gets to the “academic” part, he is demonstrating the Observer Effect.  He and his frat brother Micky McMichaels have their cures painsinging.  He postulates that all cures will appear to be happy when they see someone watching them.  But the ones that belong to Robbie will attempt it more intensely.  The ones that belong to Mickey Double-M tried less hard and the ones that did not belong to either tries the least hard to look happy.  This earned him some extra credit and an overload session.

25. The final Yachts Joint is called Charity Party III: Tree of Charity.  The Yachts have tied up and made painsing a bunch of curios all over a playground.  [I assume this is what they were planning to do when they met up with Belt that day?].  A large group of grade school children run onto the playground.  The Yachts tells the kids that this is their last day of school present.  All they have to do is repeat: “This Charity Party comes compliments of the Yachts.”  They happily do and the next 10 minutes are slow-motion footage of the kids overloading to tune of Bach’s “Toccata an Fugue in F Minor.”

26. And Now, For What you Thought was The Second Time Ever is not from 20/20, it is from 60 Minutes.  This clip is of security footage from Kim’s Liquor Food.  The convenience store owner argues with a man about what he is going to pay for his New Coke and his Chick-o-Sticks.  He offers a cure, which the owner seems willing accept.  Then guys beat up the first guy and kill the cure.  The first man is devastated.

27. The final clip is from the University of Chicago Graham&Swords Study dated January 23 & January 30, 1988.

This clip is immediately familiar.  It is the camera-eye version of the earlier scenes with Belt and Lisette. The first scene is of the two of them playing footsie.   The second one is when Belt tells Lisette that his mother is dying.  He punches James who says “It’s okay, I knew you were a hitter.”

But the new information is from 47 minutes after Belt has left.  James tries to comfort Lisette by letting her pet Zappy, his cure.  Then he tells her he loves her.  She is angry with him but then an offscreen voice who we would recognize as Bertrand says, “Wipe the oozey jizz from your pinkeyes, Dicksuck!  She’s in love with Suspendersed.  Everyone knows it.”

James tells Zappy he is almost as cute as Lisette.  He strokes it harder until it starts to painsing. Lisette gets upset saying she doesn’t think it likes that.  Why would you do that? Please stop!

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I found this section really hard to read sometimes.  Despite Triple-J’s assertion that cures are just robots, the detail of viscera and painsong was really hard to read in such detail.  And yet this section did give a lot of interesting insights.

Insights into characters and scenes we had only heard about.  Also into the origins of spidge.

It also shows that people of all ages are overloading–so it’s not regulated in any way.  And in the one scene when the boy tells his sister its only a robot, he thinks she is upset because the robot is killed–but she isn’t.  Children are inured to it, even though initially people were not.

Of course, the greatest revelation is the final scene with Lisette.  Is there any way that Triple-J knows that that was Belt?  Did he show him this on purpose?  Also, if Lisette was against harming cures then, is she still?  I had the idea that maybe she was the girl who could also talk to inans because of it.  But that seems unlikely since she couldn’t back then (unless she could but didn’t admit it?  That whole business about female objects?)

Either way, with about 300 pages left in the book, a lot can still happen.  But I really liked the way these disparate ideas seem to be circulating and crossing back on each other.

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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 Banana Splits with “Tra La La (One Banana, Two Banana).

Lists and Ekphrasis and Lists of Ekphrases

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

Juxtaposition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image by Flickr user flclk8 under a Creative Commons license.

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

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

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

Sometimes One Looks Like The Other, Bad Taste and Stupidity

This weeks reading was really intense.  It also showed things that I never imagined would come up in this story.

  • A lengthy and carefully edited suicide note.
  • A lengthy treatise on transgendered persons/prostitution/homosexuality
  • Academic papers that are simultaneously well-written and yet obviously the work of a child.

Part Two, Section 5 of the book is called “Letters and Facts.”

This was an interesting place to stop/resume reading because, although they reference the same incident, the beginning of this section differs from the end of the previous section.

The previous section ends:

Abed was palming the top of my head, saying something hummy in Urdu or Hindi

Whereas this section opens with

“Then Abed put his hand in top of my head and sang or said something in Indian or Arab that was probably either a prayer or a spell–here comes dad with Rich and Jim.”

The book explains that the quote above was the “last line I wrote in my daily journal for weeks.”

Belt’s mother had been diagnosed with cancer more or less throughout her body.  It devastated her quickly: “My mother was dying, and before I got used to that, my mother was dead.”

But before she dies, they spend some time together at home.  She gave Belt a copy of Franny and Zooey that she’d bought for him.  He read that while she read Breakfast of Champions because she knew he liked it.  She also asked to read his journals to get a better sense of him.  She promised not to show his father.  And also later said what a strong writer he was

This whole sequence is remarkably tender–especially for a book that has some really strange and vulgar sequences.

His parents thought it would be best if he went back to the study (they needed the study to pay for his treatment).  Rick and Jim drove him.  I love that Jim called him “duke” a couple of times.  Nice throwback to “the duke of puke” which Belt didn’t learn about until present time.

This is his last day at the study.  He sees Lisette who tells him that her rat, Misty Cunningham, is dead.  She loved it so much she squeezed it to death–just like Stevie wanted to do to Blank when she first saw it.  When he says he is sorry, she says, “you don’t think I’m lying?”  He says no, but when she asks to see Blank, Belt wouldn’t let her and she stormed off.

Later when he told her that his mother had cancer, Lisette yells that he’s full of it.  James overheard the argument and supported Belt.  But Belt turned around and punched him in the face.  James says, “I knew you were a hitter.”

Belt didn’t return to the study, even though Manx said he could.

At home, he tells his father that he beat up a kid.  Clyde is partially delighted:

The doctor seemed to think the kid you hit must’ve deserved it, or at least he didn’t argue when I said that was probably what it was so I’m gonna go ahead and say “Good job.”

Later Belt has restless sleep.  In a scene that reminded me of the scene in David Foster Wallace’s “Backbone” sequence, Belt tries to get full access to his body parts–working one muscle at at time: wiggling his ears, getting his scrotum to jump, flexing his pecs.

That’s when when his father presents Belt with two notes from his mother.  Belts’ father also got two notes.  One was typed and one was handwritten.  The handwritten one is dated 1/21/99 1:07AM-2:49AM from the living room couch.

This letter says that she can no longer speak.  But she still wants to communicate.  Most importantly, she wants him to know she loves him.  She wanted to make sure he read this note before reading the typed note–her formal suicide letter.

The typed note was written 1/25-30/88.  It is … impressive.

Part 2, Section 6 is “Look at Your Father.”

While Belt and his father are watching TV (Sledge Hammer!)they switch the channel and there’s a promo for 20/20.  A Botimal is onscreen with the announcer asking what the creature is and what could bring a boy to ends its life.  Belt says he thinks it is Miles, no Niles.  He didn’t know Niles, Niles was in the study in a different section.  But Niles wore a Belinda Carlisle shirt (not a lot of junior high-school aged boys would admit to their Belinda Carlisle fandom let alone be willing t advertise it).  The episode was about how   Niles did whatever he did (we don’t know specifically yet) for the Sandburg Middle School Talent Show.

Belt’s father is mad because Barbara Walters told half the world that the only people who have Botimals are a few “psychotically disturbed kids” enrolled in the study.  Clyde says belt has his blessing, no he is instructing him to break any kid’s nose who gives him a hard time about that.  You got that, Billy.

But nobody talked to him–people gave him a wide berth.

For timeline purposes: This was all just before the “Jonboat say” T-shirt incident happened.

Part III is called Portfolio.

Earlier in one of the sections Jonboat ‘s son Jonny Pellmore-Jason Jr. (Triple J) asked Belt to read his manuscripts and watch his film.  Well, now we get to see them.

On Private Viewing was written Feb 15, 2013 for an independent study class.

It is an essay about Private Viewing “the last important work of art of the twentieth century.”  It was created by Triple J’s stepmom Fondajane Henry.

There is so much going on in this essay which is way too long to recount.

I love that it written as a largely thoughtful and well-written, more or less academic paper.  There’s footnotes, and a bibliography and the language that Triple J uses (for the most part) is thoughtful.  There’s even a citation to Camille Paglia, the perfect choice for a turn of the century era sexuality writer who would have an opinion on everything, and the wonderfully postmodern title of Fondajane’s book C(unt)ock.

But I also love that he is a high school kid (right, freshman in high school?) who is throwing in completely nonacademic personal asides and notes to his teacher (a lengthy parenthetical paragraph directly addresses his teacher).  Plus it is about his stepmother and one of his source is her talking to him about things for most of his life.

And that the essay is probably supposed to be about five pages and he handed in about 70.

There is so much in here to unpack.  Most of it seems to have nothing to do with the story per se–about Curios and Belt’s life.

Fodajane is an intersex artist.   She wrote the book Flesh and Bone Robots You Think are Your Friends when she was twenty-two, which earned her a PhD.  It was the catalyst for the decriminalization of prostitution.

We also learn in a total throwaway line that Jonboat had “just come back from his fifth mission to outer space.”  And that he officially separated from his birth mother to be in a couple with Fondajane.  And that he was the last man involved in her art performance, Private Viewing, in February 2000.

There’s also the fascinating statement that America was attacked on September 13, 2001 and that congress legalized gay marriage and prostitution the same week it authorized troops to be sent to Yemen for Operation Enduring Freedom.

Later, in Triple J’s second essay he says that back then “our whole country ha[d] been almost broke because of Reagan who made it cheaper to make cars in Mexico or wherever, so there’s less and less jobs in the USA.”  Luckily Curios launched a Cute Economy.  [I was a young teenager during the 80s and have lots of thoughts about Reagan, but I don’t specifically recall anything to do with cars and Mexico].

So, is this more of people getting their historical facts wrong, like Chad-Kyle did with Nobel?  Or are we living in a different timeline where things are similar but not the same (obviously there’s no internet, but maybe that’s not the only difference).

Belt knew some thing was incorrect about Chad-Kyle’s account of Nobel, but we don’t know which parts.  We don’t know (yet) if Triple J is wrong about history (of course, he wouldn’t be so wrong about homosexuality and prostitution being legalized, which would certainly be obvious enough for him to know).

The appendix to the essay is the speech that she said to each oft he participants in Private Viewing. She would say the exact same thing to each of them. It is basically her life story.

She was born in 1975 with ambiguous genitalia and given up for adoption.  Her adoptive parents were each in their second marriage.  They also each had had a daughter named Dolores who had died.  So they named her Dolores and didn’t seem to care about her genitalia.

Unexpectedly this appendix actually refers to Cures.  She threatened to destroy her mother’s cure, Jamey.  They were still fairly expensive then and cathartic overload hadn’t caught on yet.  She didn’t overload on it and felt better about herself.

Years later, she met transgender friends in New York City.  She met Janie Sezz and Maggie Mae (this name is a little disappointing).  She told them she was Lola even though she’d never used that name before. (It seemed crazy that her name would be Lola when there was that Kinks song–too coincidental to be real).  They kept telling Lola that they were not fond of her name.

Over time her name became Fond, then Fonda, then Fondajane.

The second essay is Living Isn’t Functioning written June 3, 2012 for Freshmen Honors Writing and Rhetoric.

The first 2/3 of this essay present a side by side comparison of the 1988 Botimal manual with the 2012 Curio manual.

I’m curious how many people will read these two manuals in their entirety.  I don’t even read manuals of things I own, and yet I loved reading this.  And I loved finding out that according to Triple J, I read it the way he intended–section by section to compare and contrast them (that’s why they were printed side by side instead of one after the other).

His thesis is that “people will say anything to sell you what they are trying to sell you, especially if those people are corporations. It’s shady.”  He shows the comparison to demonstrate how G&S is trying to sell things.

There are many contrasts, but I like that right in the beginning the phrasing is changed from Botimal: the flesh-and-bone robot that thinks it’s your friend to CURIO: the lifelike best friend that believes it’s your pet.  Compare those tow Fondajane’s book: Flesh and Bone Robots You Think are Your Friends

The 2012 manual also introduces PerFormulae, specifically (and I thought of George Saunders with the way these were written: SwimHands®, RooLegs®, Chunker®, MegaChunker®, Dwarfer®, PinnochiNose®, Fanger®, FiveHead®.  The mind reels with what some of these might do.

There’s also the fabulous origin story possibilities of the Curio.  The person who “created” them was Dr Burton Pinflex, Former head of the R&D team and Graham&Swords LiveTech Division.

They posit that he may have been designing drone-capable soft automation fighters bomb defusers and information gathering.  There’s the great slogan: Since 1911, Graham&Swords has been America’s #1 Most Trusted Supplier of Armaments®.

There’s also a bit about cuteness in the 1988 manual (that is not mentioned in 2012).  Yes, your Curio will be objectively cuter and more adorable as it goes on.

The 2012 manual address the Hobunk issue but as Triple J says it seems like they didn’t know much about them or thought they would scare people, but “the way they talk about them now, it’s almost like they’re saying “user: if you don’t do what it takes to make hobunks, you’ll really be missing out on some fun.”

I love how once again, Triple J is taking an honest academic approach to the subject but with personal asides. Botimals is “an ugly-sounding word that sounds like lobotomy.”  There’s also another wonderful example of overthinking an issue (this time by Triple J not Belt).  This one is about Triple J’s friend who only wants to eat microwaved pizza instead of “handmade.”

I thoroughly enjoyed this discussion and the many levels it had, (although it is too lengthy to repeat here but options:

  • he’s not low on funds (Triple J will pay)
  • he’s not too hungry to wait (handmade takes about a long)
  • he’s not worried about Triple J spending too much money (he’s happy to have Triple J buy expensive things)
  • it’s not cooler to like microwaved (It’s bland and cheap and “somehow girl-repelling.”)
  • he may hate Triple J and thrill at watching Triple J eat microwaved who would rather eat handmade.  (That would be almost psychopathic)

.He has to conclude that his friend is just not that bright.  His observation is that “sometimes one looks like the other, bad taste and stupidity and it might be that sometimes they’re actually the same thing.”

Then we find out that triple J is connected to the Swords of Graham&Swords!

Tessa Sword is the daughter of Baron Swords who is the son of Xavier Swords. Baron Swords is Triple J’s godfather.  Xavier Swords is Triple J’s grandfather’s cousin by marriage.  Tessa told him that Cures were supposed to be like other pets only not smell as bad or need much.

By 2012 Graham&Swords “stopped lying and started emphasizing the truth about how cures/Botimals were really just robots that whatever you did to them was totally okay.”

I also loved the circular logic of this:

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.

Also note that the idea of Botimals being made of real flesh sort of came up as flesh and bone robots, but could they be made of humans?  Interestingly Triple J is not so concerned about that:

They never say in that FAQ answer that cures/Botimals aren’t made of human and bird DNA or whatever… the DNA stuff is beside the point.

This story just went from one thing to something else entirely and I’m really looking forward to how these ideas are going to unpack further.  I’m foreshadowing a lot of potentials here.  What’s a red herring and what’s just a fun throwaway idea?

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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 Fun and Games with “Elephant Candy.”

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?”

They fuck you up, your mum and dad

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” So opens Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse,” which I’ll quote in full below because it’s short and marvelous:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

It’s a favorite of mine, and I thought about it a lot in this week’s reading, particularly with parents like Clyde Magnet and his mother and Stevie Strumm’s father and grandfather in mind.

Clyde sometimes shows a faint veneer of consideration for Belt, but it generally rings pretty hollow to me. Sure he intended to overload on that cure with Belt as a treat. He didn’t even remember to leave Belt money while off fishing during Belt’s birthday week. At times, he gave off what I took to be a sort of abusive vibe with his comments about “taking it on the chin” and the bullying vibe he directs at Belt about the water glass on pages 86 – 87, where Belt says that with “my father behind me, especially in a hallway, I always felt as though I were about to flinch, and I knew that if I flinched or even seemed to him to be on the verge of flinching, he’d enjoy my flinching… and he’d attempt to make me flinch again and again…” This does not feel like a healthy dynamic. And generally, Clyde’s advice in the book is pretty old-fashioned (though less so when it’s set in the late ’80s) and tending toward being brutish.

(A quick coda regarding Clyde, added after I originally wrote this piece a few days ago and added just prior to publication: At the book club Zoom call last night, the host proposed that Clyde shows love through aggression, and this does sort of hold water for me. I show affection for friends by teasing them, and sometimes that teasing, without full context, could be construed as a little cruel. Maybe Clyde is just sort of old-fashioned, of the toxic masculinity school of parenting, and is unsure how to express positive emotion in a way that doesn’t seem kind of aggressive and off. I still sort of think, based on what we’ve read through this week’s milestone, that this flinchy type behavior is pretty awful, but I think the book club host is probably right and that Clyde isn’t actually as bad as he so far seems. Still, that kind of thing can fuck you up (they may not mean to, but they do), so I’m keeping Clyde on my shit list in spite of my initial over-simplistic read of his behavior.)

Clyde’s mother wasn’t so nice either (but they were fucked up in their turn), sort of bragging to her 12-year-old grandson when he’s just learned that his mother has had a seizure about how she (Grandmother Magnet) brooked no nonsense from a young Clyde of the sort Belt has demonstrated. And then there’s the fact that she took her young grandson to a mobster’s house for an overnighter. This is all very funny, but none of it’s going to win her Grandmother of the Year.

Stevie Strumm’s family tree is composed of at best negligent parents and at least of a purportedly murderous Nazi grandfather.

One can imagine that Jonboat isn’t the greatest of fathers either, though it’s early yet to say, so I may be projecting some of his cruddy youthful behavior onto the adult.

I think most novels deal with parenthood and childhood in some way or another — most of us have at least been the child of a parent — so it’s hard to escape as an essential part of the human experience when writing a book. And I don’t have any profound insights about parenthood or childhood in the book. But I do think there’s more here than just a few displays of crummy parenting.

On page 236, Dr. Manx explains to Belt and his mother that the Botimal will need to be cuddled for a couple of hours per day, which sounds to Belt’s mother like a big commitment. Just a moment before, Belt has asked if he can swap the Botimal for a sugar glider in a month. His next line after Manx explains what’s required to nurture this tiny cuddly creature, which must imprint much as birds do on their parents, is “I want it.” That’s a pretty sudden turnaround.

On the next page, Belt relates a story about a visit with his mother when he was younger to the natural history museum. He had learned that dinosaur models were made sometimes of plastic. This was disillusioning for him, and yet he felt that he must protect his mother from being disappointed in his disillusionment. He compares this phenomenon to another:

I was six or maybe seven years old, and for as long as I was able to remember, I’d pretended that when she blew air on a flesh wound — a bee-stung knee, say, or rugburned elbow — the pain went away. It was important she believe I believed in her magic.

It’s such a tender thing, this protective instinct the child has for the parent. Belt goes on to overcompensate for his disillusionment when they visit the aquarium on that same disappointing day, but it’s clear that his mother doesn’t fall for it; he has failed to make her believe. This is a sad memory for him, his saddest still at the age of 12, in fact, and so ill-equipped is he as a child to separate his own sadness from his mother’s that he thinks it must be her saddest memory too.

After leaving Manx (years after those other museum trips), Belt and his mother go to the Science and Industry museum, where they see chicks hatching from eggs and a wall of fetuses at different stages of development, and this prompts Belt to tell his mother he can’t wait to have a kid:

I said it again in front of week 38, and I saw she was crying. I assumed that she figured I was hamming it up; assumed she’d remembered that time at the Shedd, and that all the authentic enthusiasm I’d shown since we’d arrived a the museum — maybe even since Manx had assigned me the Botimal — now appeared false to her.

Of course I was wrong. The problem was she did buy my excitement for fatherhood. The degree to which I misunderstood was almost comical.

He carries on trying to convince her. The misunderstanding of course (unless I am once again being a doofus and reading simplistically) is that she has just brought her psychotic son from an appointment where they’ve learned that good outcomes for similar patients include maybe being able to do a little for themselves as they head toward middle-age. Being a father is not likely in Belt’s future, she knows, and his clear enthusiasm for doing so no doubt makes her sadder with each of his cheerful reassurances.

In the pages that follow, Belt and his mother watch the Botimal ovum’s progress very carefully, and it looks very much like the anxiety and wonder with which parents-to-be track the progress of their children-to-be.

How many limbs would it have? How many fingers? What color velvet? Would it think it was a person? Would it think I was a Botimal? What was it like to be something’s best friend? Was reciprocity a foregone conclusion? And what if somebody tried to steal it? Wouldn’t somebody try to steal it? What if somebody tried to hurt it? How could I protect it? And when — when exactly — would it hatch?

Although different in some (but not all) of their particulars, these are the obsessions of parents-to-be. And then on page 245, Belt looks for changes in the ovum’s squiggles and finds “three roughly parallel slashes, two green and one blue, across the horn of each anvil.” This sounds an awfully lot like the sorts of signs you look for when reading a pregnancy test.

Belt’s anticipation and hope stand in stark contrast to the pretty lackluster parenting we’ve seen so far in the book, and I wonder if this contrast will begin deeper into the novel to resonate more directly with threads pertaining to sentience and suffering, and with yearning for connection for beings not yourself. At any rate, there seems to be a lot happening early in the book that positions Belt as a nurturer with pretty parental instincts and associations, and I’m curious to see what if anything will come of that.

Lacing up my rhinestoned shirt in Vegas or: Finking wrecks fun

Part Two of the book is called “The Hope of Rusting Swingsets”

So if you thought the swing set murders were not going to be revisited, you’d have been wrong.

Part 2 Section 1 is called “Look at Your Mother.”  It concerns Stevie Strumm.

Belt has had a crush on Stevie for a while.  She’s the only girl that he can comfortably talk to.  Stevie had once given him a mixtape because he liked her Cramps shirt.  Stevie, the second youngest Strumm, invited Belt over to destroy their rusted swingset (number ten in his murderous spree).  She was babysitting her younger sister while the rest of her family was at a G N’ R show.

The end of the second paragraph promises two events that we haven’t seen and may or may not.  He has a vertiginous feeling that he will feel “while dressing at the foot of Grete the grad student’s bed and after reading No Please Don’t‘s first review.”

This swingset murder attracts a large crowd, but is notable for the conversation he has with the swingset.  The swingset is grateful that Belt came along.  Nobody swings on it anymore, it’s swing is wrapped around the crossbeam.  It’s just rusting.  The swingset is really down on itself ||I know I’m repellent|| and Belt tries his best to comfort it saying he wants to swing on it one last time.

This event is also significant for a few other things.  Jonboat’s driver Burroughs introduces himself for the first time (Jonboat wishes Belt to “break a leg”).  Belt is doing this for Stevie, but is aware that she is not watching and then see that she gets a hickie from Jonbaot in his limo.

And the cops arrive.

A bunch of the kids are at the station and they try to figure out who called the cops.  Blackie is a suspect (he wasn’t there).  Rhino Riggings suggests it was Jonboat (he has a phone in the limo).  But the fink was Sally-Jay Strumm, Stevie’s eight-year old sister. She gives no reason but Belt has some ideas.  She was brought to the station by her grandfather (a biker with hair dyed blacker than his leathers).  The grandfather tells Sally-Jay that “Finking wrecks fun and Finking makes trouble.”

Grandpa has a teardrop tattoo and when he sees Stevie’s hickie he assumed it is police brutality and he stars a brawl.

When Belt’s mother comes to pick him up she is mostly concerned that he wasn’t drinking or taking drugs. She can’t believe he was at a party where people were doing that.

Eventually she asks why he did what he did to the swingset and the story shapes up that Stevie asked him to do it and his mom is happy he likes a girl (even if she throws parties where kids get drunk).

One thing that fascinates me is that the flashbacks are set in 1987.  That’s the year I graduated high school.  All of the flashbacks are part of my childhood memory, so I can relate almost 100%.  But when I think back.  If hypothetically this book was written in 1987 and the flashbacks were set in 1957, those flashbacks would be like the dark ages to me.  So if you are reading this in high school now, 1987 wasn’t really that long ago. It was just a world without the internet–just like Belt’s world.

I hated family sitcoms–so I played the troubled teen who refused to be pacified… You either aimed for Ferris Beuller [Ferris Beuller’s Day Off] or Dallas Winston [The Outsiders]–which on its own was bad enough–but in the first case you’d end up coming off like Ricky Stratton [Silver Spoons], maybe even Mike Seaver [Family Ties], and in the second case Cockroach [The Cosby Show?] or Boner Stabone [Growing Pains].  By You I mean I.  At least for awhile.

My favorite evidence of a different world than ours comes in this hilarious section where Belt is thinking about what a Botimal could actually be.  He hasn’t seen one yet, but could you imagine:

A pet that was somehow cuter than a mogwai?  One that smelled like candy, spoke and sang, and hatched from an egg you wore on your wrist.  A pet of that description that was also a robot?  It sounded about as real as genies.  As ray-guns, light sabers, X-ray glasses. As pocket-size, voice commendable Game Boys that doubled as camcorders , tripled as calculators, and made long-distance telephone calls.

Fantastic.

Part 2, Section 2 is “Eleventh”

It begins with Belt watching Grandpa Reinhardt Alfons Grandpa Strumm making a statement to the media about the pigs.  Then Rory Riley calling him to say he’s a star.  Even Wheelatine High School’s own Milo Sorkin called him!  They all wanted to know when the next swingset murder would be.  But Belt decided not to do any more at least publicly.

Belt wanted to give Stevie a note in school the next day but she wasn’t there.  People speculated why she wasn’t in school.  But it was also revealed that Grandpa fell off a barstool and died last night.

Blackie and “his aspiring toady, schoolwide chess champ Harold Euwenus mocked Belt:  “Why the long face, fuck-ass… Sad about pawpaw.”  When Euwenus jokes that her family probably does call him pawpaw because “they’re total white trash,” Blackie says “My family says pawpaw.”  And give his toadie what for.

But Stevie isn’t sad about her grandpa dying.  “He’s a terrible person.  He beat on my dad.”  He is a Nazi.  in a white supremacist gang called the “Aryan Fuckers.”   But guess who is a Jew?  Stevie’s mom.

Stevie has seen Belt reading Cat’s Cradle, so she was reading Slaughterhouse-Five, “The only non-board book I’ve read twice.”

There’s a fascinatingly thoughtful section about young love.

Belt says he thinks he’s in love with Stevie and she says she knows.  He’s the only boy she ever has real conversations with.  It’s a big deal that he tried to understand her.  She wishes she wanted to kiss him.

I’ll want to one day, I know that much, but it won’t be til you’re twenty, maybe even twenty-five, because that’s the kind of face you have, the kind I’ll like when you’re a man.  Not just me, either. Lots of girls.  Which is exactly what sucks.  For me, it sucks, I mean.  Because the reason you’re into me is I have a certain style and I’m confident about it.  Once your face becomes the kind I’ll want to kiss, though, you’ll know a lot of confident styley girls to talk to.  I’ll be old news.  I’ll be just the same as I am right now, and maybe worse.

This sounds like an insight from experience.

The next swingeset murder was a solitary affair. It was at the Temple house. Their tragic story was a local favorite.

Simon Temple won the state lottery–not the whole pot but enough to buy a BMW and make some household improvements. They had put in a new driveway and garage and just needed to remove the old driveway and carport.  Then Simon and his children Tommy and Jessa died in a car crash. The car was driven by Simon’s wife Clare and she survived.  She was only driving because she had been an alcoholic but sobered up with Simon’s lottery win.  They were at wedding that night and Simon got drunk so Clare drove home and fell asleep at the wheel.  She didn’t go out much.

The carport was still there and their swingset was under  it.  It wasn’t hard to guess the swingset wasn’t happy.  Although this swingset was not rusted, because it was under the carport.  It just had no hope of very being used again.  The swingset has a lengthy conversation with Belt.

It is delusional and believes that it is hallucinating everything, including belt [it’s remarkably sad].

Belt went into the garage across the street and borrowed a long-handled spade.

Belt proceeds to murder the swingset. But when he pauses mid way through, the swingset has second thoughts.  What if it can be repurposed.  Maybe it doesn’t want to die.  Belt tries to reassure the swingset that this is the best recourse, especially now that it is damaged.  The last blow didn’t feel so right after all. “It felt like defeat. Or maybe more like a victory I’d rather not have won.”

Then the spade says he ruined its existence.  During the murder, Belt broke the spade’s handle.  It now has no reason to exist.  Belt decides to murder the spade to make it completely dead rather than just broken. He’s about to slam it on the driveway to bend it, when the owner of the spade comes home.  Her name is Ms Clybourn.  She called Belt’s mom, not the cops, and proves to be very sympathetic to Belt.  She gives him Crystal Light and talks nicely to him: “pleasant accents were contagious.”

He talks about Stevie and she commiserates about being alone.  says she is too pretty to be alone.  She is flattered by him and apologizes for calling his mom–she doesn’t want him to get in trouble.  After he describes the murders, she suggests he has anger issues and that’s what Belt runs with.  He even tells his mother he thinks it’s anger issues because of Stevie.  His mother did not like Ms. Clybourn, calling her a drunk.

They get home and Belt’s father is especially awful.  I could quote the whole thing at length, but I’ll truncate to my favorite parts

Belt’s father says he’s acting crazy.  But there’s crazy crazy and there’s acceptable crazy.   Destroying a swingset is the bad kind.  Belt asks what kind of crazy is okay.

The kind that doesn’t last and makes sense… Like for instance, what?  Maybe this Stevie likes another boy instead of you?  So maybe you–and I’m not saying this is what you should do, but just a for-instance of something that’s the better kind of crazy–maybe you kick his fucken ass a little but.  Like in front of her.  To show her, and him–
“Stop it,” said my mom.
“I’m not trying to say he should kick this kid’s ass….  I’m telling him that hitting people makes more sense than hitting a swingset.  Or a driveway or stealing a shovel. … And don’t get me wrong I’m, not talking about terrorism. I’m not talking about bullying.  I’m talking about the targeted hitting of people who deserve it or who seem to deserve it even though you shouldn’t in the end, actually hit them, probably.  I mean, unless they seem like they’re gonna hit you, or a girl.  And if if that was what you were wishing you were doing when you were hitting that swingset or hitting that driveway–I want you to say so because that would make a lot more sense to me, and then, you know, maybe my fatherly duty is more like I have to teach you how to not be sacred to fight instead of figure out who the best kid-shrink for crazy anger problems is.  The most important thing, though–and honey, please stop shaking your head, let me finish, he has to hear this–the important things is that when you were hitting that driveway and hitting that swingset, the important thing is you weren’t wishing you were hitting this girl, this Stevie.  You don’t hit girls is the important thing, got it?  You don’t even picture it.  You picture hitting somebody, you picture a guy, okay?  And if you’re so angry that you have to hit someone, you better make sure that someone’s a guy or guess what? I’ll hitting you. … And you will deserve it, Billy. Guys like that–guys who hit girls–those are the worst kind of guys there are. Even wore than guys who kick dogs okay?  The only guys who deserve getting hit worse than the one who hit girls are the ones who rape kids, which I don’t even want to get into that with you, into thinking about that.  But am I wrong, baby?  Don’t tel me I’m wrong.”
“You’re sending him the wrong message he’s a coward….  What he should have been doing is talking to us or crying, Clyde.  Crying to us”
“Well I don;t know if that’s true…. Crying about a girl you your parents is–well it’s embarrassing.”

After this huge fight Belt’s mother starts pummeling inans–plates, beer steins.

The section ends with Murder #3.  It was at the house of Regis Piper. When he saw the murdered swingset, he thought nothing of it.  His wife had read about cults, but he didn’t think that was it.  But after grandpa and the Nazi connection came out, Piper went to the cops.  Suddenly Belt was a suspect.  Belt’s dad talked to a cop named Platzik to try to keep Belt out of trouble.  But Platzik had a brother at the Herald and his nephew was Euwenus who’d been a the murder and suddenly its was all over the Herald.

Part 2, Section 3 “Friends” provides a backstory I didn’t necessarily think we were going to get.  And wow does it fill in a lot.  We even get the origin of Belt’s name: Belt Alton Magnet (although no origin for the Alton yet).

Back to 1987.  Basically Belt’s mom sees an ad on the subway (after her car got its second flat tire in as many days) for a study introducing therapy animals to children with psychotic disorders.

This is where he met Dr Calgary Tilly and Dr. Lionel Manx and how he got Blank.

In introducing Belt, Belt’s mother explains that he was named after her Uncle Belt.  Well, Uncle Gunther was his name” but no one much liked that–how could they?”  Gunther’s older brother was bullying him at a bus stop–was making him sing the Happy Birthday song over and over at the top of his lungs

and a young black woman, who my father always swore was Billie Holiday, though no one ever believed him, she approached the two boys and said to my father, “you’re picking on him now, but just you wait.  He’s gonna be a star.  Little kid’s got pipes.  Boy can belt.”  And after that Uncle Gunther was Belt.

He never sang though, because he had stage fright.  But when he got to high school, kids thought he was called Belt because he liked to hit people. So kids picked on him and he actually got good at fighting.  He took up boxing and lost his stage fright.  So then he joined a band.  But in his next fight his hearing was damaged which wrecked his voice.

Belt was her favorite Uncle and everyone liked him so Belt’s dad (even though he wasn’t crazy about the name), let her call him Belt (which even his dad agreed was better than Gunther).

Manx asks him about destroying swingsets.  The doctor asks why he calls them murders and he says the newspapers called it that.  It sounds cooler than “the swingset mercies of the swingset help-outs.”

Belt says he is trying to help them.  Belt says he would repair them if he could but he’s terrible with his hands.  Plus eh couldn’t promise to save all of the swingsets.  He makes an analogy of giving money to a homeless person.  That basically you’re giving them money to drink or buy drugs so it’s not really helping them.  If you want to help, you should give them a home.

Belt is approved for the study.  Manx shows him a series of pets which he says he does not want: puppy, turtle, parrot, snake.  He is very interested in the sugar gliders, but then Manx tries to sell him on these new items, called Botimals.  Manx has no visuals, just a sales pitch. It’s hard to sell a thing that no one has heard of over and adorable sugar glider, but he says they are cuter than Gremlins.  This gets Belt (and Belts mom) excited about the idea.  So he lets Belt try out the Botimal for a week.

There’s a kind of throwaway section that caught my attention and I wondered if it was a hint that will lead to something ulterior.

Graham&Swords sponsored this study.  Manx isn’t sure why.  Belt’s mom asks if Graham&Swords are the “we do dishes right” brand.  Manx says that indeed it is.  But home appliances barely account for a tenth of their business.  The majority of their profits actually comes from armaments, though soon I bet it’ll come from Botimals.

Is there going to be some kind of military component to the Botimals?

So Belt has the unhatched Blank in his room.

There’s an example of an inan expressing happiness toward Belt.  His swivel chair thanked him for when he occasionally rolled around the room ||Generally speaking, we are vastly underutilized as modes of short-range transport.||

Belt has been stealing Quills from his parents ever since his mom yelled at him for asking for one.  He always knew he wanted to smoke.  But much of the reason was because he wanted to be a writer and knew his life up until now wouldn’t provide much material.  Whereas staring to smoke, “a thing that impressed me as a sign of character” could supply him with a moment worth writing about.

Then he started smoking with Stevie behind the dumpsters.  He brought Quills and his Botimal to school. He showed her the egg, but when she asked if she could hold it, he came up with a genius excuse  He told her it was a an Indian agate–like a mood ring.  There was oil or gas inside and he couldn’t let anyone else touch because his skin caused it to from shapes symbolic of his spirit or something.  She thought it was bullshit but let it slide.

When Blank finally hatches, it emitted a sequence of schwas:  “ǝ ǝ,” it said.  He blew on it; it sneezed and got its name.

The next morning his father fed Kerblankey a diced onion dusted in cayenne.  Belt can’t determine his motivation, but Clyde is pretty much a dick.  Blank strangled, thrashed and panicked until Belt taught him to spit.

His father apologized.  Then he said the way it was singing he was having an “over-kissy grammy moment.  I just want to squeeze it.  Eat it right up.”

During this section Belt’s mom tells him that she always anthropomorphized animals-in a way that she felt was unhealthy.  She connects this to his inans.  She says she understands how hard it will be to resist them, but she asks him to promise to never hurt an inanimate object again.

Belt brought Blank to school the next day to show Stevie.  She finds it adorable, but is nervous because she just wants to squeeze it.  Belt doesn’t feel that way.

Then Rory Riley and Jonboat happen upon them.  Stevie thought that Belt and Jonboat could be friends.  But the boys walk in on them looking at Blank and they get really handsy.  Belt punches Rory.  Jonboat is cool about it though and calms everyone down.  Belt tells everyone it’s a it’s a sugar glider.

From then on, kids didn’t bother him, they were respectfully distant.  Perhaps it was because

I was (or at least had been) all messed up  Troubled.  Off.  Lacing up my rhinestoned shirt in Vegas.

I have never heard this expression before.  It’s vivid and wonderful, but so puzzling.  I looked up the phrase online and found literally one entry.  It is for a memorial service.

Wear any bling you have and any bright colored scarves or hats. If you bought a boa or a rhinestone shirt in Vegas or New Orleans, please wear it because my mother would have appreciated it.

It doesn’t help, but it is fascinating.

Part 2, Section 4 is “Applied Behavioral Science.”  This final section for the week is all about Belt’s group study program. Essentially, if he goes through with this study for sixteen weeks, they will give him the animal and pay for his therapy.  Belt says that he felt that Graham&Swords were pretty great to him because he dropped out early but they let him keep Blank and paid for his therapy anyway.

There’s a grad student named Abed (which makes me think of Community).  We see the questionnaires that belt [B.A.M.] was supposed fill out before and after each session.  Mostly the children have group activities where they interact and are observed.  He says most of the kids weren’t really noteworthy, Belt described them playing truth or dare.  Most of the kids took truth and deadpanned answers to “personal” questions.  But the dares hey gave were either impossible “jump out the window and fly” or like this: “Fart really loud while running in place like you’re running from the fart you did and shout how you love it.”

But he did meet three notable children.

James is a boy with a ferret called Screwball. This boy has a lazy eye is very concerned with whether he thinks people are a retard or if they think he is a retard.  He says he’s a hugger, but he notes, “If you have to be a hugger you have to ask permission.”

James is a font of inappropriate language.  I often marvel a the words that Levin conjures.

“That’s how its supposed to be. Poontangy haze, better lays and later days, Belt!”
“James please,” said his mom.
“Pleasey von Sleazy and a bottle of redrum.”

But James has got nothing on Bertrand who greets Belt thusly:

Five in a night makes a happy and healthy twenty-fucken-eight, you cocksucking, cockfucking son of a cunt.”

Belt says Bertrand is Sergeant Harmanesque (the yelling sergeant from Full Metal Jacket).

Bertrand calls Belt “Suspendersed”(which is hilarious) and then introduces him to his gecko Mikeylikey.

This is also where he meets Lisette.

Technically, he first met her on his way to meet the doctors.  They walked towards each other in the hallway and the girl slammed into him and said “Excuse me, excuse me.”  Her mom apologized by Belt thought it was funny.

Lisette was assigned to his group.  She refused to bring her pet (she was the sole non-compliant female).  He was intrigued but intimidated by her.  He believed that he was still mourning Stevie and didn’t want to switch his focus too soon, as if it invalidated his feelings.  So he tried to avoid her.  Until she started playing footsie (aggressive footsie) with him, repeating the excuse me joke.  She makes up an elaborate story about how she got scars saving a bunny from afire.  The story seemed fake because first there were two and then there were three but it was all a test to see how Belt would react to her lies.

I don’t know how much these other children will play into the next section.  I assume we’ll learn why belt left the study, but the preponderance of children with “problems” is certainly an obvious component to the story.

Lisette talks with him about the inans.  She has some intriguing ideas.  She asks if all the voices are male.  They are.  Why?  He doesn’t know.  She asks him to talk to her glove and he says that clothes never really talk to him.  He posits that are shy, but Lisette counters that maybe they are girls and girls don’t talk to him.  Indeed, maybe most things are girls and that’s why you only wind up talking to some things.

He repeats what his father said about maybes:

“Maybe’s a shrug. A shrug and a dodge.  Maybe’s the sound second thoughts make.”
“That’s the single saddest thing I’ve heard this year.  What a disappointment.  You sound like somebody’s dumbfuck father.”

Perhaps the Inans stem from his inability to talk to girls?

As the section ends, Manx gives Belt a prototype Cure Sleeve (the one he still has).  Manx really seems to have taken to Belt or there is something about Belt that makes him think he is perfect for a Botimal.

Abed also gives the news that his mother collapsed and is in the hospital.

Abed makes a hilariously inappropriate and botched attempt at referencing Bugs Bunny.

Evidently Belt’s mother was trying to downplay how serious it was that she had fallen down.  Abed found her on the ground and

She widened her eyes, looking deeply into mine, and plainly stated, “Ah-buh-dee-ah-buh-dee-ah-buh-dee, that is all there is folks.”
“Like Porky Pig?” I said. It didn’t sound like her.  Or Porky Pig.
“No!” Abed said.  “I have made a mistake.  That was my response to her joke.  What she said was, “It appeared as though I made an incorrect turn at Albuquerque, New Mexico.”

Abed seems to downplay the seriousness, but when belt’s grandma arrives she says it is indeed serious and that’s why she’s there.

She clearly has no tolerance for any of this psychology mumbo jumbo.   She say that Belt’s father had imaginary friends too.

He would try to introduce me.  Did I pretend that I saw them?  I did not pretend I saw them.  I did not pretend to believe he saw them.  And guess what happened.  He stopped pretending to see them.

Maybe that’s why he’s mean to her over the phone.

I really didn’t expect much backstory in this novel for some reason.  It seemed like it would be all forward-looking.  I’m very curious now how much more we’ll see of 1987.  And if we’ll meet Grete the grad student.

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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 Ohio Express with “Chewy Chewy.”.