Chewing Bubblegum

Though requiring some patience at first, Adam Levin’s recent novel Bubblegum (2020) is a mature, inventive and often hilarious novel.  The payoff is enormous: formally inventive in its labeled parts: chapters, sections, parts, or subordinate “books” which make up the novel or book as a whole; as well as linguistically inventive in its style of dialogue, and imaginatively and intellectually challenging in its high concept: in so many words, part of Bubblegum’s hilarity and surprises arises out of a patience with its tricky methods and its resistance to casual reading. Challenging as it may appear, Bubblegum is immensely rewarding and entertaining.

The linguistic challenge of the novel is what can be called monologuing; in fact, our narrator Belt uses this word), and it manifests itself in two modes: the dialogue of the characters speaking to our narrator (and only when they speak to our narrator), and some portions of the narration itself when the narrator goes into a mode of narration which comes off as babbling when the reader is not paying attention to the patterns of thought happening in his monologuing, but when actually read carefully it reveals a critical dimension of the narrator as a character: the pattern is that the narrator’s moments of self-reflection are meditated on too long, he devolves into second-guessing, over-worrying, and hyper-concerned with never really having a grasp on the perception of his character by others, and never really knowing what other peoples’ motives and intentions ever are. His father’s wise words to him are that “maybe is the sound second thoughts make”.

One minor linguistic challenge, the only one that tested my patience, is the narrator’s name being Belt. His full name is Belt Magnet. And there’s an internally understandable and sort of fun story we get in the book about his first name (he is named after a relative’s nickname and the word is “belt” as in “belting a song”. But there’s no operative use in the name, which is distracting.

The formal innovations begin at the macro-level. The novel is divided into Parts I – V, and each of the five parts is subtitled. Four if the give parts of the novel are made up of chapters, which is normal. Each chapter is named but not numbered, which isn’t too out-of-the-ordinary. Part III, the middle-Part titled “Portfolio,” is composed of firstly of two “essays” written by one of the characters Triple-J, and a prose-adaptation (we learn later Belt and Triple-J refer to it as a transcription) by our narrator Belt, of a film-collage made by Triple-J. Each of the two essays, in addition, present each their own glimmers of narrative brilliance: in the appendix to one essay we get the voice of a character who hadn’t entered the story until the appendix: we basically temporarily have our narration experience taken over by a brand new voice belonging to a character who is equally as engaging and whose voice is equally as distinctive as Belt Magnet’s and Triple-J’s (and via his two essays and his monologues during the active part of the novel Triple-J does sort of play narrator at times), and her name is FondaJane, and she is an important character in Part IV of the novel, titled “Compound.”. This is where patience equals payoff. Her role is far less interesting and engaging if you don’t read the “Appendix” to Triple-J’s first essay, and the “Appendix” only makes sense in the context of the narrative as a whole if you read “On Private Viewing,” Triple-J’s essay. Also, reading his essay and its Appendix, the voice of FondaJane, sheds light on a few things hinted at in Part I of the novel that otherwise aren’t ever addressed. I express the importance of not glossing over parts of Bubblegum because there were early reviews of the novel claiming certain parts “begged to be skimmed.”

The 2nd “essay,” titled “Living isn’t Functioning,” begins by placing the 1988 version and the 2012 version of the instruction manual for an interactive-entertainment item which is either a “flesh-and-bone robot” or a lab-manufactured variety of animal, and is regardless a consumer item which plays an enprmous key role in the plot of the novel. The layout of the page in the novel is double-columned during this portion of the 2nd essay, placing the two versions of the Botimal/Curio manuals side-by-side, and what this demonstrates is how different the goals, sentiments, implications, and undertones are regarding the use of the item, called a Botimal in 1988, and a Curio by 2012, have changed in those decades. Looking at the change of motivations of the company which manufactures Botimals/Curios, Graham & Swords, is a rich source of interpretive material for understanding larger themes in the novel.

The film collage, the third item in “Portfolio,” is one of the most engaging parts of the novel. The reason for the film collage’s inclusion is not discovered in the active narration until much later, and is revealed in stages. But until you find out why it is there, it is still one of the most engaging and fun parts to read. As mentioned above, one of the early reviews of Levin’s novel claimed that the pieces composing “Portfolio,” including the film collage transcript, “beg to be skipped or at the very least skimmed,”[1] and that writer mentions the collage prose transcript very specifically as being one of those things. This could not be more wrong. This is one of the most interesting parts to read. The collage is a sort of short/flash -fiction marathon which rapidly unveils the history of a cultural phenomenon which had already begun showing itself in the background of Parts I & II, and plays a big role in our narrator’s everyday life: this cultural phenomenon’s key participants, and its evolution, are given narrative over the course of twenty-six scenes, most of which contain casts of characters or a narrative monologue distinct from one another. Sone of the scenes are about teenagers breaking the Curios in interesting ways while getting a thrill out of it; some others are scenes about drug addicts discovering new highs gained from using parts of their Curios; to scenes of professional scientific experiments (and one a monologue about schoolgirl’s science fair project). The forms of the scenes vary as well, from recorded monologues, to interviews, to home video footage rendered in prose, and onward.

[1] Kathleen Rooney in The Chicago Tribune, 10 April 2020. (Kathleen Rooney by the way is herself a wonderfully inventive, innovative storyteller. Check out Cher Amy and Major Whittlesey, also published in 2020.)

On the topic of the Curio/Botimal, this brings us to the novel’s high concept. Bubblegum purports to be set in a version of contemporary life (almost all of its action takes place between 1988 and 2013) in which the Internet never came to be, and in the space of our lives which the Internet would have occupied arose the Botimal/Curio. The challenge that this presents is, in order to get the most out of the novel’s high concept and the social commentary, the best thing to do is, while engaging with the narrative, to be hyper-conscious of reading everything in the context that there is no Internet. This understanding is revealing about nearly all of the social and cultural implications to be found, but the one which stands out most is that the discussion of artificial intelligence is reversed. Where it began in the real world that computers are machines first and then might also either be intelligent or aspire to intelligence and if it were to ever reach a certain degree of intelligence, would said-intelligence transcend its artificial origins and elevate the intelligent machine to sentience, the implication is reversed in the sense that as a child Belt first acquired a Botimal as a pet as a part of his therapy for a cognitive/psychological disability he continues to be afflicted with throughout the novel, before the Botimal hits the market as purchasable merchandise. Furthermore, the environment in which he receives the Botimal (still in its egg when Belt receives it) Belt receives his pet-to-be while surrounded by kennels and cages of animals of more conventional varieties: dogs, cats, sugar-gliders, and birds. The bird thing is important. One of the only pre-Botimal scenes in the novel is about Belt’s visit with his grandmother to a family-friend’s, a gangster named Sally, and Belt stays in a room with birds and develops very quickly a sympathy for them and doesn’t like either the food-deprivation trick with which Sally trains his birds to speak, but also has a distaste for what they are taught to speak (mostly nonsensical strings of profanities), and we learn later Belt developed a dislike of caging birds. This is all important because when we learn about the Botimals/Curios in Triple-J’s inclusion of the 1988 and 2012 manuals in-full at the beginning of “Living Isn’t Functioning,” we learn that Botimals/Curios have DNA of which a significant enough amount is bird-DNA: enough at least that, when Belt’s Curio becomes ill during the novel, his first theory of the cause is a common bird disease contracted through bird feces and worries he may have set the Curio near bird droppings while at the park, which may have occurred in the scene at the local park when Belt is attacked by a gang of teenagers, and is how he initially meets Triple-J. The connection between his empathy for birds which he developed prior to acquiring the Botimal/curio (which is genetically part-bird), and the environment in which he acquired his Curio[1] (surrounded by other animals which remained potential pets) lend to the perception by our narrator Belt that curios are sentient beings the way animals are, that Curios are animals, and as Belt matures with age and develops the faculty of moralizing and intellectualizing, he develops a more forward and conscious stance which he takes, and that stance is Curios are, in fact animals, and ought to be treated humanely. Though not outspoken about it, he maintains this view throughout the novel. Belt, however, is an outlier: most regard their Curios carelessly, as objects, and as many cultural trends make apparent, as short-term objects easily and willfully destructible and quickly replaceable (think cell-phones in our own world).

[1] Belt names his Botimal Blank, which is short for Kablankey, which is the sound his sneezes make and so he’s sort of named after the sound which he makes the way Pokémon are: an extra-textual piece of evidence that there is ambiguity regarding whether Botimals/Curios are animals or not.

One final dimension of the innovations presented by the novel might, these days in literature, be one of the easier things for a reader to contend with is the metafictional dimension of Bubblegum. First, the novel purports to be the memoir of the narrator, Belt, who in his childhood (by the point of the memoir being composed, Belt is 38 years old and due to his psychological capacity lives with his father) was sort of a cultural icon in his neighborhood and in his adult life published an obscure novel which is highly regarded by everyone who has read it (Belt’s novel has a sort of cult status) and other various details of his life are known to others. The self-referential nature of this is well-integrated into the novel and is pretty funny. One chapter early in the novel is titled “About the Author,” which is structured with headings in the form of questions from the audience who is reading the novel, and as the novel begins winding down toward the end, we start to get scenes of the narrator writing the portions of the book we have already finished reading. Not to mention that during the events of Part V, Clyde, Belt’s father, uses some money from a worker compensation he received in a warehouse-labor accident to travel Europe and sends some letters to Belt. In one, he mentions to Belt meeting an author named Adam Levin, who Belt mentions earlier in the novel, directly referencing The Instructions, and who is the real-world author of the book we are reading, and who, in the novel, is a great admirer of Belt’s obscure novel.

Everything in Bubblegum is worth reading. The monologues, the meditations-turned-paranoia, the fictional essays (most especially the Appendix to the first, and the manuals in the 2nd), and definitely the transcript of Triple-J’s film-collage. Bubblegum is an immensely rewarding read if given the time and patience of the reader.

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