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Monday, July 16, 2012

Hot Pink: Tales of the Absurd

Adam Levin, who absolutely dazzled the dozens of us who traversed his thousand page novel The Instructions, is back with a slim volume of short stories titled Hot Pink. Again, like The Instructions, this book has drawn comparisons to David Foster Wallace — Levin's stories are hedged in logic, philosophy, and goofy-to-the-point-of-grotesque characters. (Sherwood Anderson must be standing up and cheering in his grave!) But Levin is a little more light-handed on the experimentation and postmodern acrobatics than DFW ever was. Indeed, the few stories here that aren't "straightforward," are the weakest ones, in my opinion.

If there's a common theme here, introduced with the fantastic title of the first story in the collection, Frankenwittgenstein, it's about how we find meaning — in words, in others' actions, in symbols, in the unexplained. Here's a quote from one of the stories that illustrates that:
"Whenever I smoked marijuana, I'd stare, and whatever I'd stare at would seem important. All images became imagery, sophomoric imagery, the symbolic meaning of the non-symbolic things on which my eyes fixed wholly independent of their actual functions."
If you're not familiar with the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, he had one of those embarrassing philosophical moments halfway through his life, when he realized everything he'd done up to a point was wrong. And so he spent the rest of his life refuting everything he'd written in the first part of his life. DFW was a fan of Wittgenstein's early ideas — that words have specific means and language specific rules that don't (or shouldn't) change. (This is a horribly oversimplified definition of prescriptivism, which DFW discussed in his essay Authority and American Usage.)

What emerges in Hot Pink is that Levin seems to be more of a descriptivist — that language and "things" that denote meaning change depending on the situation, as well as over time. This is most overt in the title story Hot Pink, in which a thuggish character is trying to puzzle out why, when he yells at a poor guy on the street and steals his bag of grapefruit, the things he says could be taken differently in different contexts and if said with different emphases. 

By far, the best story in the collection, and a good representative of many of the others in the collection is titled Scientific American. It's about a married couple who discover a crack in their bedroom wall that oozes a disgusting gel, and they can't figure out why. The man drives himself crazy trying to figure out what the oozing crack means. Does it really mean anything, though? Turns out, there's a perfectly reasonable explanation for the continuously reappearing crack — so the story seems to be poking fun at people who assign almost mythical meaning to things simply because they don't understand something? (A subtle satire of organized religion, perhaps?)

Like DFW, Levin is also a clever, funny writer — often mixing the low- and high-brow seamlessly. That's one of the reasons I love his stuff. The story titled The Extra Mile is four pages of old guys sitting around talking about cunnilingus. In another story, he gives one of his characters — an uber-logical wheelchair-bound teenage lesbian — this line: "Any ass worth spending all this time on must be some really good ass."

I read these ten stories over the course of about a month and loved the majority of them. Again, there were two or three — the stranger, more experimental ones — that were a bit of a drag. But overall, yes, if you're a fan of DFW's short fiction, definitely check this out.

5 comments:

  1. I have both Hot Pink and The Instructions on my shelves, but haven't read either. I am fascinated by Levin though. One Day...

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    1. He is a fascinating writer, indeed. Hot Pink would definitely be a good start before taking on the behemoth The Instructions.

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  2. The Instructions is very nearly my favorite book ever. I'm still trying to convince friends to invest the time in it. Some day...

    But I have convinced some friends to read Hot Pink and they seemed reasonably impressed. I've only read a few of the stories (the ones already published in McSweeney's), but I imagine the rest of the book is just as good.

    Also, I see you're reading the new Eggers. GREAT read.

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    1. Thank God for McSweeneys! No way The Instructions gets published by just about anyone else. Hot Pink is very good, but The Instructions is the full three-ring circus. Can't wait to see what Levin gives us next!

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  3. Anything that draws comparisons to David Foster Wallace is worthy of a look in my opinion. I'm gonna go check this one out.

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