Thursday, May 28, 2020

Bubblegum: Adam Levin's Back, Is He Still the "New DFW"?

Remember Adam Levin? Ten years ago, he published a thousand-page, post-modern novel called The Instructions that earned him the mantle of the "next David Foster Wallace." Well, 10 years later, he's back with another digressive, massive, frustrating, hugely entertaining novel titled Bubblegum. Not much has changed: He's still up to his DFW-esque-ness here, having as much fun toying with his reader as he is actually telling a story. And he even winks at all those idiots (like me) who think he is the next DFW by including a brief snippet with a DFW-like character.

And but so (sorry), Bubblegum is a huge goofy smart novel about an alternate reality that looks just like ours, except there's no Internet and people have these little robotic pets called Curios. Our narrator is a fellow named Belt Magnet, and he is in his late 30s and lives with his drunk father, who likes to berate him for being a loser. Belt published one little-read novel a decade before but hasn't done anything since, except collect social security checks. Though in Belt's defense, he does have some issues — not the least of which is that he talks to inanimate objects...and they talk back. 

So we set sail on 780 pages of Belt telling us about his life — how his former best friend is now a global superstar, how he spends most of his time with his own Curio named Blank, his only real friend, and how he is basically rudderless, smoking a lot and wondering where things went wrong. 

But that sort of belies what Levin is really up to here. So...what is he really up to? Frankly, I don't have the slightest damn idea, other than to point out that we humans are infinitely weird, often disappointing, but never not interesting. We become obsessed with things, and these obsessions taking over our entire culture...and often common sense dies a slow, sad death along the way.

A lot of this novel — including an interminable 100 pages in the middle that's a transcript of a movie made up of a number of clips all about Curios —is about "Curio culture." Belt participated in a sort of pet-therapy experiment when he was a kid to try to help him with his mental issues. He became one of the first Curio owners, before they exploded in popularity and are used for everything from a club drug (you boil their bones and extract their marrow and it gets ya high!) to entertainment. 

And again, to tell this story, we get numerous digressions and expositions and page-long jokes, etc. These are almost always entertaining...except when they're not. And that's really the rub: A lot of this is massively fun, super smart, and frankly, awe-inspiring. But when it's not, it's frustrating and annoying as hell. 

So I could spend several more paragraphs telling you about some more of this plot but you'll probably decide to read this based on how willing you are to accept a certain degree of aggravation in your novels. If your answer to that is "zero aggravation," then this probably isn't the book for you. But if, like in some of DFW's work, you go into this knowing not every digression or two-page-long tangent will totally work, but many will, and the good outweighs the bad, then give Mr. Levin a try here. Hey, if nothing else, the cover is scratch-and-sniff, and literally smells like bubblegum. So that's fun! 

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