By Adam Levin
Earlier this year, the National Academy of Sciences announced to the world the creation of programmable living organisms called “xenobots,” minuscule blobs of jury-rigged frog cells capable of a pulse and an appetite, and of executing computer-driven functions, as if with “minds” of their own.
To anyone who follows biotech more than books, this is all probably less than shocking. Still, spare a thought for the novelist Adam Levin, who has spent the last decade wrestling just such a “botimal” out of his imagination and onto the page. As of this writing, the xenobot remains homely and lab-bound, whereas the “Curio” — the theoretical center of Levin’s new novel, “Bubblegum” — is a mass-produced commodity of weaponized cuteness, a kind of unholy hybrid of Giga Pet and Mogwai and Turing machine: velvety soft, forearm-length, “a flesh-and-bone robot that thinks it’s your friend®!” Still, the question this admirably bonkers and fitfully phenomenal book jazz-hands its way around is more or less the one now mooted by reality: Where does “functioning” end and life begin?
Our guide to the novel’s near-fetched universe is a man not of science but of art: a novelist-cum-memoirist-cum-unemployed schlub named Belt Magnet, of the fictional Chicago suburb of Wheelatine, Ill. Belt lost his mother to cancer as a preteen, and apart from a ritual sacrifice of virginity in his late 20s he hasn’t had a relationship with a woman since. Now chain-smoking his way toward 40, he ekes out a living on disability checks, lives at home with Dad, and (that suburban death sentence) lacks even a driver’s license. “D.U.I.?” someone asks. “No,” he says. “I just let it expire.”
On the surface, this Magnet might seem almost demonstratively chargeless, a Bartleby of the Midwest. As his memoir-within-a-novel unfolds, though, we get some biographical facts as outlandish as Belt’s name: the cultlike enthusiasm surrounding his out-of-print first book; his fraught childhood friendship with golden-boy-turned-billionaire-astronaut “Jonboat” Pellmore-Jason; the “unspecified psychotic disorder” that leads Belt to believe he can hear the suicidal pleas of certain inanimate objects through a telepathic “gate” above his right eye … and oh yeah, that time back in the ’80s when he euthanized a bunch of rusty swing sets with a baseball bat and was subsequently paired, as a therapeutic gambit, with a beta-testing “botimal.” Twenty-odd years on, he still has it stashed in its protective sleeve: by far the world’s oldest surviving Curio, yclept Kablankey.
Such giddy-making plot points demand more room than I’m giving them, so perhaps it’s no surprise this mammoth book should feel as lengthy as it is. Still, as if abashed by its own high spirits, “Bubblegum” relegates the highest-proof premises to back story, from which waft notes of sci-fi and satire. The foreground, by contrast, is mostly a ruminative tromp through a few days in Belt’s current life: a trip to the White Hen to buy smokes, to the bank to get money for said smokes, to the playground to smoke them, home again for a cuddle sesh with Kablankey and thence to a climactic brunch over at the Pellmore-Jason estate. The funky emphases of the book’s first half recall William Gibson’s line about the future being here, just unevenly distributed.
Yet as Levin’s previous novel, “The Instructions,” demonstrated even more amply (at 1,000-plus pages), you don’t come to this writer for elegance of proportion. You come for comedy, for sensibility, for style; and in this sense “Bubblegum” is prodigiously sustaining. Its diction has the casual artfulness of pre-distressed denim: the “flan-colored Bentley,” the “drool of freezing rain,” Dad bowlegging around the house like “a gunslinger high on good paregoric.” And Levin unspools seemingly every rhetorical trick in the trivium.
Like his close contemporary Joshua Cohen, no haikuist himself, Levin can make the kitchen-sink ambition of (mostly white, mostly male) midcentury postmodernism feel positively new, bidding fair for the maximalist mantle of a Pynchon or a Stanley Elkin. But Levin’s consuming interest in everyday subjectivity equally pulls in the direction of minimalism; what engorges the sentences here is actually the kitchen sink of consciousness, or, as Belt’s mother puts it from her deathbed, “all those asides and thoughts within thoughts.” Dilating endlessly, harrying propositions into neuroses, Levin also owes a subtle debt to pre–postmodernists like Thomas Bernhard and perhaps Gertrude Stein.
And then there’s his inborn ear for every shade of human babble, here a transcendent four-hander, there a screwball travelogue, everywhere argot and idiolect and argument. When it’s humming, the pileup of plenitude and emptiness is as future-perfect as the Curio itself, the sound of the day after tomorrow: “Having slipped the eyebrow-flexing compilation into the living room player, I was just sitting down to unsleeve Kablankey when my father, bruised greenly below the right eye, appeared in the doorway.”
The downside of such rampant felicity is its aptitude to push up on anything that moves. (Or, to put it another way, when you’re holding a baseball bat, everything starts to look like a rusty swing set.) Conversations grow uniformly windy; for each charming gust of Chicago cross-talk, we get an exhaustingly exhaustive monologue on handkerchiefs, or tax planning. As for our hero, it can take him paragraphs to down a glass of water, whole pages to reach the teller window. Nor is this quite the hermeneutics of David Foster Wallace’s “Good Old Neon” or Beckett’s “Molloy”: At the end of paragraphs or pages, water and teller window aren’t so much seen anew as written into oblivion.
Which is one way “Bubblegum” seems weirdly at war with the novelistic form itself. The other is in its flickeringly adolescent view of human nature; a onetime student of psychology and social work, Levin appears to have at some point ingested a large dose of Skinnerian behaviorism that sits oddly against his writerly interest in the mysteries of character and motivation. As with “The Instructions,” this novel’s presiding philosophical shades are solipsism and interpersonal brutality, resulting once more in a narrator of rich if ingrown innocence unnerved by the nasty brutality of less innocent others.
This self-canceling quality, though intermittent, quickens in the figure of the Curio. In “Bubblegum”’s Earth 2.0, the internet as we know it has never existed, so this botimal fills its role in the consumer-tech landscape. Not only are Americans transfixed by their “cures”; frenzied by adoration, they compulsively kill them, often in acts of literal consumption. The specter of such botimal “deactivation” boasts a nightmarish intensity. Then again, isn’t our own consumer experience marked by masochism as much as sadism? And how disturbed can we really be by the violation of robots’ personhood when the persons doing the violating seem, themselves, so robotic? Neither as majestically inscrutable as Kafka’s panther nor as pointed as “Infinite Jest”’s fatally addictive videocassette, the Curio thus spends much of the book somewhere in the horse latitudes of allegory.
In the end, though, Levin’s faith in his flesh-and-bone robots yields a stunning transubstantiation. Having borne his cure nobly into old age, and having finally taken leave of Jonboat after their long, expository brunch, Belt relaxes into a long third act where he begins, at last, to live. And here, we feel, is the organism “Bubblegum” has been engineering all along. “According to my panic,” Belt says, in a voice of funny and rueful wisdom, “the world was random and randomly brutal, and thinking in terms of responsibility was just a way to avoid facing the fearsome truth: that, as always, and like everyone else, I lacked control over just about everything, my death was encroaching, as was the death of anyone else I cared about.” But then “guilt and panic gave way to hope, to reason, to reasonable hope or hopeful reasoning — who could tell the difference?”
It’s as if Kablankey has been a kind of transitional McGuffin, a stand-in not only for the interwebs or mother-love but for every last soft fixation we must leave behind in order to achieve midlife, where at best “all signs pointed to maybe, for sure.” Levin’s brains may have earned him a cult like Belt’s, but here he swells to a democratic reach. Give him a try sometime. His gate’s wide open.