“I Am Anti-conclusion”

Bubblegum: A Novel BY Adam Levin. New York: Doubleday. 784 pages. $22.
Adam Levin. Photo: © Renaud Monfourny

One thing I like about Adam Levin’s novels is that they take over your life for a time. They’re very large, but their immersive nature is mostly due to Levin’s idiosyncratic weirdness. His 2010 debut, The Instructions—a thousand-plus-page novel told from the perspective of a precocious ten-year-old Jewish boy with messianic tendencies—was followed by a short story collection in 2012, Hot Pink. Now there is Bubblegum, a nearly eight-hundred-page novel narrated by a thirty-eight-year-old man named Belt Magnet, an amateur memoirist who has long, private conversations with inanimate objects. Set in an alternate reality where the internet has never existed, the book features small and adorable “flesh-and-bone robots” that smell like candy called Curios, which are the preeminent pop-culture obsession. The “Cute Economy” thrives, sustained by an avid base of consumers who hatch the codependent cuddle robots from eggs and raise them until they become so unbearably cute that their owners kill them.

A few days prior to Bubblegum’s release, Bookforum corresponded with Levin via email, the author’s preferred method for interviews. “I’m far less articulate when I speak than I am when I write,” he told me. “Lots of stammering, cursing, etc.” We discussed his aversion to straightforward conclusions, Kurt Vonnegut, and the moral dilemma of owning a parrot.

Where are you right now and how are you holding up?

I’m in our house in sunny Gainesville, Florida, the town we moved to a year and a half or so ago when my wife, Camille Bordas, got a job teaching in the MFA creative writing program at the university here. We’re holding up well, considering. There’s been a kind of phone-calling renaissance. A lot of aimless walking. Some midday drinking. Some wariness of eggs. So far, our family and friends are healthy, so we’re feeling lucky. An omelet-heavy diet is pretty short of a tragedy, and who doesn’t like to start drinking at four? Or one?

What are your thoughts on having this novel come out in the middle of a global pandemic?

I guess we’ll see in the next couple weeks. On one hand, I really enjoy meeting readers and booksellers, so it’s a not-small bummer that my book tour got canceled. Other hand, maybe all the downtime being inflicted on readers these days will allow them to engage with Bubblegum more intensely than they otherwise could have. Fiction, for me at least, has been especially involving since all the social distancing started. Especially sane-making. I’ve been living a lot of my life inside it. The thought that Bubblegum might provide that kind of shelter to readers is pleasing.

Being drawn into fiction makes sense, especially now. What have you been reading?

Rather than telling you what I’ve actually been reading—it’s older stuff that everyone knows about and so wouldn’t benefit any reader of a Bookforum interview—I’d rather tell you about four recently published books that I feel got far less attention than they deserved, and which I would read right now if I hadn’t read them so recently, and which I will certainly read again as soon as a little bit of time has passed. One’s a story collection: Ghost Engine by Christian TeBordo. The other three are novels: The Divers’ Game by Jesse Ball. The Organs of Sense by Adam Ehrlich Sachs. The Body in Question by Jill Ciment. And rather than attempt to describe in my fumbling way what it is that makes any of these books so excellent, I’d advise anyone who’s interested in them to go on Amazon, read samples, realize the samples aren’t enough to satisfy them, then go to or and order them.

In one of my favorite Kurt Vonnegut stories, “Unready to Wear,” there are people who have learned to leave their bodies. One of the characters, a pioneer of the process, has this rant where he proclaims, “The mind is the only thing about human beings that’s worth anything.” I’m interested in your thoughts on Vonnegut and the influence he’s had on your work.

I don’t remember that one! I’ll have to look it up. I think that, with the exception of J. D. Salinger, Vonnegut has probably had about as large an influence on my fiction as any other writer whose work I’ve adored. My sentences don’t look much like Vonnegut’s, which look more like Hemingway’s, and I’m a warmer, more intimate writer, I think, and louder (these aren’t moral judgments—I’m talking about sensibilities or whatever). But he was the first writer I ever reread obsessively, beginning in sixth grade, with Slaughterhouse-Five, which I read eleven times in fewer months. I think that reading him so deeply and so happily so early helped me to understand how much I valued comedy, grotesquerie, weird premises taken to their logical extremes, “non-realist” forms of storytelling—all sorts of stuff I hadn’t really encountered before in fiction.

Consumerism, technology, wealth disparity, and death are just a few of the concepts explored in Bubblegum. What were some of the greatest challenges in telling a story that covers so much ground?

Making the right sentences and putting them in the right order; not being an asshole to everyone on the days I failed; remembering to drink at least a pint of water per every three cigarettes smoked.

Why set your book in an alternate reality where the internet doesn’t exist?

Once I’d started thinking a lot about the technology that much of the book concerns itself with—i.e. the Curio, the “flesh-and-bone robot that thinks it’s your friend”—it occurred to me that, were that technology to have appeared on the market in the 1980s (as it does in the novel), it likely would have precluded the development of the internet for a number of reasons, chief among them that it would offer better, more immediate thrills than the internet, as well as better, more immediate variants of many of the thrills that the internet can offer (and exponentially better, more immediate variants of the thrills the early internet offered). So, first of all: Even if some version of the internet were to be developed in the world of the novel, it wouldn’t likely have grown beyond, say, whatever was happening back in the early dial-up modem CompuServe era, because there wouldn’t be a sufficient number of consumers who cared to access such a thing, let alone cared enough to pay for access. Secondly, the vast majority of STEM-oriented kids who, in our world, got into math and computer science and programming and built the internet out would have—in the Bubblegum world—gotten into biology and chemistry and worked in the Curio industry because that’s where the STEM jobs would have been.

So, once it was clear to me that these Curios were going to be in the book, the internet had to go, and I, you know, saw it was good. I didn’t want to write about the internet. I’d rather it didn’t exist.

What are some conclusions you’ve come to when thinking about the relationship between cuteness and technology?

Hopefully I haven’t come to any conclusions, or, at least, any I could bring across better than could Bubblegum. I am anti-conclusion. My aim, as I said earlier, is to write fiction I’d love if someone else wrote it, and the fiction I love tends to dismantle sum-uppable conclusions, and the fiction I love most dismantles the reader’s desire and perhaps even the reader’s general capacity to draw sum-uppable conclusions.

Tell me about the point in the writing process when you decided you’d be writing dialogue for swing sets and gardening tools.

Depends how you count, and what it means to decide. While at grad school in Syracuse—eleven or twelve years before I knew I was writing Bubblegum—I wrote a story about a young man who gets monologued at by his father, then talks to a knife and a swing set. It was a terrible story, a real snooze, but I never forgot about it. Then, after having published The Instructions and Hot Pink, I started writing very bad little chapters about impossibly cute manufactured pets. That was all garbage, too. It was silly. Made no sense. I threw away probably three-hundred pages. And then I wrote an instruction manual for those pets, which now appears in the third part of Bubblegum, and I thought: this. And then I started thinking about the world in which that manual would exist—what that world would be like—and I started thinking about occasions that would give rise to someone talking about the pets described in the manual, and I started thinking about who that someone could be, and I remembered the kid who conversed with inanimate objects from that piece-of-shit story I failed to get right in grad school, and thought: “What a completely terrible idea you’re having; what a hard thing it would be to have this kind of narrator narrate from within this kind of world.” It sounded like fun, so I followed through. I copied a long paragraph from the story—it’s now a portion of the narrator’s father’s monologue about the glass of water—and pasted it above the manual, and the rest of Bubblegum began, very slowly, to reveal itself, sentence by sentence, over some years.

How would you say the concept of boredom informed this book?

Hard to say without being boring. How about this: Sophomore year of high school, I used to huff a lot of dust gun with this pothead guy, Blaine Pasquesi—we called him Blaze Parcheesi—but one Wednesday night, we were all at the train station where we used to huff our dust gun on Wednesday nights, and Blaine said something profound. He said, “All of our problems—they’re ’cause we can’t sit still, and be, like, alone. In a room. It’s not just the suburbs, man. It’s us. We suck.” At which point this girl, Lee, who we’d just started hanging out with, put down her dust gun, leaned over, and socked the guy in the nose, which made it bleed kind of a lot, which made us all laugh, no one more heavingly than Blaine Pasquesi, and we finished off our cans and tried to smash the train station windows with them, but they kept bouncing off, so we went outside and smashed the bulbs of some street lamps instead. It was such a great night. Sometimes, when I’m bored, if I can’t find any fiction I like to read, and I can’t write any fiction that I believe should be read, I think about that kind of thing.

Do you still have a parrot?

I do. A Quaker. Gogol. And I love him or her, but every day I feel more terrible about having bought him or her. It’s not right to domesticate wild animals or encourage trafficking in domesticated wild animals. I guess that’s sort of a sum-uppable conclusion about cuteness and technology that I came to in the course of writing Bubblegum, though I’m not sure I came to it because I wrote Bubblegum, and I certainly wasn’t hoping to come to it. But if there were a hell, buying Gogol would be a deed I’d get sent there for. Not to be all depressing and shit. I mean, there is no hell, which: Thank God for that!

Andru Okun is a freelance writer living in New Orleans.