This Bubblegum Is Packed With Chewy, Fucked-Up Flavor

Fantastic new novel deeply reimagines our world for better and worse

"What if David Foster Wallace wrote Gremlins?" begins the press release from Doubleday.

Well, of course it does: The publisher wants to grab reader attention and sell some units. And to do that successfully, the description's got to be succinct and, if possible, truthful; and so this blurb is just about perfect.

Because, I mean, David Foster Wallace, right? The polymath writer who so loved the world that he gave it his Infinite Jest (and many shorter pieces of similar but more concentrated power) and then took a brody off the edge of his own worst depression and left our desires for more such work permanently unfulfilled. What if that guy, with all his authorial firepower, had written the Joe Dante movie that came out in the Eighties and has delighted millions of people since?

It might’ve resulted in something not unlike this new brilliance from Adam Levin, sure. Bubblegum – which posits an alternative history in which the internet never existed and human society was instead changed forever by the introduction of cuter-than-mogwai bio-robots that became more widespread than smartphones and bonded deeply, for better or worse, with their human owners, and you won’t believe what happens next – Bubblegum is not too shabbily summed up by that Wallace x Gremlins shorthand. Because the narrative just glossed above is, like Infinite Jest, huge and deep and dark and hilarious and trenchant and powerful and complex and has more details and layers of details than Carter has liver pills, and Levin renders it like only a scholarly but streetwise OCD angel of descriptive prose can, and so the blurb is a valid bit of shorthand, an almost fully legit equation that just happens to also be one sweet-ass sales hook.

But, you ask me, there’s a big part of the equation that’s missing. There’s a part that was left out maybe in the interests of keeping the blurb short and snappy by not bringing too many elements into play; or maybe the part was left out because the blurb’s writer, perhaps giddy with having noted the resemblance (especially of Levin’s relentless vampire-counting-grains-of-rice-level emotional spelunking) to Wallace’s similar maximalist habits, and sensing that mass-market-ready promotional gambit, maybe they simply missed that part of the equation?

But I’m thinking that, if you want to say 2 + 2 = 10, then you should really have a “+ 6” in there somewhere, too.

Because Jean Shepherd.

If you don’t know the name instantly, then think of the movie A Christmas Story that’s become an omnipresence around the end of every year. Shepherd wrote that movie, which everyone knows, and it’s a classic for good reasons. But Shepherd also wrote so many other things of similar human comedy that were equally saturated in the murky drippings of childhood and adolescent suburbia and all its pleasures and nightmares and what it’s like to be so awkward (if not actually fucked-up) in such an awkward (if not actually fucked-up) world. And it’s that – the smell-basic emotional stuff that Wallace was always trying to get at but sometimes seemed at a helpless intellectual remove from, in his fiction – it’s that which Shepherd trucked in so well, in stories like “Daphne Bigelow and the Spine-Chilling Saga of the Snail-Encrusted Tin-Foil Noose” and “The Orpheum Gravy Boat Riot” and so on.

And that – wonderfully, rewardingly – is the other major element, the other monumental flavor, the obvious missing-PR-equation-part, the emotional umami, to be savored in Adam Levin’s Bubblegum.

Except, yeah, alternate history or not, Levin’s Chicago 1980s are a far shriekish cry from Shep’s Indiana 1930s; and many of the people and circumstances so vividly presented in Bubblegum are, besides merely awkward, often actually fucked-up. Actually way fucked-up, some of them. Oh, holy suffering Christ, and how.

No wonder I recommend this book so highly.


by Adam Levin
Doubleday, 784 pp., $28.95

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