Who doesn’t want to love a book with a blue and yellow cover called Hot Pink? Especially when it’s a story collection whose premises can be so teasingly encapsulated: a wall oozes a mysterious gel, a group of widowers regrets not going down on their late wives more often, star-crossed workplace lovers get tragically separated by the misplacement of an origami duck. Put it this way, nobody’s going to accuse Chicago’s Adam Levin of a failure of imagination.
The problem is that Levin’s intellect casts a very long shadow over his work. And even though he’s also smart enough to incorporate said shadow into his work—constantly drawing attention to the fact that he’s overwriting, saying way too much and in way too much detail—there’s nonetheless a lingering sense of stubbornness in every story. Levin is extremely concerned with emotional depth and revelation, but try as he might, he can’t browbeat his way there.
You get hints of this second-level frustration (frustration at being frustrated) on the page, too. At the end of “Frankenwittgenstein,” Levin’s narrator reads stories to children before their naptime. “I keep fucking up the happy endings,” he writes, “but they fall asleep anyway.” In the next story, a teenager in a wheelchair realizes that her daydreams “often end sadly and hardly ever make their point with force.” One story in Hot Pink is about a man trying in vain to build a doll with a realistic digestion tract (to combat young girls developing eating disorders). Another uses scientific language to teach ordinary teenagers a certain type of casual, violent disdain, with contingencies for anything that might go wrong along the way. The common thread here being a Grand Canyon of emotional distance—as well as a kind of fascinated failure in understanding the inner workings of so-called “normal” North Americans.
Comparisons to David Foster Wallace, another very smart guy who struggled to turn his brain off, are inevitable. And I wonder if the real difference between their respective short fiction is simply that Wallace’s stories are a lot longer. On second thought, maybe you can browbeat your way to emotional truth. Maybe it just takes 50+ pages to really spiral in on your target. (Of course, length is precisely what scared me away from Levin’s 1,000-page debut novel The Instructions in 2010. So now we’re right back where we started, aren’t we?)
My favourite story here is the wall-ooze one, “Scientific American.” And that’s probably no coincidence, given that it’s the one that comes closest to ending with a full-on smile. After a young married couple tries everything they can to stop this gel from leaking through—the husband even feeds their dog gel-smeared bacon, to see if it’s poisonous—Levin takes us on a whirlwind tour of the rest of their happy and untroubled lives:
[H]is children were wealthy, and they had their own children, and the man died smiling in the middle of a dream, and his wife collected millions of dollars in insurance […]
Then we come back to one brief moment where the husband talks to the man who painted the oozing wall in the first place. This is a great little climactic reveal, but it hinges on the fact that the husband straight-up does not believe the painter is telling the truth. He lives the rest of the day—and the rest of his life—blissfully oblivious to what really happened.
And look, this twist works for the story. But I would’ve been happy to grant the couple a life of real happiness, no strings attached, given their hardships up front. They deserve it. Nobody would hold it against them. Like those preschoolers, I don’t need a happy ending to fall asleep—but it sure wouldn’t hurt, once in a while, to give us one anyway.
McSweeney’s, 256 pp, $25.50, hardcover
(review also appeared in Vue Weekly, September 13, 2012)