David Foster Wallace's shadow, along with that of other contemporary satiric fabulists such as Mark Leyner, looms large over "Hot Pink," a story collection by the author of the much-talked-about 2010 novel "The Instructions," a 1,030-page-long "document" combining a politico-religious tract with the chronicle of an apocalyptic four days in the life of a Jewish junior high school (not middle school) superhero in suburban Illinois. Wallace's humane maximalism lives on in the work of writers such as Levin, a Syracuse Master of Fine Arts program graduate and star in the constellation of writers allied with McSweeney's, the periodical and book publishing collective headed by Dave Eggers, himself another avatar of American literature today.
Levin's stories in "Hot Pink" are funny, intensely self-aware and wise. While inescapably reminiscient of Levin's literary models, the stories stand up and shout effectively and idiosyncratically all on their own. They display a variety of narrative styles and tactics, but all are characterized by an underlying coruscating intelligence, and the tricky-to-pull-off combination of ruthless hipness (cultural, social and literary) and sincerity.
One characteristic of Levin's stories is the maximalist take on convergent thinking – taking a single premise and spinning it out as far as possible, to see what happens past absurdity and exhaustion where no laws apply. Such thinking begins with the classic question: What if?
While there is plenty of divergent thinking here also, the obsessive linear convergent development of a premise, pushing to absurdity and breaking through to see how far it can go, is a frequent frame in these stories. This happens both at the word and sentence level, and at the narrative and plot level. The risk is emptiness or indulgence, writing that satisfies itself with surface pleasures. In the hands of someone like Levin here, however, what results is insight and resonance.
"Frankenwittgenstein," the collection's flashy, high-concept first story, begins: "Bonnie: The Beautiful Body-Action Doll for the Self-Body Image-Enhancement of Toddling and Pre-Adolescent Girls at Risk ™." Bonnie had been created by the narrator's father: He had "conceived her gastro-intestinal mini-tract" when he was employed at "Useful Modules in Grayslake, designing low-valence fibrins to lubricate the motors of their robots" and because a television "expose" on eating disorders "made him sad." What follows is a memoir-cum-growing-up chronicle run through an arch, po-mo deadpan satiric-obsessive first-person narrator with twin brothers, who make observations such as, "After another couple years, Timmy's studying the Gnostics, Brian's a hand-to-hand weapons geek, possibly dealing, and Mom's on a semester's suspension from Lincoln Elementary for saying ‘Hispanic' instead of ‘Latino' at an assembly during Diversity Week." And Bonnie makes the family a fortune, after years of angst and travail for each member.
"Considering the Bittersweet End of Susan Falls" begins at "Chapter 130,200: Dreams about Flying." This third-person story details aspects of the life of a college-age woman who's lost both legs to a childhood incident involving a jungle and a leopard that's either a tragic accident or parental neglect – specifically maternal neglect. Regardless of provenance, the event offers rich material for her and her therapist to explore. The story unfolds using some of the tactics made famous by Wallace and, of course, many others such as footnotes and long columns of separate exposition on points mentioned in the main narrative. Susan sort of finds a kind of love but meets an untimely end thanks to a cigarette and a set of stairs.
"The Extra Mile" settles into a more conventional structure and tone and is a kind of extended joke, a first-person story involving four old men beside a Miami pool playing cards and kibitzing over their apparently eternal subject of discussion – going the "extra mile" in a marriage and how that might be defined.
"Finch," one of the collection's high points, is a first-person story told from the point of view of an overweight Chicago teen hanging out with the alpha dog in his peer group in a garage, huffing lighter fluid and figuring out girls and social pecking order and parents and life. Levin is very good at bringing an anthropological depth of observation to contemporary young males, and "Finch" and the collection's final story, "Hot Pink," rise above their facility and hipness to approach the kind of universal insights that the best stories offer.
The classic modernist techniques of bricolage, pastiche and mash-up are used throughout the collection, most purely in a piece titled "Relating," that is a collection of short riffs or flash fictions on various forms of "relating," varying from three-quarters of a page to two pages in length.
Other stories are fabulistic to one degree or another. In "Jane Tell," a first-person narrator details a doomed relation with a woman who likes getting punched by strangers, while in "Scientific American," the life of a pair of newlyweds from marriage to children to retirement and death is woven around a bedroom wall crack that oozes an unidentified gel.
However, even at his most arch, Levin's work always maintains a charm and warmth that can be surprising and turn what could be a cold aestheticism into a surprisingly poignant epiphany. "RSVP" begins, "The way I heard it, this guy, Donald, who was pathologically shy, wrote the world's greatest love letter – four lines long, a mere 70 words." What follows, in Levin's standard meticulous-obsessive narrative mode, is an intricately worked tale of missed communications involving the world's greatest love letter being left on the wrong cubicle chair and the lives altered because of this, which eventually include the "I" telling story in a perfect, elegiac conclusion.
The hot pink cover of "Hot Pink" features a posterized image of a garbage truck lifted from the ground by a bloom of balloons tied to it, an image that plays a key role in the title story. This is too glib and obvious a metaphor for what goes on in the book, but you get the picture: There's heavy whimsy in this book, but it works – it flies.
Ed Taylor is a freelance Western New York writer and critic.
By Adam Levin
McSweeney's207 pages, $22