San Francisco, CA: McSweeney’s Books, 2012. 256 pages. $22.00.
On every page of his short story collection Hot Pink, his second book, Adam Levin can be found experimenting, fixing, inventing—to great effect. In “Frankenwittgenstein” Mike’s father struggles to perfect “Bonnie: The Beautiful Body-Action Doll for the Self-Body Image-Enhancement of Toddling and Preadolescent Girls at Risk.™” Running counter to its humorous conceit, the very real emotion in the story packs a mighty punch. Early in “Considering the Bittersweet End of Susan Falls,” Jiselle, Susan’s father’s distant cousin-cum-family cook, has “been formulating this egg recipe, experimenting with temperature, testing various sauces, spices, and coagulants for nearly six months.” Unlike in “Frankenwittgenstein,” this invention is not a major plot point. But it speaks to Levin’s overall project here. Throughout Hot Pink, he can be seen manipulating ingredients, inventing new flavors and combinations, and the results prove satisfying in essentially every instance.
Readers drawn to tonal consecution will find that Levin demonstrates a similar facility with characters’ interior lives in these stories. He develops an interior logic that serves both to justify their often violent and even absurd actions and to unify the collection in style and form. This interiority has the capacity to carry forward ideas, feelings, and action in a way that appears at first erratic but reflects a strong cohesion. In this way, the book represents an accomplished realism. Levin creates locomotion across the anxious, nervous, and sometimes violent trains of thought in his characters—but these are not introspective stories. They look outward and the characters in them act on the world never succumbing to inertia or introspection.
In the title story, “Hot Pink,” a standout in the collection, Jack is awakening to his own violence and to his control over it. Here’s Jack:
I’m a meathead. A misinterpreter. Like hot pink? For years I thought it was regular pink that looked sexy on whoever was wearing it. And that Bob Marley song? I thought he was saying that as long as you stayed away from women, you wouldn’t cry. Even after I figured it out, it’s still the first thing I think when it comes on the radio. It’s like when I’m wrong for long enough, I can’t get right.
This burrowing into Jack’s thoughts incubates future action. Levin balances the interior and exterior experiences of the characters to great empathetic effect. Late in the story, when Jack, his friend Cojo, and the Christamesta sisters, trying to find a party in an unfamiliar suburb, arrive at a barbeque a block away from their real destination, it is clear that violence is the only possible outcome. What is also clear throughout the story is that Jack’s self-awareness and understanding represent something greater than a simple fulfillment of the story’s central drama.
There are traces of David Foster Wallace and George Saunders in these ten stories, but Levin has charted a course all his own. In “Scientific American” we follow a man’s descent into anxious obsession with a crack on the master bedroom wall in his newly-constructed house. The crack oozes gel and the man and his wife have no idea “what to do, what it meant, who to call.” They call a housepainter. But when the crack reappears they call a builder, who replaces the wall. The crack reappears; the gel oozes; they call the painter again. With each reappearance, the man’s anxiety circles ever faster in a circuit. Levin is working with pattern here. Every time the man passes the crack and its oozing gel, the story escalates. This pattern becomes the stimulus for its own kinesis. Near the end of “Scientific American” Levin fast-forwards through the man’s life: he has children. The crack oozes gel. His children have children. The crack oozes more gel—and so on until the man dies. Levin does not end the story here with this fulfillment of the pattern’s inevitability, but rather breaks off to return to the story’s narrative present and give us an odd, believable explanation for the existence of the crack and the gel.
Taken individually each of these stories is ambitious and clever. And together they represent great achievement. Levin’s enormous and enormously acclaimed debut novel The Instructions came out last year and garnered him the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Award, chatter and an eager fan base. With this tremendous new collection, he is sure to gain a whole slew of new readers.