The author of The Instructions returns with a tale set in an alternate present-day world in which the Internet does not exist, its place in the collective imagination held by a 'flesh-and-bone robot' called the Curio. Written in the form of a memoir by troubled 38-year-old Belt Magnet, the story escalates into an epic saga that eventually forces Belt to confront the world he fears, as well as his estranged childhood friend Jonboat, the celebrity astronaut and billionaire.
You come for comedy, for sensibility, for style; and in this sense Bubblegum is prodigiously sustaining. Its diction has the casual artfulness of pre-distressed denim ... And Levin unspools seemingly every rhetorical trick in the trivium ... Levin can make the kitchen-sink ambition of (mostly white, mostly male) midcentury postmodernism feel positively new, bidding fair for the maximalist mantle of a Pynchon or a Stanley Elkin. But Levin’s consuming interest in everyday subjectivity equally pulls in the direction of minimalism ... And then there’s his inborn ear for every shade of human babble, here a transcendent four-hander, there a screwball travelogue, everywhere argot and idiolect and argument. When it’s humming, the pileup of plenitude and emptiness is as future-perfect as the Curio itself ... The downside of such rampant felicity is its aptitude to push up on anything that moves ... Conversations grow uniformly windy; for each charming gust of Chicago cross-talk, we get an exhaustingly exhaustive monologue on handkerchiefs ... At the end of paragraphs or pages, water and teller window aren’t so much seen anew as written into oblivion. Which is one way Bubblegum seems weirdly at war with the novelistic form itself. The other is in its flickeringly adolescent view of human nature ... a narrator of rich if ingrown innocence unnerved by the nasty brutality of less innocent others ... Levin’s brains may have earned him a cult like Belt’s, but here he swells to a democratic reach. Give him a try sometime. His gate’s wide open.
... another monumentally imaginative novel ... While the influence of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest looms large—there are long descriptions of movies, Jonboat’s intoxicatingly beautiful wife, a vividly imagined alternate history, and a focus on the costs of entertainment and pleasure—Levin’s vibrant voice is unlike anyone else in contemporary fiction. While breathtakingly bizarre, this relentlessly inventive novel teems with humanity, humor, and pathos like few other recent works and is a book many will obsess over and delight in.
For the first 90 pages—which sounds like a lot—the temptation to quit reading Bubblegum was powerful; the writing seemed simultaneously tiresome yet too clever by half, like it was straining hard and achieving very little ... But upon this reader’s powering through, Levin’s book took hold ... Levin unspools a story that dramatizes thinking to an extent that thought itself becomes as riveting as plot, but in which there’s also actual plot in abundance ... One does sometimes wish that Levin could find it in himself to be more concise, and the book’s meta-memoiristic frame leads to some lengthy passages in the middle...that beg to be skipped or at the very least skimmed ... maybe Bubblegum is an attempt at an empathy ultra-marathon. Not every single moment of the experience feels great, but there’s an undeniable sense of accomplishment when one reaches the end.