By Adam Levin
Adam Levin wants to make you uncomfortable, and his urge to craft bizarre and unsettling scenarios is on full display in Hot Pink, his first short story collection after his massive 2010 debut novel, The Instructions.
The collection focuses on misfits in Chicago, most of them quick-witted, hyper-observant teenagers trying to escape their dysfunctional families. Levin’s quixotic characters include an obsessive inventor who builds a paste-digesting Barbie for girls at risk of developing eating disorders, a legless genius whose impulse for repressing the cause of her accident adds her to American fiction’s long list of unreliable narrators, and a man who is horrified to find that he is turned on when strangers abuse his girlfriend. The only happy family in the collection lives in a house with a wall that oozes gel.
The absurdity of these stories is tempered with deadpan humor, but for Levin laughter is a poor palliative. In a melancholy ditty titled “The Extra Mile,” old Jews in Florida play cards and crack jokes, recalling their long-gone sexual exploits with their long-dead wives. Humor is a near-dead language, a lingering reminder of what was lost. For these men, and the rest of Hot Pink’s characters, life has become a “vile string of punchlines.”
What is more unsettling about the variegated oddness of these tales is that they produce a lingering feeling that short story writing is just a game that Levin plays. Though any modern writer is expected to move between styles, forms, and sometimes genres, Levin demonstrates a desperate need to show off his knowledge and alterations of story conventions the way his Florida retirees unceasingly and ineffectively tell jokes.The result is a story collection that reads at times like writing exercises, but which nevertheless maintains a certain gimmicky charm. “Relating” is an ironically titled flash fiction cycle about miscommunications that end in discomfort, emotional pain, and decapitation. In “How to Play The Guy” Levin presents a set of instructions, complete with FAQ, for inflicting random acts of violence on strangers at the mall.
In the collection’s longer pieces, Levin’s game is the conventional short story itself. The declarative, Chekhovian language of the opening lines of “Scientific American” belie the strangeness and violence the story contains: “A crack in the wall behind their bed oozed gel. Neither knew what to do, what it meant, who to call.” The narrator of the title story crashes a barbecue where he steals Belgian beer, puts a man who looks like “tofu in khakis” into an armlock, and toys with the reader’s expectations about plot resolution. Safely escaped and poised to kiss his crush Nancy, the narrator asks, “And did I kiss her then?”
The answer, which concludes the collection, is “Fuck you.” This middle-finger send-off is fitting for a series of stories that teases its readers with uneasy humor and deliberately dissatisfying endings. While Levin writes with a confidence that confirms his deliberateness, the force of this intention does not save the game from growing tedious.