If you’re not reading Adam Levin then you need to do yourself a tremendous favor and pick up either Hot Pink or The Instructions. Levin is potentially the most fun author I have read in my life, all the while maintaining real literary chops and getting to the real meat of matters. I think there is quite a big difference between the conversations you have because you have to talk and the conversations you have that actually mean something to the parties that are participating. These conversations that actually affect us as people are loaded to the brim with what is easily termed “real talk.” My favorite writers are the ones who create real talk out of situations that aren’t real. George Saunders is quite good at this, but I so far prefer his student, Adam Levin.
In the middle of Levin’s collection of short stories- Hot Pink– there is a story entitled “Jane Tell” that is longer than any of the previous ones. “Jane Tell” is the story of a college student named Ben who deals drugs but gets busted. He is sentenced to group therapy and upon attending the first meeting makes an acquaintance with another member of the group: you guessed it, Jane Tell. Foregoing all sound logic, the two immediately decide to go on a date, during which Ben discovers that Jane gets off by having people “Rick” her; which means that she wants men to physically assault her. Ben is appalled, yet can’t help but get off as well from the rush that the whole situation gives him. As they date further, Ben cannot help but become enmeshed further into the life of Jane Tell, causing his own life to fall further out of control. Meanwhile he continues to go to therapy, where he clashes with the leader of the group over conflicting psychological ideas. Ben’s favorite therapist, Dr. Skinner, is prescribed to a theory that the human mind is not hiding anything, and can be mapped out and predicted; however the leader of the group disagrees vehemently, and tells Ben that Skinner makes us all lose our humanity. The leader explains that we do things for their safety and comfort and security, even if they are not good for us. Thus why people stay in abusive relationships, because they at least know what they are getting in their current situation. Ben argues this in his head with the situation of a lab pigeon getting a food pellet for dancing for a scientist. In this case the Pigeon will always do what is good for him, in this case dancing, and won’t stop until it is proven that it is no longer helpful. Ben then has an epiphany that it would actually be impossible to tell who was controlling who if you weren’t told. Namely, that it is just as fair to say that the pigeon is forcing the scientist to give him a food pellet as it is to say that the scientist is forcing the pigeon to dance.
“Jane Tell” is primarily asking why don’t we do what is good for us, or at least, why does it take us so long to do what is good for us? Both theories, Skinner’s and the Leader’s, have a point, and they are not as conflicting as the two sides think they are. Both Jane and Ben are horrible for one another, each doing what it takes to get the their symbolic food pellet from the other one. The problem is identical to that of the pigeon and the scientist: Who is really in charge here? What if neither action has any sort of good within it for the individual who is being subjected to it? As Levin writes:
“That’s all in a lab between a man and a bird, though. In the larger world, between human beings, it isn’t so easy to know whose cage you’re in, or who’s in yours. It’s hard enough to determine which side of the bars you’re on. Maybe you don’t even see the bars.”
Adam Levin, “Jane Tell”, Hot Pink
I found the story powerful and disturbing, but in a strange way also uplifting. It is very much a story of action and doing what must be done no matter the situation. As the story hurdles towards its final line, Levin pulls no punches. Yet upon reflection, I’m not sure if there was a better way to have ended it. Finally, Ben does something that he just needs to do.