Less than two weeks after finishing the mammoth debut of Adam Levin, The Instructions, I ordered his second book, a collection of short stories. I’m still not sure if I can emphasize enough just how good The Instructions was; that it garnered no nationally famous awards (Pulitzer, National Book Critics Circle, National Book) or even finished as finalist for them is a tragedy. Its status as a debut novel deeply upsets me as an amateur writer. Life seems a bit more hopeless as I am not sure I could ever write something so fantastically done. Regardless, the question becomes from fans of Levin and probably Levin himself, how does one follow such a novel? With a book of short stories, of course.
Hot Pink is a book of ten short stories, each unique but sharing some similarity with another. The common theme of each story is along the lines of, “Why do we insist on doing what we do, even when it is not good for us?” As far as collections of short stories go, this is perhaps the most successful for my taste, as only two managed not to hit their mark. In the end, though, Hot Pink is a wonderfully successful followup to The Instructions, a novel which is impossible to follow.
This story is an entertaining one about a father who sees a report on young girls having body image crises and sets out to create a doll that will cure this problem. In the process he neglects his entire family, embarking upon a quest that really has no end. He is looking for a universal that can inform all other realities. Told from the perspective of his gay son, a reader sees firsthand a family fall apart for the sake of something that the father, who has no daughters, sees as more important than anything in the world. The story is an interesting choice for the first in the collection. I enjoyed it, but I do wonder if it turned other readers away.
“Considering the Bittersweet End of Susan Falls”
This is a story about a wheelchair-bound girl who is in love with one of the girls in her class. She lost her legs as toddler, but she does not know how, nor does she believe her parents when they explain how. She is well-off, taking a limo to classes, and we find out she is 15, but already in college. This story never really took off for me. It carries on the theme, as Susan chooses to forgo her necessarily healthy decisions to be with her crush and has to pay the price for it.
“The Extra Mile”
Absolutely hysterical, yet quite sad. This is the shortest story in the collection and is about a group of widowers who live in a retirement home. The narrator is a cranky old Jewish man who uses yiddish slurs to refer to his compatriots in the home. The begin a conversation asking each of them how often they went the extra mile for their wives and everyone gets mad because they won’t define the phrase the extra mile. It becomes apparent that oral sex is the meaning all the men except the narrator and the man that instigated the conversation are disgusted by it. They take it further and further until finally admitting they wish they had done it more. That maybe their wives would still be around if they had. You will laugh reading this, but it carries with it real weight as you feel the gravity of the words being said by old men approaching death who have regrets. That they wish they had gotten over their fears and made their wives happier. They wonder why they had to do what they did.
What I have not mentioned so far is the sheer amount of unreliable narration that exists throughout the book. While “Finch” may not be the most unreliable, this is the story where it really stuck out to me. There just always something he forgot to tell you, always a lie he told you before, yet you just felt like you could believe him. He’s just a kid getting high and making mistakes with the wrong people. The theme persists, though perhaps this is the only one where the main character confronts it and offers reasons, no matter how poorly thought out.
This story just didn’t work at all for me. It was a series of vignettes, each of them unrelated to the last. There were a couple within it that I truly enjoyed as flash fiction, but as a cohesive whole, I just didn’t like “Relating.”
This is far and away the best story in the collection. Perhaps what drags Hot Pink down in the end is just how obvious the theme in each story is, but Levin writes his characters and their individual thought processes so well that nothing feels repeated. Still, though, “Jane Tell” is the obvious prize of the collection. After being busted for pot and prescription drugs, a college kid, Ben, is sentenced to NA where he meets a girl named Jane Tell who gets her kicks by being beaten by other men. Ben is disgusted by it, but then gets such a rush off of the adrenaline he and Jane begin a relationship that is as dysfunctional as a broken radio. In the end the story succeeds so well because the character breaks the cycle. It’s almost as if Levin switches here from the problem itself (Posing the question) to possible solutions. “Jane Tell” is a jewel. One of the best short stories I’ve ever read.
Shades of George Saunders, Levin’s teacher at Syracuse, pervade this one. You’re thrown into a deeply upsetting story of suicide and tragedy, wondering what the point of it all is. Suddenly it changes back to first person and the reader is thrown off the trail again. You’re laughing but you’re not sure why. Then suddenly, out of nowhere… I can’t spoil it. But I want to so badly. This one is excellent. You’ll read it twice once you realized what just happened.
What is another solution to the problem at hand? Well if you don’t do what the Ben in “Jane Tell” does, then you might end up doing what the narrator in “Scientific American” does. The problem at hand may absorb you, change who you are physically and mentally, making the sight of you disturbing to every who sees you, thus even when someone is nice to you, you do not believe them because you’ve created a fantasy to survive. This is darker than how it is written, but Levin doesn’t just come out and tell you why. It’s quite layered, and quite good.
“How to Play The Guy”
Hands down the funniest short story I’ve read in my life, even moreso than DFW’s “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.” “How to Play The Guy” is an instruction manual for a game that any three people, two guys and one girl, can play at any point in time that is either maniacally violent or increasingly diplomatic. As you read it, you are also informed in how Levin may be creating characters in other stories. It’s fascinating, and breaks the mold of his other stories. This is perhaps the second best in the collection behind “Jane Tell.”
Considering that Levin is a disciple of George Saunders, I really expected the story that titles the collection to be the best in it, but that really wasn’t the case. Once again this story is a response to the problem at hand, but we find again a guy who doesn’t have a worthwhile one. He wants to be different and attractive, much like the dumpster truck he sees that has balloons on it, and he wants the girl. Yet his strategies lead him to repeatedly poor situations and bad ideas. Why does he do what he does? He doesn’t know; and as he tells you, you don’t know either.
Once again Levin proves outstanding in his ability to create not only lovable characters, but believable ones who I don’t like leaving. Hot Pink succeeds on the richness of Levin’s characters alone, but gets to another level when these characters are involved in things that feel so real and necessary.
Recommended to: Those who have read The Instructions, those who are scared of The Instructions and want to try something shorter first, and those who are looking for a writer who you can follow for the rest of what will be a long career.
Avoid as if it’s Milky Way advertising (Who doesn’t seem to realize their commercials are telling people that if you eat a Milky Way then you will mess something really important up): Highly recommended book, don’t avoid it.