“...Then did i finally kiss her?” a narrator from one of Chicago-based penman Adam Levin’s short stories dangles in front of the expectant reader. “Fuck you.” Fuck you for even asking.
Levin’s collection, Hot Pink, out in April from literati titan, McSweeney’s, harbors an attitude towards the rituals of romance, yet the stories are as tender and harmless as they are cocky and ignoble. Much of this range relies on Levin’s comic specialty—youthful spectacle—but also his love of the chase in its various forms: a story about being 17 and hormonally surging; a story of a mechanized social experiment based on finding a girl that looks “like the kind of slutty-looking girl who says that girls in miniskirts look slutty”; or a story about a missed chance on love—decades gone—debated over canasta beneath an unrelenting Florida sun.
This afternoon, Levin—who amassed considerable print notoriety with 2010’s 1,030 page, Jewish-American saga/chuckle-fest, The Instructions—smokes cigarettes on the bed of his Parisian hotel. He’s been sent here by Playboy to write a piece on the French gambling scene. Levin tells me he’s spent the last week running around with Corsican cash lords, allowed into rooms people normally worth “less than a hundred million dollars would never be allowed into,” and not surprisingly exudes the contented air of a man who has not only enjoyed an insider’s edge at the tables but, as he jokes, the fruits of a visiting writer in Paris.
The card tables are a suitable assignment for the thirtysomething writer whose characters are not unaccustomed to the pleasures of vice and its inherent moral slip’n slide. “Whether it’s drugs, or fighting, or treating women weirdly,” he says, “it’s generally as though the narrator approaches these topics as if they’re the everyday, because it is the everyday for them—and this will alert the reader to some things. But the stuff at the heart of any of these stories is that they’re going to be, like, classical love stories. It’s just that, say, this particular guy likes to kick people’s asses.”
Though his characters are fresh and imaginative, Levin’s story arcs couldn’t be more timeless. Much of this is made possible by his exploration of youth’s universalism, but also the writer’s decisive avoidance of the oversaturation of technology in his pieces. “I try to set it 20 years plus or minus,” he suggests. “And a lot of that perhaps has to do with me being relatively late to the internet for someone my age. I would get to points where I would say, ‘Okay, if I do something that signifies the now, then this guy has to have a fucking cell phone, because everybody has a cell phone. And if he has a cell phone, then this shit can’t unfold the way it’s unfolding.’ So hopefully, you can enter some space where reality is not bound to technology.”
Levin’s reality is not bound to anything, frankly. Characters young and old recount dismemberment by leopards, fold their awkwardness into airtight origami, and intimidate grown men into handing over their just-purchased grapefruits—yet they all do so somewhat drunk on love. “The reader can excuse the faux pas of youth, without thinking that they’re stupid,” Levin remarks at the suggestion that first love is his foundational playing field. “Youth is a great excuse for a lot of shit—and it ups the ante that this person’s being formed.”
He remarks further that the formation of our personalities never truly ceases, and this is the stuff of intriguing fiction. The statement reminds me of a recent study that reading fiction may stimulate parts of the brain that enhance emotional perceptibility. “I’m still a sucker for that stuff,” he responds, smiling, “I want to think that fiction makes us better. Of course I do. So I’ll roll with that. It’s good PR either way. I mean, nearly everyone who I engage with in any kind of meaningful way is a reader. You can have an easier conversation—or at least a funnier conversation—with people who read versus people who don’t.”