As Levin's thuggish narrator points out: "There's nothing that's itself."
As Levin's thuggish narrator points out: "There's nothing that's itself." Credit: Andrea Bauer

“You’re a strange kid,” says the old lady to the drug dealer in “Janet Tell,” one of ten stories comprising Hot Pink (McSweeney’s Rectangulars). “You’re clever.” Yes, and so is Hot Pink‘s author, Adam Levin. In fact, Chicago-based Levin (who curated the Reader‘s 2010 fiction issue) is responsible for one of the strangest, cleverest novels of recent years, The Instructions—a tale of middle-school messianism that runs to 1,030 pages in hardcover. Like The Instructions, Levin’s Hot Pink stories express an almost Talmudic fascination with the semiotics of human behavior. He and his characters unpack coded interactions—and all interactions are coded—with the painstaking interest of Maimonides dissecting Leviticus. “I say, ‘Easy, Cojo,'” notes the thuggish but thoughtful narrator of the title story as he and his pal confront a random citizen who made the mistake of nodding at them, “and this is when I learn something new about how to intimidate people. Because even though I say ‘Easy, Cojo,’ I’m not telling Cojo to take it easy. I’m not even talking to Cojo. I’m talking to the guy. When I say ‘Easy, Cojo,’ I’m telling the guy he’s right to be scared of my friend. And I’m also telling him that I got influence with my friend, and that means the guy should be scared of me, too.” It goes on from there, but you see what I mean: everything is a study in cultural mechanics. Or, as the thug himself says a few paragraphs later, “there’s nothing that’s itself.”

This endless exegesis could get boring fast. But it doesn’t—partly because Levin’s writing isn’t just clever but smart, and partly because it isn’t just strange but insightful. We may find ourselves deep in the land of quirk with a legless lesbian genius or the family of an inventor developing a doll with a working digestive system or two old Jews discussing cunnilingus, but we’re also always surprisingly close to something true.

Levin reads from Hot Pink Tuesday, on a bill with Tim Kinsella.