The wild , dark and very funny novels of Sam Lipsyte are governed by a certain fatalism: a nominal meritocracy produces a class of super-qualified and clever people who are nevertheless shut out of society’s higher-status zones. The world is split between sellouts and burnouts – guess who takes the lion’s share? ‘Let me stand on the rooftop of my reckoning,’ says Lewis ‘Teabag’ Miner, the narrator of Lipsyte’s second novel, Home Land (2004), ‘and shout naught but the indisputable: I did not pan out.’ The book is framed as a series of unpublished letters to Teabag’s high school alumni newsletter, chronicling his history of humiliations. The readers he has in mind (‘Catamounts,’ as the school’s athletic teams were called) are his high-achieving former classmates: ‘We’ve got Catamount doctors, after all, Catamount lawyers, brokers, bankers … a state senator, a government chemist, a gold-glove ballplayer, not to mention, according to the latest issue of Catamount Notes, a major label recording artist in our midst.’ Lipsyte’s next novel, The Ask (2010), stages a similar encounter, between the sad sack Milo Burke, who has recently lost his job at a university development office, and the ultra-rich Purdy Stuart, now a donor to the university, who could get him that job back. Once upon a time the two of them lived together in a collegiate bohemian squalor that masked their class differences. Milo aspired to be a painter but his ambitions never really passed beyond daydreams, so he ended up a resentful office cog. Purdy ‘made his own money out of some of his father’s money’. The scenario begins as a mercy mission but turns into a power play, as Purdy tells his former friend: ‘You’re a fucking loser, Milo, and it’s got nothing to do with the fact that you didn’t win.’ Meritocracy turns out to be a rigged game, especially when one player inherited an advantage and the other never really bothered to roll the dice.
Lipsyte, now 51 years old, graduated from Brown at a time when theory reigned; he came of age in the 1990s, the decade when the figure of the slacker slouched through the zeitgeist. His early stories – which became his first book, the story collection Venus Drive (2000) – were published by Open City, the edgiest of that era’s lit mags, not given to the tweeness of McSweeney’s or the politics of n+1, the one that ran the poetry of indie rock stars. Overeducated, underemployed, unloved, tortured by appetites for drink, junk food and sometimes junk, Lipsyte’s losers trace their paths of permanent frustration through diners, donut shops and dive bars in New York City and northern New Jersey, frequently travelling by bus. They have lousy New Economy jobs, and typically they lose them. They also lose their wives and girlfriends. They start out or end up living in basements, alone. It’s tempting to say they’ve been sunburned by ideas, but it’s hard to imagine a Lipsyte hero with even a tan. They speak the language of theory but have little to apply it to other than their own predicaments. Most of the comic energy in Lipsyte’s books comes out of the mixing of high and low diction that intellectualises the vulgar and vulgarises the intellectual. But he is also one of the few working American novelists – along with Paul Beatty, Lydia Millet, Mark Leyner, Mark Doten – truly committed to satire. The opening passage of The Ask compares America to a ‘run-down and demented pimp’ slumped in the corner of a pool hall, a novel image of imperial decline. Sometimes it’s the sound of words itself that leads to the joke. In Home Land, Teabag – a compulsive masturbator, like Alex Portnoy without a good job or glamorous girlfriends – says: ‘Some nights … I picture myself naked, covered in napalm, running down the street. But then it’s not napalm. It’s apple butter. And it’s not a street. It’s my mother.’ It’s the ‘p’ in napalm that delivers ‘apple’ – a better joke, because weirder, as Lipsyte explained to the Paris Review, than peanut butter or butter. It’s an example of what his teacher Gordon Lish called ‘consecution’ (repetition of sounds) and ‘the swerve’ (one sentence immediately undoing the last).
‘I used to think I had integrity but I came to realise it was just sloth,’ a character says in one of the stories that make up Venus Drive. Though it lacks a unifying narrator, it’s a book with a strong resemblance to Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. Both collections follow sensitive men into the low life, both relate considerable amounts of drug use, and both end with stories of cleaned-up protagonists – nearly if not quite redeemed. But unlike Johnson’s retrospective vision of the 1970s Midwest, which retains a thread of romanticism amid the seediness, Lipsyte’s portrait of strung-out 1990s slackerdom is fully ironic, very East Coast, a bit cynical and a bit plain seedy: rooms full of shaky people watching the sun come up and wanting another fix. Lipsyte lost his mother, a novelist, to cancer when he was in his early twenties, and in Venus Drive there are recurring scenes of family members dying or dead. A sister in a hospital bed: ‘She was still pretty, if you like girls who are skulls with a little skin on them, a few strands of cotton for hair.’ One character injects himself with a mix of morphine and dust from his mother’s cremains:
All it takes are the tiniest taps of the hammer to make a good part of my mother real old fashioned dust-to-dust-type dust. I crush a little morphine up and sift it in. I add some water, cook it all down in a spoon, draw it up through a hormone needle, roll my sleeve. I stanch the blood with velveteen.
Now I’m on the flower-print couch.
Now I’m thinking, is that the morphine, or is that my mother?
Something is setting beautiful fires up and down my spine.
This was a radical idea at the time: it wasn’t until 2007 that Keith Richards told an interviewer he’d snorted cocaine mixed with his father’s ashes.
Lipsyte’s first novel, The Subject Steve, was published on 11 September 2001, an inauspicious start even if your subject matter is the lives of fatalistic losers. The book takes off from an idea latent in Don DeLillo’s White Noise: a patient receives a death sentence but lacks discernible symptoms; in this case, there is also no discernible cause, no airborne toxic event. The condition, called Goldfarb-Blackstone Preparatory Extinction Syndrome, aka PREXIS, becomes a sensation nationwide, the culmination of a farce that begins with Steve, just diagnosed, spending $73,000 on a multi-day orgy with a pair of prostitutes who along with him consume several lavish delivery meals. Much of the novel and certainly its most memorable sequence concerns a cult called the Centre for Nondenominational Recovery and Redemption, clearly an allegory of creative writing workshops, with a director named Heinrich who speaks like Lish (it’s an affectionate and bonkers caricature). ‘“People,” said Heinrich, “it is only through a symbolic re-enactment of our deepest secret, our darkest desire, our most monumental shame, that we can ever hope to transcend our own limitude.”’ Lish has his students enact their secrets and shame in writing; Heinrich straps one of his followers to a rack to be fellated by his own mother.
Home Land and The Ask incrementally embraced more realist modes, though the emphasis was still on the plights and voices of their narrators, the sorrow and the self-pity. Hark, the new novel, is narrated in the third person and follows the thoughts of several characters, though there is a central loser, Fraz Penzig, who could be a cousin to Steve, Teabag or Milo. But the book isn’t entirely his, and the author’s sympathies flow towards his wife, Tovah, a former poet who works for an online education company called the Blended Learning Enhancement Project. They have a pair of twins, David and Lisa, the latter of whom spends much of the novel in a coma after Fraz drops her while spinning her around, leading to another of Lipsyte’s recurring scenes of panic and heartache at the side of a hospital bed. As in The Ask, there’s a portrait of a crumbling marriage and fraying connections between parents and children. There are, as in all Lipsyte’s books, a few rich assholes with evil-sounding names, among them Fraz’s childhood rival Nat Dersh and Tovah’s boss, Dieter Delgado, a social media tycoon and intellectual property thief. There’s class conflict: Fraz, an unemployed history teacher who now tutors rich kids, has come to believe that ‘the wealthiest have evolved, by dint of breeding advantages and technology, into a smarter, sleeker, more disease-resistant caste’ and that this will result in a bloodbath (‘Fraz hopes it’s a bubble bloodbath. He’s got a towel picked out’). There are funny throwaway jokes: David plays a video game called Age of Genocide 2; conference rooms at Tovah’s office are named for objects of 2000s nostalgia, including one called South Tower; a faction of male feminists refuse oral sex in order to repay historical orgasmic debt. There are also tossed-off subplots that could serve as the premises of other novels entirely: a gang hijacks the delivery of bone marrow for transplants; a war is waged in South-East Europe by the Army of the Just, a non-state military force composed of disgruntled war veterans from around the world; an alternative US political history proceeds from Obama’s failure to win a second term.
Hark is of a piece with Lipsyte’s earlier books, and page by page as funny and inventive as any of them. But its roving omniscient narrator and peculiar narrative frame have frustrated a few of its critics in the US. All the hopscotching between characters makes it a diffuse affair: some of the cast and their subplots are more captivating than others, and a few receive attention that’s scant to the point of vanishing. As with Pynchon, these culs-de-sac and dwindling eddies are welcome if disposable features in the comic landscape but only so long as they amuse and provoke – which they do, mostly. The narrative frame is more perplexing: Fraz is among the followers of Hark Morner, teacher of a set of tips for achieving ‘focus’ called ‘mental archery’. ‘Pretty silly, he liked to say.’ Indeed, the absurdity of mental archery is pointed out constantly throughout the novel, especially when it becomes a nationwide viral sensation. A mix of mindfulness, yoga (there are poses that mimic holding a bow and shooting arrows) and Jordan Petersonesque folk-and-myth-inspired self-help (Hark delivers talks that invoke Odysseus, Hannibal, William Tell etc), mental archery isn’t exactly a lampoon of any of these practices. It’s silly, and the novel says it’s silly, but it isn’t silly for the novel’s characters. Lipsyte has now written three novels about middle-aged failures (Home Land and Venus Drive taking up distinctly youthful failure), and it doesn’t not make sense that a set of frustrated cases would seek out a programme of self-improvement. It doesn’t not make sense that mental archery is the novel’s organising principle. But it’s not what the novel is about.
Of course , Lipsyte’s novels aren’t exactly about the things that provide their frames (mysterious diseases, high school reunions, university development offices), but some of these scenarios are more effective than others in generating comic friction. The Ask allowed for a series of confrontations across class boundaries – between ‘the people who kept everything’ and ‘the people who rented some of everything for brief amounts of time’ – which yielded Lipsyte’s best writing to date. If you’re not in its thrall, the culture of self-help registers as self-parody – no novelist necessary. Yet American fiction has had a curious relationship to self-help, therapy and the rhetoric that goes with them. David Foster Wallace, whose fiction drew on his experience in Alcoholics Anonymous, was outed as a reader of self-help after his death. George Saunders has called fiction ‘a kind of compassion-generating machine that saves us from sloth’. Both writers delivered college commencement addresses that were then marketed as inspirational pamphlets. Lately the writers Sabina Murray and Ocean Vuong have argued for reframing the workshops they teach as ‘healshops’, perhaps an inevitable development as trauma has become the nation’s dominant subject matter. Heinrich’s cult in The Subject Steve makes sense as an allegory for a writing class – rather than as a group seeking actual recovery and redemption – because his followers are constantly seeking his approval and jockeying for status the way students with fragile egos and oversize ambitions tend to do. Why the sorts of character Lipsyte writes, acid-tongued cynics, would feel compelled to spend their time at the service of Hark – a failed stand-up comedian, sham corporate wellness coach, self-effacing to a fault and not particularly charismatic – isn’t obvious. Kate Rumpler, an heiress who funds Hark’s website, thinks of the appeal like this: ‘Harkism is the answer because it offers none. It’s not a philosophy but a tool to clear ground.’ It’s also a way for the novel’s cynics to become something other than cynics. For Lipsyte, it’s a way to soften his own satirical edge, broaden his emotional range and veer away from his usual mode of anger and humiliation (not that those feelings are neglected in the end).
As a plot device, Harkism clears more ground than it fills. The novel succeeds in spite of it, growing weirder as it goes on. A talking catfish appears to Hark in dreams to give him instruction and inspiration, and signals that the novel will break out of its initial realist mode and become a farce with fantastical elements. When that turn arrives, it’s rather drastic, as if Lipsyte had tired of writing one sort of novel (a book like The Ask with domestic drama and antic characters but nothing physically implausible) and decided to write one (like The Subject Steve) in which there are no rules that can’t be broken. The last third of Hark, after Hark himself is murdered (the weapon is of course an arrow), includes a jet plane crash with a survivor stuck in a tree; the appropriation of Harkism by venal venture capitalists; news that the Army of the Just has advanced far enough west to fight ‘the Battle of Antwerp’; the death of a president; an air war over America; the explosion of a mountain; and Hark’s apparent resurrection from the dead and return as some combination of saviour and angel of death. An apocalyptic Christ allegory bursts out of what at first seemed to be a character-driven comedy about mindfulness and its co-option.
Along the way, there are riffs on Trump-era America, all the funnier in a book whose alternative history erases the Trump presidency. Here’s the ageing white supremacist Vietnam veteran who murders Hark, offering his thoughts on millennials and immigrants:
The entitlement generation, duped into thinking they deserve everything just for looking good in their sneakers, moaning about how the whole world should be invited to snout around in the American trough, Paraguayans, Laotians, Syrians, Canadians, Somalis, Dutch, Cameroonian tusk pimps, fatcat Krauts with spaetzle-burner dealerships on every highway and, of course, the Jews, the Jews, the whole kike cavalcade, the Wall Street Jews, the Suck-the-Baby-Penis Jews, the Hollywood Jews, the Harvard Jews, the Law Jews, the Baseball Jews, the Secret Chinese Jews, the Perpetually Aggrieved Jews, the Actually Dumb Jews, the Formerly Badass Commando Jews, the Lizard-Head Jews, the Elders of Zion, the Youngsters of Zion, the anti-Zionists of Zion, all of them crowding in, and also with the trough itself boasting a thin puddle of gruel at best.
That list leaves out Writer Jews. There are always frustrated artists and writers in Lipsyte’s fiction. In Hark, they happen to be married to each other: Fraz, the would-be filmmaker, and Tovah, the failed poet. The disintegration of their marriage is similar to the descent traced in Milo’s marriage in The Ask: mutual indifference leading to his despair and her adultery. But the view of that break-up was one-sided. After Philip Roth’s death, Lipsyte wrote in the New York Times: ‘Some have argued quite compellingly that we don’t need any more stories about the heterosexual male psyche, no more depictions of male characters … There are so many other stories to be told.’ He seems to have heeded this view, at least in part. Whereas Fraz fades from Hark in a cruelly absurd death scene, Tovah thrives. The drone apocalypse may have arrived, but she’s once again writing poems, apparently good ones: ‘Tovah begins to read her poem, and the more she reads, the more she feels herself spiralling up and away from her words, her voice. The more she reads her poem, the more it sounds like another person has written it, a stranger, a fool, some ludicrous, fleshly occlusion.’ When she’s done, a member of her workshop – healshop? – says, ‘Holy shit,’ and another whispers, ‘Wow.’ At last, Lipsyte delivers a real winner.