Killing Joke

Some things you fall for a little too fast and a little too hard. Not that long ago, a novelist friend urged this novel on me, the way your novelist friends are wont to do. “You’ll like it,” he said ...

Some things you fall for a little too fast and a little too hard. Not that long ago, a novelist friend urged this novel on me, the way your novelist friends are wont to do. “You’ll like it,” he said. And then, in response to what may have been something unpersuaded in my aspect: “In the first place, it’s extremely funny.” Now, an ardor for the antic, a weakness for that weakest of rhetorical maneuvers (the joke), a more general wearied impatience with the familiar Franzenish self-delectation of serious writers, even the obviously good ones—none of this is anything to brag about. Even I would admit that a susceptibility to the comic sentence, artful and barbed, is nobody’s idea of an unerring standard. But this friend, he had my measure. He knew what I believed in.

“Sure,” I said. “OK.”

And this is how I found myself plunging into the kind of heedless idiot novel-love with which many of you are likely familiar. The occasion was Sam Lipsyte’s 2004 book, Home Land.

Lipsyte has a new novel out called Hark (we’ll get to that), and in the notices I’ve read—many of them a bit disappointed, if also, to me, a bit petulant (we’ll get to that too)—people talk about Lipsyte’s previous novel The Ask (2010) as his breakthrough, his arrival, his major statement. It’s a great book, sure: skewering and desolate, especially unmerciful in its attention to those armies of the grotesquely monied busily despoiling new-millennial New York. But it is not his masterpiece. For propulsive lunacy and tottering demented grandeur—as well as for nihilistic farce, Bush-era vituperation, vigorous self-despising, Jersey in-jokes—you can do no better, I promise, than Home Land.

The premise of the novel could not be simpler: Home Land takes form as a series of “updates” sent to a high school alumni association by one Lewis Miner, aka “Teabag,” a graduate of the class of ’89, who, as he tells us at the outset, “did not pan out.” As conceits go, this one is pretty threadbare. But it allows Lipsyte the latitude to fabulate an entire narrative edifice—meandering, “plotted” in the truly loosest senses, lurching toward its end at a 15th Reunion party—out of his very greatest novelistic gift, which is, for want of any more Latinate designation, the riff. (In this, he resembles no one so much as Paul Beatty, another ultra-gifted contemporary comic novelist.) I mean no disparagement at all when I say that Home Land is a good deal more like a 250-page Lenny Bruce routine, spangled with bursts of Rothian grandiloquence and the staccato crackle of Grace Paley dialogue, than it is a well-wrought urn of deliberative domestic fiction. It gallops and careens, characters accruing and entangling, riffs begetting further riffs, in a baroque succession of digressions and micropolemics tending to the bitter, the despairing, the delirious.

Those riffs sound like this:

Which reminds me, I’ve yet to comment on the latest issue of Catamount Notes, wherein it was announced that my old flame Bethany Applebaum is making a mint helping the doltish progeny of the rich gain admittance to our nation’s leading universities. Bravo, Bethany! Tuck those little one percenters in all safe and cozy. Keep that ruling-class razor wire sharp and shiny!

Bethany, your father was head of the lathe workers local. Would he pop and lock in his grave knowing you’ve dedicated your life to helping these entitled cretins? You busted your hump to get to Cornell. All that panic and self-cutting, those blood-speckled scrunchies on your arm. Is this your way of giving back to the gate-keepers? Or is your cynicism a huge holy shimmering thing no mortal could view in its entirety?

Please write in and let us know!

Or again:

Philly Boy, congratulations on your continued success at Willoughby and Stern. You’ve always been a persistent guy, Phil, a real plugger, whether the task at hand was to find a hole in rival Nearmont’s vaunted line or a fag to bash after the Friday night game …

I’m also fairly certain at least a few of our contemporaries shared my fantasy of cornering you in Eastern Valley’s dank shower room and firing a hollowpoint round into your skull. We could picture the startlement in your eyes, the suck and flop of your dead-before-it-hits-the-floor body hitting the floor, your brain meat chunked, running out on rivulets of soapy water across the scummed tiles, clogging up that rusted drain the school board never saw fit to replace. Your pecker would be puny with death.

We’d never do such a thing, of course, not like those suburban murder squads of today, those peach-fuzz assassins in mail-order dusters who lay down suppressing fire in cafeterias …

The temptation to keep quoting and do nothing else—except perhaps pause over the rich effects of words like “progeny,” “scrunchies,” “hollowpoint,” “suppressing fire”—is, for this reviewer, great. I hope you can see why. There are few writers I know so feverishly allergic to the bloodless sentence, the ossified idiom, or for that matter more spectacularly agile in the resistance to “conforming to usages that have become dead,” as Emerson puts it—even when, as here, that resistance risks callousness, obscenity, cruelty, or any of the other disavowed affects proper to the empires of American optimism.

Lipsyte is nothing if not a nervy, traducing sort of writer, and I take this to be part of what it means to think of his ludicrous virtuosity neither as ornament nor flourish but as a bedrock element of what has been, for him, a years-long effort to bring the submerged and awful violences of the ordinary American scene into queasy-making clarity: to contest, in the Emersonian mode, the consolatory conventionalities of a poisoned world that wishes not to know overmuch about its own malignancy. Hark, as we shall see, revisits and revises just this project.

Granted, this may not be your thing. Hyperverbose loserish white-guy freakouts, tuned to the bleak and the lewd, are by now their own sorry genre, and you may well have developed a distaste for it. Fair. Nothing, at this point, is easier than claiming “critique” as an alibi for more garden-variety sorts of (typically male) odiousness. It’s certainly the case that none of this would cash out as much were Lipsyte’s vision not appreciably wider and more acute, and were the aspects of character he portrays not themselves, as Home Land puts it, “acquired in provinces of real human pain.”


We Are All King Lear’s Children

By Daniel Swift

Lewis, for instance, has lost his mother, dead from cancer before the book opens, and that loss throws into cold relief all his accumulated failures—of nerve and of decency, at work, love, life. Her failures had been grander and braver: a late arriver to ’70s feminism, she wrote plays, convened reading groups of like-minded Jersey suburban women, “became a witness to what she’d come to conclude was her bondage.” “Laugh at it now, Catamounts,” Lewis says, “God knows my father did, but it was dangerous and new to Hazel, and what can you admire more in a person than the will to danger?” For all his undisguised perviness and anarchic discursive vigor, Lewis knows himself to possess no such will, and none of the scalpel-sharp world-despising of the novel would cut the way it does were it not superseded by what we might too blandly call its shame—a corrosive self-contempt, which, let me hasten to add, is of a variety that Lipsyte has no interest either in redeeming (as in the familiar Apatowian arc) or in heroicizing (in the tired guise of the damaged but valiant male antihero).

In Lipsyte’s corner of the North Jersey cosmos, misery is blighting—the worst of us just pass it around, pass it along—not improving. And it is also, for all its putative universality, cruelly ill-distributed out in the mortal world, broken up as it is into its grief-gathering subdivisions of color, of sex, of money. Sharpened clarity on this point makes it satire, and not just existential bellyaching.

For most of us non-oligarchs, then, the livable options are not many, and they are not great. “We’re at a crucial juncture in the history of our homeland, Valley Kitties,” Lewis perorates in the frantic conclusion. “It’s now or never. It’s now and never. We must choose once and for all: police state or police state!” If you like a novel that makes a churning and batshit litany out of such soul-sickness, while not quite being able to muffle its own sentence-making joy, you’ll maybe like Sam Lipsyte.

As I say, I love Sam Lipsyte, and nothing at this point is likely to push me off my mark. His new novel is called Hark, and while it’s not as satisfying as a lot of his previous ones, I don’t think, there is still a great deal to recommend it. The sentences, for instance, are very much his.

Hark is the story of the small cadre of souls who gather around Hark Morner, the inventor of a set of techniques called “mental archery”—something between Pilates, meditation, TED-talkish pseudophilosophizing—whose great, and, Hark insists, sole, purpose is to help people focus. Over the course of the novel, its central characters enable, and bear witness to, Hark’s ascent from self-help pamphleteer to corporate inspiration-monger to something less manageable and more, it seems, messianic. A message board commenter, who will have a large role to play in the plot, says,

It’s a personal philosophy, maybe a little self-helpish (and damn, can’t we all use a little self-help—the fucking corporations and the government and the fascists and the tech lords aren’t going to help us, trust me), but it’s a really powerful message that uses archery as a metaphor.

And there is, unsurprisingly, a lot of ripe comedy to be plucked from the collision of planetary collapse and ever more uncontested oligarchic dominion with the improving bromides of “personal philosophy,” Goopish affirmations, vigorous stretching. “Now, we need a fresh song,” one tech overlord assures Hark. “A vibrant life poem with which to propel ourselves into a succession of profitable quarters.”

There are, I think, three particularly striking things about Hark. First, it is not in the fanatical first-person. It features a multitude of centers of narrative consciousness, and this makes for a story that feels more spacious—less claustrophobically compulsive—than many of Lipsyte’s others. Second, and in direct relation to this, there is a spaciousness in the novel’s regard for what we might call its characters’ practices of belief. Hark himself, for instance, remains something of a well-drawn cipher in the book, a vivid blur, and in Lipsyte’s novel-wide willingness to demure from mercilessness, to withhold satirical fire and thus preserve some unvoided space of mystery about him—this unfunny man who professedly neither gets nor traffics in irony—we can feel a deliberate and, to my mind, telling recalibration of the novelist’s own marrow-deep impulses toward mockery. Page after page, and often through the lens of the hapless Fraz, the most familiar of Lipstye’s quasi-despairing middle-aged men, the novel turns over a new and startling question: What if a killing and all-devouring irony isn’t the way to survive the world?

In Lipsyte’s work, you will find a writer striving to be unbeguiled by the prevailing fantasies proper to imperial liberalism, as it totters toward its terrible planetary ruin.

But then, in a not-at-all-metaphysical way, the world may not be ours to survive. And this, for my money, is the third curious thing about Hark. The novel takes place about a dozen years in the future. One mark of this is Tovah Gold, one of Lipsyte’s most splendid creations, who first appeared in some shorter fiction, including the breathtakingly great “Climber’s Room.” There she had been in her late 30s, navigating the plummeting awfulness of dating New York men and wanting children; here, she has twin 10-year-olds with Fraz, is the breadwinner, still writes poetry, sustains a nondismissive wariness in respect to “Harkism” throughout. But that time-tracking device is appended to others, which make for a kind of background noise in the novel—until, a little bewilderingly, that noise is much of what there is to hear.

We learn that not only has the planet deteriorated in predicted and predictable ways, and not only has an ascendant oligarchy further absented itself from the collective life of the species. We discover, too, in respect to all this, that Europe has for some time been convulsed by a vast bloodletting. “War is everywhere,” Fraz writes in ad copy for Mental Archery:

Europe is about to be conquered by a group many call the Army of the Just, a force made up of the same mix of veterans, conscripts and soldiers of fortune that have filled the ranks of marauding armies for millennia. That this horde claims no particular religious or political ideology beyond the abolition of poverty and oppression, and includes members of diverse races, religions and creeds who have gathered from around the world and sworn to fight both globalist power structures and ethno-nationalist movements across the continents is especially startling.

You don’t say? By the end of the novel, that war has begun its transatlantic migration.

Reviews I’ve read have complained that as the book heaves toward its conclusion it grows scattered and a shade arbitrary. I’m not going to tell you that’s wholly unfair. I will say that Lipsyte seems to me to be trying to think his way into something obscure but pressing, something at the dark edges of the frame of the world of his striving city dwellers. I don’t just mean the climatological terror that we have lately found many, many ways of narrativizing, across idioms, genres, media. I mean, rather, the unnerving twinned conviction that the brutalizing arrangements of the global present—with its misery quintiles of sex and color and money—cannot hold, and that the thing required to uproot that arrangement will be, when it comes, of an unimaginable scope and scale of violent horror: a full fucking hemoclysm (thank you, Sam Lipsyte, for teaching me this term) from which ultimately very few are likely to be spared, no matter their conscious consumption, their preference for diversity in the ranks of overlords, their devout recycling.

“The fact is,” one of the novel’s tech-bro titans tells Fraz, “I myself spend a lot of money on philanthropy. As does my company. But we’re not interested in any large-scale, systemic shift in how things are done on the planet. For that, the downtrodden are really going to have to come and take our fucking shit and kill us. And so far they are too scared to try. Actually, it’s getting kind of boring.”

Near the very end, we meet a pregnant young woman who gets high with Fraz, and remarks that she’s been in Europe. “Eat shit,” she tells him. “I’m a vet. I was in Ibiza. Saw the deathpits. I was on a nuke squad in Mallorca. I’m just trying to get through the day.” Boredom, then, or horror.

I’d be a poor reviewer if I claimed for Hark the singular achieved power of Home Land. It is a thing considerably weirder and more diffuse, its riffs semi-chastened, though it is still outlandishly funny. And some readers, especially partisans of the cool Cuskian formalism many of my contemporaries seem to admire (though I do not), may find turns like the above overdrawn, rote, an apocalypticism too easily come by. I do not find them so, but then I am an avowed sucker for what Lipsyte is selling.

Still, nothing in the novel suggests to me that it’s wrong to believe Lipsyte is always worth reading. In every bit of his work, you will find a writer striving to be unbeguiled by the prevailing fantasies proper to what I will just go ahead and call imperial liberalism, as it totters toward its terrible planetary ruin—fantasies about the benevolence of power, the sure victory of comity over antagonism, upheaval without suffering, change without blood, all boats rising, a thousand points of light. His characters look around and see (or try not to see) worlds offering less and less in the way of noncataclysmic “outcomes,” as the few remaining Pinkerite techno-optimists might have it. This, in Hark, is where their listing toward some renovated possibilities for belief comes from. Who are you to say they’re wrong? Who am I to laugh?


This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames. icon

Featured image: Pieter van der Heyden, The Battle about Money (after 1570). Metropolitan Museum of Art