“The consolation of acute bitterness is the biting retort.”—Hark
1.“Is it too soon?” It’s one of those recurring cultural questions that has lately been revived in the context of the #MeToo movement, regarding the matter of when, if ever, such high-profile sexual abusers as Charlie Rose, Louis C.K., Mario Batali, Garrison Keillor, and Kevin Spacey might make their way back into the public sphere, or at least a paying job. Alpha males, however disgraced, get twitchy on the sidelines, and so, as James Wolcott put it in his Vanity Fair column on “The Return of the Scuzzies, “we hear the # MeToo Men tap on the microphone as they seek to reintroduce themselves.”
For a male fiction writer, a foray into this massively trip-wired territory might seem about as inviting as a several-mile stroll atop a third rail. Yet there, in the pages of the Nov. 19, 2018, issue of The New Yorker, was the fearless edgemeister Sam Lipsyte with “Show Recent Some Love,” surely the first male work of fiction to address, in no way obliquely, the issues raised by the movement. To do this in what we call “the current climate” was an act of perhaps foolhardy courage; to have pulled it off with as artful and well judged mixture of sensitivity and sharpness as Lipsyte did, is a high-wire achievement of no small dimension.
The story succeeds in “going there”
without inducing moral nausea because the ogre of the piece, the abusive and
predatory Mike Maltby, CEO of Mike Maltby Media Solutions (now renamed Haven
Media) is unambiguously presented as one of “history’s ceaseless cavalcade of
dickheads.” Left to navigate the treacherous cross-currents of Maltby’s ignominious
departure is Isaac, his one-time stepson, whom Maltby rescued from a life of
video gaming and Jagermeister shots by giving him a job as a copywriter. Not
unreasonably he fears for his position now, given the toxicity of his
association with Maltby; underneath Isaac’s vocal disgust he also experiences
involuntary and unnerving spasms of sympathy, as confused and anxious humans
In Lipsyte’s fiction it is the
wives who see right through the husbands, and Isaac gets pinned to the specimen
board of contemporary male fecklessness by his wife with this observation:
“Standing next to a villain and hoping people will notice the difference is not
the same as being a hero, Isaac.” Isaac stands in here for the legions of men trapped
in the queasy twilight zone between innocence and complicity. “And don’t be
certain they won’t come for you one of these days,” she adds with brutal
Since his 1999 debut story collection Venus Drive Sam Lipsyte has published four novels and two more collections that have established him as the premier anatomist of contemporary male malaise and sexual confusion. A skilled and consistently hilarious satirist with tummler-tight timing, he explores with merciless and lacerating precision the demoralized state of the urban man-boy and alterna-dad, marinated in gender guilt, trapped in the low-paying and uncertain jobs that are the portion these days of liberal arts majors, barely tolerated or peevishly despised by his spouse and children. Call him Lipsyte Man—a baffled and wounded specimen.
2.A North Jersey native and high school shot putter and teen literary phenom (“a little show pony writer”, in his words), Sam Lipsyte amusingly was named as a Presidential Scholar of the Arts by none other than Ronald Reagan; the award was given to him by the once famed virtuecrat William Bennett. A no doubt formative lesson in the uses of cognitive dissonance. He attended Brown in the late ’80s in its peak years as a powerhouse in semiotics, cultural studies, and advanced fiction, studying with such luminaries as Robert Coover and graduating in the same cohort as Rick Moody and Jeffrey Eugenides. Dispirited by the hegemony of literary theory over practice, however, he drifted into music for a time when he came back to New York, fronting a noise rock band called Dung Beetle and dutifully picking up the bad habits of dissipation the position called for.
Sam’s path back to literature took him through Gordon Lish’s fabled and/or notorious writing workshop, where the shameful and unsayable were quarried for the rawest of raw material. Lish was also fanatical on matters of style, and perhaps Sam’s chief takeaway from his time in Gordon’s boot camp was that every word of every sentence had to count. “There is no getting to the good part. It all has to be the good part,” he once approvingly quoted Lish.
Venus Drive, published in 2000 by the much-missed literary magazine and publisher Open City, strongly reflects that aesthetic. Its sentences display aphoristic economy and keenly calibrated rhythm, as in this specimen: “His eyes had the ebb of his liver in them and he bore the air of a man who looks right at you and only sees the last of himself.” Several of the stories draw on the druggy discontinuities, moral squalor and grim, bone-in-your-throat humor of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. One character does Keith Richards considerably better by shooting up his mother’s cremains. (What stage of grief is that anyway?) Another informs us with addled precision that “I wasn’t nodding, I was passing out.” William Burroughs’s algebra of need was clearly a familiar equation to the author.
Other stories engage with a broader consensus reality, specifically the emerging service economy that appears to be our portion until the robot overlords dispose of us. In “Probe to the Negative”—the very title can be taken as an ars poetica—a failed artist with dependency issues works as a phone marketer under the faux-helpful supervision of Frank the Fink.
“Maybe Frank was a decent guy once, but he’s management now … the higher you move up, the more of a tragedy you are,” the narrator mordantly observes. But as he also says, “We’re all cold callers now,” an epitaph that has ominous ring of truth.
“My Life, for Promotional Use Only”
opens with a perfect snapshot of the emerging dot-com economy:
The building where I work used to be a bank. Now it’s lots of little start-ups, private suites, outlaw architects, renegade CPA’s, club kids with three-picture deals. It’s very arty in the elevators. Everybody’s shaved and pierced in dainty places. They are lords of tiny telephones, keepers of dogs on battery-operated ropes.
The basis of
effective satire is simply close, cruel observation.
I heard Sam Lipsyte read one of his stories at an Open City event, a literary event for me of major proportions. So I made my predatory desires known and as a result became the editor of his first novel, The Subject Steve. The shock of recognition I experienced upon first reading it was electrifying; somehow this young writer managed to channel the irreverent and unruly reading of my formative years of the ’60s and had made that sensibility his own. It was the first of many times he has caused me to use my inhaler for an episode of laughter-induced asthma.
Black humor had emerged in the late ’50s as a literary mode and broader cultural style as a release valve for the stifling seriousness and repression of the decade and also an expression of paranoia and delayed trauma from the horrors of the late war and the threat of nuclear annihilation. Its strategies were the send-up, the put-on, the resigned shrug, the spasm of panic, the barely stifled scream, the bitter laugh, the taboo-busting saying of the Unsayable. It was born on whatever day the first lampshade joke was told. Its emergence was coterminous with and fueled by what Wallace Markfield, a now forgotten black humorist himself, called in 1965 “The Yiddishization of American Humor”—comedy that, drawing on the traditions of the Borscht Belt and the shetl, was” involuted, ironic, more parable than patter”—and infused with a distinctively Jewish fatalism.
The ur-black humorist was of course Joseph Heller and as I read The Subject Steve I could, I thought, detect his influence in every line. Begin with the book’s premise: The book’s narrator and antihero Steve is informed by two quack doctors that he is dying of a disease unquestionably fatal, yet with no discernible cause nor duration; they dub it Goldfarb-Blackstone Preparatory Extinction Syndrome. A terser name would of course be “Life.” Lipsyte elaborates this illogically logical Catch-22 premise with caustic wit and a verbal energy that recalls Stanley Elkin at his most manic. Savor the spritzing pungency and tart wordplay of this passage:
The bad news was bad. I was dying of something nobody had every died of before. I was dying of something absolutely, fantastically new. Strangely enough I was in fine fettle. My heart was strong and my lungs were clean. My vitals were vital. … My levels were good. My counts were good. All my numbers said my number wasn’t up.
Heller’s brilliantly morose novel of white collar angst, Something Happened, is also a presiding influence on this and subsequent novels by Lipsyte. Steve quits his indeterminate cube-based job, stating in his exit interview: “My work, albeit inane, jibed with the greater inanities required of us to maintain the fictions of our industry.” He fails to get much sympathy from either his divorced wife or disaffected daughter, and fleeing a media frenzy goes on an increasingly violent and saturnalian New Age odyssey in search of a cure or at least of modicum of certainty.
The Yiddish word for a hapless soul like Steve is “schlemiel,” a character without much agency and dignity, buffeted by domestic or historical forces far beyond his resistance. The schlemiel is a stock figure of black humor fiction—Yossarian, Billy Pilgrim, Benny Profane, just for starters—and can be traced as far back in American literature as Lemuel Pitkin, the All-American designated victim who gets literally taken apart in Nathanael West’s Depression-era demolishment of the Horatio Alger luck-and-pluck, A Cool Milllion. With The Subject Steve Lipsyte had revived a tradition of gleefully cynical disillusion that had largely faded from our increasingly earnest literary fiction.
Sadly, rather too much black humor of a distinctly unfunny sort attended the novel’s publication, as it was literally published on Sept. 11, 2001. Irony of any sort, however well achieved, was not in favor that grievous season; the reviews were complimentary enough but thin on the ground, and sales suffered accordingly. As a result Sam’s next novel, Home Land, was not offered on (with the keenest possible sadness) by me, and went on to garner an astounding 22 editorial rejections before being finally published as a Picador paperback original in 2004. That the novel quickly became the book to be reading on the L and M trains and with each passing year feels more and more like a masterpiece—to the point of having been selected by Christian Lorentzen in New York as one of the canonical works of fiction of the newish century, calling it “a Gen-X Notes from Underground—must prove something besides the need to pick your pub date carefully, but what? Perhaps that as the Iraq War and the broader war on terror were both clearly becoming clusterfucks of Vietnam-esque proportions, black humor Lipsyte-style acquired a new relevance and resonance that has only become stronger in the 15 disillusioning years since Home Land’s publication.
Among other things it has one of the best premises for a comic novel ever devised. Lewis Miner, aka “Teabag,” the member of the Eastern Valley High Class of ’89 who most conclusively has not panned out, pens a series of uproariously bitter letters to his Alumni Newsletter, bringing his cohort of bankers and brokers and doctors and state senators and “double major[s] in philosophy and aquatic life management” up to date on “the soft cold facts of me.” At first he “shudders” at the prospect of his successful classmates chortling at the particulars of his dismal tale, but quickly rethinks his phrasing: “Shudder, in fact, is not quite the word for the feeling. Feeling is not quite the word for the feeling. How’s bathing at knifepoint in the phlegm of the dead? Is that a feeling?”
Miner rents a dismal apartment in his hometown, attends the occasional “aphorism slam,” and ekes out a sort of living concocting fake anecdotes for a soft drink’s newsletter Fizz (while spending even more time trawling the net for lovelies in legwarmers). His dispatches at once satirize the nauseating smugness of most alumni updates and recount in granular detail the hell on earth that was most people’s experience of high school. The novel’s climax takes place at a predictably disastrous tenth anniversary “Togethering” reunion—“one big horrible flashback,” as these things tend to be.
Miner’s spew of snark is a beautiful thing to experience and he represents Lipsyte Man in his first full incarnation. Imagine—work with me on this—if Rodney Dangerfield had somehow managed to attend Oberlin or Hampshire College, but emerged with his sense of humor intact. Miner and his successors also partake a bit of W.C. Fields’s befuddled in-the-American-grain misanthropy and his sense of terminal male embattlement. These suckers are never going to get an even break.
Published in 2010 in the rump of the Great Recession, Sam’s next novel The Ask shifts the scene to an academic setting: the development office of an institution its denizens call the Mediocre University at New York, whose art program affords the marginally talented the opportunity to “take hard drugs in suitable company, draw from life on their laptops, do radical things with video cameras and caulk.” Milo Burke is a failed painter who works there none too effectively; as the book opens he has been cashiered for using an ill-advised epithet to an obnoxious coed whose ‘father had paid for our shitty observatory upstate.” Saddled with a wife and young child, his one route back to a paying job is if he can engineer a hefty give from his college friend Purdy, who ‘had been one of the first to predict that people only really wanted to be alone and scratching themselves and smelling their fingers and firing off sequences of virulent gibberish at other deliquescing life forms”—in other words a pioneering internet tycoon. (One of the many updated and flourishing Milo Minderbinder-types who populate Sam’s fiction.)
In Milo Burke, Sam Lipsyte perfected his portrayal of the sad sack contemporary male—a failure at work, a barely tolerated presence at home, overloaded with seemingly immortal student debt and untenable notions from his trendily overpriced liberal arts education. All that Lipsyte Man has to fight back with is his hefty reserved of disappointed spleen and a verbal facility that is a consistent delight to the reader if not to his interlocutors. The Ask is saturated with the feeling that the promise of American life has curdled and vanished, leaving us the task of managing our disappointments as best we can. Sam’s acute sense of the small-bore sorrows and indignities of contemporary domestic life sometimes puts me in mind of Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet, his late, terminally disenchanted satire of two dimwitted clerks failing to escape their petit bourgeois fate. Wherever you go, there you are—unfortunately.
Eight years on, with his new novel Hark, Sam engages with the Age of Trump, aka the Big Con—a time when our disappointments are so acute that the need to believe on the part of a large percentage of the citizenry apparently cannot be extinguished by the preponderance of evidence or application of common sense.
The first thing to be said about the book is that Sam has never been sharper or funnier. It is my habit when reading a bound galley for review to dog ear pages where passages that made me laugh or that seem worth quoting strike me. My galley of Hark is so comprehensively dog eared that the whole thing resembles a dog’s ear. The second thing to be said is that Hark presents Sam’s most socially expansive portrait and diagnosis of American life, tinged with a slightly futuristic and dystopian vibe. It features the largest canvas and cast of characters of all his novels, and is the first of them to be written in the third person rather than the first, allowing access to a several competing and complimentary points of views and interior realities.
The Hark of the title is Hark Morner—his mother mistook the word in the Christmas carol for a name rather than an exhortation—who has accidentally drifted from stand-up into guru status when his routine on “Mental Archery” and its sharpening of “focus” proves congenial to corporate conventions and TED-type conclaves. Despite his lack of internal conviction he has attracted a circle of seekers who see in him whatever it is they seem to need. Chief among them is Kate Rumpler, an heiress and financial angel who is on her own private atonement tour, flying bone marrow from donors on flights around the country. Then there is the obligatory Lipsyte Man, Fraz Penig, an unemployed—actually never-employed—filmmaker who tutors the children of the one percent for a sort of living and produces video content for the Harkist website. He is married to Tovah Gold, a poet who earns the real paycheck in the family concocting bullshit-speak for something called the Blended Learning Enhancement Project”; both partners are “locked in a low-level quotidian apocalypse” and the marriage is mired on the shoals of her boredom and barely contained annoyance. (“The qualities in Fraz she once claimed to adore are not so adorable anymore.”)
Hark, a cipher to himself and an empty vessel similar to the figure of Chance in Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There, serves as a blank screen on which these and other characters project their ambitions and unreasonable hopes, family, work, sex, country and community having proven to be letdowns or outright delusions.
Lipstye’s satire in Hark has never been more cutting or timely. Meg, one of Hark’s acolytes, excitedly extols the virtues of something called Mercystream: “It’s amazing. Instead of letting refugees into the country, we can give them laptops and listen to their stories as they stream them from their camps. It’s all about empathy.” Fraz’s prematurely wised-up daughter Lisa declares, “School’s like a factory where they make these little cell phone accessories called people.” Musing on the root of her attraction to Hark, a character decides, “Your brain gets tired, brittle. It’s a bitch being attuned to the bleakness all the time. You crave a certain stupor, aka belief”—in itself a neat capsule statement of the novel’s controlling theme.
Lipsyte crams quite a lot of event into Hark’s 284 pages, much of it violent, some of tragic and fatal, and some of it even mystical and visionary, with a final chapter taking place in what is clearly the afterlife. To my mind Sam is attempting to craft a contemporary parable about the birth of religion, how faith, battered into near-extinction by the fraudulence and mendacity of the world, will batten on to the nearest plausible object. In this sense the novel is strikingly similar to Robert Coover’s The Origin of the Brunists, the powerful, even overwhelming first novel of his teacher at Brown that similarly deals with the birth of a cult in the wake of death and disaster. There are also many parallels to be found in the way Nathanael West handles the volatile mixture of credulity and rage in the people he calls “the disappointed” in his indelible The Day of the Locust. In this as in so many other ways Sam Lipsyte is West’s truest successor among our living American novelists. I can offer no higher compliment.
3.Sam Lipsyte began writing in earnest in the early ’90s, just as the pundits were declaring the end of history and a global reign of liberal (or neoliberal) democracy and a goodies-producing market economy stretched into the foreseeable (hah) future. It was not perhaps the best psychic weather for a natural-born naysayer with a provocateur’s instinct and a shot putter’s explosive delivery. But what happened on 9/11 and the subsequent dot-com crash and then the Great Recession opened up a space in the culture for the sort of uncompromising and truth-telling satirist Sam was born to be and the mode of black humor most congenial to his extravagant gifts of language and imagination. It is a critical commonplace that the brain-numbing events of the Trump presidency have rendered satire powerless—a critique of fiction’s incapacity in the wake of American idiocy that dates back to Philip Roth’s in the early ’60s, a time of comparative legibility. Tell it to Aristophanes, Juvenal, Voltaire, Jonathan Swift, Gustave Flaubert, Mark Twain, Bertolt Brecht, the George Orwell of Animal Farm.
Tell it to Sam Lipstye. And then you’d better duck.
Image: Flickr/Pete Banks
I first met Andrew Martin about a year ago through a friend (whom I had also, basically, met through a friend) at bar in a Brooklyn. I had some questions about my literary future—meaning I had some questions about how to get out of my stagnant present. (Graduate school? A job not in the media? New friends?) He had recently sold his debut novel and short story collection to FSG, and our mutual friend assured me we shared the same sensibility, which I figured meant cracking jokes at the first rumbling of anything serious.
I wasn’t wrong. Andrew was there before I arrived, and he was the only one reading a book while drinking a beer. I liked him immediately. Over the course of a few hours (far more than he needed to spend with me), he was a sincere advice-giver, in that he often freely admitted he had no fucking idea what he was talking about. But he did, of course—he owned the struggle, often self-imposed, on the years you waste, or at least think you waste, trying to become a writer. That novel of his, Early Work, came out on July 10, and it’s very much about this time in a young writer’s life: that “early work,” all that effort that may, or may not, pay off in the end.
Much of the story is narrated by Peter, a cynical and somewhat jaded millennial who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his longtime partner, Julia, who’s on the verge of becoming a doctor (she’s also a poet). Peter says things like: “I spent so much time on the daily logistics of just staying alive that I often went weeks without remembering that I had no idea what I was doing with my life. I knew, because I’d been told, that passivity was not a quality to aspire to.” He’s comically lost, it seems—or at least has no clue what direction to go in—until he meets Leslie, another aspiring writer who’s staying with her aunt in the city while her boyfriend resides across the country. Peter and Leslie, each in their own fits of complacency and familiarity, fall in love, and their affair leads both of them to question, exactly, how best to lead the life of an artist. It sounds grandiose, but it’s not—it’s a hilarious look, really, about how we evolve into the adults we one day become, creative or not.
Below is a conversation Andrew and I first had over the phone but, because of the perils of advanced technology, failed to record when I hit the button. It was had, a second (hopefully better) time, over email a few days later.
The Millions: You seem particularly interested in codependent relationships. Take your two stories in The Paris Review, “Cool for America” and “With the Christopher Kids”—especially the latter. Without getting too much into the plot, that one’s basically about a guy on Christmas Eve who, after breaking up with his girlfriend, does a bunch of cocaine at his mom’s house, in the company of his rehabilitated—though constantly relapsing—sister. It’s implied they often exist like this—one of them is on drugs, the other isn’t, and then they swap roles—and they move through each other’s lives, simultaneously helping and destroying the other.
Peter and Leslie, you could argue, have a similar companionship—they provide each other almost with a stable instability. What I’m getting at is if you think that’s what you need to create art: not a muse, necessarily, but not a steady partner, a routine life, and so on.
Andrew Martin: I hadn’t made this connection before, but I think your question touches on a few things that I’ve tried to think through in the novel and in my stories. It does seem that I tend to write about characters who are deeply reliant on other people for their sense of self, in ways that (obviously) aren’t always to their mutual benefit. As a reader, I’m drawn to these kinds of stories—one of my favorite novels, Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker, is about a woman hell-bent on ruining her sister’s wedding because she’s too in love with their relationship to let her go, and the Christopher kids are kind of less precious, more drug-addled members of J.D. Salinger’s Glass family. In Early Work, I think that Peter, who narrates most of the novel, is in search of the person who might best reflect back the version of himself he most wants to see. That’s especially true of Leslie, the woman he falls in love with, but it’s also true of his partner, Julia, and his friends, all of whom seem, at least to him, to have a clearer idea than he does of how to function in the world. I think, in Peter’s case, his codependence (or desire for it) might be a yearning to fully understand other people, or at least be understood.
As for the question of whether one might need that kind of relationship to make art, it doesn’t seem to be the worst option, as long as both parties have a good idea of what they’re getting into. But I think it’s harder to achieve “productive instability” than the characters in the novel would like to admit. Peter—maybe a bit like the book’s author in his younger days—has set up a dichotomy in his head between a Kerouac by way of Jesus’ Son existence, where you drink and drug yourself toward some kind of enlightenment, and a more prosaic, stable life with a reliable partner and dog and decent craft beer. He does seem to realize every now and then, almost despite himself, that there can be more weirdness and intensity in a serious relationship than there is in blacking out in a dive bar, but it doesn’t really stick. In real life, you—I—probably need some balance between hedonism and comfort, but I clearly haven’t figured out how to write about that yet.
TM: Do you think your novel, then, is somewhat about a person rejecting, consciously or not, “the regular current of American life”? Isn’t that, really, a “classic American story”?
AM: Yeah, I think that both Peter and Leslie are trying to swim against the regular current of American life, though I think they’re pretty hapless at it. Their rebellion is basically romantic—they like to imagine themselves in the Partisan Review scene of the New York of the 1950s or something. I don’t think their affiliation with these olds books and ways of thinking is an affectation, or not entirely one. They’re trying to figure out, like Sheila Heti, how a person should be, and not finding very useful models.
One obvious way to reject the status quo that they don’t spend much time contemplating (though many of my friends have, especially recently) is through radical politics. The characters in the novel are basically passive “good liberals,” as a friend of mine refers to anyone to the right of Che Guevara. Since the book was drafted almost entirely before Trump was elected, but then sold and edited in the immediate aftermath of his coming to power, I thought a lot about whether or not I needed the story to reflect the nightmare political situation that we’ve spent the better part of the last two years thinking about and trying to mitigate. The novel takes place mostly in the summer of 2015, and though there are a few references to the coming storm, in the end I decided to leave it mostly as a snapshot of a tiny strata of the country before the deluge. They—we—should have known better, but some of us didn’t, or at least certainly didn’t do enough. I’d like to think the characters in the book have been to a lot of protests since they were last seen on the page.
TM: At the risk of being too broad, I want to chat a bit about your comedic influences, and how you manage to be so funny on the page—it’s no easy feat, and you make it look natural. I’m a huge fan of Sam Lipsyte—and I remember that you are, too—because of his constant deconstruction of the language we use every day.
AM: First, Sam Lipsyte was definitely a direct influence on my work, both in his writing—especially the stories in Venus Drive and his novel Home Land—and as one of my first writing teachers when I was an undergraduate at Columbia. He was the first person who explicitly taught me that one could build a piece of fiction from voice rather than plot or theme or whatever else. (It seems hard now to remember what I thought I was trying to do before that.) Maybe even more significantly, he introduced me to the work of a number of writers who became really important to me, especially Padgett Powell, Gary Lutz, and David Gates, the latter of whom became a mentor and friend many years later. I love how all of them, in very different ways, bring “gusto from the get-go,” as Lutz said in an interview.
In recent years, my biggest influences, comedic and otherwise (though they set an impossibly high bar) have probably been the stories of Deborah Eisenberg, Lorrie Moore, and Amy Hempel, especially the longer ones. In super-recent years, the mutant story collections, or whatever they are, of Jen George and Claire-Louise Bennett have been the books that most make me want to keep writing fiction. I laugh every time I think about the art school whose curriculum consists entirely of burying dead horses at the Aqueduct racetrack in George’s story “Instruction.”
For my own writing, even though my default day-to-day instinct is to be funny in the face of routine misery, it seems like I have to have an epiphany every few months that I can use my sense of humor to get me out of all kinds of jams in my writing. It’ll be days and weeks of trying to address something I want to write about in an appropriately serious fashion before I “give up” and revert to caustic jokes. It still feels like a last resort, maybe because it comes more naturally to me than sustained serious contemplation. I worry about seeming glib, but I try to make sure the glibness is coming from the characters rather the work itself. Which I think is possible?
TM: What was the genesis of this novel? I don’t really want to ask you if it’s autobiographical, but some of my favorite authors—particularly Roberto Bolaño—write constantly about writing. Maybe I’m just a sucker for that kind of shit? Are you?
AM: The novel initially arose, to some extent, out of a sense of frustration, both with my own nascent career as a writer and, I think more fruitfully, with the sense that no one had quite written the book I wanted to read. I wanted to write something irresponsible, or at least not worry about whether or not I was following the rules of proper conduct and proper novel writing. And I think part of that was writing a book with a character and life situation that looked a lot like mine, in which the main point-of-view character behaves abominably.
The basic state of Peter’s life at the beginning of the novel bears more than a passing resemblance to mine when I started the book—I was living in Charlottesville, Virginia, with my partner, Laura, who is a doctor, teaching classes at whatever local institutions would have me, and generally not producing work at the level I wanted to produce it. I wanted to write about artistic ambition and sex and drugs and the somewhat fucked-up and unresolved gender dynamics that exist (or so I’ve heard) in friendships and relationships between writers. I felt an urgency to write about these things honestly. Very little that happens in the book is literally true (though I did waste two hours watching Only Lovers Left Alive), but I freely adapted the story from the questions that preoccupied me during those lean years in Virginia. The two protagonists of the novel, who fall in love, are basically mirrors of each other, and they both have different parts of my biography, so… make of that what you will.
But also, yes, all I really want to read about is writers. Bolaño, Philip Roth, Jenny Offill, Sarah Manguso… I’m always very surprised when other people don’t feel this way.
TM: To quote Peter: “My sisters and I had turned out artistic and useless despite (because of?) our parents’ emphasis on the value of hard work.” Would you say Early Work is about these types of people? How would you classify who they are?
AM: The book is definitely about people who at least imagine themselves to be artists, and a few of them justify that self-conception by actually producing art. I’m pretty much an unreconstructed romantic about the value of making, or even attempting to make, art—the sentence from the novel you quote is obviously kind of a flip, punkish thing to say, not least because actually carrying yourself through the world as an artist, in the face of other people’s skepticism and your own constant self-doubt, is really hard work. I had every educational advantage possible and a decent amount of encouragement, financial and otherwise, when I needed it, and it was still excruciating. I have a lot of friends who didn’t have those things and have still found a way to be poets and musicians, etc., even as people have told them they’re wasting their time. The novel is probably irresponsibly bereft of “real jobs” being done, but I can assure you that Molly and Kenny and the other peripheral characters in the book have worked a lot of shitty jobs in order to earn their right to drink heavily and make pronouncements about things.
TM: And then of course: What’s next?
AM: I’ve got a short story collection under contract, consisting of some stories that have been published and a bunch that haven’t. There are some characters that move freely between the novel and the story collection, and pretty much everybody in both books would probably get along if they found themselves at the same bar in, say, Missoula, Montana. I like the idea of creating a landscape with characters who can move across different books and stories—you mentioned Bolaño, who is the master of that, and Junot Díaz and Alice Munro and many other writers do it remarkably well. I think the collection will pretty well close out this phase of my writing, the hopes and dreams of the young and reckless years. After that it’ll be mostly post-apocalyptic, by which I mean we’ll probably all be rooting around in the wreckage of abandoned houses trying to survive. And I’ll be writing a book about it.
On a Saturday night in April, Sam Lipsyte is at KGB Bar in Manhattan, reading from his new novel The Ask, which everyone from book critics to blogosphere lit nerds have heaped with praise in the eight short weeks since its publication. Each time Lipsyte mentions the character named Vargina, the crowd erupts with cackles and guffaws.
Fast forward to the present. Exactly six months after the release of The Ask, sales are strong, it sits proudly on featured tables in bookstores, and every lit nerd that you know is raving about it. They—and everyone else gaga over The Ask—fall for the novel’s voice in a matter of sentences.
That voice comes from the narrator and protagonist of The Ask, Milo Burke, and many have confused this entertaining font of rage for Lipsyte himself. Lipsyte is a far cry from his antihero, but that’s why they call it fiction. And this time, Lipsyte’s fiction has catapulted him to a height of fame and success that he had never reached before, though his longtime readers insist the talent was always there, waiting to get noticed.
Milo is an angry fuckup who is disillusioned with the arts fundraising department of the New York college (he calls it “Mediocre University”) at which he works and, by the end of the first chapter, has already proven it by giving one spoiled arts brat a verbal beating that Milo tells us “there is no point in repeating.” The onslaught gets him fired, though he is soon given a second chance dependent on his success with the “ask,” which is business lingo for a rich donor.
The big ask turns out to be an old college friend, now turned wealthy sleaze, named Purdy Stuart. Milo must wring Purdy dry for a huge donation to the Mediocre U. arts program. Poor Milo—and the reader, along for the calamitous ride—spends the rest of the book leaping through hoops for the potential donor.
Milo speaks in a furious invective that is somehow as endearing as it is caustic and vulgar. His lexicon is the resentful vocabulary of a failure—one with a hilariously dirty mouth. On the page, it reads like a personal screed, angrily dictated into a recorder. When read aloud, it’s even more effective. People at his readings listen with devilish grins, like they’re being naughty, indulging in a bit of shared misbehavior.
Lipsyte reads from The Ask in a different voice from his own, loud and declarative, imitating the different voices perfectly. With each raucous sentence, tangled in swear words and name-calling, Lipsyte brings his character to life, and readers form a real relationship with Milo.
Milo’s creator is different. He’s calm, collected, and friendly. He converses in a soft, earnest tone. He makes direct eye contact and holds it. He’s an easy, fuzzy presence. But in congratulating his newest work—caught up in their love for its protagonist—reviewers seem to have taken Milo as a direct surrogate for Lipsyte himself. “Yeah, some people seem to think I’m Milo,” says Lipsyte with gentle reproach but no sign of frustration. “A lot of people thought I was the guy in the last book, too. And they thought I was the guy in some of the short stories.”
A review of The Ask by Jennifer Schuessler in the New York Review of Books garnered particular frustration from Lipsyte’s literary peers. Schuessler calls Lipsyte the “poet laureate of overeducated American loserdom.” Similarly, a New York Magazine profile begins by encouraging “you schmoes of America” and “sad sacks in sweaters” (those with “rampant neck beard[s]”) to, “rally ‘round your bard!” The tone of pieces like this suggests a presumption that Lipsyte is one of the very men about whom he writes—that his characters are all slightly altered stand-ins for Sam Lipsyte.
“As far as some reviewers are concerned,” says Alex Abramovich, one of Lipsyte’s best friends, “Sam is modeling each character after his life. And that’s a stupid conclusion.” Abramovich and his friends welcomed Lipsyte into their circle with open arms, and are, in a sense, the reason he moved to Astoria.
Lipsyte is a large man, a bit soft around the edges, but he doesn’t seem out of shape. As it turns out, he was a star shot-putter in high school. “Look,” Abramovich sums up, “the main difference between Sam and all of his characters is that Sam has never been a loser at anything he’s ever done in his life. Have you read his sentences? He’s clearly one of God’s winners on this earth. He’s just too fucking charming to be a loser.”
To be fair, there are surface similarities between Lipsyte and his character. Both men are Jewish. And the “Jewish question,” as it turns out, hits a nerve for Lipsyte in curious ways.
“I’m not observant at all, but I think about being a Jew all the time,” says Lipsyte. “And I write characters that have a similar condition.” Indeed, The Ask isn’t really a Jewish novel, but there are, throughout its pages, tinges of the Jewish experience. For one thing, Milo routinely kvetches over his decision to not have his son circumcised.
Meanwhile, his son, Bernie, has his own obsession—more age-appropriate—with the extra tubing. “Do superheroes have foreskins?” he asks his dad. “Does Goliath have a foreskin?” Lipsyte, as is his talent, turns a meaningful family moment into comedy just in time: “Not for long,” Milo answers. “Not when David’s done with him.” When Bernie asks who David is, Milo tells him, “A foreskin collector.”
But apart from these brief mentions—allusions to Milo’s inner Jew—the character does not outwardly act like one of the tribe, and Lipsyte isn’t interested in writing a Jewish novel. “It was done,” he declares. “There was a whole generation that dealt with that. I’m not going to say, Oh, I’m Jewish and people really like books about Jewish stuff, so I should write something that has to do with Jewish stuff. That’s not really going to get you anywhere.”
Nevertheless, there are those who see deeply entrenched Jewish themes in Lipsyte’s work. Once, a decade ago, a friend of his ended up on a panel for some sort of Jewish literary prize. Lipsyte’s book of short stories, Venus Drive, was nominated, and according to his friend, one of the panelists said during a discussion, “Why are we even considering this one? There’s barely any Judaism in it.” Lipsyte’s friend responded: “Are you kidding me? It’s like the most Jewish thing I’ve ever read.”
Another link between Lipsyte and Milo: they both have five-year-old sons. In The Ask, Milo says of his kid: “Bernie was a beautiful boy. Good thing, too, as he’d become an expensive hobby. Preschool, preclothing for the preschool. Then there were the hidden costs, like food.” When this line is read aloud to Lipsyte, even he can’t help but laugh. Yeah, he wrote it, but it’s damn funny. Yet suddenly, he gets very serious and says, “I think Milo also deeply loves his son.”
When the progressive, hippie-taught “school” that Bernie attends shuts down and Milo must spend entire days with Bernie, his fatherly love does shine through. Lipsyte has fond memories of walking through Astoria with his own son, early inspiration for scenes in which Milo strolls through Queens with Bernie, chiding him to stop playing with trash from the street.
Lipsyte says that someone once asked him if having kids would change his writing. “Well, I hope so,” he told the guy. “It would be kind of weird if it didn’t.” He chuckles, remembering this.
Abramovich feels that Lipsyte’s affability is a main cause of his friend’s newfound mega success. “Sam had a huge log built up of people who adore him,” he says. “He’s just the warmest, most generous and likeable person. And this isn’t boilerplate bullshit; this is true. One thing is that he never says ‘no’ to anyone. But another is that he’s really doing the work.”
Commitment is what the young writer Tao Lin, who has done readings with Lipsyte, also points to. “Everyone I know feels that he really ‘went for it’ with this book,” Lin wrote over Google chat in May. “Which explains the ‘mad coverage’ it’s getting.”
Lipsyte has earned a stellar reputation among other writers, even if it took reviewers longer to hop on board. On the evening he read at KGB, the author John Wray, who has been lauded for Lowboy, read before him. Wray announced, “I was going to read from Lowboy until I realized I’d be reading with Sam Lipsyte, and well, he’s very funny. So I’m going to read something a little goofier, with aspirations toward comedy.” His offering wasn’t nearly as funny as what Lipsyte read, but it was a valiant attempt.
Lipsyte acknowledges the connections he has to Milo. “I think we have many selves and there may be a version of me inside that sort of has the same thoughts as him,” he says about his crude hero. “I don’t necessarily wallow in the bitterness, but his way of looking at the world isn’t alien to me. I think he’s often pretty clear-sighted.”
Then, inevitably, he teases himself: “Maybe I’m just making up friends for me to have.” But the happy truth is that he doesn’t need to make up friends anymore. For most of his career, he struggled to get noticed. Although The New York Times reviewed all of his books, the consensus is that he was still under the radar, though Lipsyte responds playfully, “I always wonder where the radar is located, ya know?”
Finally, with The Ask, Lipsyte has struck a chord. And people aren’t just praising the book, they’re interested in him as well; twelve major magazines interviewed Lipsyte in March and April. Ever humble, he tries to deny an increase in press. “I’ve always had great response from the people whose opinions I’ve cared about,” he insists. “So in my mind, my work was getting noticed.” Soon enough, though, he folds: “Okay, I’ve gotten more mainstream recognition for this book than my others combined. It’s been a leap in coverage and conversation.”
What excited Lipsyte the most in post-Ask coverage of him has been the fact that in a People magazine feature on which books celebrities are reading, Michael J. Fox mentioned The Ask. Fox said he was enjoying it. “I grew up watching Family Ties, so to see 20-something years later that Michael J. Fox is reading the book, well, I think I can retire now.” Lipsyte is positively giddy when he says this.
Why did The Ask finally earn him such success? Why not his novels Home Land or The Subject Steve, or his collection of short stories, Venus Drive? “The Ask might be different [from his past work] in that there’s a family at the core of it, a family that’s come apart,” speculates Ben Marcus, a colleague and friend of Lipsyte’s in Columbia’s Creative Writing department. “Perhaps that draws more people in, feels more universal.”
Lipsyte himself is more hard-pressed to wonder about the winning combination. “I think that what happened with this book is that I’ve been working for 15 years, and building something of a readership, and good will among some critics, and I benefited from that,” he guesses. “And the rest is sort of timing.”
In a period of economic stress, political strife, and general apathy, The Ask nails the current malaise, and not in a preachy, tiresome way. It handles the issues that are bugging everyone by acknowledging just that—they’re bugging us. In the case of Milo Burke, they’re pissing him off.
Yet if Milo were just pissed off, he’d be a more grating, whiny character. Instead, his anger is conveyed with humor. “Sam’s humor isn’t sitcom humor,” says Abramovich. “You don’t come up with some wacky situation. His humor is gnarly syntax and juxtapositions, and that’s a hard sell. I think it’s a happy miracle that he’s gotten as far as he has.”
Whether it’s the family focus, his many years’ worth of strong relationships, or the humor that is to thank, Lipsyte’s number has been called at last. What has emerged is a writer who cares about fiction, in a literary climate that continually seems to cast it aside.
Lipsyte read Reality Hunger—perhaps the year’s most discussed nonfiction release, in which David Shields suggests shattering labels like “memoir” or “novel” and simply calling everything a “book”—but Lipsyte is not concerned about the future of the novel. “There’s this constant debate about the novel. Is it dead, has technology rendered it dead, but the novel is a technology,” says Lipsyte. “What the novel can still do that other outlets can’t do is operate on a certain level of language and consciousness and association. There’s so much to do there, and there are still so many possibilities.”
Sam Lipsyte, then, is less ordinary than he seems at first glance. He takes language and twists it, tortures it. He makes you laugh until it hurts and makes you nearly cry, often in the same paragraph that a few sentences earlier had offended you, outraged you. He isn’t sure which other contemporary writers are writing the same kind of books.
“I’m in a tradition,” he says with a furrowed brow, “but I don’t know who else I belong with right now. Maybe I’m the beginning of a new trend.” Whether or not it’s a new trend, Lipsyte is doing something new, bringing something fresh and valuable to the literary table—something seriously funny. And his next work, a book of short stories for FSG, will almost certainly be welcomed with rave reviews.
Correction: Originally, this piece incorrectly stated that Lipsyte had once worked at the New Yorker, and that he was half-Jewish. Those statements have been corrected. We apologize for the error.
[Image credit: Ceridwen Morris]