Saturday, July 6, 2013

Sam Lipsyte

A quick look through the GoodReads reviews of this book suggested many of Lipsyte's fans were disappointed with the new collection, The Fun Parts.

For the life of me, I'm not sure why.

I started Lipsyte's Venus Drive a few years ago and couldn't get into it. The timing wasn't right for me, or something.

After finishing The Fun Parts, however, I'm ready to try again.

The new collection has 13 stories. They are darkly humorous. There is foul language, sexual themes, drug use, gun play and death. Some readers might be tempted to locate cynicism within. I didn't.

This is a completely subjective comment, but Lipsyte is the same age as me, and the collection had a nice "ah" feeling. The stories are uncomfortable, the characters struggling, contemporary reality is presented as a distressed array of random happenings. Yup, I recognize all of that as day-to-day.

So, yes, the stories have a male predisposition, but it's a post-modern, post-feminist predisposition. That is, a la Leonard Cohen, "the war is over/ the good guys lost." The characters are caught in the minor dramas of their lives, disconnected from any saving grace of any mega-narrative.

The disconnected isolation of the individual is a recurring strategy, in fact.

"Nate's Pain Is Now," for example, is narrated by an Augusten Burroughs-type memoirist, whose found himself on the outs. His redemptive self-story is no longer in demand. He just another former drunk/junkie with a father who's disappointed in him.

"Deniers" tells the story of the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who won't talk about his past, or show much emotion about anything. Her friend wants to write a poetry cycle about her, and then she hooks up with a guy with a skinhead past.

As a frame, the story risks cliche, but it avoids that fate and explodes with many small moments that enlighten and entertain, to risk cliche myself.

Here's one passage:

"Anyway," said Tovah, "I've been working on a poem cycle about you."
"A what?"
"A bunch of poems."
"About me?"
"You don't know anything about me."
"I know a lot, Mandy."
"Not really. Maybe about me and Craig."
"Researching facts isn't the point," said Tovah. "It's about my construction of you. My projection."
"So," said Many, "I don't get it. Are you asking permission?"
"A real artist never asks permission."
"But I don't want any static between us."
"Am I Mandy?" said Mandy.
"In your poem, am I Mandy? Do you name me? Do you say Mandy Gottlieb?"
"No. It's addressed to a nameless person."
"Then why should I care?"
Tovah seemed stunned.
"Well...because it's so obviously you."
"But you said it's about your structure of me."
"My construction of...yes, that's right."
"So who cares?"
"I don't really understand your question."
"It's okay, Tovah. Write what your heart tells you to write."

This short passage contains a number of nice reversals, seems to bring these two friends closer together, but ultimately illustrates the gulf between them, while still keeping them connected.

The fun parts?

Lipsyte takes readers to the edge of oblivion. He saves us, however, from going over into the void.

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