SURVIVOR: the long ships (frans g. bengtsson)*
CHALLENGER: the ask (sam lipsyte)
i was, i will admit, a bit worried that the many months between the one in which i finished the ask (october, maybe?) and this one had somehow distorted the way i feel about sam lipsyte's writing. then, as if assigned by the universe's own deputy fairness editor, lipsyte's short story "the republic of empathy" appeared in the new yorker's science fiction double feature and became my subway reading last week. a refresher! what luck! a snippet:
I took Philip for a walk. He tired easily, but his gait was significant. He tended to clutch his hands behind his back, like the vexed ruler of something about to disintegrate.if you relish the prospect of a book-length version of this - a verbally-confident narrator who does little donuts in his word-jalopy, a creepy child, paragraphs in which returns diminish - the ask is for you. but i'm getting ahead of myself; let's begin again.
"How about a brother or sister?" I asked.
"How about I just pooped," Philip said.
"Thanks for your input."
Peg always said I shouldn't model sarcasm for the boy, but who will? Everybody's so earnest around children. Besides, I've always wanted to model. To strut down the runway under all that strobe and glitter, while the fashion aristocrats cheer on my sarcasm.
it has been argued that it's incredibly difficult to write long-form satire. i agree; i vaguely recall liking the harvard lampoon's bored of the rings, but that probably says as much about my surplus of affection for j.r.r. tolkien as it does about the caliber of the poonies' vietnam jokes (and either way, i was exceedingly tired of the name "dildo bugger" by the time i put that book down). moving higher up the brow, it's no accident that "a modest proposal" is, well, swift, or that the new yorker's "shouts and murmurs" humor pages top out at two pages of ha-ha, max. being funny at length is no mean feat, and being funny at length while telling a meaningful story is, i would imagine, very nearly impossible. unsuccessful book-length satire, moreover, is bad like a cobra: i hated david lodge's nice work (a self-satisfied rumpity-bumpity novel about university politics and corporate shenanigans and crap) so much when forced to read it in college that i re-read elizabeth gaskell's north and south (the earnest, industrialism-can-grow-a-heart! 1855 novel which gave rise to lodge's book, sort of) so that i could write a twice-as-long-as-required essay in which i did my best to beat the former to death with the latter. david lodge makes richard whitely look like lenny bruce.**
deep, slow breaths. in, out. at the other end of the spectrum, i think gary shteyngart (the russian debutante's handbook, absurdistan) marries satire and sentiment pretty well, though he sometimes takes awhile to get there (i'll talk about that if i ever manage to THUNDERTOME super sad true love story, speaking of taking awhile to get places). if lydia millet in the times book review is to be believed, sam lipsyte does, too:
What makes “The Ask” work so well is the way it dovetails its characters’ self-loathing with their self-consciousness. For instead of making its characters blind — a strategy upon which much farcical writing since “Don Quixote” has depended — it gives them 20-20 vision but endows them with perfect impotence. Milo and Don and Maura and their colleagues have more depth than many of the celebrated satirical characters of the past, and Lipsyte’s great accomplishment is to pull this trick off without trumpeting it. His characters are intelligent, even hyperintelligent — they’re nobody’s fools, clearly — but finally their weakness is near-infinite.she could be right about publishing. she's totally wrong about lipsyte. impotent characters are fine with me when they're instrumental; i don't necessarily need them to teach me things about how the world works, as, say, kafka's do, but i need them to move me, or at the very least to make me laugh. lipsyte's milo, an overeducated and -fed toddler-father living with his wife in queens and leering his way through throwaway jobs in higher education, does none of those things.
It’s as if publishing is afraid to be both literary and funny anymore — as though, in hedging its bets against the competitive advantage of other media, publishing fears the literary comedy and even more the literary satire. And we’re a weaker intellectual culture because of it: other forms simply don’t do the same work that great satirical literature does. It takes fiction, with its subtlety and interiority and sentence rhythms and essential made-upness, to marry the individually uproarious to the systemically tragic in a way that can be laughed at without, finally, also being laughed off.
Back in high school, I remembered, a soothing way to fall asleep after picturing tremendous breasts in burgundy bras (yes, the image pre-dated Vargina) had been to conjure the crimson blossom of bullet-ripped concert tees, the hot suck and pour of flamethrower flame over pep rally bleachers. Typical teen shooter fluff, though I was worried I'd inherited my grandmother's nutcake gene. I was fairly popular. Why did I slaver for slaughter?passages like these make me feel like the house centipedes that blunder out of the drain in our bathroom once every six months or so. they try so hard to scramble up the sides of the drinking glasses with which i catch and release them to the balcony; as those legs and legs and legs catch on nothing and nothing and nothing, i imagine their little mugs look like i did as i reread the first four chapters of the ask on the way to columbus circle this morning. where am i expected to get with this? why am i so angry?
The visions had stopped in college. Some huge and dainty hand peeled them off my skull walls.
I became a painter, at least at parties. I was happy for a time.
But now, riding the trains, or else home sitting with the bills, the old terrible feeling returned. Whenever I checked my bank balance the terrible feeling welled up in me. The goddamn asks, I'd sweep them with a Maxim gun or some other wipeout device whose history I learned of late at night on the war channels, a glass of Old Overholt rye on my knee. I was not bad off compared to most of the world. Why didn't anybody do anything? We could get a few billion of us together, rush the bastards. Sure, a good many of us would die, but unless the asks popped off some nukes, eventually they'd get overrun.
What was the holdup?
in a breathless review for the guardian, the novelist geoff dyer points to "strong traces of...Don DeLillo" in lipsyte's writing. "Characters are recruited and scenes contrived solely for the pleasures of setting up a two- or three-person groove, to riff on and report back from the leading edge of language." never mind the interchangeable voices, the particle-board personalities, the ditties that never really begin or end; the riff's the thing!
forgive me for referring you once again, dear readers, to infinite jest, the big boss battle waiting for all post-modern writers who fancy themselves masters of humor and structure - but you see, one doesn't need to flip back through it to remember what madame psychosis sounds like, to be reminded of what happened to don gately, to know whether or not the jokes buried in the endless footnotes were funny, to get the point. it's been years since i last read it all the way through (i'm overdue for a reread, actually), and i'm still dead certain the chapter headings alone could take the ask in THUNDERTOME. am i saying sam lipsyte doesn't do it for me because he's not david foster wallace? yeah, i guess i am; i need satire with a big old bleeding heart, a punch line with actual punch. not characters with character - i can handle the fact that milo is a schmuck - but a reason to stick around for three hundred pages. there isn't one here.
VICTOR: the long ships; the ask should be abandoned in shark-infested waters.
imaginary reading group discussion questions
01 how many times have you heard the trolley song? could you stand to hear it again?
02 when was the last time a book made you hulk-mad? what was it?
03 have you ever had to deal with a house centipede?
04 have you read the ask, or lipsyte's recent piece in the new yorker? do you think he's funny?
05 is it fair to expect chewy emotional nougat at the center of satire?
06 is it fair to expect pomo writers to be better than david foster wallace?
07 how do you feel about jazz?
*previous battle here.
**the only other time i got that angry in the middle of an assignment was when i filled the last two pages of my film class's final blue book with vitriol about judy garland's stupid eyebrows after having to watch "the trolley song" from meet me in st. louis ten times in a row. i got a gentleman's B.