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.
"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.
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.

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.


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.
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.
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?
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?
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?

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.


Daniel K. said...

1) I have somehow never heard the Trolley Song until now. I made it about 1 minute in before shutting it off. 

2) I rarely experience massive fury toward books, but actually did this past March. The culprit was The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus. It was not the easiest read I've ever come across, but I enjoyed the premise and kept at it for about 100 pages until I could no longer stand how weird (and horribly pretentious) it was getting, with (as far as I could tell) no narrative point (I'm quite fond of weird for all sorts of reasons, but weird for weird's sake gets tiring quickly). Never finished it, and unless someone whose opinion I trust reads it and tells me to give it a second glance, I won't likely pick the damn thing up again. 

3) House centipedes creep me out. I get a few crawling up the side of the shower every year, usually when I'm half-asleep and already IN the shower. It doesn't end well.

4) I've not read The Ask, but I own a copy I picked up during a store-closing sale. After reading your review it may remain on the shelf for a good while longer (not saying I'll never read it, but I have a long list of to-reads that take priority). 

5) I think it's perfectly fair. Any novel should have some reference point about which one gives a shit. That was part of the reason Flame Alphabet ended up across the room: I had absolutely no reason to care about any of the characters. I'm okay with despicable or unpleasant characters if I can find a way to care. 

Lisa said...

I hate jazz.

And satire is my father's field. All High WASPs believe that love can only be true when kept hidden behind a blinding array of ironic thises and thats. So it mostly makes me tired, rage is saved for outright lies.

jacob said...

01 i actually really like meet me in st. louis, so i can't share your rage. i mean, i'm not sure i'd want to listen to "the trolley song" 10 times in a row, but in the context of the movie, it's fine with me. plus, the halloween scene with margaret o'brien is very well done. though this does bring up my supreme annoyance that the lyrics of "have yourself a merry little christmas," performed by judy garland in the movie, were changed by frank sinatra to make the song more cheery (specifically, "have yourself a merry little christmas/if the fates allow/until then we'll have to muddle through somehow" was changed to "hang a shining star upon the highest bow"). of course, the sinatra version is now the one performed most often.

02 oh probably one of the chuck klosterman books you gifted me, which i in turn sold to the local used book store. talk about sub-sub-dfw writing.

03 they sometimes show up in our basement. i give them a wide berth and let them be.

04 lipsyte in small doses, like the new yorker piece, wasn't so bad. i've never been able to finish either of his books, lending support to your arguments about long-form satire.

07 sure, some of it. specifically, monk, mingus, hard- and post-bop of the 60s. but i'm certainly no expert on the subject.

kidchamp said...

re: 01 i should be clearer about the trolley situation here: i have never seen the movie. the final consisted ENTIRELY of sitting in a room and watching that scene over and over, then trying to write an essay about it while classmates asked the TA to roll the video yet again (and again). i made it about an hour before fleeing the auditorium, and then, as i was waiting for joe and paul to finish up, all of my classmates spilled out around me humming the fucking song. it was kubrickian.

re: 02 i forgot about your selling the klosterman (though i recall you had my blessing to do so). they actually gave you money for that/those? i have yet to process the fact that he's the new ethicist; clang, clang, clang went the trolley? 

re: 07 i have been getting stroppier about jazz, and i feel a bit guilty about it; joe and i have gotten to the point where i yell at him, loudly, if he attempts to play one of his jazz records when we're sitting together in the living room. just a bit guilty, mind you; i in turn am not allowed to play albums featuring most of my favorite female vocalists when he's around. 

kidchamp said...

oh, irony. i was pilloried a bit by a reviewer for bringing it up shortly after 9/11, which made me sad, given what i felt i'd revealed about myself that day.

kidchamp said...

ooh, it's good to know this about the flame alphabet - i forget where i heard about it, but the premise enticed me, and i had definitely been intending to pick it up. 

i always feel a little guilty when someone tells me i might have talked them out of reading something, but truly, if you have a long reading list, there are better ways to spend your time. i try to think that way when i start reading something truly terrible and am seized with a compulsion to finish it; there are so many hours, and that's all. 

_M_D_F_ said...

01: She does look to be swagger-jacking Cesar Romero's eyebrow swagger. 02: The presumptuously titled New York Trilogy is a real lousy week of reading. It follows a kind of Pomo template, but with a wicked twist: a story in progress fully collapses to disclose the author alone with some thoughts; this time, however, that author is Paul Auster. And even worse is he spends a fair amount of time in one of the books describing the plot of Out of the Past in detail, which is a really despicable thing to do if you don't know whether or not your reader has actually seen Out of the Past yet. [I had, thank Christ, so it just brought to mind how great it is- as if I needed to be reminded of that Paul, you asshole.] 05: All the best has the nougat. 06: Who's even in the running in your estimation? 07: Take Five!

uncle paul said...

I think The Flame Alphabet is the work of someone who loves Beckett like the kid working the counter at the guitar shop loves Kirk Hammett.

Have you had any scoop on Helen DeWitt's Lightning Rods? I read the beginning the other day and thought it was really a cut above, as far as nowadays satirical goes. I'll probably go for the whole thing.

Daniel K. said...

Now I'm going to feel a bit guilty if I talked you out of The Flame Alphabet (if I in fact did so, and if you really wanted to read it anyway). I think Uncle Paul's analogy is pretty spot-on, and I won't deny Marcus's skill with words. He is very effective at creating skin-crawling, claustrophobic atmospheres, which is what the plot entails. But at some point this weird, fictional Jewish-mysticism gets introduced (secret radio transmissions through a bladder-bag in a hut in the woods, etc, which may have been integral to the later plot, but at that point seemed a horrible digression), and it was after a few scenes of that that I gave up. As you said, there are only so many hours, and I knew at that point that my time was better spent on something that I might actually enjoy. If you give it a go at some point, I hope you'll write about it. 

kidchamp said...

hmm, daniel. as far as fictional jewish-mysticism goes, i'm a huge fan of pi (which i saw on a date?), but that does sound diverting-in-a-bad-way. if you're fond of weird, going back to your earlier comment, you might like from the mouth of the whale, an icelandic book i just finished; it was really enjoyable, though i have almost no idea what parts of it were about. it will be THUNDERTOMED eventually - i hope to do some serious catch-up in the next few months. it would be cool to, like, make it to the books of 2012 at some point (in theory i write one for each book i read, friends' works and unfinished novels excepted). 

i lack scoop on lightning rods, paul, but that sounds promising! also, as i forgot to mention this in my note the other day, i thought peter carey's the unusual life of tristan smith was really boss. my enthusiasm for it carried me into his brand-new the chemistry of tears, which was something of a giant let-down. wait for paperback! or even longer than that!

kidchamp said...

no one's in the running, MDF; this is the problem. 

on jazz, did you ever see that episode of jackass where a guy swallows a bunch of raw eggs, vomits them, cooks them up as an omelet, eats the omelet, and then (as i recall) vomits again (and maybe eats it again)? i saw ron carter do that to "you are my sunshine" (a lovely song!) with a standup bass for about ten minutes at the time warner center a couple of weeks ago. as john sellers would say, "holy shit that sucked." 

anonymous said...

Have not read The Ask, but I do love SL's Homeland + his early book of short stories.

uncle paul said...

Oh dear - I was worried that The Chemistry of Tears might not work out. Noted!

Also, Nikita Khrushchev: “I don’t like jazz. When I hear jazz, it’s as if I had gas on the stomach. I used to think it was static when I heard it on the radio.”

jacob said...

they not only gave me money for those books, when i checked the "newly acquired" shelf a few days later, the books had already been sold. central pennsylvanians are easily amused, i guess.

rachel (heart of light) said...

03. We had our first one a couple years ago and I nearly had a heart attack. To be fair, it turned up in our bed (!) and I had never seen anything that could move that fast. I've only seen one since then, and I hope it stays that way. 

05. Yes. Otherwise it's hard to get invested. Good full length comedy is tough, but humor is a quality I appreciate more than almost anything else in an author. 

07. Cannot get on board. It makes me antsy and unsettled and generally really cranky. 

maggie said...

02.  See, not recently, but I also have been studiously avoiding non-genre fiction written by straight American men after 1900.  I'm sure this is filtering out good stuff.  I'm afraid to read David Foster Wallace even.
04. No, but based on that passage, not remotely funny.
05. Yes, I think it's fair.  cf. Jane Austen.
06. No, but I don't think they should be as bad as this guy apparently is.
07. I don't love it.  But I don't think it's meandering comes from a place of privilege originally, and I try to keep that in mind.

maggie said...

I read Lightning Rods because Emily Gould was selling it.  It was moderately funny and certainly didn't enrage me but, come to think of it, it did seem too long for the joke.  You may be on to something about satire of a certain variety and length.
It does seem like the 19th century long (romantic) comic novel succeeds, but perhaps the mockery is more diffuse and the plot doesn't depend on it in the same way. Analogous to the difference between a book with some sex scenes and porn/erotica.  

Hannah said...

Oh dear, were we in Scott Bukatman's film class the same quarter, or did he make every class watch that fucking song a millionty times?

Hannah said...

Aw, man!  My ears perked up at "New Yorker science fiction double feature" - and that line about the king, which I do like - but they got droopier and droopier over the next couple paragraphs and now I am disappointed without even having read the thing.  (Do tell me that the remainder of the issue is worth bothering my mother for her subscription code?)

I have been very excited about science fiction lately, and reading a lot of James Tiptree Jr., and somewhere in my brain is cooking up a lucid complaint about the amount of modern fiction which explores the situation of middle-aged white guy writers in Brooklyn (does Lipsyte do that, or am I just extrapolating from his Old Overholt?), presumably as the result of too much Writing What You Know, and the dearth of James Tiptree Jr. in modern fiction, which is a shame no matter how you slice it, and if anybody could get away with Writing What You Know, it would be a world-traveling literarily-cross-dressing intelligence analyst - but I haven't figured out a very pithy way to put it yet.

kidchamp said...

it was spring quarter '00, as i recall. i wouldn't put it past him to make every class watch that, though. you didn't happen to make it through his cyborg class, did you? i strove mightily to do so, by which i mean i bought all the books and watched "flesh for frankenstein" and decided i couldn't be arsed (but i still have all the books). 

kidchamp said...

the king bit IS good, i'll concede. the issue was certainly worth it (i think the jennifer egan twitter story was in it as well? i quite liked that), though it conflated sci fi and fantasy at a few points in a way that made me feel all funny inside (i was first and foremost a fantasy kid). 

i will seek this tiptree, and raise a glass to you when he is found. lipsyte's a MAWGWiQ(ueens), but parts of astoria are, i would argue, pretty brooklyn. 

a world-traveling literarily-cross-dressing intelligence analyst - but I haven't figured out a very pithy way to put it yet.

man, why don't i get to decide who writes books? i want five of that one.