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17 May 2010

Sam Lipsyte’s America. ALSO, how Woody Allen, Bob Dylan & LCD Soundsystem approach American decadence with a similar sense of humor.

Image of Sam Lipsyte with son via Flickr.

I’ve been a huge fan of New York novelist Sam Lipsyte since reading his pretty much unimpeachable 2004 novel Homeland. His new novel, The Ask, is that rare bit of fiction whose publication I anticipated eagerly.

His work is laugh-out-loud funny — rare for the pinched world of literary fiction — but also on the pulsebeat of culture. His punchlines are not only humor for the sake of humor; they are the horrified, cackling, self-conscious crack-up of an insightful artist who understands that laughter is, perhaps, the best reaction an intelligent citizen can have in the face of our culture’s decadent decline. Viz Woody Allen’s New York films of the 1970s, Bob Dylan’s increasingly ridiculous culture-bombing gambits, and whatever it is that LCD Soundsystem are doing these days. Some illustrations, below:

Woody Allen’s coke scene in Annie Hall

Bob Dylan’s Victoria’s Secret advert

LCD Soundsystem’s “Drunk Girls” video by Spike Jonze

Unfortunately I don’t think Lipsyte’s new book coheres in the same way as Homeland did. The Ask lacks both a convincing plot and the devastatingly clever literary conceit that elevated that book. (Homeland took the form of inappropriate, intimate letters to a high school alumni newsletter, 20 years after graduation.) And, finally, this new book’s conclusions are depressing in a way that seemed more exhausted than insightful. It’s as if Lipsyte was so tired of living with these characters he preferred they collapse at the end of the book rather than come upon some germ of real truth or real meaning.

That said, I never stopped laughing and you will be hard pressed to find new piece of fiction that better investigates matters that actually reflect and refract what’s going on in our culture today. Please, consider this high praise. Unless you are actually a writer of new fiction yourself, gaining insight on today is pretty much the sole reason I can think of to read new works of faux-reality. There’s simply too many great, preexisting and user-tested books that our culture has produced in the last hundred years or so for you to worry yourself over The New.

Anyway, before the topic at hand gets away from me, here’s some excerpts from The Ask. Hopefully they’ll convey some sense of Lipsyte’s prose, and convince you he’s worth reading. First the clear message of the introductory sentences: America is on the decline.

    America, said Horace, the office temp, was a run-down and demented pimp. Our republic’s whoremaster days were through. Whither that frost-nerved, diamond-fangled hustler who’d stormed Normandy, dick-smacked the Soviets, turned out such firm emerging market flesh? Now our nation slumped in the corner of the pool hall, some gummy coot with a pint of Mad Dog and soggy yellow eyes, just another mark for the juvenile wolves.

    “We’re the bitches of the First World,” said Horace, his own eyes braziers of delight.

Second, the slightly xenophobic undertone from a middle passage — not only that America is in decline, but that we are quickly being replaced, our decadent last days not just responsible for our fall, but creating a template for the cultures that seek to replace our position of dominance.

    Here came the international teens with their embossed leathers, their cashmere hoodies and pimpled excitements. They had traveled from China, Japan, Russia, Kuwait, just to squeeze into the lone Mediocre elevator car and delay my arrival at work. They international teens studied English in the language program down the hall from our suite. Who knew why they bothered? Maybe someday Business English would be the only trace of our civilization left. Bored youth across the global globosphere would memorize its verb tenses, concoct filthy rhymses in its honor. Maybe they’d speak Pig English to trick the oldsters. Pig English would be Latin.

    Rumor had it the whole deal was a scam, that the students were gaming us. We sponsored them for visas, and when the paperwork went through, they transferred to one of the online universities, lit out for the territories, Vegas, Miami, Maui. No classes to attend, all their assignments written by starving grad students and emailed for grading to shut-in adjuncts scattered across the North American landmass, the international teens would have a whole semester for the most delightful modes of free fall. Daddy’s Shanghai factories or Caspian oil pipes would foot the bills…

    Now the international teens jammed me harder up near the button panel, chatted in their conquering tongues. Their giggles, I concluded, regarded shabby me. It felt good to be colonized, oppressed, a subaltern at last.

And finally an uncharacteristically tender bit, which finds the narrator recounting a heart-to-heart talk with his young son Bernie. It’s also uncharacteristically metaphorical in that kind of free-floating, ahistorical way I often associate with the alternatively pretentious and profound prose of foreign literary authors like Borges & Calvino. In this case the message seems to be some variant on “Carpe diem,” or, as Horace wrote, “Seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the future.”

    Bernie might not understand what I told him today, but he would carry the words with him forever, and with them, me.

    “Listen,” I said.

    “Yes, Daddy?”

    “Squander it. Always squander it. Give it all away.”

    “Give what away? My toys?”

    “No, yes, sure, your toys, too. Whatever it is. Squander it. Do you understand?”

    “Not really.

    “Don’t save a little part of you inside yourself. Not even a scrap. It gets tainted in there. It rots.”

    “What does?”

    “I can’t explain right now. Someday you’ll know. But promise me you’ll squaner it.”

    “I promise. What’s squander?”

    “You don’t know that yet. Here’s what you need to know: The boy can walk away from the ogre’s castle. He doesn’t have to knock. Some poeple will tell you that it’s better the boy get hurt or even die than never know whether he could have defeated the ogre and won the ogre’s treasure. But those are the people who tell us stories to keep us slaves.”

    “Daddy?” said Bernie.


    “Can I have a stegosaurus cake for my birthday like Jeremy got?”

    “Yes, of course. For your birthday.”

    I yanked him to me, buried my face against his strong, tiny neck.

The Ask circles around the essential subject of America and our place in the world. If you doubt my read of this book and, in fact, of both of Lipsyte’s recent books, let me point to the opening gambit of this interview with him that appeared in Vice.

    Q: Do you like America?

    A: I do right now. I’m sitting in a cramped 7/11 internet cafe in Melbourne, Australia because the local library wouldn’t let me use their WiFi. “Australia for Australians,” the librarian said. Or at least I thought I heard her say it. You know, anybody can go into the New York Public Library and get wireless internet. Anybody can go. Jews, Chinese, anybody.

    Q: That’s why I like America too. OK, in your new novel, the narrator, Milo, reminds me quite a bit of Miner from Home Land. The mention of the band Spacklefinger is the most glaring bridge between the two men (books) that I can pick out, but how, if at all, are Milo and Miner connected?

    A: America should be proud of its “likable” traits. As to your second question, I guess they are connected by me, primarily. Their voices are somewhat different, but as to their exterior circumstances, you could probably place them near each other on an evolutionary, or de-evolutionary, chart. Homo Fuck-uppus, Bewildered Man, etc. Now I’m feeling shitty about the Australia-bashing. It’s a wonderful place. My wife’s family lives here. A koala bit my daughter on the hand. That’s true.

Finally I’ll leave you with this image. It’s not the actual book cover but rather the largest book cover image I could find when typing the query terms “The Ask book cover” into Google search. In a way, this cover is even better than the real thing — braver, stupider, more accurate — and it will also give you a sense of the plot points which I have completely failed to discuss. Oh well, a proper literary critic I am not.

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis

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1 Comment

  1. On 2010-5-18 MH said:

    “There’s simply too many great, preexisting and user-tested books that our culture has produced in the last hundred years or so for you to worry yourself over The New.”

    Two hundred. Come on. Be a pal, say the nineteenth century novels.

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