Once More, with Healing

Broken People by Sam Lansky. New York: Hanover Square Press. 304 pages. $17.
Cover of Broken People

Broken People opens, like many stories of discontent and yearning in Los Angeles, at a dinner party. This isn’t the perpetual glamour of an Eve Babitz novel, or even the disaffected rich kids of a Bret Easton Ellis one. Sam Lansky offers a more familiar alternative. His protagonist is an aimless, semi-successful, recovered drug addict committed to self-sabotaging the last of his twenties. Sam feels a deep unbelonging at the party; as we come to learn, Sam feels unbelonging in most places. Finding himself in a conversation about ayahuasca, he dismisses it as “a thing trendy, wellness-minded people were doing in private but rarely discussed in polite company, like cocaine for the self-improvement set.”

Yet, as Sam traverses the familiar shrapnel of Los Angeles—meeting with his fast-talking agent, uninspired sex, juice cleanses and all-consuming body dysmorphia—the call for new-age intervention gets louder. He develops a swelling curiosity for spirituality. Over breakfast with his best friend, Sam quips, “Is it problematic to work with a white shaman who’s, like, appropriating the teachings and practices of indigenous cultures for personal gain?” His friend replies: “Life is a late-capitalist hellscape, so your mystical journey might as well be one, too.”

This friend, Kat, is described as “forever running late to a workout class, sucking six-dollar cold brew through a straw.” Climate change has forced her into a perpetual state of disquietude. She always seems to be on her way to or from therapy. This is the world Lansky warmly invites us into. We meet apathetic young professionals self-medicating with yoga classes, Instagram, clout-chasing, Maggie Rogers music, and casual sex. They rebrand their narcissism as introspection, flaunt their inherited wealth as ironic. They’re relentlessly processing their trauma. Having written a memoir about his addiction, Sam struggles to find a meaningful subject for his next book. His impatient agent tells him: “You know your problem? Because you are young, you think everything that happens to you is interesting.” Sam wonders: What becomes of all this suffering if it’s not shared?

Broken People treats its Goop-saturated, new-age spirituality with equal parts reverance and disdain. Sam and his older friend, Buck—said to be part of the “gay mafia”— embark on their spiritual journey with a shaman from Portland. Sam is highly skeptical, dismissing him as a grifter who preys on “damaged people, vain and self-seeking, just trying to change.” But even then, Sam and Buck give in. The promise of relief from their unresolved pasts and self-loathing outweighs their cynicism. The shaman who “fixes everything that’s wrong with you in three days,” meets Sam’s doubt with such charisma and optimism that it disarms him. Could there ever be solace for twenty-eight-year-olds who self-identify as irredeemably broken? The idea is too seductive to not find out.

The book’s incisive satire of wellness cults comes via sharp turns of phrase. We’re introduced to a character as “a well-connected Instagram gay.” Twitter is described as “a high school cafeteria made meritocratic.” Sam muses at the spectacle of “white women throwing wine at one another” and lionizes Taylor Swift as a lyrical prodigy (apparently, she plays with tense in an enthralling way). These observations are the spoils of the characters’ privilege, their detachment from anything urgent. Simple satire would be unsatisfying, as the characters are too-easy targets. So, Lansky tries to have it both ways. He makes fun of his characters, but with something like affection—maybe even love. Being trapped in Sam’s claustrophobic world, it’s easy to see why.

The plot splits into two parts: one narrative where Sam reluctantly spends a weekend doing ayahuasca with a shaman and then, once on ayahuasca, a lyrical journey into his past’s failed romances. We learn, alongside Sam, where he got it all wrong. After his journey, Sam realizes who he has become: “I’m a crazy LA self-help person who talks in platitudes and metaphors and riddles!” This is humiliating to Sam, but it shouldn’t be. It’s more pleasurable to be earnest in LA than cool in New York. That’s where you can hear the ancestral spirit, and, of course, it helps if you have rich friends in the Hollywood Hills.

Madeleine Connors is a writer living in Los Angeles.