Bookforum talks to Sam Lipsyte

Hark BY Sam Lipsyte. Simon & Schuster. Hardcover, 304 pages. $27.
Sam Lipsyte. Photo: Robert Reynolds

Anyone familiar with Sam Lipsyte's work knows to expect somersaults of sentences, language twisted line after line into laugh-inducing poses. In his new novel, Hark, those poses have names: “Ithaka, Persian Rain, Moonlight Diana Number Three, Wheel of Tartars.” But this isn't pilates—it’s a form of self-actualization called “mental archery,” propagated by a man named Hark Morner. The book is more than the story of Hark’s followers—it's an expansive look at the search for meaning and progress in a crumbling world, full of ineffectual leaders and full of itself. It would be easy to call Lipsyte's work satire (and many do), but it tends to resist this classification, more often than not dispensing with ridicule in favor of generosity, opting for pathos over “poses.” Hark's name is played for humor (silly, it's just another word for “listen!”), and yet that wordplay belies a plea for awareness, for attention to be paid. A humorous meditation on William Tell—the folk hero and archer who shot an apple off his son's head—becomes a fretful refrain on the ability and inability to protect our children, and their children, and the generations to come.

I met with Lipsyte up at Columbia University, where he is the current chair of the writing MFA program. The semester was coming to a close, the government was on the brink of shutdown. In the dimming string lights of 2018, we talked about self-care, Messiahs, and New Jersey.

Hark Morner is a self-styled guru who practices an approach to life called “mental archery.” What's appealing to you about writing this kind of character?

I think I've always been drawn to figures who purport to be certain, and to have some sort of practical answer to life's problems, which allows me to give them entertaining language, funny and strange things to say. I am always curious to see how their audiences will react. There was a character in my first novel, The Subject Steve, named Heinrich of Newark, who had a similar stature in his small community of followers and had a penchant for cryptic speeches filled with possible wisdom.

Is there something particularly compelling about an expert, or a guru, or a Messiah character in 2019?

Well, you know I'm still waiting for the Messiah, and when I don't see one I guess I start writing them. I think right now we're all looking for answers, so it's not such a stretch to think that some people might fall under the sway of somebody speaking in a fairly compelling fashion about how to find focus or peace or some form of tranquility or freedom from pain.

Where did the idea of mental archery come from?

For a long time I've been interested in various physical and spiritual practices, and the way they intersect. I know a lot of people who are very much into yoga. I've tried to do yoga. I found it wasn't quite my thing, but I sort of wondered, what would be a yoga that I could do? And I loved the idea of creating a whole bunch of different poses framed by this idea of archery because it's been a universal tool for our species. Archery runs through the mythology and religion and storytelling of practically every culture, and so it was fun to draw upon that to create a practice.

The followers in this book are obsessed with wellness and they are completely unwell, if not dying or dead. You write of one character, "He's terminal, but not quite near the terminus." Why do you think this obsession with wellness and self-care has taken off in the past decade or so?

I think on some level people have been disconnected from death, don't see it as a natural part of existence. I mean it goes back to, "Grandpa doesn't die at the house anymore," and all of the ideas laid out by Philippe Ariès. I read his book on death a long time ago, but as I remember some of it had to do with the way the West made death a shameful thing you do in the hospital. That's part of it. I guess we are naturally desperate to suppress all signs of our inexorable decay. I go to the gym, I'm trying to eat OK. But when you get to the level where it's pushing out all other experience and everything is seen through the lens of self-care, self-preservation at all costs, it may also be pointing to breakdown of other kinds of meaning—civic, communal, what have you.

Face masks are about mortality!

I mean, they're not that different from death masks. Maybe all those ancient Etruscan death masks were just skin care products.

I can see you having so much fun with the language of self-care, and the language of business, and startup culture, and corporate culture in the book. How do you arrive at the language for the book that you're writing? Where does it come from?

It's coming from all different directions, and I am always trying to listen in. I'm really into shop talk. I have a brother-in-law who's in various corporate worlds, and I try to get him to give me the latest boardroom lingo. And tech people—I want to know how they are talking, and kids, gamers. I'm interested in all the sub-languages and the way they all blend together and how everybody is code-switching all the time.

A writer I've always admired, Stanley Elkin, said he couldn't write a character unless he knew what that person did for a living. And I'm not quite like that, but I like the idea of knowing how someone has to operate on the level of language in everyday life and often in an employment situation. I'm interested in that sometimes stilted, demented poetry.

We went to the same high school in New Jersey. I feel like there are books that are exploring the strangeness of certain American states right now. How did New Jersey shape your creative imagination or impulses as a writer?

It's funny to grow up in a state that has a very specific reputation as a joke, yet is also, as you know, so many different states. There are so many New Jerseys. I think it's the most densely populated state in the country. It's filled with many different folkways. The rest of the world hears about Springsteen and maybe certain kinds of spaghetti sauce. I've noticed there's this new spaghetti sauce on the shelves called "Jersey Gravy." This guy who grew up in northern New Jersey made a lot of money, decided to retire and just dedicated himself to recreating the red sauces of his youth. My taste buds are always influenced by the language and the label and the presentation.

But anyway, we grew up in a town called Closter. I loved growing up there, but I also always wanted to leave it at the same time. I felt I was around people that I loved, but I just imagined this other world. I realize now that the other world is not necessarily better. But you still need to leave sometimes. And so I left New Jersey. And I don't have family there now, so I don't ever go back. I think that as a teenager I was very much into some idea about the suburbs as this place of facades where all this evil dark stuff was going on, a kind of David Lynchian vision. And it was probably a little much. A lot of boring stuff was happening, too. But it began to loom in my mind as this place of secret menace, which I relished.

There's a scene with a New Jersey reservoir in the book and that felt particularly evocative of north Jersey to me. It's where kids go to be kids.

I grew up right next to a reservoir, and so that reservoir shows up in a lot of my fiction. I think the first serious short story I wrote in college was called "The Reservoir." And there was a dead body and a missing kid. So these are the kinds of images that haunt me. Reservoirs and the Burger King parking lot and things like that. The Burger King parking lot was where you would go to find out where the party was that night. You'd go there and drink beer and then find out whether you had to drive all the way to Montvale or something. New Jersey is my spiritual home. And I believe, I don't think this is apocryphal, this is true: I have a third or fourth cousin seven times removed by marriage who was president of Bruce Springsteen's high school class. I mean, at the time he was the big man and no one knew who Bruce Springsteen was!

Is that like, 14 degrees of separation?


At one point in the book, Hark says that focus “does not mean to simply gawk at something. It is to transform it.” So using that line of thinking, what do you think about the idea that a reader, through enough focus, might transform the book that they're reading?

When you pay that kind of attention as a reader, that is the process. I think that is what happens. There's the book I wrote, and there's the book you read, and they're very different, I hope. They can be different for every person who reads the book. It's when you don't read that carefully and you just skim it or blaze through that you're really only getting the author right in your face. But if you allow yourself to find the nooks and crannies within the text where you can dream and you can create, that's a different experience.

Hilary Leichter's first novel, TEMPORARY, will be published by Coffee House Press/Emily Books next year.