Hocus Focus

Hark BY Sam Lipsyte. Simon & Schuster. Hardcover, 304 pages. $27.

The cover of Hark

In life, we tend to dislike those who “like the sound of their own voice.” And in literature, we dislike them too. We call what they’re doing “overwriting.” They pun, they hyperbolize, they use words like hyperbolize. Words, in general, carry them away. In a word-user, there is no vice more difficult to forgive. Of course, there are exceptions. For example, Shakespeare. William Faulkner is another one. Cormac McCarthy offers a living specimen, and in his case, the ornateness makes sense. In his books, people get scalped. A little alliteration seems warranted. How the writer Sam Lipsyte pulls it off is, by contrast, harder to figure. His heroes lose their hair from natural causes. And yet the bald, too, have hearts. They gaze out at the night sky and, as Lipsyte might put it, feel. “From where I stand, I can assfuck the moon,” he wrote in his first collection of stories, Venus Drive. That is one way to enliven a trope.

Is there a funnier writer in America than Sam Lipsyte? Not if you find funny, for example, the use of “whither” and “dick-smacked” in the same sentence. (“Whither that frost-nerved, diamond-fanged hustler who’d stormed Normandy, dick-smacked the Soviets . . .” It’s about America.) As squeaky-clean in its syntax as it is depraved in its contents, Lipsyte’s writing makes of its own exquisite forms a kind of joke. Of course, it’s easier to laugh when he uses words like “dickfart.” Now fifty, and the author of four novels and two short-story collections, Lipsyte has for twenty years been producing sentences that simultaneously remind us of what sheer literary technique can do and drop hints that literature itself might just be a bit of a fraud. The hints can be heavyish. “They say there is nothing beyond language,” as he wrote in Home Land, “and mostly they’re right, save the spunk-stiffened balls of paper towel beneath my bed.” Much of what feels so good about writing like this is the feeling that it shouldn’t be working. It is too fancy and, at the same time, the opposite of that. And, really, it can’t just “work.” It flops or it soars. These days, Lipsyte gets published in the New Yorker, but I doubt you will if you try to write like him. Admittedly, it is tempting. “Our rainmaker, Llewellyn, seemed born to this job, keen for any chance to tickle the rectal bristles of the rich with his Tidewater tongue”: That sentence, from Lipsyte’s third novel, The Ask (2010), also functions as an onomatopoeia for the sex act it describes. Of course, it’s also just a really poetic way of calling someone an ass-kisser.

Hans Kotter, Arrows, 2014, Plexiglas, LED lights, feathers, dimensions variable.
Hans Kotter, Arrows, 2014, Plexiglas, LED lights, feathers, dimensions variable.

The writer Gary Lutz has remarked on the “sonics” of Lipsyte’s style, its precision with music and meter. These are, of course, the elements of prosody, poets’ tools, traditionally speaking. And indeed, as in poetry, in Lipsyte’s fiction, the main thing isn’t always what the sentences are literally saying. That Lipsyte, like Raymond Carver, was a protégé of Gordon Lish is illustrative of that editor-teacher’s methods. The idea seems to be less to strip words away than to follow the words to where they’re actually going. The only thing that Lipsyte and Carver have in common, as writers, is that, for both, plot is a decoy. The real story is in the language. “Stories were like people,” as Lipsyte writes in The Ask. “We pretended they all counted, but almost none of them did.”

A novelist could have worse handicaps than a dislike of storytelling, and, in Lipsyte’s case, it can even look like a virtue. Geoff Dyer, in a review of The Ask, went so far as to argue that that novel’s story, precisely because it was so paltry, provided the ideal showcase for its author’s true gifts: “Basically, the more style you have, the less plot you need.” Actually, Lipsyte has so much style, in Dyer’s sense, that he often doesn’t need to make sense at all. Of much of his funniest writing, you’d have to admit that while it isn’t yet unintelligible, neither is it quite coherent. This passage, from Home Land, has in the years since it was published acquired a kind of cult following:

“Some nights,” I said, “I picture myself naked, covered in napalm, running down the street. But then it’s not napalm. It’s apple butter. And it’s not a street. It’s my mother.”

The image is unimaginable—but, as writing, it works. (It works just barely.) Sometimes, to get the joke, you don’t actually have to get the joke: This, you might say, is Sam Lipsyte 101. “They were both bastards,” he wrote in his first novel, The Subject Steve (2001), “but at certain moments I got the feeling the Philosopher was also a prick.” It’s a useful distinction, but try too hard to explain it and you’ll probably look like an asshole.

Lipsyte’s new novel, Hark, also centers on a form of language that may not make sense, but still works. The story of a mindfulness guru’s rise to fame in an alternate-near-future New York, Hark contains many pages of his flowing, uninterrupted pronouncements. How much you enjoy reading them may well determine how much you enjoy it. Dialogue has always brought out a giddiness in Lipsyte’s writing. Here, in monologue, this giddiness ascends into delirium, as, in the novel’s early pages, the guru addresses a crowd:

And so to reiterate: The targets, which are your work goals, your life goals, your spiritual goals, may always shift. . . . One aims at the future, but not a static future. One shoots where the stag, the target, one’s chance for fulfillment, are about to appear. You lead your prey. You don’t dress for the job you want. You dress for the job your child will someday be denied. A glass tureen of sour-cherry soup slides off the table and you catch it, centimeters from the floor. How did you do that? The body anticipates. The body remembers. The body is drenched in sour-cherry soup. Because all time is now.

Lipsyte loves to pull stunts that flout conventional ideas of good literary taste, and a rant like the above, stretched over pages, certainly falls into that category. Mindfulness, in general, is a tricky subject for a satirist. It’s too serious, but, also, it’s too ridiculous. It’s the problem of existence, and it’s focus-scented candles. It is both the dream of being “more present” and the crassness of trying to profit on it, and in Hark, Lipsyte renders this complicated duality in his inimitable way. “Don’t cockblock the focus vibes” is a typical line. You could call it code-switching, “if,” as Lipsyte puts it in The Ask, you wanted to “sound like an idiot.”

It’s typical of Lipsyte to have hidden a joke in Hark’s narrative tense: present. A novelist only has so many ways to “live in the moment.” It isn’t Hark’s only formal departure from its precursors. The Lipsyte faithful might feel a tad betrayed: This book has a plot in it—multiple narrators, dialogue-only playlets and dream sequences, a faux internet comments section, even child-emergency melodrama. It’s as though Lipsyte read the Dyer review and decided to prove the critic wrong, that stylists could tell stories too. It’s also as though he wearied of the task partway and opted to revert to his usual tricks. The result is a book with a lot of loose ends, abrupt bloodshed, and burlesque gags taken to the brink, and occasionally over the brink. In one of Hark’s recurring jokes, American troops have deployed abroad, only nobody’s quite sure why, or where. “Did you know that America is fighting a massive land war in Europe?” is a question one character poses in earnest. It’s all part of the theory that by the time Armageddon comes, we’ll have figured out a way to change the channel, at least in our heads. Hark isn’t Lipsyte’s finest novel, but it’s definitely his silliest. If you don’t believe me, you can ask the talking catfish, the one that visits the son of God (maybe) in his dreams.

The dreamer is the guru and title character, Hark Morner, a former stand-up comic who one day took the joke so far that he stopped getting it, departed the realm of comedy altogether. (Lipsyte describes his stage presence as “insensate.”) Hark wakes from these catfish dreams covered in sea slime and shouting “I have pamphlets for sale!” Otherwise, he’s more or less your typical messiah, the kind of lean blond dude who, if he isn’t in fact asexual, would probably enjoy Bumble. As one of his eventual apostles, Meg, puts it, “He’s like an advanced creature, a wise man from another dimension, but he’s also a very attractive guy living in the metro area.” By the time the novel opens, Hark’s already sought after on the guru circuit, where for a small fee he’ll tout those pamphlets’ contents—what he calls “mental archery.”

Like yoga, it comes down to practiced poses, for the most part. To be sure, there are more puns than in yoga: “Feel free to use the arm of a couch. Feel free to couch the use of your arm. Feel free.” There are also mantras (“Unstring your bow,” “Spare not the sparrow the arrow”), history lessons (“Almost everybody on this planet, and certain other planets, descends from a single splash of semen shot into the air by a masturbating Genghis Khan and caught in the vagina of a nude acrobat in mid-somersault”), and a lot of talk about focus. The focus-centric, among the archery faithful, will in time form their own breakaway sect: “Pofers.” (It stands for “power of focuser.”) At times, it can seem a little formless, mental archery, a vast synthesis of all that is warm and fuzzy in spirituality. “Archery is a metaphor,” Hark tells one upstate audience. “We could easily be talking about volleyball, or handcrafted butterscotch. But better we talk about the bow.” As Hark goes along, and mental archery grows from a miracle cure for the distracted into the kind of thing corporate America brands and sells as such, just what this metaphor stands for is increasingly disputed. Hark himself maintains that all he can offer is “an array of useful techniques,” a way to “focus on focus,” but the mental archers would like to believe that they believe in something. The results can be droll. “What you see is what you get,” Hark tells one disciple, who responds: “You fucking charlatan. . . . You’re just some jerk with focusing techniques for the masses.” There’s nothing worse than a down-to-earth messiah.

At its most basic level, Hark is a story of “increasingly less casual apostlehood,” wherein people who find something nice to believe in are inexorably sucked in by the very market forces that will turn their nice thing into a McDonald’s of the soul. Of course, they still eat there. “It’s a bitch being attuned to the bleakness all the time,” thinks a character called Teal. “You crave a certain stupor, aka belief.” Like the other heroes of Hark, she’s a recognizable Lipsytian type, a former A-student imprisoned in her prime for a half-witted, if high-minded, attempt at embezzlement. There’s, as well, Kate, the directionless trust-funder; and Tovah, the thwarted poet, whose husband has regressed from goofball to slob; and Fraz, said goofball, said slob. All are sick of the sick jokes their lives have become; all may be just sick of jokes period. Before Teal and Kate joined his flock, they used to go online to mock Hark’s “dinky website”: “It was a joke between them, until it wasn’t funny. When it was no longer funny, it became profound.” That salvation might lie in humorlessness is an idea this novel by a comic genius floats a few times. To get the last laugh, in America, is it necessary not to get the joke?

The narrators of Lipsyte’s first three books aren’t identical, but they bear a rough resemblance: fattish, baldish, semi-employed(ish), envoys from “the feeb end of the species.” “For heaven’s sake,” Milo Burke’s mother tells him in The Ask, “the system’s rigged for white men, and you still can’t tap in.” (Thanks, Mom.) In Hark this type reappears in the form of Fraz, frazzled and fuzzy, an embodiment of all the above, and an alliterator. Like most Lipsyte heroes, he loves his wife, who is decreasingly willing to indulge him: “Things are, I don’t know. Fraught? Freighted? Fraughted?” Fraz first meets Hark while attempting to kill some time in a bookstore—or, as Lipsyte puts it, while “bent on the assassination of a tiny segment” of it. Browsing the shelves, he commences what Lipsyte has only just described as one of those “lazy perambulations through the noggin’s grottoes”:

This book would either explain with unerring exactitude the intractable shittiness of the political situation, or it would transport him to another place, a magical forest of shittiness-lessness, for example, or perhaps transport him to another time, a time that did not flinch in the face of Fraz’s determination to kill it, that did not almost literally (but not, obviously, literally) fall to its knees (if time can be said to have knees, which surely it can’t) and beg for its feckless life.

Indeed, it is harder to kill time when you picture it with body parts.

It’s typical of Lipsyte to have devoted a full paragraph to this deadest of all formulations. No writer alive today is better at making art out of verbal garbage, out of cant and smut, and it’s the tragedy of his characters to have to dwell inside the dumpster of the mind that he as a writer may feast on. Fraz may be a doomed innocent, but he still has a weakness for pregnant-women porn, as even his wife knows, because, as she explains to him, “You don’t clear your history.”

Even in that name, you might say, the browser history is a little too visible: His father, Frank Penzig, chose it “after an incident in which he misheard a page at the airport.” This combination of faulty technology with a bad joke, made by a worse dad in abysmal taste, all crystallizing in a syllable of scuzzy poetry, might well stand as a parable for Lipsyte’s style. “Penzig men,” Tovah thinks pityingly: “always hovering just outside of an inside joke they have played on themselves.” An inside joke, heard from the outside, is the sound of what other people know and you don’t. It’s a sound you hear a lot of in Lipsyte’s fiction, and as Hark proceeds, it loudens. It’s hard to say if what we’re reading is dystopian fiction or just heightened reportage. Here, the maple water is “passion-fruit flavored,” and “Thai-Irish fusion” is the latest trend. “School’s like a factory where they make these little cell phone accessories called people,” Fraz’s daughter tells him. His son corrects her: “It’s more like a tool and die factory. . . . They turn us into tools and then we die.”

It’s only one of many such inversions in this novel. “We have this motto, ‘Turn it around,’” Seth, a future Harkist, explains to Fraz at one of the master’s corporate talks. “When we don’t like something, we applaud. When we love it, we storm out.” It’s a kind of late-capitalist Opposite Land, and as its atmosphere of perversity builds, a reader might be reminded of the first stanza of Yeats’s “The Second Coming.” Which, sure enough, Lipsyte provides a travesty of:

Forget about the falcon not hearing the falconer. These days the falconer just totally ignores the falcon, checks celebrity news on his phone. The poor falcon soars around forsaken, bereft, eats spoiled bratwurst discarded on a rooftop, pukes.

It isn’t the only riff in this book that culminates in vomit. Hark gets bleaker as it goes along. You can make literature out of garbage, but you can’t live on it, let alone “turn it around” into something to believe in. Harkism may seem happy-go-lucky, a free-for-all where everybody wins, but in the end it has the problem of all religions. You can’t accept every God into your life. Unstring your bow with the wrong one, and you’ll end up in hell.

James Camp is a writer living in Brooklyn.