No One Left to Come Looking for You by sam lipsyte. new york: simon & Schuster. 224 pages. $27.

The cover of No One Left to Come Looking for You

ONE OF SAM LIPSYTE’S SIGNATURE ACCOMPLISHMENTS has been to find the baroque musicality in the emergent vocabularies—commercial, bureaucratic, wellness-industrial, pornographic—opened up by twenty-first-century English. “Hark would shepherd the sermon weirdward,” he writes in his 2019 novel about an entrepreneurial inspirational speaker, “the measured language fracturing, his docile flock of reasonable tips for better corporate living driven off the best practices cliff, the crowd in horrified witness.” Across his first six books, Lipsyte’s sentences have been excessive, pun-laden, and lyrically raunchy. When language threatens to sound measured, a character with a zany name can be counted on to fracture it.  

Lipsyte’s latest novel, the East Village–set No One Left to Come Looking for You, is by contrast remarkably stripped down. Its moments of linguistic flamboyance are outnumbered by an almost screenwriterly tendency toward dialogue, and its characters talk in a clipped, plainspoken style that verges on hard-boiled. An exchange on page 1: “He left with it?” “Yeah.” “Fuck.” From such a gymnast of syntax, this reads as a compelling experiment in self-restraint. If Lipsyte formerly treated the grammars of twenty-first-century corporatism and neoimperialism as sources of elaborate wordplay, he’s now approached those subjects in a style drawn from two comparatively older and no-frills idioms: punk and noir. 

These genres are powerfully compatible, with their twin emphases on high-speed disorientation and seedy underworlds. Lipsyte fuses them in a shaggy plot that his characters—Gen Xers who have watched a lot of television—self-consciously refer to as “The Case of the Missing Bass.” The novel opens with a standard detective-fiction trope: a guy has disappeared, and with him an object of some significance. In this case the missing person is a beautiful Lebanese-American guitarist known as the Earl, and the MacGuffin—presumably stolen to finance the Earl’s drug habit—is a bass guitar belonging to his roommate and bandmate, Jack. Jack’s full name is Jack Shit, because their band is called the Shits. They play “post-wave neo-noise art punk with a sincere approach to irony.” It’s winter, 1993.

The novel follows Jack around lower Manhattan’s grimiest bars and diners as he attempts to track down his friend with the help of a warmly sketched cast of neighborhood regulars: his bandmates, Hera and Cutwolf; Corrina, a love interest and feminist artist (“she’s going to drench me with her menstrual blood,” Jack tells his mother, proudly, after being enlisted in a video performance); and Toad Molotov, a DIY-scene elder (he’s thirty-three). It’s when Jack and Cutwolf pay Toad a visit that the plot thickens, and the novel’s noir aspirations really announce themselves.

We get a tour of Toad’s apartment and a description of his T-shirt—promoting a fictional-but-plausible hardcore collective called Annihilation of the Soft Left—before reading that “blood burbles from a deep gouge in the ‘Soft,’ right over his heart.” A panoramic sweep of a room before the body is revealed to the reader: this is a signature innovation of Raymond Chandler. And Jack—intuiting that Toad’s killer, a menacing stranger named (here’s the Lipsyte touch) Heidegger, has something to do with his missing bandmate—is conscripted into the role of anxious Philip Marlowe. His search takes on a personal urgency: if his frontman is dead, so is their band, which Jack loves earnestly and devotedly. “The Shits are a writhing, shimmering society of the spectacle,” he reflects. He “still believe[s] in the vision that the Shits, whatever their current or future configuration, will bring to the table of innovative and eccentric guitar-based noise rock, a field, or table, that doesn’t support a lot of careers but one that maybe rewards a few diligent and talented practitioners.” 

Like Milo Burke, the failed painter who narrates Lipsyte’s 2010 novel The Ask, Jack is an appealingly digressive New Jersey–born slacker, passionate about an art form he might not be very good at. The two protagonists occupy starkly different Manhattans: where The Ask’s New York is a post-recessional tableau of drab conference rooms and fast-casual sandwich chains, No One Left to Come Looking for You seems genuinely fond of its gritty East Village mise-en-scène, described by Jack with the spirited familiarity of someone who rarely strays from its blocks. (“I haven’t been this far uptown in a few years,” he thinks, crossing Fourteenth Street. “This is the New York I always figured the counterculture was counter to.”) But Jack and Milo share the same lofty critical vocabulary—like Lipsyte, both attended college at the peak of high theory—and a sense of dread about the waning artistic ambitions of their youths. And both throw themselves eagerly into their self-assigned missions, approaching the mysteries at the heart of their respective novels with an enthusiasm and pluck that only the underemployed could muster. 

The paradigmatic noir protagonist is the private detective, an archetype suspended, as the film critic Raymond Borde wrote in his 1955 study of the genre, “midway between order and crime.” Possessing both the institutional know-how of the police and the antiauthoritarian spirit of the outlaws he pursues, the Philip Marlowe or Continental Op type must in any situation maintain an appearance of capability: he can talk smoothly, drink mightily, and withstand the essential mystification built into his genre, getting to the bottom of things even while he’s being tailed or whacked on the head with a pipe. Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice—a clear predecessor of Lipsyte’s novel—spectacularly demonstrated that noir can accommodate the paranoia of multinational corporate capture and weed. But even the perpetually stoned Doc Sportello possesses a certain detached competence and irrepressible cool. 

Jack Shit, on the other hand, is more idealistic than a good PI should be. Faced with situations in which he might charm, lie, or flirt his way into information that could help locate his friend, he gets nervous and starts opining about Iggy Pop. Punk has failed to prepare him to talk to scary hitmen, let alone to the pigs; when he does end up around cops, he adopts a haphazard private-eye lingo borrowed from Miami Vice. (“Detective, I think I’ve made a break in the case,” he announces. “Isn’t that how you guys say it?”) Also, he’s really worked up about his missing roommate and keeps bursting into tears. If Jonathan Ames’s novella Bored to Death posed the formal question of whether noir can be neurotic, Lipsyte, a gifted chronicler of American neurosis, has answered in the affirmative by writing his usual character—a goofy underachiever—into a genre that greets him with open hostility.

Ash Thayer, Matty, View from Serenity Roof #2, 1997, materials variable, 40 × 60”. Courtesy the artist
Ash Thayer, Matty, View from Serenity Roof #2, 1997, materials variable, 40 × 60”. Courtesy the artist

LIPSYTE’S EXPERIMENT IN hard-boiled hardcore manages to take its self-imposed conventions somewhere more playful and less pointlessly nostalgic than have similar genre exercises by his contemporaries, such as Jonathan Lethem’s latest inane foray into crime fiction, 2018’s The Feral Detective. Lipsyte approaches noir—a solidly twentieth-century form, like punk—with a self-conscious belatedness that his characters begin to share. “What the hell were we thinking,” Jack wonders as his search for the Earl grows increasingly futile, 

all of us kids who moved to New York years too late, wearing the superannuated styles, doing the old, dirty drugs, coaxing the classic roar from our tube amps? In other precincts of the city, young people dance and heave to a modern throb in a whirl of rum-and-cokes and coke. Uptown, and in the boroughs, new rap galaxies explode into being. But here we are, sad stragglers, knockoffs, ensorcelled by the wizened gods. What gives? 

This is an elegy written in 2022, set in 1993, for a musical genre from the ’70s, in a literary style that emerged in the ’40s. The more Jack worries about being two decades late to the party (“You get to live in your sweet, protected world, your little dirtbag Disneyland,” a cop sneers at him. “You move in and pretend it’s nineteen seventy-six, but it’s not”), the clearer it becomes that simulation and anachronism are the point. Every genre has its long tail, its unlikely imitators and resurgences.

But Jack is right to feel that the DIY era, like the Shits, might be coming to an end. In the background of the novel’s East Village setting looms the threat of gentrification, of an NYU-decimated neighborhood with plenty of fast-casual sandwiches and not very much punk at all. An alarm bell rings when, in the kind of detour that would take Philip Marlowe to Tijuana but brings Jack to New Jersey, he runs into a novelist (the author of a “prizewinning campus parable” and a “postmodern sex-and-football satire”) who delivers an apocalyptic tirade after seeing a famous real-estate developer on television: 

He’s a symptom of the decay. The moral decay. The civic decay. The city’s been bought up by bastards like this. Someday there will be no ordinary neighborhoods. Just the ultra-rich and their urban serfs. . . . Of course, all civilizations are soaked in blood. Egypt. Babylon. Athens. Rome. Tenochtitlán. Berlin. Moscow. It’s never not been a gruesome, stabby death orgy. 

It’s interesting that Lipsyte sounds most like himself—nobody else could pull off “stabby death orgy”—when doing a pastiche of Don DeLillo, but the point of the passage is the tycoon on TV: “a familiar-looking man in a power suit with a protruding lower lip and a sweep of blond hair.” 

An appearance of Donald Trump halfway through a work of literary fiction might irk readers worn down by novels that jump the shark and land among the pandemics and anti-ICE protests of contemporaneity. But Lipsyte has written a “Trump novel” only insofar as Trump suits his purposes. Trump functions here less as a specter of electoral dread than as the ultimate landlord, a neighborhood-destroying sellout and the head of a real-estate conspiracy that goes all the way to the top: the Earl, we learn, has become collateral damage in a murky white-collar conflict over land use and labor, one set in motion by the future president himself. That Lipsyte’s scrappy and provincial protagonist—too busy fretting about the last days of DIY to nail one of the “rich, crooked fucks who run this city”—might have foreclosed the 2016 election is the novel’s great, mournful punch line. Like his band, Jack is too small not to fail. 

In A Panorama of American Film Noir, Borde writes that a principal goal of noir is to “shed light on forbidden worlds.” Lipsyte, alert to the challenges of retrofitting his chosen genre for the near present, spends most of his novel allowing us to think his “forbidden world” is a fading downtown DIY scene. But underworlds don’t look the way they used to, and true crime isn’t drug use or power chords. It’s not even fictional villainous corporations. More dramatically than even Pynchon, who had to invent a vertically integrated crime syndicate with Inherent Vice’s Golden Fang, Lipsyte has updated the detective novel for the billionaire era by lifting his antagonist straight from life. In doing so, he ends on an insight worthy of his theory-spouting protagonists: the real crime is financialized property ownership; the underworld worth illuminating is a rapacious real-estate industry that really did put an end to the market-rate 1990s. Sad! 

Lisa Borst is the web editor of n+1