The Fun Parts by Sam Lipsyte. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 240pp, $24.00.
In a recent article about the stories his sportswriter father told him as a child, Sam Lipsyte remembers a revelation which “cracked the world right open for me.” Always a “nervous” boy, Sam wondered whether stars like Howard Cosell and Muhammad Ali were “nice” to his dad. “What the fuck does it matter,” he was quizzed in return, “if everyone is nice or not?” The decisive insight was that it didn’t; that only “the story mattered, and a story with everybody being nice wasn’t much of a story anyway.”
The thirteen stories in The Fun Parts impart similarly sharp lessons. Lipsyte’s latest book, after novels Home Land and The Ask, marks a return to the short form in which he began, recalling the already classic Venus Drive. And like that collection, The Fun Parts showcases stories whose sheer telling—their force; their rhythmic momentum—tends to matter more than what they tell of. So if there is no “niceness” to be found in The Fun Parts (a book every bit as abrasive as The Ask) this could be because, stylistically, storytelling calls more clearly for cruelty. In this sense, Lipsyte’s luckless characters are casualties of his craft—and are all the funnier for it.
Lipsyte’s stylistic tactics, learned largely from his teacher Gordon Lish, rely on what the latter refers to as “torque,” “swerve,” and “refactoring.” These terms may sound opaque, but their point is specific. For Lish, and for Lipsyte, a successful story relentlessly ratchets up its internal pressure, partly by feeding its linguistic output back into its input—like a nonlinear system in physics, or feedback on a guitar amp. Such a story starts with a sentence that sets an initial condition. The second sentence reconfigures the first, curving or swerving back into it. The next sentence swerves harder still, and so on, always with the aim of raising the stakes, tightening the tautness. For instance, in a typical sequence from The Fun Parts, a story’s narrator says of his father:
You had to hand it to him. I generally want to hand it to him, and then, while he’s absorbed in admiring whatever I’ve handed to him, kick away at his balls. That’s my basic strategy. Except he has no balls. Testicular cancer.
What makes this paragraph’s punchline comedic is that it’s utterly unpredictable. And it is unpredictable because it is produced not by a premeditated plot, but by something almost like an algorithm. Here as elsewhere, Lipsyte’s writing runs not from A to B to C, but from A1 to A2 to A3, each sentence increasing the energy in the system, bringing it to a boil, and hence setting off unexpected explosions.
Another example: in the story “The Real-Ass Jumbo,” a character contemplates the future. Next thing we know, we see “his sister gang-raped in an abandoned Target outside Indianapolis.” But before our brains can process this information, we learn that “strangest of all, he didn’t have a sister,” a surprise which in turn adds “urgency to his vision.” Indeed, it is Lipsyte’s spiralling search for urgency that creates these chaotic outcomes—in this he is a writer for whom, as Lish once put it, “the job is not to know what you are going to find.” So if a character contracts cancer, or is created solely to be assaulted in a discount store, it’s because that’s what Lipsyte’s escalatory logic entails.
Hard luck for them, but what makes this method compelling is that, like the blind fate that the Greeks called heimarmene, it closely reflects the cruel yet comic complexity of real life. About this, The Fun Parts is emphatic: “the world is not a decent place to live,” decides one narrator. Another notes that life is like “a fish tank nobody cleans: just fish shit and dead fish.” Stories like “Snacks” and “The Dungeon Master” dwell on the agonies of adolescence, charting the loss of a childhood in which “the world still seemed like something that could save me from the hurt, not be it.”
But the world is the hurt in these stories—the void they reveal so remorselessly. In this respect, writing should “work the hurt,” as a charlatan childminder urges a breastfeeding mother in one of the book’s more boisterous moments. Life is bitter; it will “bite your eyes out,” but Lipsyte knows better than to express the pain of existence directly. “You can’t share pain,” a holocaust survivor reminds a recovering drug addict in “Deniers.” So, to work the hurt isn’t simply to share it but rather to see it and raise it, refactoring it through a story’s style as much as its substance.
In “Nate’s Pain is Now,” the standout story of The Fun Parts, a writer of misery memoirs hears to his horror (and our humour) that his hurt has been trumped by that of a rival martyr. Demoralized, he goes for a walk by the river, where his ruminations give rise to a riff which is worth quoting at length:
I hated them, the gays, the straights. The races. The genders and ages. None of them loved me. I was feeling that forlorn hum. Maybe another memoir was burbling up.
Home, I called Jenkins, my agent.
“Nate stole my style,” I told him. “My wife.”
“Your agent, too,” said Jenkins.
“I feel that forlorn hum coming on,” I said. “It’s going to be the best book yet. I’ve really suffered this time.”
“What do you mean it’s over?”
“It’s Nate’s time.”
This sketch displays several distinctive Lipsytian tricks, from his trademark compression (“home,” not “when I got home”) to the ironic elision of narrative voice and natural dialogue. For instance, the phrase “forlorn hum” first occurs as part of the narrative voice, where we’re predisposed to permit its literary diction. By later incorporating it into speech, Lipsyte renders it ridiculous, undermining his narrator’s state of mind. Incidentally, this very device is reversed in “Deniers,” where a piece of clichéd speech—“people ought to keep their traps shut”—returns in a defamiliarized form in the next sentence of narrative: “American traps tended to hang open.” In this way, the everyday is replayed as poetry.
From its opening salvos, the section above seems intent on intensification—inflating from “gays” to “straights” to everyone, ever; from “style” to “wife” to a lifetime now over. But what’s being built up is also breaking down. By the end the narrator is left with nothing; even his forlornness has lost all foundation. In this, Lipsyte’s prose is like a ladder, but it’s one he constructs as he climbs, at each step removing the rung below and placing it overhead. He works the hurt by heightening it with one hand, while undercutting it with the other. This is why we get vertigo when Lipsyte launches one-liners like “I’d found my calling, even when the calls never came.” It’s also why reading these stories means meeting them in the making—witnessing writing being brought to birth in the midst of its disappearance. And beneath all of this, we glimpse the abyss: Lipsyte’s ladder is always poised over a void, whether it takes the shape of Nate’s pain, an old man’s exposed cock in “The Climber Room,” or indeed a demonic, devouring mouth at the end of “The Real-Ass Jumbo.”
Some might see this as a sign that Lipsyte puts style over substance, but that would be missing the point. He’s best understood as a satirist, and satire uses style to reveal the substance reality lacks. Still, it’s true that his high-wire techniques seem more suited to short fiction than to full-length novels, a shortcoming he shares with several other students of Lish. The trouble is that his style is so strong as to leave little room for novelistic polyphony—the perspectival variation of voices that critic Mikhail Bakhtin posits as the key to the genre. Even when Lipsyte would like to try multiple viewpoints—as in “The Republic of Empathy,” which features four human narrators, not to mention an artificially intelligent Reaper drone—individual idiolects are soon subsumed in a single Lipsytian voice. His style simply can’t stay away from the spotlight; as soon as it takes to the stage it’s the star performer, the story’s overriding imperative.
Yet this, in fact, is part of the fun of The Fun Parts. It’s fine to call Lipsyte’s fictions “stories,” but let’s not be led too far astray by such shorthand. These pieces of prose aren’t necessarily narratives—not expositions of events; still less parables or exempla—so much as stylistic machines, whose sole purpose is to stay in motion. Or rather, for Lipsyte a well-wrought story is like an athletic performance: a single, continuous gesture, akin to kicking a ball or, to evoke “Ode to Oldcorn,” putting a shot. In that latter tale, Lipsyte lingers on a recollection of what a shot looks like when airborne, released with the optimum “Oldcorn torque, Oldcorn spin.” As the narrator remembers, “I could almost see it fly off his fingertips, hang there in the day skies of my mind, an iron moon.” And this is the state a story should reach: that miraculous moment when a shot stays aloft on its own; or when an arrow appears to propel itself once the bowstring is pulled and let go.
In consequence, where traditional stories tend towards closure, Lipsyte’s seem to reach for ecstatic release. A case in point is “Deniers,” whose main character, Mandy, is an ex-junky in search of “closure” of her own. Here, however, is where she winds up in the freewheeling final paragraph:
Tomorrow . . . she’d begin her project of helping everybody she could help, and after that she’d head out on a great long journey to absolutely nowhere and write a majestic poem cycle steeped in heavenly lavender-scented closure and also utter despair, a poem cycle you could also actually ride for its aerobic benefits, and she’d pedal that fucker straight across the face of the earth until at some point she’d coast right off the edge, whereupon she’d giggle and say, “Oh, shit.”
Only the keenest of readers will recognise Lipsyte’s skill in swerving his story to such a climax. Yes, it’s cartoonishly funny, and “fun is important,” as we’re reminded elsewhere in the book. But its funniness also forms part of a masterful formal manoeuvre. Here, spun and thrown, a story has reached a speed where style and substance become one—so that when it’s cut short at its summit it seems to describe itself, measuring its own motion. Moreover, maybe American writing has always been motivated by such motion: remember Walt Whitman’s poetic spider, working above an abyss, historyless, spinning “filament, filament, filament, out of itself; / Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.” Almost like spider webs, when looked at closely, Lipsyte’s stories exhibit a near-geometrical elegance. They’re fun; they hurt; they have fun with hurt; but under it all is the sound of silk spinning and quickening, arcing from nothing to nothing—or the sight of an iron moon in mid-flight.
David Winters is a literary critic living in Cambridge, UK. He has written for the TLS, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Bookforum and elsewhere, and is a contributing editor at 3:AM Magazine. Links to his work are collected at www.whynotburnbooks.com, and his Twitter handle is @davidcwinters.
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