Sam Lipsyte is not surprised. He is standing in the middle of Columbia University, his place of employment and a calm port in a stormy sea. One day has passed since Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the highest court of the land. “If you’ve been paying attention to the sicker things all along, it doesn’t seem that crazy,” Lipsyte says. “What does seem crazy is that we no longer bother to pretend. Before, however evil or corrupt people were, people pretended. Once that falls away, things do seem insane. But they may not be that much more insane.”
Lipsyte laughs. “I tend to take the long view,” he adds.
It’s a warm day in early October, so Lipsyte heads to the park. His walk is fast, a barely contained spill. When we reach a bench with a view of New Jersey, he talks about balancing the light and the dark in a time when the dark seems so dark. He calls his new novel, Hark (Simon & Schuster, Jan. 2019), “a comic novel about very unfunny things.”
In a nutshell, it’s about near-future Americans desperate for meaning who have latched onto a mindfulness fad that began as a joke: mental archery, the brain fart of Hark Morner, a stand-up comic and aloof would-be guru, in which practitioners maintain the (mostly made-up) poses of an archer, but without the apparatus or the intent to harm. By the time Hark takes the practice as seriously as his followers do, he’s struggling to stay focused as the agendas of his coterie grow increasingly conflicted, and mental archery is swiftly coopted and corrupted by the unctuous forces of capitalism.
“That tends to be the way these things go,” Lipsyte says. “Different characters project different meanings onto it. Whether it’s really about internal spiritual change, outward political change, whether it’s a social movement or more of an intimate practice, they’re wrestling with those questions. Meanwhile, of course, Hark is standing outside of it all, not giving any answers and remaining a sort of cypher. He allows that projection to happen, and that’s what gives the whole thing its energy.”
Hark’s right-hand man, Fraz Penzig, is a classic Lipsyte lost boy. Depressed by politics and flummoxed by marriage, his Venn diagram would connect true believer to opportunist to weakest link. Fraz is the novel’s palpitating heart and exposed nerve. He is a failing tutor, a cuckold to a casually cheating poetess, and an ineffectual “free-range father” to a son who calls him “bro” and a daughter who refers to her school as a “factory where they make these little cell phone accessories called people.”
When Lipsyte began Hark in 2012, Barack Obama was nearing the end of term one. John McCain was bringing the heat with the help of a running mate whose campaign style would provide a model for America’s next president. Lipsyte didn’t want to be a prisoner to history, so in Hark he gave Obama a single term at America’s shaky helm. The succession of leadership that led to Hark’s uncertain present is described in chapter 19: “He’s not an evil man, this president, nor a good one. He was elected to undo the catastrophic policies of his predecessor, who was herself elected to undo the apocalyptic agenda of the man before her, but it all seems too late for that these days, mostly because it’s always been too late, though now, pundits agree, this moment is steeped in a radical and irrevocable lateness, a tardy totality heretofore unseen.”
Lipsyte published his first novel on Sept. 11, 2001. It was called The Subject Steve and it was about a man dying of boredom. Following his debut collection, Venus Drive, by a year, the novel begins: “Bastards said they had some good news and some bad news.” Lipsyte says, “I went to sleep in Astoria on September 10 thinking, ‘Tomorrow’s the big day!’ The next morning, my wife called from her job and said, ‘Turn on the news’; 98% of me knew that something really bad had happened, but maybe 2% considered the possibility that, hey, maybe CNN had just decided to do a feature on a debut satirical novel without telling the publisher or the author. Just as, like, a wonderful lark.”
Lipsyte’s second novel, Home Land, was a hilariously raw missive written to a high school alumni newsletter by a graduate known as Teabag. The manuscript was rejected by “every New York publisher,” Lipsyte says, but came out in the U.K. in hardback in 2004. Months later, Lorin Stein and Ethan Nosowsky convinced Farrar, Straus and Giroux to publish the book in America as a paperback original. The Ask and The Fun Parts followed—also from FSG, in 2010 and 2013—to much adulation, showing that Lipsyte also knows how to juggle the protracted patience of an opsimath with the tenacity of a tick.
Over the years, Lipsyte has struck a balance between light and dark. Like Fraz from Hark, Lipsyte has a wife, a son, and a daughter. But where Franz has one low-impact part-time job, Lipsyte has two fully formed careers. When asked how he handles writing, teaching, and the joys and demands of family life, he says, “I don’t balance it. I can only do two of the three well.”
Like ragweed, Lipsyte thrives in the summer months, writing in New York libraries, surrounded by silence and humanity. After graduating from Brown in the mid-1990s, Lipsyte blended the precision work of Gordon Lish’s famous writing workshop with the chaos of art-punk band Dungbeetle, which he fronted as Sam Shit. Lish taught Lipsyte how to avoid his own bullshit; Dungbeetle let him wallow in it. To make up for his lack of vocal talent, Lipsyte would enter the crowd, locate the most exaggerated male specimen there, and gently stroke his subject’s face until something happened. Even in the 20th century, Lipsyte knew how to balance opposing poles, striking an uneasy but natural alliance between tenderness and aggression, self-consciousness and sincerity, what was funny and what hurt like hell.
“Even in that horrible, desperate howl, there’s comedy,” Lipsyte says. “And self-awareness. ‘Look at me, I’m howling.’ That’s kind of ridiculous. But I’m howling because it’s so painful. You can have both of those layers together.”
Though the current political turmoil has turned many Americans toward despair, Lipsyte looks on the bright side. Sure, he’s sad—but he’s also a father. “I don’t want to give them hopelessness or total despair; I don’t think that’s fair,” he says. “This might sound corny, but if I have a value, it is love. That’s all we have. And I know that sounds ridiculous, but that has to be the starting point of political change. We may finally figure out how to love one another, and then we look down and the water’s rising to our chin. Our last thing may be to say, ‘I love you’ before taking the final breath.”
Hark is a portrait of a country that has failed to love—a country that pulls its collective head out of its ass, a day late and a dollar short. Asked when he thinks America went off the rails, Lipsyte says, “Sometime in the 1620s? Like I said, I tend to take the long view. Which rails are we talking about? When did the pilgrims arrive? It’s all out in the open now, but it’s kind of been there all along.”
Lipsyte is doing mental archery in Riverside Park. He extends an arm and draws the other back as if coiling the nock point. Will this pose be Persian Rain? Or perhaps Priapic Centaur? Maybe Rainforest Hunt? Or Arc of Totality? It’s anybody’s guess. He has struck a pose in the park to explain how a practice known perhaps best for stasis could result in a whole deck’s worth of unique postures. He points his weapon at the treetops, bringing to mind a remarkable sentence in Hark: “Clouds bull across a sky of silly blue.” That’s pose number one. He points his weapon right. That’s two. He bends over, groaning, and points it between his legs. “That’s not actually a pose,” he says, laughing, standing again. He looks around. “Nobody seems to notice, but the movement may yet take off.”
Mike Harvkey is the author of the novel In the Course of Human Events.