THE SOUNDS OF SAM LIPSYTE
In the next few weeks we will hear that Sam Lipsyte’s The Fun Parts (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is funny, irreverent, sex-obsessed, witty, broken, indiscriminate, and wry. Listening is the key verb as concerns Lipsyte. In the best stories: “The Climber Room,” “Deniers,” “The Wisdom of the Doulas,” “Snacks,” “A Worm in Philly,” “Expressive,” “Ode to Oldcorn,” and “Nate’s Pain is Now,” readers reading to the little man or woman that controls their brains will hear in their heads a prose holding piteous subjects grandly animated with vibrant and uncanny sounds. These delightful noises are a bonus because they accompany such an unwonderful world—not necessarily an evil place, but a staging ground for the salacious and ignoble to have their way with the weaker of the species.
Few current American fiction writers’ work resembles the experience of living as a person struggling in this country, let alone aspires to a type of poetry. When I say “work,” I mean the entire enterprise of writing, not just what is portrayed—writing without abandon, writing one’s inner turmoil into parables or pleas that might not match the marching of plot points, but instead provide sensations in bas-relief and transfigurations gained by lingual storms and flurries. The “underbelly” for many people growing up in our climate is centered around families trying to act like families, drinking, takings drugs, and fucking others for fun, with their emotional inner life being the scalpeled runoff of these experiences.
Lipsyte, along with Gary Lutz and Christine Schutt, are exemplars of this type of supra-expression because they allow their emotions to line their fiction so their feelings will the story with a language fricasseed by all-powerful sonar rhythms, inversions, and implants of adenoidal adjectives, as in Lipsyte’s “Expressive:” “Example: this chick, Roanoke, I meet at the Rover. She’s kind of dykey, the way I like them, has her own darts for the dartboard.” These few writers are closely related because they shared the same mentor, Gordon Lish, who ordered honesty and attunement to the sentence and sound from his students. Sounds make a sentence exciting. Why else are Shakespeare and Joyce two of the high priests of writing? Because no one else sounds like them. Anyone can write about Kings and high-ranking Romans and Dublin in 1904, but not anyone can sound the souls of Lear and Bloom through words. Sound is so integral to words that Wallace Stevens, in arguably his most important essay, “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” took it for a subject, saying:
The deepening need for words to express our thoughts and feelings which, we are sure, are all the truth that we shall ever experience, having no illusions, makes us listen to words when we hear them, loving them and feeling them, makes us search the sound of them for a finality, a perfection, an unalterable vibration, which it is only within the power of the acutest poet to give them.
Anyone can write about dysfunction and disease, but Lipsyte builds a monument to it in “Deniers” when the main character recalls her mother’s affair with Lawrence, a shill from Shell Oil:
Mandy heard the details years later from her Aunt Linda, who added odd touches, such as Mandy growing a potbelly from too much junk food, since the assignations left her mother no time to cook. Mandy didn’t remember that. She’d once seen Lawrence hunched over some papers in their kitchen—he threw her a funny, rueful look—but she did not recall a season of Whoppers and strawberry shakes. Still, for all she knew, her torments with the mirrors and malnourished beauties of fashion magazines and even her esophageal tract, all of which she had come to call, after years of therapy and therapeutic coffee dates, her “body shit,” might as well have been spawned from the high-fructose despair of those months. (53)
Dank and dark, but humming. While we get the effect of adultery on a teen and the building of Mandy’s body image woes, we also receive a seminar in sound and alliteration. “Who added odd” has three different vowel sounds, oh-eh-ad, with a padding of double d’s behind the last two. “He threw her a funny, rueful look,” has the rhyme of “threw” and “rue” filigreeing the character-making of Lawrence, and the last sentence has a bevy of t’s, plus “season of Whoppers and strawberry shakes,” and “come to call,” crowned by topping the additive “high-fructose” on that ugly-meaning but melodious word ransacked from Old French.
Lipsyte’s stories have similar themes, as often a middle-aged man, who yucks about a society not interested in his dated theories or his pretensions, revisits other nobodies from his school days (with some flashbacks) for perspective on his own failed currency. People, whether families or friends, treat each other like crap and twist and moan with furitanical jabs meant to unseat any person getting in the way of their honey. When the wife of the narrator in “Expressive” finds out he’s cheated on her, Lipsyte presents a battering dialogue:
“Motherfucker,” my wife says, in the tone of an earlier generation. “Do you love her?”
“Not her,” I say. “Maybe the one who caught us.”
“I want to save our marriage,” says my wife. “Do you want to save our marriage?”
“Yes,” I say. “Just not right now.”
“Get out.” (149)
This one-upsmanship isn’t just a mirror of our society, it is the ironic gruel of all our very unsociable social media and other culture pasted before us by the multinational conglomerates and ex-classmates who have found us on F-book.
Two of the stories have a woman as a protagonist: the aforementioned “Deniers” and the crowing achievement, “The Climber Room.” In the latter’s twenty-two pages, Lipsyte tells the full story of this new sorry American century. Lipsyte’s portrait of a thirty-something called Tovah who works at a daycare center at the behest of well to do children captures the apathy, Occupy Wall Street, our fragility, our preening, and our eating disorders, the pop culture cults, the financial crash, the device-alcoholism, and the icy unaccountability of the rich who use the lower classes like a scent or aftershave to their wonderfully wasteful days.
The Fun Parts is a nice jolt because it’s not so very fun to live in this country, let alone the world. When in the same essay, Stevens said, “The mind has added nothing to human nature. It is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without,” he wasn’t being coy. And though Lipsyte portrays the ills of our society, the sounds of his words are ultimately supposed to “help us to live our lives.”