Sam Lipsyte: “The Climber Room” from The New Yorker, 11/21/11

"Day Care Gone Awry" - Photograph by Tim Grams

"Day Care Gone Awry" - Photograph by Tim Grams

Tovah wasn’t that far from cat-ladyhood herself, though she believed – she had staked her life on the belief – that everything always changed at the last minute. Suddenly, the right man or even woman (what did it matter, really?) would appear, and, for goddam certain, the right baby. Which meant any baby, within reason. Race or gender didn’t matter, but spine on the inside would be nice.

I can’t decide if I love this story, or hate it. We met Tovah earlier, in “Deniers” (and, in his Book Bench interview, Lipsyte says he wrote this because he was interested in seeing more of her). She was then writing a poem cycle about the main character. Now, she’s a bit older (36) and working at Sweet Apple day care. She wants to have a baby, which isn’t easy since she hasn’t had sex in some time and doesn’t have any prospects. She claims she loves kids, but doesn’t seem very maternal to the kids in her care: she describes Dezzy, the child she encounters the most, as “delicious” because she’s heard another teacher use that term, and later refers to her as “charmless, a sloppy need machine.” Now that I think of it, that’s how I’d describe Tovah. I think this is part of her character definition rather than a flaw in the story, but it makes for strange reading.

She also doesn’t seem like much of a poet, either. A store clerk gets annoyed at her and says, “You didn’t die for my sins, lady. So don’t go building a cross for yourself. We need the wood,” which leads to her gorging on Chinese takeout and writing her first poem in years, titled “Needing the Wood.” This also involves a paragraph that’s truly disgusting – that’s a compliment, actually, because it’s very effective, what with the “bloated corpse gaffed out of the lake” and “garbage-juice sexy,”) but it’s very uncomfortable. That can’t be considered a flaw, either.

The primary story line is about her relationship with the father of a student. He’s much older than most fathers of pre-schoolers, and he introduces himself as “Randy Goat.” That may just be what she hears, or it may be what he said, the story doesn’t really pin it down either way. I had a father-in-law who would say outrageous things (“how’s your pussy” when inquiring about our cat, or something about New England being famous for condoms, except maybe he said condos, I never knew) under cover of misunderstanding. Turns out his name is Randy Gautier, and his daughter Desdemona, or “Dezzy,” is in Tovah’s care.

The story is full of little plot twists and details. There’s a hilarious subplot, a bad date with Sean, a guy out of Tovah’s past, that features Pennsylvania scrapple. She asks what that is, and he tells her, “It’s everything from the pig except the meat.” That isn’t even the bad part of the date. He calls her “Big Bones.” “She could never mate with a man who called her Big Bones, even once, even in jest. She could never expose her eggs to such a jerk.” It seems like a silly reason to reject someone she was swept away by sixteen years earlier. Again, it’s a character trait, not a story flaw. I’m not sure how the whole episode fits into the story; it sort of feels like a sketch that was written, and it was so rich he just couldn’t discard it when he took the story in a different direction so he shoehorned it in. But I doubt a writer of Sam Lipsyte’s calibre and stature would need to bother with such things.

Tovah has some very definitive views on women as mothers and breadwinners. When she says, “The newer [lies] claimed that all committed mothers could also manage bejewelled careers, that only the weak had to choose,” I want to cheer, except she doesn’t have a bejewelled career because she’s not much of a poet and she’s not a mother because she repels people. She’s even somewhat aware of this: “People had eased away from Tovah. She had become a tad too prickly, she figured, or self-sufficient.” That contradiction, again. Repeat after me: it’s not a story flaw.

She discovers Randy is rich (and just happens to finance a mediocre poetry journal titled Glyphonym; since “glyph,” the name of Randy’s company, is a word or sound in picture form, and “nym” is name, it made sense, and I didn’t realize until I googled that looking for art that a glyphonyx is a roach-like bug; I don’t think that’s an accident), after he uses his influence to have her hours changed to coincide with Dezzy’s. She starts fantasizing about him leaving his wife and marrying her, giving her the baby she wants, a journal to spruce up and put her poetry in, and the resources with which to handle it all. He hires her to sit for her on the nanny’s day off, and somehow she has a moment of truth:

You think you know yourself, the world. You think you’ve got a bead on everybody else’s bullshit, but what about your own? She’d had delusions of using this man because somehow he deserved it. Now she wondered if she even deserved to watch Dezzy.

As in “Deniers,” this moment of truth doesn’t last long. She’s babysitting for Dezzy one Saturday when he comes home from some event, reveals the woman she’d assumed was his wife is his sister, and pours them drinks. She flinches when he touches her neck: “We’re grown up and broken, just like everybody else. Stop acting like a precious flower,” he tells her. She gives an amazing speech:

“You know,” she said, gathering herself, “it’s very hard. Here. In America. In the world. For women. It’s a fucking nightmare. Our choices are no choice. Everybody has a goddam opinion, but nobody wants to help. The politicians, the culture, they push the idea of family, the importance of the mother, and they also push the idea of opportunities for women, but they screw us on all the stuff that counts, that will make it real. We are alone and suicidal or we have children and are suicidal. The only women who escape this are the rich. All of the accomplished women in history had servants. I’m convinced of that. Even if it’s not true. It certainly feels fucking true….”

Except, just who is screwing her out of what? And she admits she’s convinced of something she knows may not be true. Makes me want to slap her. Except… I agree with her, at least in theory. I just think she’s using it as an excuse, which is, sing it with me: a character trait, not a story flaw. It’s annoying as hell. But it’s supposed to be, I think.

While she’s delivering this little speech, Randy Goat is masturbating, and delivers a line that’s perfect as a story ending. Turns out, they’re using each other, just like pretty much everyone else. And as she said, everything has changed at the last minute. Several times, in fact.

The story uses a lot of sexual imagery that fits with this idea of “did he really say that or not?” He calls her to find out if she’s planning on sitting the next day, and goes on and on about how awful it would be if she was calling to cancel; she interrupts him with, “I’m coming, Randy Goat!” And her little speech beginning with “It’s very hard” is pretty funny given what he’s doing while she’s talking.

I love the titles Lipsyte chooses. “The Climber Room” refers to a room containing a jungle gym, now apparently referred to as a climber by chic New York day care centers. Dezzy fell off the climber, and called for Tovah, resulting in Randy having her schedule changed and being recruited to work for him, so it’s the starting point of the story. And Tovah is doing a kind of social climbing in the room at the end of the story. She, too, falls.

There’s a lot to appreciate here. It isn’t that Tovah is unlikeable. She’s intriguing. But so much seems made of Teflon; it doesn’t stick, it’s the opposite of what is claimed, or it just doesn’t make sense at all. But it works; there’s a lot of detailed craft here. If you don’t mind annoyance.

2 responses to “Sam Lipsyte: “The Climber Room” from The New Yorker, 11/21/11

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