Sam Lipsyte: “The Republic of Empathy” from The New Yorker, June 4 & 11, 2012

Cover art by Daniel Clowes

Cover art by Daniel Clowes

Peg sat at the kitchen table, scribbling in the workbook that Arno, her German tutor, had given her. The handwriting didn’t look like hers, though I couldn’t remember the last time I’d see her handwriting.
We were all apped up.

After a couple of reads trying to figure out what this story was, and why it was in a science fiction issue, I decided what it most reminded me of was a series of warm-up drills a writer might do when looking for a way into his story, approaching things from different points of view, highlighting different characters, to see which one provides the best vehicle for the task at hand. And, like most writers, towards the end of each drill he veers off into goofiness when he realizes the approach isn’t really working.

But I don’t think Sam Lipsyte would do that.

So here’s what we have: six sections, six narrators, six interrelated stories.

William, the protagonist of the first section, is hoping to talk wife Peg out of having another baby. She wants one because the “sweet baby scent” is gone from son Philip’s head: “Now it just smells like the top of any dumbshit’s head.” I’m not sure why she wants to add another dumbshit’s head to her collection, as that’s what another baby will turn into, but I guess that’s Peg, a kind of baby addict who needs a new one as soon as the old one wears out.

Peg always said I shouldn’t model sarcasm for the boy, but who will? Everybody’s so earnest around children. Besides, I’ve always wanted to model. To strut down the runway under all that strobe and glitter, while the fashion aristocrats cheer on my sarcasm.

That’s a clever little flight of fancy there.

William goes to work and meets up with buddy Gregory, a gay retired cop who does paintings for plays and movies. They go up to the roof to smoke a joint and two things happen: Gregory tells him about an interesting offer he’s just received:

“Guy just asked me to do a painting. Not a copy job but a painting in the style of a very famous painter. Died young but did spectacular things. A great talent. All of my gifts would fit in his pinkie, and so forth. This guy said he would pay me the equivalent of what I thought a real, newly discovered, peak-performance painting by the painter would fetch. I said it would be many millions. He said he’d pay it.”
“Said he’s interested in exploring questions of authenticity, and he’s got the money to do it. Investment banker. But did some art theory in college. He’s not going to throw his money away on a yacht he’ll have not time to….yacht on. Here, at least, he’s shaking things up.”
“You’ll be so rich.”
“I told him to go to hell.”
“I’m a copyist, and a hack visionary, but I’m not a criminal. Fuck the banker.”
“You’re a proud man,” I said.
“If that’s all it takes…”

I think this cements the theme for the piece, which was faintly raised by the observation of Peg’s unfamiliar handwriting: authenticity. I’m not sure what “authenticity” means, except in the strict definitional sense. Spoiler: I will by the time I finish with this story.

Second, they see a couple of guys on another rooftop start to fight, and one of them gets thrown off the roof (I can hear the author thinking, “Gotta have some action, can’t just have two guys sitting around talking about their lives over weed, action, drama… how can I get some action into this?”).

That night William has a convenient dream in which he has two kids, with a third on the way, and he stands on his front porch watching the neighbors across the street performing lewd acts in their blindless bay window. I’m pretty sure this is a dream since he’s never seen them before but he knows not only who they are but that they do this kind of thing a lot, and I think that’s a lot like what Ishiguro called “the grammar of dreams.”

Does that mean the rest of the piece is William’s dream? Or is this just where Lipsyte gave up on this particular way into the story and veered off into a crazy dream just for the fun of it? I dunno.

The story moves on to Danny, who is Gregory’s son:

I generally want to hand it to him, and then, while he’s absorbed in admiring whatever I’ve handed him, kick away at his balls. That’s my basic strategy. Except he has no balls. Testicular cancer. Sounds like a bad rock bank. I sound like the narrator of a mediocre young-adult novel from the eighties. Which is, in fact, what I am. Exactly whose colostomy bag must I tongue-wash to escape this edgy voice-driven narrative?

The timeline is earlier, though, since Gregory is still a cop and still hanging out with women. Lots of women. And Danny’s escape from authenticity is in the narrator he’s created:

…as the young protagonist, my job is to keep you abreast of my feelings. I’m brash, but you better believe I hurt inside. Like I said, I will do windows and colostomy bags. Just get me out of here, before I have to tell you in the next chapter how I think internal affairs is investigating my father, and what it’s like to be the son of a cop, and also what it’s like to cope with all the strangeness in the world, strangest of all being that I just know, with a certainty I’ve never experienced, that, before she is out of our lives forever, I will be in Lisa’s ass, though you probably won’t get to see it, or even hear me use the phrase “in Lisa’s ass” because this book depends on school-library sales.

Sounds like Danny’s a future editor. But again, we’ve veered off into a clever little tour of crazyiness.

Then we move on to Leon and Fresko. They’re the two guys William and Gregory saw fighting on the roof. Turns out this was a blend of the authentic and not, as they were practicing a fight scene for a movie they wanted to make: “They didn’t know how to movie-fight. They only knew how to fight-fight. So, by tacit agreement, they fought-fought.” This examination of authenticity is particularly interesting, since it’s an authentic depiction (a fight-fight) of an inauthentic event (a movie-fight).

The fall was, unfortunately, an accident. Fresko has a long time to feel bad about that in prison.

Zach is up next. He studied art in college on his way to his MBA, couldn’t get the hang of concepts like “interrogating the hegemony” so he made a lot of money instead. Then his mother died:

But then a cruel thought came to me, like some microscopic killer drone sent by the National Security Agency into my mind via my ear canal. I could picture it swooping down and firing a withering notion into that seething cauldron of ideation commonly known as the human mind/brain: What if I’m not really grieving for my mother, the thought detonation went, but, without my conscious knowledge, faking it? This would not be for appearances’ sake, obviously, but to maintain sanity. What if I had managed to trick myself into feeling/experiencing the normal emotions of a normal person stricken with grief to avoid the realization that I was a frozen freak, umoved by the death of my mother?
Hell, I know I’m not the first person to question the authenticity of his emotions but I’m quite possibly the wealthiest…

He’s the gazillionaire who wants Gregory, whom he found scraping the everything off his everything bagel, making it into a nothing bagel – it’s a really clever scene – to paint a copy-masterpiece. The authenticity issue is pretty blatant here, telling real from not in his emotions and creating inauthenticity via the painting.

Drone Siri – um, Sister – appears next. An attack drone with consciousness. Sort of: the base warns her, “You’re not the first drone to believe you have human subjectivity.” Poor Drone Siri, who thinks she’s authentic but isn’t, is dispatched to target some guy standing on his front porch looking at the neighbor’s bay window…

And back to Peg. She’s with Arno now.

“…But think how it was before, when we did it to everybody else. Murdered so many families. Now we just do it to ourselves. We are a little country now and we just murder one another and that’s better.”
“What’s this ‘we,’ Arno? You’re a German.”
“I’m a citizen of the republic of empathy.”

Yes, a kind of dream story, I think; it has that kind of disjointed, leaping from thing to thing quality, that throw-in-everything-you’ve-been-thinking-about from your kids to your buddy at work to the iPhone commercial you saw to drone attacks on the news. Everything has hooks in everything else. There’s a frequent drift from authenticity to inauthenticity as the segments get further and further out there.

It does have a certain appeal, though it takes a few reads to get there. I’m ok with that; I don’t mind working for it. Sam Lipsyte has made me work for it before.

Though at first it seemed like some random clever scenes, everything really does interlock with everything else; the more I look at it, the better it hangs together. There’s this constant thread of authenticity woven in, from William not having seen Peg’s handwriting in a long time to Arno deferring announcing his love at the end. I looked at empathy; after all, if it’s in the title, it better have some importance in the story. Each section includes an empathetic relationship, and one that struggles.

I don’t see why it should be in a science fiction issue, however. The only hint of anything even vaguely science-fictiony lies in Drone Siri, and in this day when Samuel L. Jackson is on a first-name basis with his phone, is that really science fiction? Even Lipsyte, in his interview, says “I never thought of this as a sci-fi story.” Hmmm. When I was a kid (ouch), “sci-fi” was up there with “Frisco” and “the Big Apple” in terms of inauthenticity. Maybe things are different now; I’ll admit, the last SF writer I read extensively was Harlan Ellison.

Also from Lipsyte’s interview:

When I was starting out I played with lots of forms, tried more structurally innovative approaches. It’s not completely alien, and many writers I admire don’t write conventionally linear fiction. But it was the first time in a long time I found myself in this mode. I didn’t plan it. The story just started to point me in certain directions, and they were exciting to me, so I kept going.

See? A writer looking for a way in. I guess Sam Lipsyte would do that. And dang, if he didn’t find a way to make it work.

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