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.”
“Why?”
“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.”
“Why?”
“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.

BASS 2011: Sam Lipsyte, “The Dungeon Master” from The New Yorker 10/4/10

New Yorker illustration by Steve Powers

New Yorker illustration by Steve Powers

I know that he is strange and not as smart as he pretends, but at least he keeps the borders of his mind realm well patrolled. That must count for something.

Those who have never played computer games aren’t going to enjoy this post much. They probably won’t enjoy the story, either. It’s available online.

Full disclosure: I was a middle-aged gamer. Yes, I am blushing down to the roots of my hair. Oh, I dabbled in D&D back in the early 80s when I hung out with people who wrote their own game programs. And I still play word games, but they don’t count. My dirty secret: I played Pyroto Mountain, where I fretted about manna and esteem and cast spells for a few years, even went to a RL get-together in Toronto where I met, among others, beeg, Sethari & Isabel, and the infamous Soup. When Pyroto went dark, I followed Feldermer and em to Kingdom of Loathing, which is hilarious rather than loathsome. I had a Mr. Accessory (worth a million meat). Never got a Mrs. Accessory, though. I came in 49th in a race, which isn’t as bad as it sounds. I won a prize, after all.

During my Pyroto years, I became fascinated with the Bartle Classification of gamers. Socializers play to chat with other players. Achievers play to win, get the most points, whatever. Explorers play to understand every nook and cranny of the game (and are the admin’s best friend and worst enemy, since they will point out obscure bugs no one else will ever encounter). And the Killers, their objective is to annoy other players – not beat other characters, but annoy the person behind the characters. The famous Soup, mentioned above, was a Killer. A psycho hell-bent character. And a perfectly nice guy IRL.

The Dragon Master, in this Dungeon & Dragons based story, is a Killer. Except he isn’t, really. As Sam Lipsyte says in a great interview with Wizards.com, “Generally the Dungeon Master does see it as his duty to teach them that life is disappointment.” He does a very good job. The mystery is why they stick with him.

There’s another D&D game group in an afterschool program, and it’s full of creative kids making up fun adventures. Eventually the narrator tries the other group. He finds something is missing. To me, this addresses the question: do violent games make kids violent, or do violent kids gravitate towards violent games?

But I don’t think that’s what Sam Lipsyte was after. I think he was exploring these kids’ lives – bleak lives – using a game. He does a terrific job of it, staying in the game for much of the story. It’s through the game that we learn how they react to frustration, to success, to failure. There’s a quick flash-forward at the end that cues us in on how their lives proceed. I’m not a fan of the “where they are now” flash forward, but this one is masterful.

In his Contributor Note, Lipsyte says he wrote this story right after college, then put it in the proverbial drawer for twenty years until it finally and suddenly clicked. It’s the third story of his I’ve read, and it’s probably my least favorite. Which isn’t to say I didn’t like it; I admire the technique. And I do have a soft spot for D&D.

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.

Sam Lipsyte – “Deniers” from The New Yorker 5/2/11

What the poor woman died for, Mandy thought, but then knew it was a rotten thought, too romantic, something for Tovah’s poem cycle. The blazer, the tan, the lost dream of American entrepreneurship, her seduction and abandonment by transnational loins—these things hadn’t killed her mother. Nor had her father, with his smeary, world-historical wound. What had murdered her was her mind, a madness factory full of blast furnaces and smokestacks. Mandy’s mind had erected one, too, but Mandy would discover a way to raze it. She would grow a beautiful garden on the ashes of the factory, teach cardio ballet in more and more places, build a modest cardio-ballet empire. She would forgive Greg and help him however she could. She would help everybody. She would save herself.

I recently read a blog post: why do people write about books and stories they’ve read, especially when they don’t like them? This is why: because in writing about them, in finding why it works or why it doesn’t for me, I sometimes – more often than I like to admit – find the actual story, having missed it the first time around.

That’s the case here. On first read, I thought, oh, ok, a combination of Holocaust survivor offspring and addict, two interesting character traits in one, ho hum. But on formulating my thoughts for this entry, I found other things. Threads. I think the threads are of my own creation, like Tovah’s poem cycles. But they’re there for me, and who cares.

The title threw me.

“Denier” is a textile measurement, of weight (for fibers) or weave density – that is, sheerness (for stockings). This is where my brain went right off the bat.

And being a little easily confused by “e”s and “i”s (I’m not dyslexic, I just seem like I am sometimes) I also read “diener” which is a morgue attendant. And “Dernier” as in “dernier cri”, the latest thing. All this before I finally realized, it’s “Denier,” that is, one who denies.

Except there are lots of threads in this story. A salmon blazer. Polyfibres. Dance clothes. A jacket that must be retrieved to make a quick exit. A shirt that must remain on, sleeves rolled down to the wrists. No, this is ridiculous, these are things that would be in any story, routine descriptions of clothing. Except there’s such a thread (ahem) between the salmon blazer and the shirt. And the poem cycle, which rides around and brings the story to its poetic ending, with the famous words, “Oh shit,” reverberating from nineteen years prior.

But of course that isn’t it at all. The characters here are champion deniers. That is, people who deny. Jacob, the Holocaust-survivor father (a fan of Hogan’s Heroes) now ensconced in a nursing home, calls the Holocaust “the Whatchamacallit.” His daughter, Mandy, the POV character, doesn’t even realize the language he sometimes speaks is Yiddish; she thinks it’s German. “She’d never had a chance, really, could never have been the daughter, the destiny you claw through the blood and feces of enslavement, of death, to claim.”

Mandy has her own way of dealing with Jacob’s denial: “The good people died. Mostly only assholes made it out. That was how she remembered the passage, anyway. That was her read.” And of course she’s done the bulimia, the addiction, the destructive relationships.

Mandy’s mom committed suicide after a Shell Oil executive in a salmon blazer used her to smooth the way for a new gas station against the town’s wishes. It’s an amazingly written segment.

Mandy is dealing with her own issues, running her Cardio Ballet class (I love that), breaking up with her boyfriend when she catches him in a threesome, and dealing with Cal, who turns out to be a recovering skinhead, complete with swastika tattoos. She knows something’s off about him but plunges ahead anyway. In fact, rescuing him (with his shirt on because if she can’t see the tattoss, they don’t exist, right?), saving people, becomes part of her raison d’etre, as often happens with dysfunctional people who can’t rescue themselves. The last paragraph is astonishing and curls right back around in time to echo the future: denial.

I won’t go into plot details because the story is available online and really should be read as it was intended. And there’s this tragicomic, so-bitter-it’s-funny edge that has to be read to be appreciated. I was at first disappointed it wasn’t about Jacob, but now I see that Mandy is the real story. And I’m very glad I took up the task of reviewing these stories, as I would otherwises have ended with a cursory read that would have left me not impressed. All those threads – I’m impressed now.