Books

The New Parts: A Review of Sam Lipsyte’s The Fun Parts in Three, You Guessed It, Parts

I. The New Parts

At this point, saying Sam Lipsyte is funny is like saying O.J. is guilty. It’s a redundant understatement about a man who slays.

Sure, I could fling some of Lipsyte’s zippiest zingers at you, stick them in your head, darts lobbed by an unflappable amateur. I could flatten you with punchlines, bust your gut, leave you gasping for air—a dazed euphoria taking hold—like a Lipsyte character in a motel room, a belt cinched around his neck, his escort making her exit. But what would that accomplish? As Jennifer Schuessler put it, “If you’ve heard anything about Sam Lipsyte, you’ve probably heard that he’s funny.”

It’s no surprise then that Lipsyte’s new story collection, The Fun Parts (out today), lives up to its name. What might surprise those who haven’t spent the past several years gobbling up these black tales like licorice—and what should hearten fiction fans of all stripes—is how Lipsyte continues to grow and stretch as a writer, pushing his hairy frame into unfamiliar territory like a crafty yeti jaded by the Himalayas, a learned beast edging into the next stage of his career.

Lipsyte’s debut collection, Venus Drive (2002), holds up really well, but Lipsyte wrote those stories in his twenties, and it often feels as if Gordon Lish strapped a muzzle on the pup, muting his student’s weird, wild voice. Thank god, Lipsyte spent the next decade ripping the cage from his maw and attacking three satirical novels (The Subject Steve, Home Land, and The Ask) with relish—with sharp, biting, bittersweet, and yes, hilarious results—while readers like myself laughed and clapped and danced around minimalism’s flickering effigy.[1]

Lipsyte has come a long way, but he still fills his stories with addicts, adolescents, and outcasts, to great effect. What’s new is that the first-person male protagonist trapped in a linear narrative is no longer a given. Presumably bored with that formula, Lipsyte now presents for our bibliophilic bliss: women (!), flash fiction (!!), the third person (!!!), and shifting POVs/a nonlinear narrative (?!?!). None of which reinvents the short story or even qualifies as experimental (except maybe “The Republic of Empathy”), all of which constitutes a series of steps—and yes, a couple missteps—in the right direction.

What’s concerning—what I wish Lipsyte would tire of—is that he now seems to pummel, throttle, tase, humiliate (often sexually), shoot, and/or kill most of his characters, such that, by the end, Sex and Violence start to feel like a pair of ugly guests who’ve overstayed their welcome. As in life, fictional punches don’t pack as much of a wallop when you see them coming, and sex isn’t as thrilling when it’s an appointment.

Which brings us to the lady parts.

 

II. The Lady Parts[2]

In The Fun Parts’ opening story, “The Climber Room,” Tovah Gold is rocked at age thirty-six by the realization that she wants a baby, “crave[s] the bleakness of biology.”

It’s possible women (or at least, womyn) readers will resent that this irrepressible chemical kick—almost Tovah’s sole ambition—drives much of the story. Or that Tovah, in at least one scene—gorging herself on crackers and Chinese, feeling “slimy, garbage-juice sexy,” making a lazy stab at masturbation before nodding off—just seems like a womb-saddled facsimile of one of Lipsyte’s slovenly dudes. Or they might resent my suggestion that they might resent these things,[3] because it’s not sexist for a woman (or man) to want to have kids, and not unheard of for a woman (or man) to binge on Chinese food and pass out on the couch with a hand crammed down her pants like Al Bundy. I can’t say, because every time I try to comment on sexism or feminism I shove my foot so far into my mouth my toes tickle my intestines.

I do know that a younger, less messy Tovah originally appeared on the periphery of “Deniers,” as friend to protagonist Mandy, a “semi-surviving… three months clean” recovering drug addict who teaches cardio ballet at the JCC, where she meets a not-all-there recovering neo-Nazi, Cal, who views his pursuit of Mandy as some sort of penance. Strap in—this is what qualifies for romance in Lipsyteland, and finding out whether or how a Jewish woman will sleep with an ex-white supremacist is one of the titular fun parts.

Another fun part is getting to know the two Tovahs. In “The Climber Room” she is a cynical preschool teacher estranged from (but probably still in love with) writing, more bitten by the reproductive bug than any artistic endeavor. In “Deniers” she is a young, boastful poetess; she is writing a “poem cycle” about Mandy, brave, brave Mandy, who describes the poem cycle as “Like what some stuck-up clown would ride.”

These two stories function not only as a commentary on how people (d)evolve over time, but the way they view themselves (Tovah’s self-loathing first person POV in “The Climbing Room”) versus the way they present themselves/come across to others (Tovah through Mandy’s, okay, kind of Tovah-loathing eyes in “Deniers”). Young Tovah, like a lot of young writers, won’t shut up about her craft. Older Tovah—even though she still considers or wants to consider herself a poet, feels that poetry exists to express her feelings—would rather talk about anything else.

Mandy, who has hills of baggage—addiction; unfortunate sexual history with fellow addict; mother who killed herself; Holocaust survivor-father suffering from dementia—is, ironically, one of the most lucid, competent characters in the book. This could be a byproduct of Lipsyte’s rare use of the third person, the distance of which can obscure a character’s nuttiness.[4] Or maybe Lipsyte was subconsciously gun-shy with the lady parts, wary (as some of us are) of coming across as misogynistic. In his “Climber Room” Q&A with The New Yorker, Lipsyte acknowledged that female protagonists are “new territory” for him, but also noted, “…it’s a fiction, and not a position paper.”

Does Lipsyte write believable women? Does he portray the fairer sex fairly? How the hell should I know? Like Freud and every other numbskull with a twig and berries dangling between his stems, I have no more idea what goes through a woman’s head than I do what goes into moonshine, or a winning cover letter.

I did think enough of the veracity and passion of the following passage, which closes “The Climber Room,” to email it to a former lover under the subject line “MEN, right?”

       “You know,” she said, gathered 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 goddamn opinion, but nobody ever 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… I’m sorry. I’m babbling. Why am I going on about this? It’s stupid. I’m just cranky. Must be getting my period, right? That what you think? Well, fuck you, and of course I am. But that’s not it. Maybe I wasn’t ready to wake up just now. Maybe I’m tired of waking up. Nothing changes when I do. Nothing ever suddenly… Christ, I’m sorry. I should just go. Maybe I should just…”

        Tovah turned and saw that Mr. Gautier had tugged his penis out of his tuxedo pants. He gave a shrug and, like a loved boy, beamed.

        “It’s okay,” he said. “I’m listening.”

My lady friend never responded. Maybe because in fits of horny boredom I used to scatter her possessions around the floor of her bedroom, so that I—perched on the edge of the bed, beaming like a loved boy—could watch her bend over and pick them up.

 

III. The End Parts

In 2005, after the release of Home Land, Lipsyte told Columbia colleague, fellow novelist, and infamous blurb-whore Gary Shteyngart, “…I have a real problem with the third person. I don’t know what it is. When I write in the third person, it sounds stilted, it sounds wooden, fake somehow.” Lipsyte appears to be exorcising those demons, not just with “Deniers,” but “Peasley,” “The Real-Ass Jumbo,” and “The Republic of Empathy.”

“Peasley” is an amusing four-page detour inspired by the F. Scott Fitzgerald epigraph, “The man who killed the idea of tanks in England—his afterlife.” (It’s the second shortest story in the book after the forgettable flash piece “Expressive,” which consists of a shitty husband describing the highly specific faces he deploys in given situations. Still: flash! From Lipsyte! This feels like a first.) “Peasley” centers on the Man Who Killed the Idea of Tanks, now 125 years old, wilting away in his mansion reflecting on the music, literature, tech, and wars of bygone eras. His inevitable demise arrives not of natural causes, but in a bloody buzz of violent irony.

As with “Peasley” (whose conceit kind of demands it), the third person was probably the only recourse in the collection’s final piece, “The Real-Ass Jumbo,” a trippy tale of a semi-famous self-proclaimed prophet named Gunderson. Gunderson really believes the world is going to end in a matter of months—or, oh shit, weeks—but he also really wants his own reality series, and for “sinterns” to get “positively gnostic on his fun parts with ballerina slippers.” Far from wooden, the highlight is Baltran, a DMT-induced “faintly buzzing fellow with scalloped metallic skin and emerald eyes, a gnome in gold lamé who’d become something of a guardian to Gunderson.” Like “Peasley” and much of The Fun Parts, “The Real-Ass Jumbo” ends in death, but also fuzzily, and the lack of hard finality is a nice change of pace especially given the story’s placement at the end of the book.

Trippiest and perhaps most promising of all, though, is “The Republic of Empathy,” a self-aware, cinematic swing through the lives of six people and, what else, a personified (lady) drone missile. The first section ends on a dreamy cliffhanger; later Danny, the self-aware “narrator of a mediocre young adult novel from the eighties,” wonders “whose colostomy bag must [he] tongue wash to escape this edgy voice-driven narrative?” In the penultimate vignette, the “Drone Sister” Reaper 5—in script form rather than prose—questions her mission, believing she has human subjectivity only to discover just before impact that the entire exchange has been “Interior chatter. A bug.” I’m not sure what it all adds up to; it’s a weird story and probably not the strongest in the book,[5] but watching Lipsyte shift perspectives, get meta, and personify a weapon is exciting (for Lipsyte as well) because—like the other new parts—it suggests more formplay to come, that Lipsyte isn’t resting on his laurels[6] or growing soft in middle age.

Far from it: by my count, ten of The Fun Parts’ thirteen stories climax in violence, while two and a half end with sex. (One story pulls double duty [violent sex], while “Expressive,” ever the outlier, finishes with a mere eviction.) This is the definition of overkill, especially considering some of Lipsyte’s best stuff from Venus Drive—“The Drury Girl,” “My Life, For Promotional Use Only,” “Less Tar”—was light on if not devoid of beatings, bombings, and bangings. I’m giddy that Lipsyte has adopted a more maximalist writing stance, shown a willingness and ability to mix it up, technique and perspective-wise. But there’s little surprising or moving about an onslaught of onslaughts, and Lipsyte, of all authors, does not need to leave his characters in stitches to achieve the same effect with his readers.



[1] Which isn’t much of an effigy at all, really.

[2] I feel like I should apologize for this entire section.

[3] And/or my use of the term “womb-saddled.”

[4] How often have you heaved relief that no one could read your mind, for its insane and/or homicidal subject matter?

[5] My favorite parts: “The Climber Room,” “The Dungeon Master” (for nostalgic reasons, probably), and “The Wisdom of the Doulas” (for my buck, the funniest story in a very funny collection).

Evan Allgood's work has appeared in McSweeney's, The Millions, LA Review of Books, The Toast, and The Billfold. He lives in Brooklyn and contributes regularly to Paste. Follow and maybe later unfollow him on Twitter @evoooooooooooo.