Sam Lipsyte’s rascally prose is not without a hot-blooded, pumping core. That’s important; probably the most important factor to note of the author’s writing. Too often within today’s fiction (an age where sardonic wit and showbiz irony run unchecked) the idea of a piece is its focal point, while the individuals toiling within the fictional world aren’t made to matter as much; they are lightly sketched interchangeable types that the author moves around to accommodate the plot-of-the-week’s machinations. Yes, Lipsyte is a satirist—a dangerous field where grows crops of perpetually-winking authors—but he most belongs alongside literary starchild George Saunders, concerned as much for the folks bearing the weight of a wacky world as the principles of the routine absurdity they experience. Unlike lesser satirical works, the stories in The Fun Parts don’t simply highlight the folly of one aspect of living—Lipsyte calls the wholeness of living ridiculous. And the way he’s able to do so without it feeling pat is through attention to his vessels. Lipsyte writes about people who have been ridiculed all their lives, characters marginalized by the already marginalized; he renders the trickle-down effect of bullying over eons. Yet, despite the infinite boot stamping, all of Lipsyte’s protagonists continue combing the bowels of burned-out suburbia for a glimpse of something that could resemble meaning—a shred of appeasement, an iota of relief from the abasement. Though ultimately (and predictably) feckless, his characters’ journeys are still worth documenting, if even as cautionary tales.
Most of the stories in The Fun Parts stand as accounts within a closed-system of muted tragedy, an examination of every-day, middle-class mania threatening to swallow whole the ones able to understand there’s a problem with things in the first place. That may not sound appetizing, especially for the average reader who may see a tad too much of herself in a few of Lipsyte’s protagonists (a sexually frustrated child care provider, an adolescent whose only comfort is not being the school’s fattest), but the author is careful to balance the downtrodden nature of the stories with a biting humor that’s able to mildly abate the misery. The man can write a crackling line.
It’s his well-balanced, carefully crafted sentences to which I think the titular “fun parts” refer—the overall melancholia orbiting the language is not to be dismissed, but it also is not the central focus. Lipsyte wants you to laugh, not at these people, but because laughing is the only measure in the face of monolithic hopelessness. So delectable are bits of Lipsyte’s prose that the yoke of these unfortunate characters is made bearable to the reader. It’s a balancing act—one that Lipsyte doesn’t always nail—but, for the most part, each story is rife with enough humor to keep reading, and for the inherent dejection not to dominate. But Lipsyte is not purely style. Displaying his lovely craft plumage in “Deniers,” Lipsyte uses the central theme of language to confuse both the protagonist and reader. The reader shuffles through babble along with the character, and in that way she is implicated into the mania. In “The Big Ass Jumbo” the looming apocalypse acts as a catalyst for action for the benign speaker. Like Chekhov, Lipsyte makes his characters’ occupations matter to the narrative. Tovah, helpless childcare worker in “The Climber Room,” is also a floundering poet. And the narrative slowly unravels her once lyrical view of the world into cracked, homespun rumination. This is how it comes crashing down for someone who chooses to think. The poet’s tools are obliterated: “It’s very hard. Here. In America. In the world…It’s a . . . nightmare. Our choices are no choice. Everybody has a goddamn opinion, but nobody ever wants to help.” It’s safe to assume in a Lipsyte story that the characters aren’t going to overcome much, but Lipsyte is going for a rendering of the moments after discovering the turtle writhing on its back, but before one chooses to do anything to help it; it’s something like adorable pity.
In modern fiction, we’ve been taught to steer clear from writers moving their characters close to any sort-of central realization; it’s been equated to the antiquated notion of religious revelation. This is the age of unfiltered skepticism, and the reader does not wish to be fed a straight line to any eureka moment. Lipsyte continues bucking the idea that life is quantifiable or able to be parsed at all. Lipsyte’s protagonists are experiencing things, but they are so stuck within the apparatus’ turning gears that they can’t do much growing. (Oftentimes they’re unaware that they are in a situation that calls for any change at all.) Instead of epiphany, Lipsyte usually reaches for a note of the absurd, leaving the reader reeling from time spent with these hapless people learning…well, not much. I say hapless, but it’s important to reiterate that Lipsyte does care about these characters he’s rendering. It is in the nature of the short story to provide insight into moments of conscious explosion for its characters, but Lipsyte’s puttering story stops are the best we get. When a story doesn’t end in complete disaster, it’s a win for its characters. In this and other ways, Lipsyte is as much of a realist as those who came before him—his plots are not padded with outrageous happenings for their own sake—but his notes of absurdity function as the kick that the modern reader needs to remember the many unfortunates left out there.