MARCH 5, 2013
PERHAPS NO LITERARY FORM is more a creation of market forces and tradition than the short story. A novel can go on for as many pages as the author needs to finish the tale, and most book reviews clock in under 2,000 words, because, really, who needs more space than that to say whether a book is any good? The modern short story is short, however, because it fills a very specific niche: a tale that can be read in one sitting, first designed to fit the fiction slot in popular periodicals, and now repurposed for use in literary magazines and as a training exercise in creative writing classes.
If you need evidence of just how devilishly difficult it can be to work in this queer fish of a genre, look no further than Sam Lipsyte’s new story collection, The Fun Parts. Lipsyte, the Ritalin kid of contemporary American letters, likes to kick off his tales with an outlandish premise, stir in a few dollops of emotional intensity and gleefully demotic black humor, and let ’er rip. Thus, in one story, “Expressive,” he focuses on a wayward husband with a face so expressive he can make his inner thoughts readable to any woman he meets — including his wife, who throws him out of the house. In another, “The Dungeon Master,” the power dynamics of a medieval-themed role-playing game spill over into the teenage narrator’s daily world.
When he’s on, Lipsyte can sound like a latter-day Borscht Belt tummler rattling off jokes at the expense of precious yuppie parents, self-loathing teens, and junkies with hearts of gold. When he isn’t, as is the case all too often in this disappointing follow-up to his hilarious 2010 novel The Ask, his stories can feel like the literary equivalent of a hyperactive 10-year-old randomly tossing out fart jokes, off-putting punch lines, and retrograde observations of women, all in an effort to tame the thrumming motor of his distraction-addled brain.
The result is a story like “The Wisdom of the Doulas,” which opens, winningly, with a male doula — or “doulo,” as he prefers to be called — who doesn’t much care for babies or mothers. Mitch, Lipsyte’s narrator, notes that the word, now used to describe a labor coach who helps women during and shortly after the birth of a child, derives from the Greek term for female servant or slave. (“But don’t get any ideas,” he tells the new father in the story. “My rates are steep.”)
It’s a sly conceit, allowing Lipsyte to poke all manner of ill-tempered fun at type-A parents yearning for the idealism of their youth, and in the process, at the gauzy glow we superimpose over the messy, primitive process of birthing a child. “Picture a red onion with a mouth that isn’t even a mouth,” Mitch says of the infant in his charge, “but more some kind of incredibly loud air horn used by Satan to signal his peons to mop up all the infernal poop and gunk that spills forth from his fiery pan-gendered holes as he gives birth to every evil in the world.”
But despite this rich premise, or perhaps because of it, the story packs few real surprises. Mitch doesn’t care for his work, actively despises the family he’s been hired to help, and like nearly all of Lipsyte’s male narrators, he is a ticking time bomb of free-floating aggression. The couple he is assisting, a work-obsessed pharmaceutical company executive and his wife who name their newborn Prague because they like the city, turns out to be every bit as shallow as Mitch makes them out to be. In other words, all is as it seems. One yearns for a twist — to learn, say, that Mitch’s sweaty male anger and raging class resentment might come in handy in some surprising way in the rearing of a child.
But no dice. It’s plain from page one that Mitch has no business helping new mothers, and when that fact doesn’t change, Lipsyte has little choice but to ramp up the mayhem until the characters are flinging martial arts throwing stars at each other and the police arrive to physically relieve Mitch of his duties. It’s occasionally funny in a knockabout “Three Stooges” sort of way, but ultimately it’s not much of a story.
Lipsyte’s work is far more interesting — and funnier — when he is able to show the pathos buried inside his scenery-chewing narrators, as he does in The Ask, a dark comedy about a recently fired university development officer who is offered a chance to get his old job back if he can snag a big-dollar donation from a major donor. But this kind of psychological excavation takes time. The typical Lipsyte protagonist shows up full of misdirected rage, often using drugs or recently recovered, with a chip on his shoulder the size of Sisyphus’s boulder. Over the course of novels such as The Ask and Home Land Lipsyte has room to show the vulnerable underside of his central characters, but within the confines of a 20-page short story, all we have is the snarling, wise-cracking exterior, and the stories ring hollow.
In The Fun Parts, the closest Lipsyte comes to a fully realized character is the unnamed narrator of “The Worm in Philly,” a junkie suddenly struck by the moneymaking possibilities of writing a children’s book about the boxer Marvelous Marvin Hagler. The narrator’s father, like Lipsyte’s own father, New York Times reporter and novelist Robert Lipsyte, is a sportswriter who covered boxing, so his plan to buy heroin with the proceeds from a book for children about a brutal, relentless prizefighter is less loopy than it otherwise might seem.
It’s funnier, too, but tellingly in this case the humor comes not from broad slapstick or cracks about pop culture, but from the poignancy of the narrator’s belief in his own cockamamie plan, and from the deep wound of need that belief is built upon. He tells himself he’s only trying to get a book advance to pay for his next heroin score, when in reality he’s trying to measure up to his old man, a legendary reporter who has slipped into dementia.
It all goes awry, as it must, but in this case how it goes awry surprises. With his pockets full of cash he knows he shouldn’t spend, the narrator heads straight for his favorite dealer, who sells cocaine and heroin out of a pair of fanny packs. But Fanny Packs is gone. The narrator hurries on, looking for other dealers, and suddenly the goofball comedy isn’t so funny anymore. Now, it’s a startlingly real tale of an addict desperate enough to hit a spot called Cups, where the drug dealers, hidden safely on an upper floor, carry on their trade via Styrofoam cups dangled from strings out a window:
The thing about Cups was you never saw the guys with the cups. They stayed upstairs, invisible puppeteers. The Styrofoam containers bobbed down on strings. The lookouts on the stoop and the rooftops called their codes, for the cops, for the all clear.
“Gato!” they’d shout, and I pictured jaguars with badges in their fur.
Not funny at all until that last line, but the rest of the passage — the danger he’s in, the God-like power of the people selling him his fix, the sharply observed details of the machinery of addiction — turns a throwaway joke about cats with badges into real laugh, one that sticks you in the ribs.
Lipsyte finds this sweet spot between pathos and humor in a few other places in the collection, most notably in the opening story, “The Climber Room,” about those two most New York–centric of preoccupations: publishing and exclusive private nursery schools. The story’s central figure, a struggling poet-turned-preschool-aide named Tovah, is a woman, but really this distinction from Lipsyte’s male characters is less important than the fact that she wants something beyond just a paycheck or a fix — in her case, a child. “It didn’t matter if the baby was hers, except that it absolutely did,” Lipsyte writes. “She wanted to carry it and give birth to it and breast-feed it and live in a natural cocoon with it for as long as possible.” “The Climber Room” wanders all over the map and comes to a truly disturbing end when one of the objects of Tovah’s procreational fantasies whips out his tumescent babymaker just as she is winding up a long rant of feminine angst, but along the way one comes to care for Tovah just enough to follow her through the prolonged mishegas of Lipsyte’s tale.
Readers who like their humor rough, or simply fueled by a little not-so-passive aggression, will find pleasures elsewhere in The Fun Parts, but the rest of us will be content to sit this one out and wait until Lipsyte finishes his next novel.