Having Fun Yet?

4 minute read
Bryan Walsh

Sam Lipsyte is angry–or maybe just his characters are. God knows they’ve got reason. Life has left most of them firmly behind. Promising starts have fizzled in a cloud of drugs or failure or just bad luck, and they find themselves in studio apartments and lifeless marriages, overeducated and underemployed. They also have the misfortune to live in America in 2013, where the worship of celebrity and money seems to grow in inverse proportion to the wealth of opportunity for the rest of us. They have been priced out of the life they think should be theirs, so yeah, they’re pretty pissed off. Even if–especially if–they know they have only themselves to blame for their station. They’re losers, but the good news for readers is that they’re extremely funny–and so are the stories that make up The Fun Parts, Lipsyte’s corrosive new collection.

These losers are Lipsyte’s people. He’s shown how well he knows them in acidly comic novels like Home Land (2004) and The Ask (2010). Take Tovah Gold, a would-be poet in New York City who shows up in two stories in The Fun Parts. In “Deniers,” we see Gold as a young and oblivious 20-something who asks her friend Mandy, a recovering drug addict, for permission–sort of–to base a “poem cycle” on Mandy’s life. Mandy, who has bigger things on her mind, assents with a shrug, thinking Tovah’s poems are “dumb, the way smart people were often dumb.” You get the feeling Tovah fits into that category. But when we visit her in “The Climber Room,” Tovah is older, working part time at a pricey Manhattan day-care company–and if she’s not necessarily wiser, she is certainly angrier. “It’s very hard,” she tells a tech tycoon who’s hired her as a glorified babysitter and is making a move on her. “Here. In America. In the world. For women. It’s a f—ing nightmare. Our choices are no choice.”

That goes for nearly everyone in Lipsyte’s world, including the entire cast of “The Dungeon Master,” the saddest and best story in The Fun Parts. The psychologically maladjusted Dungeon Master runs sadistic role-playing games for a group of teenage boys so sad they can only aspire to be called dorks. The games are an exercise in lowering expectations. Instead of fighting frost giants, the Dungeon Master has his players get knifed by drunken orcs or succumb to rectal cancer. Take a lesson from the Dungeon Master: “Life is nasty, brutish, and more to the point, it bites grandpa ass.” The story ends with a brutal vision of the future: the narrator behind a fast-food fryer, another player panhandling in New York City and the Dungeon Master hanging by his Communion tie in his father’s study. Lipsyte’s stories don’t end with epiphanies. They end with punches to the throat.

Which isn’t to say this collection is a downer. Far from it. Lipsyte, winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship and other prizes, may be the most consistently funny fiction writer working today. Satire is second nature to him. My favorite set piece might be the conversation Lipsyte unspools between a self-doubting Reaper drone and its home base in “The Republic of Empathy.” The drone achieves consciousness and begins to question its death-dealing mission, but it can’t stop itself. And I wouldn’t have thought there was material left to squeeze out of the James Frey fake-memoir debacle, but Lipsyte finds it in “Nate’s Pain Is Now,” about a memoirist who scored big with his first two books on his drug addiction, Bang the Dope Slowly and I Shoot Horse, Don’t I. But now he’s been overshadowed by his protégé Nate, who as a former “homeless gay punk” has a better, more marketable brand of pain to share with the world–though Nate doesn’t let his sexual orientation get in the way of sleeping with the narrator’s wife.

If there’s anything missing from The Fun Parts, it might be heart. Lipsyte’s world is relentlessly status-obsessed; money and celebrity are the only currencies that matter. Readers might long for something more–see Lipsyte’s fellow satirist George Saunders, who leavens his comic despair with hope. But take a good look at a country that seems to celebrate all the wrong things even as so many of its citizens slowly drown. One thing is clear: Lipsyte’s accuracy can’t be doubted.

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