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The Fun Parts, by Sam Lipsyte, Granta, RRP£12.99 / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, RRP$24, 240 pages
When I read these stories, I came away with the impression that Sam Lipsyte’s modern America is a grim, malingering place full of nasty people. The infrastructure is recognisable but the psychic landscape is blasted and torn; it feels like the aftermath of a terrible event. When I read the stories again, I thought they were brilliant – by now, I could see that Lipsyte’s understanding of modern spite, rage and self-destruction is peerless. He drags you in.
What is with these people? It seems like nothing they say to each other is straightforward; everything is processed with toxic additives. In “The Climber Room”, Tovah, a 36-year-old woman, loses her smart job and gets work in a nursery. A man makes a masked comment about her non-existent love life – “spinster baiting”, as Lipsyte calls it. She imagines herself slapping him in his “smug, maybe once sensual old-man mouth”. Later, she has an eating binge and becomes, in her mind, “a vile sack of fat and rot”. She tries to write a poem but ends up masturbating instead, because the binge has made her feel “slimy, garbage-juice sexy”. She imagines herself as a “bloated carcass gaffed from a lake”. She wants a baby – or, as Lipsyte puts it, “she craved the bleakness of biology”.
But Lipsyte is just getting started. He drills down into his characters’ self-hatred, and the stuff that spews forth is both rich and dirty. In “Deniers”, there’s a scene in which Mandy, the addict daughter of a Holocaust survivor, surprises Craig, her addict boyfriend, in the act of using. What she sees “through clots of rock smoke” is “Craig, on his knees, his face in the crotch of an obese girl with a platinum chignon”. Mandy throws things. Craig grabs his stuff and flees. But Lipsyte crystallises this degenerate moment: what Craig grabs are “the measly possessions he’d amassed in his turd of a life”. Soon, Mandy has another boyfriend – a former, or maybe not quite former, Nazi who has Third Reich tattoos all over his body.
We are in a land of great wealth and great poverty, where the default position is to be horrible to everybody, especially yourself. The narrator of “This Appointment Occurs in the Past” tells us he has become fat and greasy due to an obsession with barbecues. When his girlfriend dumps him, he has sex with Ondine, his much older landlady. “You bore the piss out of me,” she tells him. Not to worry, though: “Lots of things bore me. Things I love.” Well, at least Ondine is merely bored with the things she loves – she doesn’t actually hate them.
Does Zach, from “The Republic of Empathy”, hate his father, who has had cancer? His feeling is that he wants to “kick away at his balls. That’s my basic strategy. Except he has no balls. Testicular cancer.” And then there’s the obese narrator of “Snacks”, a child whose teachers force him to have a tug of war with another obese kid, and who thinks, at this moment, “I was sorry my father ever found my mother, smelled her, found her.”
That “smelled her” is a clue, I think, to Lipsyte’s mindset – in his gross, loveless world of drug addictions, eating disorders, cancer, mental illness and bad sex, people are stripped down to their feral selves. At best they manage to make a living selling their dysfunction. But even this turns out to be a loser’s game. In “Nate’s Pain is Now”, a former addict tells us how he can no longer sell his misery memoirs, now that he’s been supplanted by a newer, more interesting former addict. “Nobody wanted my woe. Nobody craved my disease,” he tells us.
Perhaps there is a shred of hope in Lipsyte’s world: think of Mandy who, in bed with her boyfriend, “stretched her arm across the panzer tank” on his stomach: “Tomorrow she’d look up tattoo removal. They were doing big things with lasers.” And then again, maybe not.