Listen to an audio excerpt from this interview:
Sam Lipsyte shines a light on the murkier aspects of a sometimes seductive but often fatuous contemporary culture, as seen through the eyes of his dysfunctional and abrasively funny narrators. Holy schlemiels, whose conditions of stasis are relieved only by crises arising both from their own paralyzing ambivalence and circumstances outside their control, Lipsyte’s loquaciously damaged heroes address the reader with barbed and often painfully self-revealing insight that invariably speaks to our own misgivings about the present moment.
Sam was raised in Northern New Jersey and graduated from Brown University. A 2008 Guggenheim Fellow, he presently is a member of the faculty at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. He’s the author of a collection of stories, Venus Drive, and three novels: The Subject Steve, Home Land, and, most recently, The Ask, which tells the tale of Milo Burke, a development officer at a second-rate university whose job entails wooing the affluent “asks” whose donations buttress the school’s lucrative arts programs. After losing his job, Milo is given the opportunity to reclaim it when a wealthy former classmate of his, Purdy Stuart, expresses interest in becoming a patron. Milo discovers, though, that Purdy’s generosity comes with strings attached. The novel is a comic and piercing examination of stifled ambition, capitalism, class, and family life. Sam and I met in Brooklyn just before Christmas 2009 to talk about his work, the state of reading, and the possibility of better coffee.
Christopher Sorrentino There are ways that a writer can be pigeonholed. For example, you’re routinely referred to as a “satirist.” Do you think of yourself that way?
Sam Lipsyte No, not necessarily. There’s a kind of pure satire that sustains itself and never breaks into other modes and I don’t see myself trying to accomplish that. Maybe I have a worldview that values the satirical approach but it always felt reductive to call it just satire. People might think that I’m blowing something out of proportion, when in fact I feel that I’m working in a more realistic mode. In Home Land, for example, Lewis Miner perpetrates satire in his descriptions of his life, but the external action is perhaps not so satirical.
CS Your books are in the first person, including nearly all of the stories in Venus Drive. What has attracted you to that voicing, and how do you think you’ve sustained its use without seeming mannered? Some writers settle into a comfort zone; not you—Milo Burke’s voice is not Lewis Miner’s, which isn’t Steve’s, which isn’t that of any of the narrators of Venus Drive.
SL First person initially allowed me to get where I wanted to go; I stumbled a lot in third person. There were earlier drafts of The Ask where I was experimenting with third person. I guess I’m very interested in the performative aspect of first person, in inhabiting roles and voices that have particular tics, particular syntactical inclinations, that do different things with the language. I see infinite variety in first person.
CS Despite that infinite variety—and coming back to the pigeonholing—reviewers often, especially with Home Land, have identified you with your narrators.
SL Being pigeonholed is better than having no hole at all. But one’s job is to squeeze out of it. I concede there are often elements in the work that lead people to assign a lot of the values or incidents to me. But people approach this question in different ways. There’s a story in Venus Drive called “Old Soul” and in it a character who’s pretty messed up goes to see his sister, who’s in the hospital dying of cancer. She’s in a coma, and at a certain point he puts his hand between her legs. A very tender moment. After the book came out my own sister who, you know, has had no medical problems that I know about, said to me, “Well, I read that story and I found it a little disturbing when you put your finger in the sister.” I found that very interesting. If it’s comfortable for people to think that they’re reading a first-person account of somebody’s experience, they will. We live in a culture that encourages the tell-all . . . that’s a so-called comfort zone for people. Strangely, it’s within the comfort zone to know that the writer actually did murder somebody . . .
CS What’s striking about your books is the degree to which we can—outside anything even similar to our own context—identify with some dark thing that the narrator is saying or feeling or doing.
SL Right, and I’m hoping for that to happen. I’m not innocent: I certainly am aware of the possibility of that kind of identification occurring, both with the characters, and to some extent, me, the author. I’ve had experiences where people have met me after reading my work and, you know, when they see this friendly, shlumpy guy, they’re very disappointed.
CS What do they want you to be?
SL I think they assume I’m going to come in snarling and maybe throw some objects around the room while I clutch a bottle of Jack Daniels and say inappropriate things at all times.
CS I wouldn’t say that you haven’t lived up to my expectations. (laughter) I’ve never actually confused you with anybody in your work, but I certainly can hear you in it.
SL Yeah, I feel the same way reading your books, I mean, there’s no way around that. Even if you’re writing a novel of 15th-century Venice, somehow your syntax is going to bleed through.
CS Please agree or disagree with this statement: the comic author has trouble being taken seriously in a literary culture that seems to value serious, even self-important, books.
SL So I have to say true or false? The comic novel presents ideas but undercuts them in ways that make it hard for book critics to talk about it. With novels that present ideas with complexity, it’s the same problem.
CS It does seem as if the undercutting of ideas denies the possibility of there being a fixed answer to any question that’s raised. Also, comic writing privileges language in a way that a book that’s trying to be earnest may dispense with. You don’t get the sense that Flann O’Brien, or Joseph Heller for that matter, was all that interested in presenting an argument point by point.
CS Which strikes me as a very pure way of writing. I was sitting on a panel with a guy judging an award, and his defense of a book he wanted to shortlist was that it was okay if it took a careless approach to language because that wasn’t a priority for every writer. That’s the opposite of your approach. Going through your work I didn’t find very many sentences that are strictly functional—nearly each of them has a pop to it, and even your harsher critics seem to recognize that.
SL I’ve always thought of each sentence as an opportunity to do something. Sure, it should move the book forward, but that doesn’t mean it can’t do other things while it’s there taking up space killing a very small part of a tree.
CS Sometimes critics say that your work is almost all style and little substance, or that the story isn’t front and center. I don’t think that “the story” is the point of your books.
SL No story; stories, yes. I’m more interested in a swirl of stories and lives and outrages rather than one simple illustration of, say, the notion that inequality is evil. I’m interested in how those ideas live with us in our daily humiliations rather than in propping up some large placard and trying to carry it forward with functional sentences. This kind of work that we’re talking about does rely on language. It’s not staking its authority on something outside of the book: “I lived through this,” “I researched this for many years.” It’s an improvisatory dance and you have to think of language as your primary way of performing it.
CS We were talking before we started taping about Richard Powers: he delves into neuroscience, the history of the multinational corporation, or the workings of a pediatric oncology ward, and then dramatizes the data, putting it in the mouths of his characters. For you, it’s not necessary to explain in The Ask how it is that capitalism operates to get a severe sense of its effects.
SL At a certain point in history the novel was a narrative vehicle for information about how societies worked. Now we live in such a technological age it’s often a vehicle for ideas about science or technology. But I’ve often thought there are lots of wonderful nonfiction books to read on these subjects.
CS There’s this persistent idea that a novel must have a kind of use that we can put it to. Even good books tend to be criticized that way. The reviewer reduces it to an argument: “a scathing moral portrait,” “a devastating critique of postmodernity,” or what have you.
SL But I think the job of the novel is to make you feel those things. A scathing moral critique is neither here nor there if one isn’t made to feel the effects of these forces.
CS Reading The Ask after rereading your other books it struck me that much more seems to be at stake for Milo Burke. He’s older than your previous protagonists, on the verge of middle age, he’s married, he has a child, and he’s trenchantly aware of his various failures—he’s an unsuccessful painter, he’s unemployed, his family is starting to come apart. You do feel all the ways that his life has been a bust, despite a middle-class foothold in the world. Is this sense of more being at stake something that’s come to you due to your own experiences as a fortyish married guy with kids?
SL The autobiographical element tends to be more emotional than rigged to the facts; things aren’t made up wholesale here, but they’re grafted on to other things and mutated—you know what I’m talking about because you do this too. I wrote this in the wake of having children, working at a university, being someone in the arts. There’s nothing in the book that’s really my life except all of it. (laughter)
CS Compare Milo to Lewis Miner in Home Land. Lewis is awash in a certain kind of failure, but his troubles seem low impact in a lot of ways, and in the end, the book is shot through with ragged hope.
SL I’d say Lewis is still in some sort of bubble. And there is hope there. Though I think there’s a kind of hope for persisting in the human at the end of The Ask . . .
CS It’s not exactly Faulknerian, Nobel-speech kind of endurance, though. Milo has come down in a way that strikes fear in the bones of a reader like me.
SL I was trying to find a way to distill that fear.
CS It’s not territory that you’ve explored before. The Ask is explicit in its depiction of regular people’s relationships with power and money. It suggests that that relationship is entirely exploitative, and that, consequently, the lives of average people are impoverished in ways that go far beyond their lack of money and influence. Big “systems novels” like those of Gaddis and Pynchon explore this idea of life as a rigged game—you really distill it. I admire how you isolated that sense of some aspects of life simply being out of one’s hands—it’s a way of being that doesn’t intrude into the lives of the characters in Home Land, or even in The Subject Steve, a book about complete loss of control.
SL When I was writing The Ask I was feeling those pressures, and seeing them in people around me. For a character like Lewis Miner they’re more abstract and his outrages are almost romantic.
CS And Milo Burke is not; the romance has been bled out of him. He’s constantly self-lacerating, he divulges all of his fantasies of being a successful painter, confesses to conducting imaginary interviews with himself for art magazines, imagines NPR speaking about him in hushed tones. But there’s nothing cute about it. It’s angry. There are a lot of shades of gray in the book.
SL What felt dangerous to me in an exhilarating way was that I knew Milo wouldn’t be entirely loveable. There’s a kind of teddy-bear quality to Lewis Miner that works for Home Land. Milo also has the kinds of conflict and turmoil that we can connect to, but you begin to realize empathy does not always feel nice. It can be shocking.
CS And Purdy Stewart, the “ask” of the title, is presented as a nominal villain. But we discover that he isn’t really a bad man.
SL No, he’s not a bad guy . . .
CS Most of the hostility that we’re urged to feel toward him exists entirely in Milo’s head, and Milo’s very ambivalent about it himself.
SL It goes back to what you were saying about the pressures of not having money and power. Possibly it makes you a little more of a shit when you know the object of your ire, who doesn’t feel those kinds of pressures in the same way, is free to be a good guy. A lot of Milo’s anger is linked to his fantasy of what it would be to have that kind of wealth.
CS But I got the sense that, despite his wealth, Purdy’s just as trapped in the game as Milo.
SL Yeah, he’s got his gilded cage.
CS We see Lewis Miner only by himself and with his friend Gary, but with Milo you create a son, along with the ambivalence that we have toward having children, a marriage, and his anguish that it’s coming apart at the seams. Through his wife Maura you also give us a sense of what it’s actually like to live with a guy like Milo.
SL I became interested in Maura and how she could even stomach some of Milo’s bitterness: even if it is somewhat understandable, it’s still this horrible cloud that she has to live in and under.
CS Milo’s good at disguising that from us; we don’t necessarily see it unless another character points it out. Somewhere in the book someone says something to Milo like, “You take self-pity to new heights.” That’s where it struck me that it’s hard to get behind him.
SL I hope people get behind the book more than behind the characters. They don’t even exist anyway. We don’t necessarily have to fall in love with a character to be fascinated by his plight, and to take pleasure in the language. I’m just trying to reclaim the readers you’ve been driving away this entire interview by talking about what an absolute shit my main character is.
CS (laughter) More like somebody who’s not idealized in any way.
SL I’d say he’s more like somebody you know. And I think that, partially, it’s about how he comes to see himself throughout this crisis, about whether he fails or succeeds in the immediacy of the narrative.
CS Milo’s failings and frustrations are amplified in the character of Don Charbonneau, Purdy’s illegitimate son, whose state of mind Purdy wants Milo to ascertain as a condition of the “ask.” Don’s lost his legs in Iraq and has given himself over to both bitterness and extorting money from Purdy. All of Milo’s flaws—anger, bitterness, disappointment, envy—are present to a much greater degree in Don.
SL The difference is that in certain ways, Don has earned it. That’s why I decided to veer a bit at the end of the book: to put Milo’s plight in some perspective.
CS Don punctuates the abstraction of the war in Iraq, at least as it relates to a world of middle-class worries and upper-class dramas. The book spends a lot of time in a world of oblivious comfort. It opens with Horace, Milo’s coworker, casually fulminating about the death of the American empire, immediately after which Milo loses his job following a meaningless confrontation with a spoiled student. Don reminds us that people are dying to further the goals of American empire—there are actual life-and-death issues beyond the bubble of that world.
SL Yes, I agree with that.
CS The Ask is your first book to be set entirely in New York, a complicated target of satire.
SL Although we’re not sure if I’m a satirist, so it’s okay . . .
CS It’s a complicated object of contemplation. You’ve put in time riffing on a suburban landscape that at this point is enshrined in a state of self-satirization. You could argue that lots of the things that exist in big cities are equally fatuous, but you aim at some formidably complex targets: universities, the art world, progressive preschooling, fabulous wealth. Does it seem to you that such things, whether a tacky event space in Northern Jersey or a trendy Manhattan birthing center that serves up colostrum shakes, all flow from the same American font?
SL I’m beginning to understand that they must, because I’ve had a hard time occasionally with foreign publishers who don’t understand what I’m writing about. With Home Land, some of them passed saying, “Nope, none of the people in our country will understand what a high-school reunion is.” I’ve traveled, but my source texts tend to be American. I didn’t spend a lot of time in Home Land making fun of the mall because, as you said, it’s self-satirizing at this point. Whether it’s the mall, contemporary marriage, or the university, I’m conscious of not just standing outside of it and making fun. I find characters tied to them in some desperate way. These places, these notions, these relations have consequences for the characters, their absurdities need to be pointed out by people who are in the throes of experiencing them.
CS I was thinking about that indie sensibility that takes as its rubric “everything sucks.”
SL Right, that kind of quirky, outsider stance seems too safe to me.
CS I find it simultaneously safe and vastly insulting. Fish-in-a-barrel tactics.
SL That stance has been absorbed by the corporate culture anyway. And it’s disseminated everywhere. Everybody in Starbucks thinks Starbucks is stupid. This is old news, but the great revolution of the ’90s was creating a consumer who could see himself as a rebel outside of this machine yet still consume its products. That kind of glib, judgmental stance. It doesn’t quite seem to say Ikea sucks and Starbucks sucks so let’s all live in a commune or let’s redistribute the wealth or, you know, let’s get some better coffee.
CS Money itself is foregrounded in The Ask: where it goes, what it does, what happens when it’s not available.
SL Yes. What’s that Bresson movie where they follow the money?
SL In The Ask following the money is not about revealing its insidious trail (lots of great journalism does that) but about seeing how people are tied emotionally, spiritually, to the economic model we’re living under. What kind of giant and tiny struggles and concessions go on daily. It’s partly the proximity of these two different sized struggles that produces the comedy.
CS You convey the way that model warps people. Milo’s preschool son says miniaturized versions of what a working adult might be expected to say, you refer to Maura sitting at the kitchen table, doing what you call “the work before the work.” Milo’s co-worker, Horace, a hipster kid, lives in Williamsburg in one of those cages for kids who can’t afford actual apartments: starter habitats. And he’s serious about his career!
SL He’s not a slacker, for sure, he’s a young man on the go.
CS The Michael J. Fox character in Family Ties, realized 20 years later. Let’s talk about your influences. What excited you when you first started reading like a writer?
SL There was no switch flip that then had me reading as a writer. I stumbled into it. In my late teens I was writing dreck, but wanting it to be good. I started to take notice of the way people who were good with language were writing fiction in America: Don DeLillo, Robert Stone, Barry Hannah was a revelation, Stanley Elkin I immediately fell in love with. You absorb these incredible rhythms and tones and you hope that by dint of some alchemy they emerge from you in a way that at least doesn’t seem derived from one person.
CS The writers you’ve mentioned all have singular approaches to storytelling per se. You can savor them by taking a book off the shelf and opening it at random.
SL Any book that’s worth reading, you should be able to open it anywhere and find you can recognize some authority or magic going on that has the possibility of enthralling you. One can argue about what constitutes a story, but those books all have movement.
CS It’s movement, but plot isn’t going to get in the way of the writing.
SL No, and plot doesn’t get in the way of the story, either. (laughter)
CS Take Elkin, one of the most digressive writers you could have named—once he gets his teeth into something, he’ll follow it for as long as it takes before finally veering back onto what an impatient reader might think of as the track.
SL Right. But the track is not for staying on, it’s for leaping off and then returning to. The notion of the page-turner always seemed foreign to me. I don’t want to be sitting on the edge of my seat waiting to find out what happened next. I want to be falling off my seat in ecstatic pain because of what language and consciousness are doing on the page. With The Ask, the plot may not be up to Grisham standards, but I’m certainly trying to achieve a sense of hurtling that I think all good books have—maybe not toward a plot point, but toward something more devastating.
CS I wouldn’t say of the influences we’ve mentioned that they’ve bled their work dry of feeling to execute some formal requirement, though. That leads me to a question I wanted to ask.
SL Do I have to say true or false?
CS There’s a passage in The Ask where Milo likens himself to a figure in Hopper’s Nighthawks, and he mentions how, as a painter, he’d always described it in terms of “the stark play of shadow and light.” This is a perfectly appropriate way of looking at Hopper’s work, but then Milo says, “to be the fucker on the stool is another kind of stark entirely.” It’s a funny line, a throwaway almost, but it strikes me as an encapsulation of the burden of writers working today. Yeah, we’re concerned with form, with language, with allusiveness and scaffolding—the legacy of modernist and postmodernist writing—but a lot of us also want, to a degree maybe not countenanced by more playful antecedents, to get at the starkness of being “the fucker on the stool.” That seems like the project David Foster Wallace was working on for his entire career: getting at that, at how the methods of getting at it sometimes work at cross-purposes to the goal.
SL The various ways to approach prose composition, to play, left to us by modernism and postmodernism are important. Maybe it’s something in the culture, but those differences now seem beside the point. We have a certain freedom that comes from mattering less, a freedom to use tools from prior texts, but not feel wedded to a certain camp. I’m drawn to many strategies and devices often from previously opposed camps. They all seem to have a common end, which is to give a reader some insight into his or her own fucker-on-the-stooldom.
CS The anxiety of influence isn’t the factor it once was. To writers of an earlier generation borrowing had to be bracketed in enormous quotation marks, or sublimated and disguised, to make it plain that this was a form of parody. Writers around our age and younger think of the people we grew up reading as useful predecessors to be drawn from unselfconsciously.
SL I agree. I think that it has something to do with a diminishment in the entire field—not necessarily in quality, but in the way it matters to people in general.
CS As ever, the important books often were being published in a small way. Writers like you and me are going to return to being published in a smaller way, either by the trade houses that may end up subsidizing our work, or, perhaps more likely, by small presses.
SL Absolutely. It’s going to become increasingly about small publishers. There have been times when the only music you really wanted to listen to was coming out on small independent labels. We’re headed for that, especially given what’s going on in big houses.
CS Also what’s going on in the lives of readers. Even if book coverage reaches people, it seems irrelevant because it’s only a book, as opposed to an event.
SL There’s no pressure on people when they go to a cocktail party to have read the latest book by the leading literary lights the way there once was; you’re not even supposed to buy it anymore. You still have to have seen the movie or the HBO series. So far we’ve both been lucky enough to keep getting published, and where we get published may change, but if you’re writing seriously good work, it’s going to find a home. It’s just not going to provide you with a home.
CS You started with a small publisher, Open City Books, which published Venus Drive.
SL It was an anomalous experience because it was the only book being published that year by the house, so I received the kind of attention that most writers don’t experience from their publishers. It was great; when people talk about going back to the model of small publishers, it doesn’t frighten me.
CS After Open City you moved to Broadway Books. Notoriously, The Subject Steve was published on September 11, 2001. It’s a book, as we said earlier, about loss of control, about death, and it’s a very funny book, but not one you necessarily want to curl up with after a major terrorist act.
SL It’s not a consoling book.
CS After that came Home Land, a different kind of notorious story. You delivered the manuscript to your agent, Ira Silverberg, and then what happened?
SL Ira seemed excited and sent it out to a bunch of places and “no’s” just kept coming for a long time.
CS How many rejections, total?
SL I don’t know; we always keep increasing the number . . . somewhere around 35. In the meantime it was published in the UK by Flamingo a year before it came out here. In the US, they kept citing the sales figures for The Subject Steve as a reason that they couldn’t take a chance on Home Land. That was a dispiriting time; it made me wonder not about my writing, but about publishing. I’d have these strange phone conversations with editors who loved it but were convinced they wouldn’t be able to sell it upstairs. Eventually, Lorin Stein at FSG was able to finagle some sort of deal whereby it would be published as a paperback original with Picador, but it would have an affiliation with FSG. If it was a total disaster, the blame would be less concentrated in any one place.
CS But it ended up doing quite well.
SL The amount of money that I was paid for it allowed it to earn out.
CS That goes back to what we were saying about publishing with a different set of expectations.
SL I was just thrilled that it was happening after all of that.
CS And the lesson from all this tsouris?
SL Learning how to think of these things as separate paths: there’s your writing, and there’s publishing, and occasionally they intersect, but mostly it’s just about your writing.
—Christopher Sorrentino is the author of three books of fiction including the National Book Award finalist Trance. He is currently working on a new novel and a volume of film criticism. Recent work has appeared in BOMB, Open City, Tin House, and Granta. Photo by Christopher Sorrentino.