Book review: The Fun Parts, Sam Lipsyte

Black humorist: Lipsyte's laughs are generated by the misfortunes of a cast of gloriously damaged misfits
Black humorist: Lipsyte's laughs are generated by the misfortunes of a cast of gloriously damaged misfits
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IT WOULD be a very welcome side-effect of Lydia Davis winning the International Man Booker Prize if it persuaded readers in Britain to explore the other, more esoteric avenues of contemporary American writing.

The Fun Parts

Sam Lipsyte

Granta Books, £12.99

Davis is not, as some might have it, sui generis; rather she exemplifies an askance yet outspoken style which has influenced, directly and indirectly, many younger writers. We hear a great deal about novelists such as Dave Eggers, AM Homes, Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem, but far less about equally extraordinary writers – many of whom have been highly praised by their better-known contemporaries – such as Chris Adrian, Ben Marcus, Amy Fusselman, Brian Evenson, Lynne Tillman, Lydia Millet, David Markson and Maggie Nelson.

To further whet your appetites, I’d wholeheartedly direct you towards this sour and scintillating new collection of short stories.

I first came across Lipsyte’s work with the deranging novel The Subject Steve, the back cover of which I found immediately entrancing: “Steve’s ­fettle is absolutely fine, but nevertheless, he’s dying – of a mystery disease that just might be boredom. At least, that’s what the guys in the white coats say. They’re not doctors, they’re just guys in white coats, and the subject’s name isn’t Steve, either, but we’ll get to that…”

That cunning double take is typical of his style. In one story here – Ode To Oldcorn – we get the lovely line: “‘Thanks, pal,’ said Coach Monroe, and his smile said it all, although I wasn’t exactly sure what it said.” The stories in The Fun Stuff are, I think, more easily accessible than his novels (The Ask and Home Land are also astonishing), and any reader who enjoys his dyspeptic, zingy style will relish the ­novels even more.

The cast of The Fun Stuff are baroquely and gloriously ­damaged: the fun stuff just isn’t fun any more. We meet a junkie whose get-rich-quick scheme involves writing a ­biography of boxer Marvin Hagler; the fat kid who envies the obese kid; teenagers bullied by the world’s only hyper-realist Dungeon Master (it’s not orcs that despatch them with routine horror but tripping over buckets, infections caught from unwashed steins, and rectal cancer); and the Man Who Killed The Idea Of Tanks In England, now elderly and consumed by guilt and aphasia over whether he protracted the First World War.

Although there is an obsidian hardness and blackness to his humour, it is still laugh-out-loud funny: in Nate’s Pain Is Now a misery memoirist is usurped and cuckolded by his gay punk protégé. Among 
the unnamed author’s works are such titles as Bang The Dope Slowly, I Shoot Horse, Don’t I? and Spoon For The ­Mis­begotten.

What makes the pain all the more painful in these sharp studies is how frequently it comes after a genuine attempt to make a human connection. In the most shocking story, ­Deniers, the ex-junkie daughter of a Holocaust survivor meets a man who is oddly ­eager to stress on their first date that he’s “absolutely convinced all of that stuff really happened”.

It is only when he takes off his shirt, revealing “tattoos, the swastikas and iron crosses and even an ingenious Heydrich who sieg heiled when Cal flexed his deltoid” that their painful parallels (How can you convince someone you’ve changed? Who has the right to forgive?) become evident. It is supremely daring.

The dialogue constantly sparkles and unsettles, with strange seismic shifts going on beneath the surface of the prose. You won’t read finer sentences this year.

In a very short piece, Expressive, the narrator boasts about his preternatural control of his face, dubbing his looks such things as “Most Radiant Penitence”, “Remember the World Is Not Broken Even If Your Crockery Is” and “The Strange Thing Is It’s Nobody’s Fault”.

As he lies in his child’s room after another indiscretion, the prose becomes haunting: “There’s the moon through the window, that Moon Man with his masterful Moon Man look: We Are All Schmucks But I Control The Tides. If he had a coffee mug, it would read “World’s Shittiest Moon”. But he doesn’t have a coffee mug. I get that now.” «