Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
One of my favorite books of short fiction from the last few years is Sam Lipsyte’s The Fun Parts (FSG, 2013). I often assign stories from it in my workshops and have been waiting for an opportunity to teach the whole collection. The major obstacle to this was that, for a while, I was doing a lot of my teaching at Columbia, where Lipsyte also teaches and where, for reasons never quite made explicit, but which I’ve always understood to include upholding propriety and guarding against insularity, instructors are discouraged from assigning one another’s books. But now I’ve moved to the other side of the country—to Portland, Oregon—and started teaching in a low-residency MFA program, ironically enough (or perhaps not quite ironically enough) based back in the Northeast, at Western New England University. The Fun Parts was the first book I chose to assign.
I thought I ought to say a few words to my students about why I chose this book, and what I hoped they would take from it, so I wrote them an email extolling its virtues, Lipsyte’s prose chief among them. My program director asked if I might further elucidate what, exactly, I admired about said prose, by choosing a sentence to read closely as a demonstration. I was happy to oblige her, and chose the following passage from “The Climber Room.”
She wanted a baby. That was all. She still believed everything she believed, cultivated privacy and solitude, and, despite her attachment to the Sweet Apple tykes, believed childlessness the noble course (yes, your kid might cure cancer, but probably he’d grow up to play video games or, if the world followed its current path, huddle in a gulch slurping gulchwater and recalling the magnificence of video games). But she wanted a baby.
Here was my analysis: There’s a lot to love in Lipsyte’s long loopy sentence, rich as it is with harsh jokes and wild asides. One thing I love is that it is neither sloppy nor slack. There’s a secret minimalism at work below the surface of his flashy, fast-moving prose, perhaps best embodied in the phrase “huddle in a gulch slurping gulchwater.” The phrase is bound tightly together by the short “u” sound that recurs in five of the six words (even the “a” sounds like an “uh” here) and the repetition of “gulch,” an inherently absurd-ish word that is also rich with music. The short sentences on either side of the long one serve as its frame. Those first two sentences are simple, declarative, seemingly definitive, four and three words respectively—small and getting smaller, a done deal. Then the third sentence explodes: sixty words of half-unhinged hopes and fears, all in the self-hectoring rhythm of human thought, culminating in a horrific vision of a hypothetical child in a post-cataclysmic ditch, which ought to be enough to spook anyone out of procreating—only it’s not. “But she wanted a baby” says the fourth sentence, five words reprising the blunt structure and declarative tone of those first two sentences. Syntax, word choice, and narrative flow are all mutually reinforcing and enhance each other to make the passage’s point: This woman is arguing with herself and losing. She wants something that she does not want to want.
So that’s what I wrote. Having done what was asked of me, it should have been the end of things, but I felt the unaccustomed urge to keep going, for my own edification as much as to show my students what a more in-depth model of critical reading might look like. Well why not? I had been hunting for a pretext for talking about this book for a good two years.
(Before we continue, I want to cite Gary Lutz’s lecture “The Sentence Is A Lonely Place,” one of the major statements of poetics for prose fiction of the last ten or twenty years, and the best guide you’ll find to the acoustics-driven prose method Lutz calls “consecution,” expounded first to him by the editor-teacher-writer Gordon Lish and developed by generations of Lish’s students, whose ranks include both Lipsyte and Lutz. I hope here to contribute to the further advancement of Lutz’s argument, but will settle if need be for having followed in his footsteps.)
I decided to choose a new passage, this time at random (or closer to random than before) and settled on the first paragraph of the fourth scene in the story “This Appointment Occurs In the Past,” which was first published in The Paris Review, and recently anthologized in Ben Marcus’s New American Stories (Vintage, 2015). To be perfectly honest, this is not one of my favorite stories from The Fun Parts. (Those would be “The Climber Room,” “Nate’s Pain Is Now,” “The Real-Ass Jumbo,” and “The Republic of Empathy.”) But because I liked it a bit less, I had fewer preexisting ideas about it, and so expected to get a fresher, more spontaneous read—a read that I’d have to work for. I also figured (correctly) that the more time I spent exploring the story, the more it would open itself up to me, and the more I would come to appreciate it.
If there’s a meta-pedagogical dimension to this craft talk, it’s contained in the previous two sentences. Nothing I’ve said or am about to say is the result of my having enjoyed some proximity to the author, or having had extensive scholarly or theoretical grounding in the poetics of prose fiction, apart from the aforementioned Lutz lecture and the fact that I think about this kind of stuff a lot. Everything that follows below, all of which was written before this paragraph you are currently reading, took about an hour and a half to produce, then another day and a half or so to fact-check, polish, and otherwise revise. What I am trying to model here—for students, for whoever might encounter this—is a form of attention, and when I say that, I’m referring as much to the length and depth of the attention as to the thing attended to. There are other ways to write, and to think about writing, to be sure. This craft talk presupposes a technical interest in writing, and attempts to render accessible one particularly powerful aesthetic technique. If this talk were a cooking class, it would not be on, say, “Japanese cuisine,” but on the proper handling and care of a sushi knife. The only higher-order claims I wish to make today are, first, that attention to language at the molecular level is valuable in itself; second, that anyone can learn it, in or out of the classroom; and third, that once it becomes assimilated as instinct it will enhance your writing as much as your reading, irrespective of whether you ever choose to write or read this way again.
Let me introduce the new Lipsyte paragraph now. If you’ve read the story (and you should, if you can, before you read this) you’ll recall that the narrator’s wife has left him, and he’s been sleeping with his ex-mother-in-law, though she too has recently cut him loose. Now he’s driven from Michigan to NYC to reunite with an old friend who claims to be dying.
I’d booked a tiny room in the Hudson Lux in New York City, high up and hushed, a loneliness box of polished walnut and chrome. You could picture yourself dead of a hanging jackoff in such a room, your necktie living up to its name, your lubricated fingers curled stiff near your hips. I stretched out on the narrow bed, decided not to picture this. It wasn’t the kind of thing I figured I’d ever try. Aficionados cited the bliss spasm caused by air loss, but I wondered if most got orgasmic on the gamble. Anyway, everything in my life was a gamble, a wager that somebody would see to my needs. Was I secretly here because I thought Davis would somehow fit the bill even though he was sick? If so, who was sicker?
The first thing that jumps out at me here is the hotel name: “Hudson Lux.” The name doesn’t matter, other than to let you know he’s on the West Side (which itself doesn’t really matter) but since the hotel needs to be called something, Lipsyte finds an opportunity in necessity. He finds something with a sound that he likes. As earlier with “huddle in a gulch slurping gulchwater,” Lipsyte is drawn to the short “u.” Two of these sounds (pronounced “uh”) bookend an “o” that in this case is also vocalized as “uh.” Say it with me: HUHD - SUHN - LUHKS. It’s notable that this particular type of “u” brings a phonic “h” with it wherever it goes. This would be the “h” from “Hudson” drawn into an extended tour of duty as the consonantal counterpoint to all those short “u”s. The “h” is a good sound here because it’s open, might make us think of exhaling or laughing or being surprised (huh, heh, hah, hey!).
Having hit on a vowel-and-consonant combo that he likes, Lipsyte sticks with it, which is how the room itself gets to be “high up and hushed“ rather than say “on the twenty-seventh floor, away from street noise.” So in the course of eleven words (“the Hudson Lux in New York City, high up and hushed”) there are a half-dozen short “u” sounds and about as many “h”s to match, though insofar some of these aren’t fully vocalized (the second “h” in “high,” the half-sunk second “h” in “hushed”) the “u” is the glue that holds it all together.
In the next part of the sentence we encounter the wonderfully dark description of the hotel room as a “loneliness box” (who could help but think of coffins here?) with its long and short “o” sounds, themselves soon to be echoed in the “polished walnut” and “chrome,” respectively. But don’t miss the short “u”’s one last little cameo in “walnut,” or that negatory “x” in “box,” a doubling down on that first “x” from “Lux.” Notice too that the sentence keeps reinforcing its pastness, its sense of things being over, through its word choice. The narrator could have said: “I took a room at the Hudson Lux in New York City, high up and quiet, a loneliness box of walnut and chrome.” But that would have cost Lipsyte all his past tense verbs, with their blunt “d” endings—“I’d,” “booked,” “hushed,” “polished”—all of which link back to that ineradicable “d” in “Hudson.” The whole sentence is, in a material rather than an abstract way, borne out of the original choice Lipsyte made when he named the hotel. All that piled-up pastness (remember the title of the story) and all those doorstopping “d” sounds are closing off the openings made by those breathy “h”s. Which makes a lot of sense, when you think about it: this narrator has had a lot of doors, both literal and figurative, slammed in his face lately. Kicked out of his own present, what choice does he have but to keep his appointment with the past?
I could happily keep on charting phoneme patterns, but it seems like time to move forward, to attempt to connect this detail work to the story at large, so with that in mind let’s look at sentence number two. Sentence two finds the narrator imagining what it would be like to die while attempting auto-erotic asphyxiation, which he describes in vivid detail. It probably won’t surprise you at this point to hear that I love “the necktie living up to its name,” or the sharp jangly music of “a hanging jackoff,” with its whiny short “a”s and the two “g” sounds that clang together like—oh, I don’t know—a belt buckle scraping a coat hook. But the crucial point about sentence two is that it provides the evidence for understanding the narrator’s assertion in sentence three—“I… decided not to picture this”—as demonstrably false. He has already pictured it. Indeed, we have seen the nasty picture: necktie, fingers, lubricant, hips. Sentence three, to put it simply, is a lie.
Sentence four is a traffic jam: “It wasn’t the kind of thing I figured I’d ever try.” This sounds like a strong denial, but “kind of” and “figured” are uncertainties wedged into the sentence, driving physical as well as semantic space between “wasn’t” and “ever,” while “try” is infinitely more provisional than, say, “do.” You can almost hear the unspoken “unless…” lurking in the shadows at the end. And what does the guy do next? Goes right back to thinking about what “the aficionados” have said about how “it” feels—a “bliss spasm,” which doesn’t sound half-bad—which in turn lets you know he’s thought about this before, because how the hell else would he know what “the aficionados” say? Even though sentence four is neither flashy nor funny, you cannot write it off as scaffolding or bridgework. Every word in the sentence is activated, bearing its share of the load of meaning, which itself turns out to be heavier, perhaps, than first supposed.
“Orgasmic on the gamble” is another superlative locution—would’ve made a decent title if Lipsyte hadn’t already hit on a better one—and it introduces a new idea: what if the erotic part of auto-erotic asphyxiation is less about the physics of oxygen deprivation than the thrill of risk-taking itself? (Any gambler will tell you the best moment is not the moment when you hit the jackpot, but the moment before that, when you could.) From there it’s almost obvious, inevitable, to move from the initial orgasmic “gamble” to “everything in my life was a gamble”: no house, no partner, low funds—no idea where he’ll be at the end of the month, the week, the night. Hence this trip to New York as “a wager that somebody would see to my needs.” That somebody being terminally sick Davis, in which case, he wonders, “who was sicker?”
This is, in a lot of ways, where the story begins. Sure, the first three pages have introductions and backstory and establishing details and inciting action and all that happy shit, but only here, on the top of page four in a nineteen-page story, can we say that we know not just who the narrator is, and what he’s up against, but what he wants. Which does not mean we have any inkling of what’s about to happen. The rest of the story is packed with revelations, reversals, and goofs, and my guess is that all this was as unpredictable to Lipsyte when he drafted it as it was for you or me when we first read it. But for all its swerves and surprises (most of which I’m ignoring at present; more’s the pity) the story never strays from what, for lack of a less miserable term, I’ll call its thesis: the narrator’s “wager that somebody would see to my needs.”
Every claim made and every desire expressed in this paragraph, and particularly in this phrase, is eventually made good by the story. The narrator does find someone to see to his needs, only it isn’t Davis, but Debbie, a girl he knew but barely noticed during college (another appointment with the past, it seems) who “sees to” his recovery after Davis shoots him, then marries him for good measure and, presumably, her own reasons. The narrator is also correct in his suspicion that he is sicker than Davis, who it turns out is not sick at all, unless you count psychopathy and nostalgia.
But wait, it gets better: that whole gross bit about “a hanging jackoff,” that maybe seemed like Lipsyte was messing with us just for the hell of it, turns out to be essential to the story, which breaks its own chronology in order to withhold a crucial scene, an episode that did not occur last but must—for a whole host of reasons—be the last thing that the reader sees. Just as we suspected earlier, the narrator was drawn to auto-erotic asphyxiation. In fact he tried it soon after he spoke about it, the night before he went to see Davis, with a girl he met at the bar at the Hudson Lux:
I slipped my belt off slowly, hung it from a hook in the door, looped. […] I floated in a bitter-tasting cloud, but in that moment I also glimpsed everything that was good and sweet and fresh, and also incredibly refreshing and relaxing, and I saw how I could reach that place and remain there for a very long time. After that, I think, somebody clutched my legs, my knees, shoved me upward, and a bald man with an earpiece and a combat knife cut me down from the door.
That’s the end of the story. It’s as astonishing, visceral, bleak, and resonant an ending as you could ask for. For one thing, it literalizes those doorslam “d”s from the sentence that I started all this with, but more than that it explains why the narrator was so passive when Davis pulled the gun on him on the roof. Having already chosen death the night before (yet another appointment occurring in the past) Davis must have seemed to him all the more in that moment like “somebody who would see to my needs,” that is, help him make up for the missed appointment with death the night before. Only Davis doesn’t kill him and he loses his wager: for the second time in as many nights, he failed to die.
Lipsyte’s sleight-of-hand keeps your eye on the identity of the “somebody” when the more urgent and more vexed issue was always identifying the “needs.” To the extent that the story has a “happy” ending—which it arguably does, insofar as the narrator is alive and does not own a television, and admitting the possibility that when he describes the “atrocious sex” he and his wife have, he might well mean it as a boast—its happiness derives from the narrator’s ability to change what it was he needed, which in turn changed the terms of how said needs might be met, and by who. And yet Lipsyte’s contorted timeline ensures that the last thing the reader sees is not apron, wife, and barbecue, but knife, hotel, and belt. To survive one’s darkness is hardly to leave it behind.
But while we’re thinking about it, let’s mention that everything that surfaces in that penultimately-placed “ever after” scene is in fact resurfacing. The love of barbecue, the conviction that Jews are naturally inclined to business, the town of Ypsilanti, Michigan, and the character Ondine, are all from those first three pages of the story, the parts I rushed past. (Indeed, I’ve left plenty—too much—out of this consideration, starting with that dodgy reenactment of Pushkin’s “The Shot”). But Lipsyte, unlike both his critic and his character, spilleth not one drop of seed.
The lesson—one lesson—to take from this radical economy is that endings rarely come from the outside, in the form of additions to or augmentations of a given story’s parameters, plot, or cast. More typically, an ending results from rigorous, even pathological recursion; the reinvention and recombination of those original searing elements that got you started writing the story in the first place. Which observation is itself just a scaled-up version of the principle that animates the consecuting sentence, where what comes next—mysterious as it appears when we are grasping for it—is nonetheless understood as always already necessitated by what has come before.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.