The Accidental Messiah: On Sam Lipsyte’s Hark by Hunter Braithwaite

Writing satire in the Trump era.

Hark Cover

“When it was no longer funny, it became profound,” goes a line in Sam Lipsyte’s new novel, Hark (Simon & Schuster). Always hilarious, Lipsyte has often been something of visionary: a subway howler, an outer-borough oracle. Over his previous three novels and two collections of stories, he’s satirized the present day by showing us a mile down the road, where things really take a turn. With Hark, we’ve caught up.

A lot has happened in the nine years since his last novel, The Ask. Lipsyte, who writes about failure, about stupidity, whose short-fused sentences hiss and explode like fireworks in the hands of barbeque drunks, has been scooped by the Real. In its failure, in its stupidity, the world has started to feel like a Sam Lipsyte novel. And this Sam Lipsyte novel, set in a place of “pharma-fed rivers full of sad-eyed Oxytrout,” at a time when “the dance dies down and the days grow dark”—well, it’s bleak.

How do you write satire after Trump? How do you not? Or, more broadly, in a world of climate change denial, fake news, and alternative facts, how can language—specifically satire: the poetics of stupidity and shame—achieve the distance needed to reflect upon its subject matter. For Lipsyte, the answer is not out, but in.

Hark is the story of an accidental messiah. Hark Morner (“a charlatan, a huckster, a pseudo-spiritualist spinning off some old yoga memes”) starts a mindfulness regime called Mental Archery. At first, it’s a joke, but then he takes it to corporate gatherings, to conference rooms and team-building retreats, preaching the gospel of focus to a world in which “the hunters of meaning had found no meaning. The wanters of dreams were dreamless.”

Mental Archery, with its poses (Rainforest Hunt, Wheel of Tartars, Priapic Centaur), its koan-stuffed pamphlets, is propelled from culty underground to mainstream by an expanded cast of characters. On the homefront, we have unemployed Fraz Penzig (pronounced with a hard a; his father named him after mishearing Frank over an airport PA), his tech-sector poet wife Tovah, and their precocious twins. Harkist lieutenants Teal Baker-Cassini and Kate Rumpler offer banter and subplots, and billionaires Dieter “Deets” Delgado (Tovah’s boss) and Nat “Gnat” Dersch (her suitor) provide venture capital’s kiss of death.

Readers of Lipsyte will be familiar with this crew—the bumbling and nefarious men, the women punching below their intellectual weight—as well as the rudiments of the story, which begins as a tale of two cities: sitting unemployed on a couch in Queens, or high above Late Capital’s algorithmic clouds, in penthouses with ceviche chefs and televisions “suitable for stadia.” Lipsyte is the poet of class delamination, of the rich getting richer and the poor getting dead.

Loaded down with sub-plot conspiracies, comedic monologues, and mock-histories of archery traditions from the Amazon to ancient Korea, with some bullshit about William Tell thrown in for good measure, Hark does not shoot straight. It buzzes and bobs until it crashes into its target, at which point, the reader might stop to think, maybe the story isn’t the point. Maybe this isn’t a book about archery—archery is just a metaphor, we’re told more times than I underlined—it’s a book about how language can build and dismantle reality.

A student of Gordon Lish, Lipsyte writes nose to sentence, like a truffle hound. Jokes emerge from shifting letters, the keel of a clause. This might be his most literary book, not only because one of the central character’s names means listen, and another’s is pronounced phrase. Lipsyte tweaks our socially progressive vernacular: hate speech to hurt speech; Big Tobacco to Small Tobacco; mansplaining to manstalgia. In Tovah’s open-plan office, “conference rooms bear names culled from aughts nostalgia: Messenger Bag, Fixie, South Tower…”

Hark takes place in a world where gift is used as a verb and a marriage’s golden years, the days of “fucking, laughing, talking,” are referred to as the Age of Gerunds. In an update of Yeats: “Forget about the falcon not hearing the falconer, these days the falconer just totally ignores the falcon, checks celebrity news on his phone.”

That falcon line is vintage Lipsyte. He sutures clauses with commas, leaving a jagged scar of mismatched verbs. The effect is that of multitasking, juggling. (See?) While on the page it can get old, it’s a canny diagnosis of distraction—of today’s blur between activities and subjectivities. Speaking of blurred subjectivities, most striking is Lipsyte’s move from first to third person. His previous three novels were written in first, so as to better contain the manias and rants, the worldviews, of his characters. Here, their psychic vessels, their “private biospheres of panic and decay,” tip and shatter, allowing for the free-indirect spew of psychological miasma. You would think this POV toggle would balance the absurdity of the novel. Instead, it makes it all the more inescapable. Through normalization—oof, that word—the resulting diffusion feels a lot like dystopia, a lot like today.

And yet, Hark hits somewhere below characterization, with something granular. Take this brief exchange, which has stuck with me, not for its humor, nor its profundity, but for the method it reveals:

“Close your freaking mouth, Fraz!”Kate says.
“Close yours, tyrant.”
“Just chill the fuck out.”
“Outfuck the chill, you.”
“That’s meaningless.”
“It’s Elizabethan.”

Meaningless or Elizabethan (or both), Lipsyte’s language maintains a flexibility, a resilience, that feels quite necessary in a time of oversimplification and duplicity. The novel’s two themes, faith and fraud, are both rooted in rhetoric, in the massage of the message. Same with 2019. In Hark’s final pages, as the story takes on messianic velocity, Lipsyte turns somber. The laughter stops, and the novel becomes, if not profound, then at least elegiac—which is perhaps satire’s bullseye.

Hunter Braithwaite is the editorial director of Affidavit. His writing has appeared in The White Review, Guernica, and The Paris Review Daily. He is an MFA candidate in NYU’s fiction program.

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