04/10/13 4:00am

The Fun Parts
By Sam Lipsyte

Sam Lipsyte has been trading in humor and discomfort since his 2000 debut story collection, Venus Drive. Some of his preferred topics include stagnant marriages; disappointing fatherhood; dead-end jobs, friends, and relationships; lost youth; unfulfilled promise; and the rise and fall of stars in their prime. His tales possess sad hindsight, which makes them feel lived-in—resigned, but unapologetic. His latest book marks a return, after the novels Homeland and The Ask, to the short fiction of his colorfully depraved debut. (Some of the 13 stories collected here originally appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Playboy.)

Execution matters, and Lipsyte knows it. In The Fun Parts, there’s a punchline at the end of every paragraph, guaranteed. The author’s polished proficiency for turned phrases blends amiably with his biting wit to create windows into flawed, damaged souls. He never wastes a word or loses the rhythm of a sentence; his attention to cadence remains a highlight of his work.

Lipsyte specializes in characters who’re fucked from the get-go, people who got so used to getting hit they never thought to duck when they saw a punch coming. But now his focus has changed. His early stories centered on tired hook-ups and drug-fueled days drenched in music. The novels that earned him a wider audience were more middle-aged—donuts replaced heroin and coworkers replaced dealers.

Now his stories cover everything from angsty adolescents (“Treats” and “The Dungeon Master”) to writers who have made it but are scared of losing it all. “Nate’s Pain Is Now,” one of this collection’s better stories, centers on a purveyor of personal-degradation memoirs who’s usurped by his homeless, gay punk protege: “Nobody wanted my woe. Nobody craved my disease. The smack, the crack, the punch-outs and lockdowns, all those gun-to-my-temple whimpers about my dead mother and scabby cat—nobody cared anymore.”

But most of Lipsyte’s characters aren’t writers. They’re hapless, self-indulgent buffoons in the vein of Ignatius J. Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces—charming despite themselves: flawed, intelligent, lonely and laughable. It’s hard not to feel kinship, despite—or because of—the way they attract problems.

John Updike, two generations before Lipsyte, wrote about the same sort of everyday men, but his heroes were more morally defensible and physically palatable than Lipsyte’s. Is it okay that our male standard-bearers are now guys who brag about picking up women who’re “kind of dykey, the way I like them”? Maybe the joke’s on us—after all, the best humor strikes close to the heart.

01/02/13 4:00am

Confessions from a Dark Wood
By Eric Raymond

(Sator Press)

Does anyone use Blackberries anymore? According to the New York Times, they’re “black sheep” nowadays, but two years ago they were ubiquitous—in large part because they were given to corporate employees as part of the company plan. Raymond’s debut novel concerns that time—and the feeling of being welcomed into a corporate structure that’s fundamentally flawed. Nick Bray (not to be confused with DeLillo’s Nick Shay) starts out as a copywriter at Purv, a website specializing in industrial-machine porn, but at his father’s funeral he meets a polished intern from LaBar Partners Limited, a consulting agency that deals in capital brand management. The intern gives Nick a business card and then takes off after the CEO’s Porsche with a videocamera. Nick is confused, but later learns that this is part of the intern’s job: what’s the point of owning a Porsche if you can’t see yourself drive it?

Self-regard plays heavily in Confessions; LaBar Partners owns the tallest building in midtown-Atlanta but only occupies its top four floors. Its ventures range from a high-priced kidnapping service called the “Soldier of Fortune 500 package” to NFL superstar Shaun D. Braun’s dream to build the First National Dogfight League. Within a week Nick has an obsidian AMEX, slicing through “hostesses and concierge and resistance” as Media Vice President (everyone in the company starts out as a VP), but there are kinks in the infrastructure of his high-maintenance lifestyle. Bray falls in love with an aspiring suicide bomber who has new corporate logos tattooed on her body every time he sees her; he gets visits from his father’s ghost—mirroring scenes from Hamlet—who tells him, “all the ant does is dig a tunnel and move the food around.” Then there’s the surprise that awaits at the end of Shelby the orangutan’s leather harness…

The similarities to American Psycho are obvious, if you replace a hyper-privileged insider eviscerating everything atop the social pyramid with congenial Nick Bray. But American Psycho was a grotesque from the get-go, making it obvious that it was a work of fiction; in both its title and execution, Confessions is a satire that sounds more like real life. Bateman kills people; Nick can only manage to drown his Blackberry.

11/21/12 4:00am

Dear Life
By Alice Munro


John Cheever once said “a collection of short stories is generally thought to be a horrendous clinker; an enforced courtesy for the elderly writer who wants to display the trophies of his youth.” At 81, Alice Munro chides such a notion with this, her latest collection. These 14 stories are so good, unpredictable and full of mayhem before they zip the reader to safety. Munro, of course, has been doing this for decades, in 12 previous collections and her novel-in-stories, The Lives of Girls and Women. What separates Dear Life from that work is how Munro has cheerfully turned away from the submissive and self-denigrating women who suffered under male callousness in, say, 2001’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. Her heroines are now free, at the reins of their extravagant curiosities.

In “To Reach Japan,” a married woman, Greta, indulges in a romp with a much younger stranger on a train while her toddler sleeps in a nearby compartment: “At first no end of stifled laughter, then the great shocks of pleasure, with no place to look but into each other’s wide eyes.” Here is a quintessential Munro sex scene—somewhat awkward and enticing in an animalistic way, but with the details that would merit an R rating withheld. When Greta gets off the train, she’s presented with another male object of desire… who is also not her husband.

The short-story form seems to present different possibilities for Munro than it does for other writers. Short fiction is often compared to film, and indeed a Hateship, Loveship film is being shot in New Orleans right now. But because of Munro’s acute economy of language, her 20-page tales feel more like super-condensed novels. Character histories are established with one or two well-chosen turns of phrase. From “Voices”: “There she was, calling my name through the music in the tone I particularly disliked, the tone that seemed to especially remind me that it was thanks to her I was on this earth at all.” Voyeuristic glimpses follow, and soon you’re hoping for the best outcome in a train wreck. It’s not for nothing that Munro has been compared to Chekhov, Tolstoy and Flaubert.

Dear Life’s last four stories form a semi-autobiographical cycle that Munro introduces as “the first and last—and the closest—things I have to say about my own life.” They are about her strained relationship with her mother and growing up in places in Ontario that the sidewalks have yet to reach. They feel like a literal bookend to her legacy of storytelling.

It’s worth noting that the blighted minority of male protagonists in Dear Life endure their share of catastrophes: one is a transient with a history of family abuse; another has a genital abnormality. The female advantage is clear. The notion that this book is feminist, however, doesn’t go far enough. Dear Life is full of casual misandry, which could repel men who lack an empathic connection with the opposite sex. But for those who don’t, Munro’s lessons about humanity are available to all.

08/01/12 4:00am

The Age of Miracles
By Karen Thompson Walker

(Random House)

The transition from tween to teen is tough, but when the entire planet slows down, it’s a whole lot tougher. That’s the takeaway of Karen Thompson Walker’s debut novel The Age of Miracles, in which Julia, a self-proclaimed “quiet girl with an average face” living in Southern California, comes of age as Earth experiences the catastrophic first months of “the slowing” of its rotation.

Julia’s high-concept adolescence might be hard, with “light sickness” spreading as anxiety slowly erodes the human capacity to make rational decisions, but it’s catnip for publishers. The combination of a credible dystopian setting and a youth-oriented story (shades of Hunger Games, anyone?) made The Age of Miracles a sure thing at auction; last year, Walker, a former Simon & Schuster editor, sold it to Random House for $1 million.

But comparisons to The Hunger Games are inapt. Katniss Everdeen has the abilities of a seasoned archer. Julia isn’t even good at soccer. As The Age of Miracles’s “slowing” advances (in a manner notably similar to that depicted in the 2010 Canadian TV documentary Aftermath: When the Earth Stops Spinning), she just tries to keep living her life as a normal girl with normal-girl problems.

There’s something admirable here. Walker is devoted to showing us the futility of everyday life in the face of disaster. Yet, by creating a narrator who’s so middle-of-the-road—two parents, not pretty or ugly, decent in school but not great—she hinges her blockbuster plot on a heroine who never quite rises to moments of decision.

Then again, The Age of Miracles isn’t being sold as dystopian fiction. It’s being sold as adult literature. On that account, the sparsely ornamented, almost clinically edited sentences may impress. The clean prose does make Julia sound like an actual 11-year-old, but is too often vanilla and risk-averse. “The eucalyptus trees were fluttering like sea anemones in the wind,” Julia relates. Or: “Seth continued to keep to himself, like a lonesome survivor, blowing on his hands in an attractive, self-sufficient way, one foot on his skateboard, the other on the curb.”

“Seth” is Seth Moreno, Julia’s first crush, a loner from a broken home, and Julia moons over him with a conviction that reminds us how our brains can be dismantled by hormonal rushes. He is the guy you write about in your journal when you notice that he’s wearing a new shirt, and he doesn’t go away when the world stops spinning. Julia’s love for him is relatable—but the stock quality of his character makes it seem less
than consequential.

In the meantime, “the slowing” is detailed. Twenty-four hours a day stretch to 60. People hoard flashlights, batteries and bottled water. Birds plunge from the sky. The loss of Earth’s magnetic field leads to mass beachings of humpbacks, killer whales and dolphins. “Real-timers,” who adjust themselves to the light and dark cycles, clash with “clock-timers” who continue to live their lives by a 24-hour clock regardless of what appear to be day and night. But Julia finds all these things mere inconveniences compared to the promise of young love.

05/23/12 4:00am

Legs Get Led Astray
by Chloe Caldwell
(Future Tense)

Two years ago, n+1 published What Was the Hipster?, an examination that attempted to put the moment into cultural context now that it was over. But since then hipsters have proven very resilient. Young, privileged white kids with liberal arts degrees who do recreational drugs and have a vague ambition toward bohemianism took over TV thanks to HBO’s Girls and Zooey Deschanel. The New Yorker ran a well-circulated post on “hipster lit” (all-male). Bon Iver won a Grammy. With the moment a decade old and undeniably mainstream, it can be tough to remember a time when it was cutting edge.

Enter Chloe Caldwell’s debut collection Legs Get Led Astray: a distillation of what might be deemed the high hipster period, from 2002-2006. Interpol was on every iPod. Antony and the Johnsons brought out the sensitive goth in all of us. The Black Keys could not be found on a single car commercial. And if you don’t remember the specifics, Caldwell will remember them for you, dropping more band names than a scenester at a basement show.

An essayist whose work has appeared on The Nervous Breakdown and The Rumpus, Caldwell’s nonfiction reads like the bucket lists of a rebellious early-twenties indie darling. She writes about heroin hangovers and attending orgies. She’s frank about her sexual exploits and masturbation tendencies. She captures an essence of trying to find her identity in an oasis of young bodies doing the same, testing mortality and making enough money for cheap rent and bodega Zebra cakes. Call it the haphazard lifestyle diet.

In the first essay, “Barney,” we’re introduced to Caldwell’s penchant for lists. Everyone from Dusty Springfield to No Doubt to Barney the Dinosaur gets name-checked, and the references are less obscure than ubiquitous. “I wanted to be Mariah Carey. Sometimes people told me I looked like her,” Caldwell writes, showing that for all its fetishization of the undiscovered, youth culture is common culture.

Emotionally, the essays often play as cautionary tales, warning of suicidal musicians who work at the Strand and that empty post-orgy feeling. But for every shocking moment in the book, there’s a mundane one—smoking pot and taking the L train—presented with such repetition as to fuse into the reader’s own rituals, past and present.

Legs Get Led Astray succeeds best when it escapes Williamsburg to focus on Caldwell’s babysitting exploits in Seattle. “My Heart Was Still Beating” and “The Penis Game” give intimate glimpses into a personality concerned less with getting high to Devendra Benhardt and more with the simple pleasures of playing make-believe with a three-year-old. The vulnerability and lack of slacker Romanticism in these pieces, as opposed to Caldwell’s others, gives Legs heart.

It’s still too early to declare the hipster era over (it may always be), but it’s not too early to ask if it’s produced art of lasting value. In the parts of Legs Get Led Astray that crystallize youthful rebellion shaded by suspicion of future responsibility, the answer is yes.

02/15/12 4:00am

Other People We Married

By Emma Straub


No one in literary fiction expects a steady career. But a few recent success stories—Ben Marcus, Sam Lipsyte, Amelia Gray—have reached prominence on a path that resembles the credibility-assuring rise of the Hollywood indie filmmaker. The first book is published by a small press or online lit mag. After web reviews and Goodreads rankings percolate, the second attracts a major publishing house, and a new literary voice is “street-credified.” Who says the American dream is dead?

Emma Straub treads this path with a knack for control. Her debut, the 2009 novella Fly-Over State, was published online at Flatmancrooked and financed by readers who “pre-bought” it; her story collection Other People We Married, first made available through Five Chapters, now comes from the Penguin group. There’s a sugar-high urgency to her style-neutral prose, but her preferred setting (New York) and narrator (neurotic young woman on the fringe) might cause some readers to wonder why exactly they should buy her book, and not Self-Help by Lorrie Moore, an undisputed master of exploring human intricacies as if they were elementary novelties.

Rest assured: Other People We Married is its own thing. While Moore, who provides the cover blurb here, makes her lonely characters the target of her precise wit, Straub treats hers earnestly, as real people on the verge of reform. In “Rosemary” a new mom hires a psychic to help her find her missing cat. In “Abraham’s Enchanted Forest,” a teenager trapped in the roadside-attraction business plots to escape.

What holds them back? Men. The hassle of despicable qualities in significant others is common to all these tales. It’s a less-than-optimistic view of marriage, but Straub doesn’t seem to feel that the institution is bad—only that it’s boring, and boredom breeds contempt.

Other People We Married could just as easily be called Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. It establishes Straub as a wise and perceptive storyteller dealing with the looping doubts that go hand-in-hand with a stagnant household. And if the first marriages it depicts are any indication, one might be better off joining the second wives’ club.

08/31/11 4:00am

House of Holes: A Book of Raunch

Nicholson Baker

(Simon & Schuster)

Martin Amis, in The Pregnant Widow , writes that one of the unique characteristics of sexual intercourse is that it is “indescribable.” Leave it to Nicholson Baker to try. House of Holes: A Book of Raunch describes the sexual act in such detail that it is transmogrified into Mad Libs. Forget cigars: a penis is a “blood-pulsing truncheon” or a “Malcolm Gladwell.”

This certainly isn’t the first time Baker’s touched on (or lightly fondled) erotica. In Vox (1992) two strangers exchange a phone marathon of sexy pleasantries. In The Fermata (1994) an office temp with the ability to stop time uses his power to undress women. But where these are dialogue and genre exercises respectively, House of Holes is a full-on farce, with madcap action, physical humor, and absurd characters such as “The Pearloiner,” a notorious clit thief, commingling with boytoys named Hax, Ruzty and Dune.

Each chapter is a vignette in which everyday people are sucked into o-shaped portals (an “O” formed by the fingers of a disembodied arm, the interior of a pepper mill) to the House of Holes, a fantastical sex resort where their most depraved fantasies come true. For the “International Couch,” women of all ages and weights wait with their asses in the air so men can hump their way down the line; there’s also a “Squat Line” for women, with rows of tumescent men on beach towels.

Baker avoids the cries of sexism that usually dog pornography by placing in charge a woman, Lila, who accommodates women’s fantasies for free, and he takes care to make the sex credible from a female perspective. He dares delicate sensibilities to keep a straight face about bombastic inventions such as sperm scholarships and “pedal-powered Masturboats” on a lake teeming with “pussysurfers.” The farce works on two levels: within House of Holes, sex becomes comedy; outside it, in a number of glowing reviews almost as dirty as the book itself, criticism becomes comedy, as academics and culture mavens are forced to consider “The Cock Ness Monster.” From a first-time author, House of Holes would be dismissed as a desperate cry for attention, but Baker has earned the right to cause this sort of trouble.

Kathy Acker attempted to write while masturbating to see what went through her head at the moment of climax; has she finally found a comrade in arms (or hands, in this case)? Baker might not have been waxing his kielbasa while writing all of House of Holes, but he gets the fractured phantasmagoria of sexual ecstasy in scenes familiar to anyone who’s allowed her mind to wander shamelessly. The thoughts and acts described in House of Holes are unsettlingly accurate encapsulations of the fantasies of desensitized Americans—minus all pretenses of small talk.

If you’re looking for a book to turn you on, you might be disappointed, unless euphemisms like “spunkloaded meatloaf” and “swollen sackload” leave you “ultrahorny.” House of Holes is never more than mechanically arousing: Baker writes about bukake as if he’s describing the most efficient way to plant a row of roses by the mailbox. Still, he channels Richard Brautigan’s whimsical happy-hearted tone, adding another mark of prowess to his versatile body of work, and winds up with the most satisfying of his three sex books to date. In Vox and The Fermata he was beating around the bush. Here he just beats it.