Some writers, you outgrow. Chuck Palahniuk, we’re looking at you. Some writers, for a whole multitude of reasons, exist in a hallowed space where they can do no wrong. For us, the ‘can do no wrong’ writers are people like Paul Auster, TC Boyle, Haruki Murakami. You’ll no doubt have your own. In between these poles, there are a lot of writers who you follow without quite loving all the time, whose books you maybe always read but whose work doesn’t always fire on all cylinders. Douglas Coupland is a good example of the latter type. And, it seems, Sam Lipsyte.
You’ll remember we didn’t quite get along with Sam Lipsyte’s last novel, The Ask. All of the criticisms we levelled at The Ask can be levelled at The Fun Parts, a new collection of short stories. Dysfunctional narrators who don’t get along with jobs / spouses, who have on-going problems with drink or drugs, whose worldview sets them apart from their contemporaries – check, check and check. And yet for all that we had a better time with it overall and would recommend it above the novel. Here’s why:
We started reading the book out of sequence, picking off the shortest of the short stories first – ‘Expressive’ (first line: ‘Folks say I have one of those faces’), ‘Peasley’ (first line: ‘The Man Who Killed the Idea of Tanks in England sipped tea in his parlour somewhere in England’) and ‘Snacks’ (first line: ‘Everybody waited for me to get skinny’) – all of which were smashing. Hard to pick a favourite among the three. ‘Expressive’ is a riot, ‘Peasley’ contains hilarious dismissive descriptions (light trickles through parlour windows ‘as pictured by a person who would not know’) and ‘Snacks’ is vicious, uncompromising, interesting and sharp.
There are other great stories in the book – ‘The Dungeon Master’, a funny/sad/wise tale of one young man’s adolescent awakening at the hands of a bullying D&D dungeon master, ‘The Wisdom of the Doulas’, an anarchic birthing story, and ‘Nate’s Pain is Now’, which concerns one of those agony memoirists whose time has come and gone. Some stories, ‘Ode to Oldcorn’, for example, which concerns a burnt out shot-putting legend, are fine even as they feel like echoes of stories you’ve already read (‘The Dungeon Master’ for example). Some stories feel too messy for their own good, Lipsyte’s plotting and structuring struggling to keep up with his riffing (‘This Appointment Occurs in the Past’ and also ‘The Real-Ass Jumbo’ suffer from this a little). There are more fires than misfires but the misfires leave a lingering taste all the same.
Having come out the other side of The Fun Parts, we kind of feel like Lipsyte is a writer who we have come to understand. We know how Lipsyte works. We can see the mechanics of his stories. We like, for the most part, what he does. We’ll continue to read. We won’t always like but that’s ok. He has a certain kinship, we’ve come to recognise, with George Saunders – but whereas Saunders messes around with form and refracts the common themes he returns to again and again through a variety of prisms, Lipsyte has a tendency to give a character a gender, a name, a set of hang-ups and then zoom in on the same kinds of things he always does.
Given that this is the case maybe it’s time for Lipsyte to either ramp up what he does – and give us the definitive Lipsyte book, an excoriating, ass ripper of a novel, his Sabbath’s Theater – or try something different. A historical novel, say. Or a futuristic Vonnegut pastiche. Or something else entirely. Howsoever Lipsyte chooses to follow The Fun Parts, it’s time for a Lipsyte step change, time for Lipsyte to knock our socks off again, for good or ill.
Any Cop?: Like a great many short story collections, there are good stories and bum notes in The Fun Parts but overall we’d say it’s worth the price of admission.