I like Sam Lipsyte. If someone were to ask me, “do you like Sam Lipsyte?” – the question being the kind of question that gets asked by readers where they use the name of the author as a metonymy for all of that author’s books – I’d say, “Yeah. Sure. He’s good. Yeah.” Let’s say, for the sake of argument, this questioner decided to up the ante, asked me which of Sam’s books in particular I liked, I’d say, “Home Land!” straight away, maybe without even letting them finish. Then I’d mull. I’d add “Venus Drive” because Venus Drive is good. I’d mention The Subject Steve but even at the time The Subject Steve was like Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America to me (a book I didn’t like by an author I did). But lots of people like The Subject Steve so definitely honourable mention territory. All of which is enough. You know? Enough to justify me saying I like Sam Lipsyte. It’s also more than enough to justify Lipsyte’s continuing success, having stories in The New Yorker and – all of that kind of thing. (It’s also worth saying, he’s had a story in The New Yorker recently, “Show Recent Some Love” which is a blast – a story that put me firmly in the zone for Hark, his latest.)
Hark has about it all of the hallmarks of a state of the nation address (see Sam Byers’ recent Perfidious Albion). “The weather made us wonder,” Lipsyte writes,
“The markets had, the wars. The rich had stopped pretending they were just the best of us, and not some utterly other form of life. The rest, most, could glimpse their end on Earth, in the parched basins and roiling seas, but could not march against their masters. They slaughtered one another instead, tracked into glowing holes.”
Our main man is Fraz, husband of Tovah, a husband and wife “locked in low-level, quotidian apocalypse”. Fraz is one of the people in at the ground floor of Harkism, itself the belief system of a man called Hark Morner, a rather hapless sort with a vague (and dare we say unfocused) discipline known as mental archery. There are others in what might be assumed to be the inner circle: Kate, for instance, “a young heiress who funds their institute”; and Teal Baker-Cassini, “the institute’s leading intellectual light” and someone who comes to take on the position of marriage guidance counsellor for Fraz and Tovah. Others enter and exit the orbit: Ted, who would like to poach Tovah away from Fraz; Meg who comes to assume a position alongside Hark himself; Seth, who becomes part of “a secret item” with Teal, “though perhaps not that secret, as Hark mentioned the “audible bliss” venting through the hotel wall”. Most of these people get a moment in the sun, a chance to be the narrative voice for odd chapters at a time. Hark is awash with perspectives on the modern dilemma.
But what of Harkism itself? “Harkism is the answer because it offers none,” we learn.
“It’s not a philosophy, but a tool to clear ground… Perhaps it can serve us all as a pocket in which to breathe, away from the chatter, the murder. Let enough people into that pocket to unite and heal, and maybe they’ll all arrive at an answer together, or at least a feasible way forward.”
As such, much of Hark finds our characters travelling to or from engagements at which Hark is supposed to speak. The followers of Hark grow, which means some of the craziness ramps up (think Tom Robbins by way of the moment in Life of Brian when Brian starts to attract true believers). Is this enough of an actual story? Even the book struggles with this (or uses it as the basis of an ongoing series of jokes, depending on your point of view):
“”Look, I know it’s not much of a story.” “No, it’s not, Fraz. There’s nothing instructive in it at all.” “Fair enough. Though I don’t believe every story has to have a moral. Or even a meaning.” “Why tell it, then?” “I don’t know. Just to help people focus?””
Hark, then, seems principally formed by “Clumps of overthought thoughts” which “accrue”, depression (“He was depressed about the political situation”), collective anxiety (“collective anxiety had caused mental drift”) and howls of outrage (from an outraged catfish, of all things, albeit in a dream):
“What a crock! How is that a gas? But I guess he liked it. Or needed it. Might be the only rational reaction to this dung-choked plain of pure suffering we so blithely call the real world.”
Lipsyte writes at a level of feverish acceleration, which at times can be like sitting across the table from someone who is in the middle of a debilitating episode:
“Better to believe than to fetishize doubt, that dubious lodestar for all those sweat-bright wrestlers of faith. Doubt is a lout. Besides, Hark is Fraz’s destiny, both of their given names born of parental bewilderment. Then again, maybe it’s all great heaps of horseshit. Oh dear. Is it time to don the damp, stinky singlet of consciousness, grapple with the monodude once more?”
There are times when I dig it (say, for example, when he’s talking about “the Armies of the Market versus the Armies of the Just versus the vast majority of people who just want to be left alone”) and there are times when it’s somewhat exhausting (“”This guy here,” the catfish announces to the darkness”). Which isn’t to say that there are not moments of tenderness or moments of quiet (“The dance dies down and the day grows dark. Tovah and Fraz must hold each other close, grope their way through the depths of the night”), but that tenderness and quiet is not what Lipsyte, and possibly us too, are here for (although Lipsyte does tenderness and quiet well so maybe it’s something he should turn the noise up on, who are we to say).
If you were to ask me do I still like Sam Lipsyte having read Hark, I’d say, “Yeah. Sure” But if you were to ask me, would I pop Hark at the top of the list of his best books? Maybe I’d hum and haw a bit.