“Taps nicely into a contemporary cultural zeitgeist” – Last Resort by Andrew Lipstein

IMG_2023-3-5-172234Caleb Horowitz has written a book. Now that book’s been snatched up by one hell of an agent, who’s lining up publishers for a mega-deal: this book is going to be BIG. But there’s a problem: Caleb stole his plot from an unpublished story written by a college friend, Avi, who based the whole thing on an incident in his own life. Also, Avi works in publishing. When he discovers what Caleb’s done, he wants to be cut in on the deal—but Caleb’s unimpressed: he’s the one who made the story saleable, after all. So what does he do?

What doesn’t he do might be a better question: Caleb is something of a case-study in bad (if fascinating) decision making. Betrayals, feuds, separations, dramatic swoops from failure to success and vice versa—the publishing scene here is more akin to a week on Wall Street in the 1980s than the standard low-advance no-publicity quietude most new writers might expect to experience. You know that classic piece of writerly advice – test your characters by continually raising the stakes? In one sense, Last Resort is an experiment in following that suggestion through to a painful extreme: how much worse, you find yourself thinking, can this situation get? How low can this guy sink?

But then, Last Resort isn’t really your standard Künstlerroman. It’s not so much about Caleb himself (let alone Avi) than it is about writing and writers, per se, and the art of plotting, and ideas about integrity and honesty in art (and relationships). Caleb only finds success (of a sort) when he’s working from real life, and it all collapses when he fails to see the ethical problems this might raise. This, in turn, is a theme that will resonate with the lit/pop-culture crossover crowd reading Last Resort, whose minds will likely dart to, for instance, the kidney-donor ‘Bad Art Friend’ story from 2021, or the ‘discourse’ that emerged around the real-life inspiration for Kristen Roupenian’s 2017 story, ‘Cat Person’. Where lies the line demarcating artistic intervention from opportunistic robbery? Who owns a story? What’s more important—profit or attribution? In Last Resort, Avi’s story was—as far as the reader is allowed to become aware—poorly written, but Caleb, ostensibly the talented one, finds himself incapable of breathing credible life into purely fictional constructs. In that case, is Avi the co-creator here? But where, then, do we draw the line in terms of establishing authorhood? (Hello, Foucault!) Caleb is, as readers will see, an unpleasant character: again and again, he disappoints the reader rooting for a moment of epiphanic transformation. But his worry and desperation are very convincingly portrayed: we don’t like him, but we see his point. Likewise, Avi’s been wronged, that feels clear-cut, and Caleb knows it—but Avi’s not enormously genial either. Do we really want him to win? After all, he can’t write! Lipstein plays with this ambiguity (again, harking back to the ‘Bad Art Friend’ duo) to construct a novel that makes us question our sympathies as he explores the complex genesis and development of artistic production in a very monetised culture.

Ah, yes, you say, but what’s the book like? It’s effectively a lengthy monologue from Caleb: he’s judgemental, self-pitying, anxious, needy and deceitful, and also as long-winded and sanctimonious (and unwittingly misogynistic) as the most awful of your awful hipster ex-boyfriends. That is: he’s horrible, but very readable. It’s not a difficult book, and the plot moves fast; Caleb’s self-justifications are fascinating, and the central moral conundrum is enough to carry any reader rapidly through it. You’ll get through it in a couple of sittings, you’ll laugh, and you’ll get a little bit scared about using real-life stuff in your own fiction, should you be that way inclined. The secondary characters aren’t enormously well-developed—they all act as moral indicators within the book, their reactions to Caleb signposting to the reader exactly how abhorrent he’s being—but this is Caleb’s account, and Caleb, as ought to be apparent by now, is not the most astute chap in town, despite his own opinions to the contrary.

Any Cop?: The subject matter really positions this as literary fiction—what other readers will care so much about the ethical obligations of the artist?—but the plot revolves so tightly around the initial ‘hook’ that it will probably find a substantial market amongst more commercially-inclined readers, too. A fun read that taps nicely into a contemporary cultural zeitgeist.

Valerie O’Riordan


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