Lipsyte, casting his eye toward a semi-plausible near future, has an astute ear for corporate and therapeutic idioms and how they echo each other. He knows the habits and attitudes of world-beaters and slackers alike. The universe of Hark looks pretty familiar, although politics, the bane and boon of most contemporary satirists, receives little more than a lazy, glancing shot:
He’s not an evil man, this president, nor a good one. He was elected to undo the catastrophic policies of his predecessor, who was herself elected to undo the apocalyptic agenda of the man before her, but it all seems too late for that these days, mostly because it’s always been too late, though now, pundits agree, this moment is steeped in a radical and irrevocable lateness, a tardy totality heretofore unseen.
An update flashes: president has not ruled out ground forces in bulgaria.
That’s enough of that, just so we’re clear on what and whom Hark is not about.
It’s only partly about Hark Morner himself. A guileless young man who survived an abusive childhood and dreamed of a career in stand-up comedy, he got his start in the business-seminar business as a ringer. “For a semi-ample fee,” the narrator explains, “Hark would attend a corporate gathering, a shareholders meeting or sales conference or tropical team retreat. The bosses would bill him as an expert in some esoteric practice—knife yoga, reverse hypnosis.” But in the midst of his presentation, “Hark would shepherd the sermon weirdward,” startling the captive audience. In would barge a top executive, staging an instant morale boost for the team. “You don’t need some loser to yammer on about stress and productivity,” the boss would declare as Hark was ushered off the premises with a discreetly proffered check. “You’re the most productive fucking stress cases in the country! You win!”
At a certain point, the impostor began to believe his own spiel. The grifter and the mark became one. “The joke drained away and Hark retired his jester’s bells, his craven prance, shed his fool’s skin, slithered out, translucent, sincere,” and became the evangelist of mental archery. After a while, other people started believing too, and it’s the inner circle of those believers—the apostles and disciples, the handlers and enablers—whose conflicts and ambitions supply the vectors of Lipsyte’s busy plot.
Principal among them is Fraz Penzig, Hark’s advance man, adviser, and occasional big-brother figure. Fraz is a familiar type of guy for anyone who has read Lipsyte’s three previous novels or lived in proximity to overeducated, underachieving North American heterosexual white men in the past 20 or 30 years. Lipsyte is a bard of male malaise, an anatomist (sometimes literally) of mostly non- or semi-toxic dudes who are disappointed in themselves and the cause of disappointment in others. His first novel, The Subject Steve (2001), was about a caption-writer in his 30s suffering from a mysterious, possibly metaphorical disease.