Sam Lipsyte’s Lame Send-up of a Guru and His Acolytes

In Hark, the characters are distracted, and their author veers between satire and sincerity.

Hanna Barczyk

The Archer’s Paradox is a curiosity of physics according to which an arrow, if it flew straight, would miss its target. The path from bow to bull’s-eye twists and curves, imperceptibly but inevitably. Archery is the source of a great many metaphors in Hark, Sam Lipsyte’s new novel. (The word metaphor is the source of a self-conscious groaner of a pun—What’s a metaphor? It’s for cows to graze in—that is repeatedly invoked.) The title character, a self-help guru and putative messiah named Hark Morner, preaches a life-transforming practice called “mental archery,” whose vaguely described techniques, including thought exercises and physical poses, promise improved focus for distracted modern souls. “Focus on focus” is one of Hark’s mantras.

The Archer’s Paradox isn’t mentioned in the book, but a version of the rule surely applies. The novel’s tone and premise point toward satire, a mode that depends on accurate aim and swift, sharp impact. Lipsyte has a full quiver and a range of targets that include cosmopolitan culinary trends, urban-parenting dogmas, digital-workplace dynamics, and the arrogance of the technocratic ruling class. But satire is especially hard to pull off right now, its objects at once too obvious and too obtuse for effective puncturing. The dystopian imagination, looking for intimations of disaster that might be exaggerated for cautionary or corrective ends, finds itself beggared by reality on a daily basis.

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.

That book was followed by Home Land (2004), Lipsyte’s breakthrough, a scabrously funny indictment of both aspirational bourgeois mores and the resistance to them, composed in the form of updates to a high-school alumni bulletin from a loser named Lewis. Steve and Lewis were followed in the Lipsytean pantheon of almost-lovable nonwinners by Milo Burke in The Ask (2010), a Gen X man-child approaching middle age and struggling with monogamy, parenthood, and career discontent in the shadow of generational obsolescence.

As someone who has been there—who’s still there, thickening and graying as the Millennials and the Gen Z kids dethrone my idols and refuse to laugh at my jokes—I regard The Ask as one of the most unbearable and hilarious books I’ve ever read. Accordingly, I had great hopes for Hark, which might have been a mistake, given that the cumulative lesson of all of Lipsyte’s fiction (two books of stories, Venus Drive and The Fun Parts, in addition to the novels) is that low expectations are the only reasonable kind.

They can also lead to a dead end, to a state of auto-fatigue that Fraz acknowledges early and that he hopes might be cured by mental archery:

He’s lived too long in exile from himself, faking his freedom, refusing even to wear a tie, even to family funerals, even a clip-on, extolling the virtues of porn to his wife, hiding out in the gym, stuffing himself with fried pickles and an experimental mix of mint and mango ice cream. He’s weary of his contrarian pose, tired of his schemes, the funny T-shirts, the penny stocks, the fantasy bandy … But it’s different now. Fraz feels called. To mental archery, and what may lie beyond, and definitely to Hark, or the idea of Hark, or the radial heat of Hark.

This can be read as the novel’s thesis statement, its artistic wager. Hark, while starting from the familiar place of self-numbing irony and self-pitying privilege, wants to strike out in a new direction and, like Hark himself, trade foolishness for sincerity, cynicism for authenticity, navel-gazing for heroic discipline.

Simon & Schuster

For Fraz, at 47, the old habits are hard to break. And Lipsyte often seems trapped in a voice and sensibility that he no longer entirely believes in. Focus, the attribute Hark champions above all else, is what Hark lacks. Its attention splinters among half a dozen characters, none of whose dramas quite commands the reader’s full engagement. Fraz’s stalled marriage to Tovah (whose tech job supports the family) occupies a fair amount of space. The parents of precocious 8-year-old twins named David and Lisa, they have drifted into a state of low-level irritation, at least on Tovah’s part. Tougher and generally more competent than her husband, Tovah is a quintessential cool girl, outfitted with sufficient sass and brass to armor her creator against any implication of misogyny. But she’s hard to distinguish from the other women in the novel: Teal Baker-Cassini and Kate Rumpler, who work alongside Fraz in Hark’s world (though Teal dabbles in marriage counseling and Kate’s main thing is pro bono organ trafficking), and Meg Kenny, a late and decisive convert to the mental-archery cause.

The women aren’t the only characters who blur. Though Hark has a distinctive way of talking—in koans and riddles and great confessional gusts—everyone else sounds pretty much the same, including David and Lisa:

“Lisa, David, how’s school?”

“Daddy, I’m glad you asked,” Lisa says. “It’s a fucking shitshow.”

“Lisa, can you be more specific.”

“Okay, Daddy. School’s like a factory where they make these little cell phone accessories called people.”

“It’s more like a tool and die factory,” David says. “They turn us into tools and then we die.”

“I like that,” Tovah says. “You’re both very creative.”

That last maternal pat on the head is one of many instances of ventriloquized self-praise on Lipsyte’s part. Reading Hark can feel like being trapped in the writers’ room of a sitcom two seasons past its prime, except that the staff members desperately trying to top one another and laughing at their own jokes are all the same guy.

Lipsyte will often introduce a comic detail that registers just how zany his fictional world is—and also how knowing his inventions are—and then induce his characters to riff on it. For example, at one point Tovah and Fraz schedule a date at a restaurant described as “a new Thai-Irish fusion sensation,” the existence of which is not all that amusing to begin with. (What’s with all these crazy restaurants, amirite?) Lipsyte has fun with the dishes such a place might have, like Thai-basil corned beef and County Cork Curry Delight, before allowing the characters to deliver the punch line. “Maybe we should order some wine.” “Irish or Thai?” “See, you’re so witty. Total package.”

Once you notice this tic, it can drive you a little nuts, as can Lipsyte’s tendency to stack up verbs with commas (“Fraz orders a sexy new stout from Vermont, peers up at the TV. Ball game graphics zoom, burst.”) and his habit of treating a character’s consciousness as a basement comedy club:

Kate looks to the driver. He seems oblivious behind his bulletproof plastic. The hack license affixed to the separator says the driver’s name is Ali Islam. Is that like somebody named Marjorie Judaism or Larry Christianity? She wouldn’t know. She wouldn’t know how to know.

But somebody might. Most of all, the gestures toward Major Novel status in Hark—Pynchony, Lethem-esque names like Hark Morner and Fraz Penzig, Dieter Delgado and Teal Baker-Cassini; Infinite Jesticles in the form of wacky brand names and inscrutable terrorist organizations; intimations of apocalypse that accelerate in the book’s final pages—have an air of desperation. The impulse to make big thematic statements is accompanied, and perhaps defeated, by a joke-making reflex, as if attempted seriousness has triggered a kind of autoimmune response:

To say it once more, history hides. It hides inside every new interpretation of an interpretation. It hides, in fact, like a gem stuck up the ass of the flabby young man called history at the outset of this tale. History is both the hidden gem and the man in whom the gem has been noiselessly, perhaps greasily, inserted. “Intelligence” may be defined as the ability to behold both of these word pictures at once, in the way you never could with a pair of nipples.

In this and other ways, Lipsyte’s writing has a habit of disappearing up its own … never mind. And yet solipsism is the very tendency Hark tries hardest to fight. It’s also the hardest thing for contemporary novels, especially by men working in self-conscious relation to the traditions of postmodernism, to avoid. The imperial sweep of the old masters has become suspect, and the false modesty of auto-fiction (at least as practiced by some of Lipsyte’s peers) can be a drag. Surely some new route can be found, some stance that will allow the bowman to pierce the fog of the self and strike the hide of history.

Or maybe not. I have nothing but sympathy for the predicament out of which this book arises, and nothing but impatience with its way of addressing that predicament.

Capitalism isn’t going anywhere. Capitalism’s not natural, but at this point, neither is nature. You have to dance with the one you came with, Fraz has heard, even if it’s hard to picture escorting a global economic system to a line-dancing barn or a strobe-stabby club. Maybe it’s more like Fraz’s high school prom, where you pick up capitalism at its house, pin a corsage to its gown, and later have drunk sex in a Lysol-tangy motel room down the shore.

Or should Fraz, in fact, wear the corsage?

A metaphor may be a place for cows to graze, but this is bullshit.

This article appears in the January/February 2019 print edition with the headline “The Bard of Male Malaise.”