Dances with Concepts: a Conversation with Sam Lipsyte [Part 1 of 2]

You get stories that weave in and out of each other and contradict each other and create new narratives. That’s more exciting to me than one long story with a message of, say, capitalism is bad or war is deplorable. We know that — let’s dance with those concepts and see what else happens.

I’ll start with a simple pronouncement: Sam Lipsyte writes some of the best prose being produced today. He’s the author of novels such as the Ask and the Subject Steve, as well as the short story collections, Venus Drive and, most recently, the Fun Parts. He teaches at Columbia University, he’s the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, he’s the son of Robert Lipsyte, he used to perform in a noise band in the ’90s, and despite all of this, he’s super down-to-earth. Last month, on my annual visit to New York, I finally got to sit down with Lipsyte and talk about punk rock, fiction writing, and what it means to be cynical. What follows is a slightly edited version of that conversation.

BVL: Your stories can be pretty polarizing. I’m sure you get a lot of praise, but have you ever had any kind of confrontational response to the opposite?

SL: When I get bad reviews, they tend to be pretty nasty. I don’t hover in the middle much. People really want to get behind it and defend it, or they’ll go after it and do a little character assassination on the way. I’ve never gotten a review that just says, “Oh, this is nice. Another nice book. Well done!” A pass, essentially. All I want is a pass, man.

I have had people come up to me at readings. People might say, “You can’t write about that. Don’t you know that’s off limits?” That sort of thing. Or there are people trying to get a couple of cheap shots in. They come over and they pretend that they liked it, but then they say something nasty. I guess I’m very approachable, so I guess they feel comfortable in both praising and damning me. I always wanted to be a forbidding presence but I could never pull it together.

Do you maybe have a preferred response?

I did say I want a pass, but I was kidding. The fact is that people are different. If you’re not getting different reactions, then something is wrong.

One thing that has always attracted me to your writing is precisely this polarizing attitude. I know you used to play punk music in your earlier years. And, of course, punk is polarizing in a pretty similar way. Do you think your writing is informed by this kind of punk rock ethic?

Sometimes. In my first collection of stories, I was thinking of what a punk song does. And now, I listen to other types of music, but I’m always after that jolt. Not just to be sensationalistic. When I’m writing well, I’m not consciously thinking about music, but it’s there: ideas about rhythm, cadence, the acoustics of the sentence. This is what I try to write, and when I’m editing, this is what I’m thinking about. I was once telling someone that you might have in your imagination a character who is short, but if “tall” sounds better, then I’m likely to just make the person tall.

What do you make of writing that, say, favors musicality over plot — or vice versa? (Or if it’s appropriate to draw such a dichotomy?)

I feel like it’s all one thing. I’m not consciously privileging one over the other. I’m not interested in the intricacies of plot, if they demand that I write a lot of boring sentences. I remember when Jonathan Franzen was talking about Freedom, and he was saying that he was no longer interested in the idea of the sentences sounding that good. He saw them as vehicles for information, and it made writing the story much more efficient. You need to choose what you want the book to do.

It’s as if there’s always been a bit of a failed poet in me. My goal is to pay that much attention to every moment in the text, even though when I’m writing hundreds of pages, it’s quite difficult. I ultimately fail, but in trying, what happens is that instead of one story that we’ve probably heard before, I get a lot of stories with a lot of facets. You get stories that weave in and out of each other and contradict each other and create new narratives. That’s more exciting to me than one long story with a message of, say, capitalism is bad or war is deplorable. We know that — let’s dance with those concepts and see what else happens.

When would you say this dance started, for you?

I guess I started when I was a kid, writing little adventure stories and making comic books. I remember really liking those turgid pirate stories, and I’d write them, and in Master & Commander mode, I’d try to get really technical with the descriptions of things. And then I got into science fiction. All through my childhood I wrote. I wrote as a reader, and I’m still trying to do that. I write what I want to read. When I was a kid, my writing really reflected whatever I was reading at the time. Now it’s not so one-to-one, but I still need to remember myself as a reader.

I understand that your father was also a writer?

Yeah, he was a sports writer and he wrote some young adult novels. He was a big influence. Seeing someone go to the typewriter all the time and work demystified the idea of writing. I never had this romantic notion of the guy in a garret with the candles burning. I just saw a schlumpy dude banging away on a Smith-Corona.

When did you realize that you were a writer, too?

I’m only a writer when I’m writing — or when I’m writing well. But I do remember a couple of moments where I had been struggling for a long time to not suck. Suddenly I started writing some sentences that I knew were different and had described a leap. I had that sense of, “This is it. This is what writing feels like.” Then that would go away and I’d suck for a while. But then those high moments came more frequently.

Self-consciousness seems to be one of your themes. Or, rather, extreme self-consciousness. Are you ever tempted to simply express your own self-consciousness about yourself, your profession?

I would love to just tear myself a new one, but I keep thinking, who wants to read that? It feels so self-indulgent. I notice that sometimes in American writing, there’s the opposition to the idea of main characters as writers. European writers don’t seem to have as much of a problem with it. I’m not interested in necessarily writing a campus novel. That’s been done and it’s been done well, but it’s a lot of low-hanging fruit.

The self-conscious monologues of your characters — and their general social inertia, seems to be a type of cynicism; an expression of your own view of people. Is this the case? Are you cynical?

To me, it’s not cynical. I’m just aware of the cynicism of people in power. The people who make life harder than it needs to be. There’s the cynicism for me. The frustration, yeah, and the constant picking at your own flaws and the sense that you’re not measuring up in some ways, so in consequence, your life is fucked, the world is fucked. I can’t fake those things. That’s the emotional autobiography. Those are the feelings I’ve tapped into. And now, it doesn’t change. There are different obstacles and different things that annoy me and make me angry. Sometimes it’s still an inward anger as well as an outward anger. Conditions may change, environment may change, but I’m still pissed off when I can’t pay my bills.

So maybe there’s some malaise here?

It’s not aggression, I don’t think. It’s wrapped up in a lot of empathy. I don’t like to see people suffering on extreme levels, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s okay if they suffer on less extreme levels. I feel for all sorts of conditions that people are in. It makes me angry to see people getting squeezed. A lot of my work has always engaged with institutions. They put people over a barrel in various ways. Yes, I extract comedy from that, but I think I’m also looking at the sad parts as well. I’m seeing the way people are interacting, and interacting with forces that are larger, and the way people are made to feel powerless as a matter of course. That’s always been intriguing to me. I’ve always felt that. It’s not some philosophical position. I’m sure I felt that in some ways as a child, and I think we all have these experiences that then bleed over into our ideas about the world. That’s probably where mine comes from.

Speaking of these conditions, and of people getting squeezed, there’s the popular irony that the squeezed far outnumber the squeezers. This is the stuff of comedy, I think.

There’s a line in the Ask about if all five million of us just charge at once, then They wouldn’t have time to set off the nukes. You end up with those futile thoughts, and that, to me, is where you find the heartache and the humor. There’s also the way people have legitimate gripes with the world, but after banging against the wall so many times, these gripes start to mutate and become twisted and directed at people less powerful than themselves, or friends and loved ones. I’m interested in how demented some of this gets by the futility of effecting real change.

I’m interested in how people mishear each other and miscommunicate. There’s a lot that can be thematically acquired by seeing how people are not listening to each other. They’re so caught up in petty gripes and motives that they’re almost in no position to help each other. As a guidepost for this, I think of Beckett’s the Lost Ones. It’s about these people who live in this giant cylinder. There might be one way out through a hatch at the top of the cylinder. Some people have ladders, some have niches in the wall they sit in — it’s almost a Dr. Seuss landscape. If they all worked together, they could make it out, but they never will. It’s a great piece and useful to think about when you’re examining how these so-called characters are moving around in the text.

So when people call your work cynical, do you think it’s ever appropriate?

I know why it’s called cynical, but to me, cynical is if you make plastic road cones for a living, and you know that something in the material is harmful to human skin, and you say that you’re not going to do anything about it because the profit is too good. That’s cynical. I’m writing about life, which I find very dark and very funny and very moving.

I don’t believe you always need to make this optimistic turn that some people feel is necessary. Someone once said to me, “Thank you for writing stories that don’t tuck me in at the end.” This person was complaining about stories and novels that end with a little hopeful tilt, like everything is going to be okay. I’m not interested in that unless it’s warranted. Everything can be okay for a little while. I mean, you’re going to get cancer in two years, but everything is going to be okay for now.

Donald Barthelme once said of Beckett, that people talk about how Beckett’s work is so bleak. It doesn’t matter what bleak outcome the piece of fiction has — the fact that it was written at all is a celebration of life. The fact that someone put all of this work into crafting it and making it into something that is beautiful and moving or funny or whatever — that’s the hope, that’s the celebration. It doesn’t really matter whether Uncle Billy lives or dies at the end of the story. That’s not the point.

With this as the functioning definition of cynicism, do you think that it would be cynical to want to write, but then choose not to?

It’s all about how you feel and see and filter the world. You can’t sit down and write a Danielle Steele novel and make millions of dollars if you don’t really believe that world. But if you filter something in a specific way and then you say the market won’t stand for that and it needs a happy ending — I don’t consider that a good course. It’s kind of foolish anyway because the market for serious fiction is gone.

Right now, we are writing out of a wish to create what’s not there. But if you’re in it for the money, you’re a moron. There are also people who have a lighter view of things and it’s up to the readers to decide what feels earned and what seems, say, a mannered darkness, or a sugar-coated optimism that feels false. There are all sorts of ways to go wrong on either end. You try to get it down not to represent life, but to be life, whatever that means to you.

[Continued in Part 2]

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