Hark by Sam Lipsyte

by Sam Lipsyte
Simon & Schuster, 2019


With Stanley Elkin and Philip Roth gone, Sam Lipsyte is American fiction’s foremost pitch man and bitch man, a master of Elkin’s crazed persuasions and Roth’s enraged complaints.  The Ask--his last, much-praised novel about crooked philanthropy—worked the pitch, the “ask.”  Hark bitches out Americans’ devotion to a dim-witted but charismatic fraud.  Although ostensibly set in a future several presidents after Obama, Hark is the best novel I know about Trump time.  Salman Rushdie’s The Golden House, Jonathan Lethem’s Feral Detective, and Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success more explicitly treat Trump, but Lipsyte is more perceptive and revealing about the Americans who helped elect him.

Given the name “Hark” by a mother who misunderstood “Hark! The herald angels sing,” Lipsyte’s 30ish protagonist has an uncanny ability to make people harken to him.  To cure the age of its myriad distractions, Hark the failed comedian writes pamphlets that use archery to explain the need for focus, for rigorous concentration. Some of his techniques and opaque language are drawn from Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery, to which Lipsyte refers in the middle of the novel.  According to recent critics, the German Herrigel misunderstood his Japanese master’s eccentric lessons in archery and mistakenly associated it with Zen as a quasi-religious activity.  Like Herrigel, characters drawn to Hark misconstrue or distort his limited intention to purify cognition. His admirers launch his career as an inspirational speaker, battle for control of Harkism, co-opt and transform his ideas for profit and power. Some followers even start to believe he is a messianic figure, a role to which Hark becomes attracted.  Lipsyte’s economic attack is familiar from The Ask.  More original is his satire of American neediness, his failure-haunted characters’ credulous desire for a message—preferably a slogan such as “Focus on focus”--that promises success.

Hark is obsessed with focused attention, but Lipsyte spreads his around in 52 short chapters told through several characters’ points of view.  Primary is Fraz Penzig, a 46-year-old father of 8-year-old twins, husband of the dissatisfied Tovah who supports the family (and cheats on Fraz) while he is unemployed.  A little older version of under-achieving and desperate Milo Burke of The Ask, Fraz “discovers” Hark, finds purpose in promoting him, and eventually sells out both their principles for position and money.  

Two other early adopters of Hark also think of themselves as failures.  Kate killed a groping uncle and afterwards became rich only because her parents died in an accident.  Kate’s girlfriend Teal spent time in prison for embezzlement and works as an unlicensed marriage counselor.  Fraz and the two women hated one or more of their family members and find in Hark a paternal or fraternal replacement.  Ironically, Hark learned his lesson of focus when his father knocked him down and said, “`You little fuck! Focus! Focus!’”.  I’m not suggesting that these educated New Yorkers and other Harkists would have voted for Trump. What they have in common with red-state deplorables is desire for a simple public answer to their private disillusionments and self-loathing.

These are the failures.  There are successes—an old family friend of Fraz’s seduces his wife with his focus and money; a billionaire plots against Hark’s early followers to make “mental archery” into a corporate brand.  But these men shower typical displays of wealth and greed. The money guys want more now before the American ground war in Europe against the “Army of the Just” fails, and the privileges of wealth disappear.  Lacking knowledge of or empathy for the failures, the bully-boy successes are easy enough to identify as analogues of the current president.

Otherwise, Lipsyte doesn’t make it easy for his readers.  He’s not content with the linear narrative of The Ask or an arrow-like arc from Hark’s discovery and rise to his withdrawal and eventual tragedy.  About two-thirds into the novel, Lipsyte introduces two new plots. One revolves around the near-death of a child in an accident; the other involves the kidnap of Kate while she volunteers as a courier of harvested organs.  These new elements have a thematic connection—lives to be saved—and move some characters to believe that Hark is a salvational figure who can reverse brain damage and return from the dead. The added plot devices shift the novel from a political near-allegory to a mockery of religious belief, but the satire seems forced.

In fact, just about everything in Hark is forced, pressed toward and into excess: the spiels and dreams of Hark, the porn fantasies of Fraz, the exchange of insults that characterizes much of the dialogue, the series of synonyms that often lengthen Lipsyte’s sentences as he pounds home his characters’ complaints.  He is an extremely aggressive stylist, never satisfied with neutral expression, always trying to break through the ordinary with his focus, his descriptive exactitude or emotional rant.  To Elkin and Roth as forerunners of Lipsyte, add William Gass and his insistence that fiction be written as intensively as poetry.  It’s probably no accident that the character least influenced by the banalities of Hark is Tovah even though, like the others, she has little fondness for her family.  She is last seen in the novel writing poetry at a writers’ conference.

The Ask was more conventionally focused in its plot, less bombastic in its first-person narration, and often charming in its conversations between Milo and his young son.  The stories that followed in The Fun Parts were often compacted tours de force about physically forceful characters who were not, for the most part, having fun.  Some of Lipsyte’s materials in Hark—the riffs on famous archers, his descriptions of Hark’s archery turned into a commercial cult like hot yoga, his parody of trolling in an Internet comments section, the varieties of “Harkheads,” his demotic diction from street and school--are fun, but much of Hark seems to have been written in disgust, not so much with Hark or even with the predictable profiteers but with people whose need for a “herald angel” or a “new-born king” leads them to an absurd belief that Hark’s slogans, poses, and Trumpian stream of consciousness performances will make their bodies, minds, and souls great again.   Compared to those anti-Trump novelists I mentioned—Rushdie, Lethem, and Shteyngart—Lipsyte is both less direct and more passionate, an avenging angel smiting bourgeois self-helpers when political activists are needed. Near the end of his life, Hark comes to this political recognition, but his change of focus is ignored or denied by those who have given their minds to him.

Partial disclosure: I think the greatest American political novel since World War II was written by one of Lipsyte’s professors at Brown: Robert Coover.  In his The Public Burning, the Rosenberg “atomic spies” are executed in Times Square and Uncle Sam sodomizes Richard Nixon to prepare the future president to screw the American public.  Lipsyte’s more realistic rage in Hark cheers me, but this novel is not for those readers who need books as likable as Hark the person.  Hark the novel is, like Coover’s Burning and Melville’s description of Moby-Dick, “broiled in hell-fire.”

—Tom LeClair is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.  His seventh--and final--novel, PASSING AWAY, was published in 2018.