A hilarious lament for our times

The Guardian
By Nicole Flattery

A standup comic peddles fake spiritualism to tech executives in this sharply comical novel from the author of The Ask.

As I write this an app is running on both my laptop and phone, promising me mental clarity and relief from distraction. It’s an internet-blocker called Freedom, that great American ideal: the word conjures up bald eagles soaring through the air, profound life decisions, sweeping Jonathan Franzen novels. The lengths we will go to in order simply to put down our phones! It’s as if we’re all trapped in collective rehab. The situation is ripe for dark parody, and over the last decade nobody has skewered the absurdities and endless humiliations of technology and late capitalism better than Sam Lipsyte. In his hysterically funny 2010 novel The Ask, he gave us Milo Burke, a loser drowning in a mediocre job, suffering through a failing marriage, who is forced into contact with a powerful and wealthy man. He also gave us some of the funniest sentences of the last decade, with jokes that landed. He returns with a similar premise in Hark, but while his target is still the indignity of simply being alive, his new novel is a little crowded.

Hark is a deadpan standup comic turned monosyllabic messiah peddling spiritualism to tech bros. What began as a joke has now, in desperate times, become a new faith known as Harkism. His merry crew of idiot disciples trails in his wake as he preaches the lamest, goofiest form of salvation possible – “mental archery”, combining yoga with bow and arrow technique. A sample of his teachings:

The first arrow that hits you, that’s the pain you can’t control. That’s the world doing its damage. But the second arrow, that’s the damage you do to yourself, with your fear, your anxiety, with dwelling on precisely that which you can’t control.

As his disciples seek transcendence, working through their stretches and their archery poses, their lives fall apart. Fraz, Hark’s right-hand man, struggles to gain the respect of his wife and his incredibly woke children. Kate, a recovering socialite, becomes embroiled in an organ harvesting scheme. Hark battles to maintain his inner calm. Everyone suffers a lot in this novel and, I have to say, it’s a lot of fun.

Lipsyte is at his absolute best, his most crushing and merciless, when his characters are going to pieces. It’s a pure joy to read the diatribe Hark launches at a fictional version of the Web Summit, the largest tech conference in the world. It begins with him thanking the gathered crowd for their warm, affluent welcome and ends with him berating the “techpig confab”. There is a major truth contained in his tirade: “I mean, sometimes it seems like you’ve got to be a serious con artist just to get your basic needs met.” Hark is a novel-length lament for our “twitchy, reactive” modern times and a world that consistently rewards the brazen and unqualified.

I’m giving the highest praise imaginable when I say that Lipsyte doesn’t need plot to hold the reader’s attention. In fact, how many writers alive are such good prose stylists that they can discard it altogether and still deliver an entertaining book? Lipsyte’s sentences are so dizzyingly brilliant, so sharp and energetic, that the plot feels like the distraction, the noise you wish you could drown out. When Fraz’s wife Tovah embarks on a brief, dispiritingly unromantic affair with Nat, a soulless tech billionaire, she describes the sex like this: “Not that Nat was any kind of pleasure wizard in bed, with his bony twitches and phlegm-flutter grunts, his strange chirps for her to ‘get it’ or ‘take it’, like it’s an acorn, and he’s some exotic and generous bird.”

Lipsyte is a smart writer, and he understands that the world has become tired of middle-aged white men – their fruitless plans, selfish desires and sexual hang-ups, the shtick that served him so well in The Ask. I think even Lipsyte himself is tired of it. At one point Fraz, his most Milo-esque character, thinks: “He’s grown weary of his contrarian pose, tired of his schemes, the funny T-shirts, the penny stocks.” We’ve witnessed the dark hearts under the schlubby plaid exteriors and there is no return. By turning away from Fraz to feature such a large and eclectic cast of characters, Lipsyte is pre-empting such criticism. But though I admire his ambition, Hark is slightly unfocused. It was the discomfort and claustrophobia you felt as you plodded through life with the hapless Milo that made The Ask so singular. Even Lipsyte’s volatile bitterness, and biting disgust at those wielding power, are not as forceful here.

Lipsyte’s characterisation might seem broad in that all his Silicon Valley billionaires are greedy megalomaniacs. Then again, the argument runs that they are all greedy megalomaniacs in real life too, so what can he do? My favourite character in the novel is a boorish, self-serving author who has turned a profit by writing books about being a “good father”. It’s the final irony that fatherhood is the very subject Lipsyte is best on. Underneath the frantic comic tone of Hark is a real sense of paternal care and love, and a genuine concern for the world we are leaving our children.

Like a long marriage, there are writers you are committed to even when you are gently aware of their flaws. When I read work by Lipsyte – and his oeuvre also includes two fine story collections proving his gift for the sentence – I feel like Fraz with his long-suffering wife Tovah: “witty, kind, alert to the suffering of others”. A few hours spent offline with Lipsyte is a worthwhile investment.

Sam Lipsyte