A Madcap New Novel Bursts With Fake Gurus, Yoga and a Bit of Bone-Marrow Smuggling

The New York Times
By Josh Tyrangiel

We begin with a schmuck. His name is Fraz Penzig — Fraz being how his father, Frank, once heard himself paged over a static-filled airport loudspeaker. “Penzig men,” writes Sam Lipsyte. “Always hovering just outside of an inside joke they have played on themselves.” It’s hard to diminish a character faster than naming him for a mistake, but we soon learn that Fraz is abrasive and useless at his job. He has a porn fetish that’s common knowledge in his grossed-out social circle. His 8-year-old twins may have rectal parasites. His wife, Tovah, enjoys French-kissing one of Fraz’s childhood rivals. “Tovah told him that life is not a zero-sum game, but Fraz senses that if it were, he would be the zero sum.”

Hark Morner is also named for a mistake, this one involving a foreign-born mother and a Christmas carol. “She thought the song was about someone telling their friend Hark that the herald angels were singing,” Hark tells Fraz. But where Fraz has been sinking since birth, Hark is rising — as in “glory to the newborn king” rising — through mental archery, a quasi-religious mindfulness regimen of his own creation. He’s still in the pamphlet-selling phase when he meets Fraz, and he’s not the chattiest messiah. But when Hark speaks, “his voice is an enchanted river with roars and hushes and thick, crystal swerves. It carves a course for Fraz to follow, to flow toward, out from his fetid backwaters, his brack stink.”

The attraction and repulsion between would-be Jesus and his apostle Costanza is a major story line in “Hark,” though it’s hardly the only one. “Hark” is Lipsyte’s first novel since 2010’s much-loved “The Ask,” and similarities abound. Both are satires featuring underemployed, middle-aged New York Jewish protagonists with abandoned artistic dreams, cheating wives and snack-food obsessions. That’s a pretty specific box on the census form for a writer to check twice. Both also veer away from narrative to chase any excuse for a riff — then swing back with prose so good you feel guilty complaining about the whiplash. The difference is that in “Hark” the riffing has more serious consequences.

“Hark” is split into halves, the first of which is extremely funny. In a few swift pages we learn that Hark started as a stooge on the corporate speaker’s circuit, hired to bore audiences with meaningless aphorisms (“You are the arrow! But you are also what it pierces”) until an executive ringer would eject him from the stage to heroic applause. “Hark wasn’t the only person who worked this niche. A guy named Cornelius the Corporate Impostor had the gig before Hark. Big Lev from Biz Dev had sewn up Silicon Valley. But they were too broad. Nobody bought their acts after a line or two. Hark twitched with the plausible.”

In the midst of these gigs, Hark has his revelation. It’s a recurring joke that no one can explain mental archery beyond its “focus on focus,” but pamphlets are written, yoga poses created (“Priapic Centaur, Roaring Rama, Encircling Sioux”), and a core of acolytes gather. There’s the heiress Kate Rumpler and Teal, Kate’s anticapitalist, ex-convict ex-girlfriend. (Kate: “You did do time for embezzlement.” Teal: “That company was building fascism in America. And its shipping policies were absurd.”) Kate funds Hark with her inheritance. Teal runs Hark Hub, home of the latest Hark videos and social threads. Fraz fancies himself the movement’s Steve Bannon, while the others regard him as its Michael Cohen. All are mired in ironic detachment from their misery and attracted to Hark’s simple message. But they’re unsure if his odd speech and mannerisms are signs of sanctity or just weirdness. “Maybe Fraz is too impure to know the difference.”

Having dropped Hark at the edge of a Tony Robbins-like breakthrough in Part 1, the story unravels some in Part 2 — for Hark and for “Hark.” Lipsyte crowds the plot with a stalker/Svengali, an organ-donation kidnapping thingumajig, and an Elon Musk-y villain, complete with surgically dyed irises, who exists mostly as a reason for Lipsyte to groove on big tech. He also shoves his skeptical Greek chorus aggressively toward belief, leading to lines like this from Fraz to Kate: “There’s something a little too uncomplicated in Hark for people like us. Thing is, we’ve got to change, not him.”

That’s a honker of a passage, though it serves Lipsyte’s point — that modern life is so grim, people will bend far below the limbo bar of logic in search of some peace. Even the author can’t make up his mind about Hark and mental archery. “Fraz does believe,” he writes, only to double back a few sentences later and suggest that he doesn’t.

But the battle between Hark and Fraz is never a fair fight. Regardless of the deficiencies Lipsyte piles onto them, Fraz, Kate, Teal and others are fully formed characters. We know Fraz’s inner life, see moments of tenderness with his kids, and even get the occasional glimpse of his appeal. Calling back to Fraz’s courtship with Tovah, Lipsyte writes: “He told her to consider him a downed wire: unpredictable, potentially lethal. Tovah thought him more a lost shoelace, but adorable.”

Hark, meanwhile, is a great idea and a lousy character. He’s only ever alive as a vessel for riffs about belief, fraud, transcendence, corporate off-sites, etc. Many of these are dazzling, but hardly all of them, and Hark is in the book a lot. There’s considerable time given to his speeches: “What we learn from the example of the Mongols.…” Meta, sure. But meta-boring is still boring. In an attempt to give Hark a bit more flesh some information gets sprinkled in — he’s a cop’s kid, his favorite drink is ice — but it’s a tough sell that smart, damaged, witty, miserable people would lend Hark their attention for longer than it would take to ridicule him. Let alone devote their tiny reservoirs of hope to something as inchoate as mental archery.

Lipsyte tries to give his characters cleaner moments of salvation before wrapping things up, but this being a Christ allegory tucked inside a satire, it’s safe to say it doesn’t end terribly well for anyone. It’s a shame. Not only because so much of “Hark” is brilliantly alive, but because everyone in it could use a bit of mercy.

Sam Lipsyte