Sam Lipsyte on Cults, Wellness and Cutting Through the Dumb Noise
The Author of Hark in Conversation with Annie DeWitt
Welcome to 2019. Tumbling economic markets. A president who tweets at random California teenagers about “Fake News.” The country still reeling after our first lady boards a plane in a Zara jacket branded with the moniker, “I don’t really care, do u?” while thousands of migrant children sit in cages. Besieged by a group of citizens called “yellow jackets” protesting the rising price of gas in France, indeed Jenny Livingston’s 1990 film seem prescient—Paris Is Burning. Amidst the turmoil, bestselling author and cultural satirist Sam Lipsyte’s latest book Hark—out from Simon and Schuster this month—lands on the scene like a messiah. With Hark, Lipsyte has gifted us with our own best looking glass, a scathing critique of contemporary wellness culture set amidst a world mired in metaphor, vanity and meaninglessness. A culture so lost they are willing to follow a self-loathing guru elected by the masses down the empty the road of “mental archery” toward the ultimate goal: focus. How lost are we? Read on to find out.
Annie DeWitt: I wonder how you initially conceived of the character of Hark? He’s almost a shadow character, a man without his own personae. Revered if for no other reason than the banality of his message: focus. His greatest fan and constant support, on set and in life, is his assistant Fraz, whose own marriage and career are in shambles due to aspirations of truth and authenticity. Fraz turns to Hark early in the book and asks, “Hark, what is the secret?”
“The secret to what?” Hark replies. “To everything. I’ve been hustling for you. Out of love and respect. Out of belief. But you’ve got to tell me the truth. Whatever you’re withholding while you watch us all blabber on about what we think mental archery means. My life is falling to shit. I need to see the light. Please.”
To which, Hark replies simply, “What you see if what you get.” Fraz calls him, “a fucking charlatan . . . Some jerk with focusing techniques for the masses.” Who is Hark? The cultural everyman? The next messiah? Or, a charlatan selling plastic arrows to depressed housewives in the mall? How much of his character is simply about just “reenacting old enchantments?”
Sam Lipsyte: Well, I think you touch upon a lot of it in that question. Hark, as a character, is designed to be a kind of cipher, or even a screen upon which the other characters project their fears and desires. That’s why he remains somewhat murky. The other characters, you might know what kind of toothpaste they prefer, but such details do not apply to him. By the end of the book, one may see why, for he may be everything you mention and more, a mountebank and a true deity, but he’s not quite fathomable in the conventional sense. Still, there is a kind of interior struggle he undergoes in the book, as a moral directive does emerge from late his messianic process, but perhaps not in time. His message morphs from vague banalities into a trenchant analysis and call for change, and challenge, but the humans left to spread his transformational message are sadly subsumed by their humanness. Or something.
AD: In some ways the whole book functions as a critique of metaphor as a kind of scrim which keeps us away from the vivacity and authenticity of “lived experience.” There’s that great dialogue on p. 114 which Seth punts off first with the remark, “What I love are the made up historical facts. Where’d you get the Korean bit? I’m half Korean and that’s all baloney.” To which our lovable failure, Fraz, says, “It’s mythology, Seth. It’s part of the collective human imagination.”
They bat the question around for a while until Hark finally asks, plainly, “Answer me. What’s a metaphor?” “Please instruct me,” Seth says in earnest. “It’s for cows to graze in,” Hark replies. Beyond poking fun at the ethnocentric jargon of Cambell’s hero’s journey which this dialogue evokes, it also seems a searing comment on today’s dumpster fire of “fake facts” and “fake news,” politics’s new version of strip steak and sirloin. How much of a critique is this book of the current political “situation?” How “on message” are we?
SL: Western literature and thought is, of course, steeped, or even founded, in metaphor, but there is also a moment when you kind of see how metaphor can both illuminate and obfuscate, sometimes at the same time. Are things really like other things? One problem with metaphors is when they get calcified and we can’t conceive of our reality another way because certain constructions holds such enormous sway. Would history have maybe been a tiny bit different without the phrase the “Iron Curtain?” Who knows? But as a fiction writer, I’m fascinated by how such figurations operate in our speech and thinking. The grazing cows gag was something I first heard as a kid and it was so unbelievably stupid it seemed somehow holy to me, then and now. Holy cow.
As to being on message, I started the book in 2012, so I guess I was moving toward some of these ideas for a while. I knew from the very outset that Hark’s sermons, if you will, would be cobbled together from pop mythology, sketchy historical details and completely fabricated absurdities. FakeWorld has been around for some time. To paraphrase Billy Joel, Trump didn’t start the dumpster fire—or he didn’t start it by himself. We as a country took a running leap off a cliff. When you do that, you don’t blame the cliff. Trump is the cliff. But what sent us running off it in the first place? That’s the question. And I think it was the early signs or symptoms of such a condition that animated my earliest efforts with Hark. But I never really know my motives when I’m starting out.
“The interesting thing about Harkism is that it doesn’t exist.”
AD: The interesting thing about “Harkism” is that it doesn’t exist. It has no real tenets or rules. Hark himself says, “I don’t have a message. I just want people to focus . . . I’m this guy from California. A cop’s kid. Why are you trying to pump me into some seer?” Harkism is as fictitious as the “Bowling Green Massacre” alluded to by Kellyanne Conway in January 2018 as a justification for travel and immigration ban on seven Muslim-majority countries. “Mental archery was an early favorite he cooked up after he found a toy bow sticking out of a curbside garbage can.”
I wonder if you might talk about how you developed the theories behind Harkism—the series of “mental archery poses: Ithaka, Persian Rain, Moonlight Diana Number Three, Wheel or Tartars.” Did you attend a cult? Or, is living in New York City and rifling through the media in 2019 enough?
SL: I think I’ve always been interested in cults, in the forming of groups around a less-than-tangible idea and, perhaps, a charismatic leader. My first novel had a figure named Heinrich of Newark who had brought some people together for a more violent kind of spiritual awakening. I think it’s also probably a way for me to bring a bunch of different characters together, to have them inflict themselves, and their stories, on each other. Both The Canterbury Tales and The Breakfast Club did something similar.
AD: The book also embraces a hilarious critique of wellness culture lingo. “‘We are who we are.'” “I thought, it is what it is.” “We’ll fake it till we make it.” “It takes a village.” “Breathe.” At one point Fraz’s wife Tovah gets into an argument with her coworker, Nat, while he’s unabashedly hitting on her.
“I can not tell a lie,” Nat says. “I see what I want and I reach for it. It’s called embracing life.” Tovah counters, “Fraz doesn’t lie. Not about important things.”
To which, Nat responds, “He doesn’t have to. He can live in his little truth hutch because we’re out here in the world, every day, lying for him.” One of the many revelations of reading Hark is to realize that in many ways we’ve built with these mantras—through language and deconstruction—is a kind of neo-progressive wall which is, in and of itself is an echo chamber, as bogus and flimsy as any other. How did you go about uncoding and recoding this language throughout the lyricism of the book? Is this an ode to Derrida’s différance? A rebirth of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow? The GOOP to Gwyneth’s fortune? The “road back to wholeness?”
SL: Oh, Annie, mental archery is all of that and more! It’s true, though, that one of the challenges and one of the pleasures with this book was playing with a lot of contemporary argot, finding ways to bend it, deform it, and find the poetry in it. I’m always listening to the ways we officially and unofficially speak to each other. I’m more of a how-we-talk-when-we-talk-about-love person than a “what” person. But the sub-lingos from business, sports, school, tech, porn, what have you, they all blend together in wild ways as well. And with great speed on social media. Maybe in some sense I make junk sculpture out of language. I’m a great fan of the Watts Towers. What’s that famous Simon Rodia quote? “You gotta make something they never got ’em in this world.” And he did.
“It’s tricky, because it’s about having the loudest voice, but that doesn’t mean your voice has to actually be loud.”
AD: About halfway through the book an actual unnamed president of the Hark era appears on screen. The close-third narration dips into an almost essayistic tone here and extols the following: “[The president] was elected to undo catastrophic policies of his predecessor, who was himself 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, tough now, pundits agree, the moment is steeped in a radical and irrevocable lateness, a tardy totality heretofore unseen.” Whose voice are we hearing here? The narrator’s? The writer’s? Fraz’s? Hark’s? Or, History itself?
SL: This is the first novel I’ve written in third person. I guess a smart writer would take it slow, do a close, carefully controlled third to test the waters. But for some reason I plunged in with a sort of roving narration that includes a lot of close third but also a kind of faux old-timey 19th Century omniscience that occasionally intercedes for a variety of effects. I was definitely inspired by some great postmodern writers from the 60’s and 70’s, and I guess I violated a lot of workshop rules with this one, and got a little crazy, but it felt necessary for the tone and scope I was after.
AD: One of the many things I admire about this book beyond its cutting intuition and scathing intelligence is its deep lyricism. Beyond the postmodern simulacra which you bandy about better than Fedder himself, there are those passages of brilliant sonic consecution which blow the readers mind, which have defined all of your books. To read Lipsyte is a kind of hallucinogenic experience in that, in many ways, your language itself is revelatory and radical itself in its construction. In turns, deeply poetic and profane, and hilarious and human. Full of assonance and consonance and strange neologisms.
I’m thinking of passages like: “You’ll count your blessings when my kids are around to wipe your scabbed and desiccated asses, nursing home attendant the only job to exist in the future, all of civilization reduced, for those few who can afford it, to one vast, plastic palace of deliquescence, everyone else flopped out, on final islands of scorched sand, beseeching the sea to take them.”
How do you do it? And how do you keep it up for 300 pages? I’m reminded of something Lish once said in an interview we published in Gigantic, “Write with the menace of death at hand.”
“It’s the writer’s job to displace the other. Project your voice louder than the other, sure. Have the loudest voice. Wasn’t that the title of Grace Paley’s story?” “The Loudest Voice?” Is that the key? To write with the “loudest voice?”
SL: I love the “The Loudest Voice.” I was talking about that story with some students recently. There’s a short bit about dipping her pinky in the brine of the pickle barrel that contains everything you need to know about writing an interesting sentence. It’s tricky, because it’s about having the loudest voice, but that doesn’t mean your voice has to actually be loud. It has to be the one that cuts through the dumb noise of all of these other voices coming from everywhere, from our friends, our families, our devices, saying things in identical and increasingly meaningless word sequences. Cuts through, cuts against, and, if we’re lucky, delivers us to a new place not so saturated with death. At least for a little while. So, yes, Gordon Lish is right. He’s always spoken of this. If you can be a grown-up about death, let yourself acknowledge and absorb its truth, you can make life on the page. I believe that.