America’s don of dark literary humour, Sam Lipsyte returns to the short form. Alongside a Q&A, here he introduces an exclusive story from his new collection, The Fun Parts
Feature taken from the March Issue of Dazed & Confused:
I love short stories. I didn’t really know much about them for a while. We read some in middle school, but as I remember it, we kept reading the same two stories over and over: Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace” and Stephen Vincent Benét’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster”. I’m sure there were more, but it feels like there weren’t. I dug “The Necklace” in that O Henry (oh, right, we read him as well) trick-ending way, and Benét always seemed like an intense fellow. I just looked him up and apparently he won an O Henry Award for that story. So, there you go. Everything comes around, if not in the world, at least in my early exposure to short stories.
Not much later I read them like crazy and still do. Many of my greatest moments as a reader have come with short stories. Raymond Carver, Robert Coover, Chekhov, Kafka, Katherine Mansfield, Roberto Bolano, Borges, Barry Hannah, Gordon Lish, Christine Schutt, Joy Williams, Ann Beattie, Lydia Davis, George Saunders, Leonard Michaels, Donald Barthelme were all major revelations for me. I still recall reading many of their stories as distinct episodes of a nearly manic euphoria. I’ve had the same experiences with novels, of course, but perhaps fewer. Your heart breaks when even the best novel sags a tiny bit, as they all must, sort of like the give in bridge suspension. A great short story is more like a stiff plank across a narrow but bottomless crevasse. The plank will hold. But that doesn’t mean you are not in danger of freaking out and falling off.
I love writing novels and short stories, and though I started with short stories, I never thought of them as stepping stones to novels. I consider them a rich and vital artform. They are harder, really. They demand the rigor of poems. They are also a good way to start writing, because you can work on one and recognise its failure and throw it away, start another one. And years haven’t gone by. I teach writing and many students don’t even want to bother with stories. They are all at work on the novel that will deliver them riches and fame within a year or two of graduation. It will happen for one or two of them. But the rest will wish they’d played more, experimented more, hit a dozen different walls, found fresh ways to tell stories and learned about the beauty of language under pressure in the bargain.
– Sam Lipsyte. New York, January 10th 2013
NATE’S PAIN IS NOW
Nobody wanted my woe. Nobody craved my disease. The smack, the crack, the punch-outs and lockdowns, all those gun-to-mytemple whimpers about my dead mother and scabby cat — nobody cared anymore. The world had worthier victims. Slavers pimped out war orphans in hovels hung with rat-chewed velveteen. Babies starved on the desert floor.
Once, my gigs at the big-box bookshops teemed with the angry and ex-decadent, the loading-bay anarchists and hackers on parole, the meth mules, psych majors.
Goth girls, coke ghosted, rehabbed at 12 and stripping sober, begged for my sagas of degradation, epiphany. They pressed in with their inks, their dyes, their labial metals and scarified montes, cheered their favourite passages, the famous ones, where I ate some sadistic dealer’s turd on a Portuguese sweet roll for the promise of a bindle, or broke into a funeral parlour and slit a corpse open for the formaldehyde. My fans would stomp and holler for my sorrows, my sins, sway in stony reverence as I mapped my steps back to sanity (the stint on a garbage truck, the first clean screw), or whatever semblance of sanity was possible in a world gone berserk with misery, plague, affinity marketing.
I had what some guy at a New Paltz book café called arc. You can’t teach arc, he told me. Nobody’s born with it, either. I stood for something. My finger lingered on the somehow still-flickering pulse.
I had a good run. Bang the Dope Slowly and its follow-up, I Shoot Horse, Don’t I?, sold big. I bought a loft, married Diana, the lovely Diana, who’d stood by in the darkness, my “research” years. My old man, the feckless prick, even he broke down and vowed his love. But as a lady at a coffee bar in Phoenix put it, what goes up can’t stay up indefinitely because what’s under it, supporting it, anyway?
There are wise women in Arizona.
It was here in New York City that I first noticed signs of my decline. Standing at the lectern under those harsh chain store kliegs, regaling the crowd with the particulars of a scam I used to run on Alzheimer’s patients from a clinic near my squat, I heard a voice spear down from the balcony.
“Excuse me?” I said.
“I said enough,” said the man. He leaned past the rail, a fattish fellow with lovely corn-blond hair. “So you almost died and hurt a lot of people along the way. You got your medal. Go home.”
It was true about the medal. I’d recently won an award for creative nonfiction from a major credit card company.
“Maybe some others here want me to finish,” I said, hearing my voice strain now against some sissified collapse.
“Freaking sheep,” said the man.
“Leave him be!” called a voice. It sounded like Nate, my protégé. He’d been a homeless gay punk. Now he was my homeless gay punk protégé. Other voices rose to join him. My minions were protecting me. How humiliating. I felt like that bullied boy I’d described in Spoon for the Misbegotten, the one who ran home
to weep and quaff his mother’s cooking sherry – not that my mother ever cooked, let alone with sherry.
“Yeah, back off. He’s been through a lot.”
“He’s a fraud!” called the man, who I saw now wore heavy coveralls splotched darkly in places with what could have been berry juice or blood.
“He’s our friend!” somebody said.
“Thanks,” I said. “But I can take care of myself.”
There were murmurs now, mutters, maybe.
“We’ve got your back!”
“We’re here for you, and we...” somebody trailed off.
“Don’t you get it?” said the man in coveralls.
“This guy betrayed his friends and family, he’s contributed untold thousands to the drug economy, which has probably helped get others hooked, and now he blabs about it for cash. And don’t start in about his philosophy. It’s half-baked nonsense. He teaches us nothing. You really need this guy to tell you capitalism poisons our bodies and corrupts our souls? Are you that dim you can’t figure it out for yourselves?”
Nobody spoke. I was sensing a strange mood in the crowd tonight, a balkiness I had never encountered. They were maybe beginning to be done with me.
“I think you’re the dim one,” I said.
“Weak meat,” boomed my butcher.
It was a slow, luxuriant slide, like a dollop of half-fried mayonnaise slinking down the lean, freckled back of a teen. The teen’s name was Freida, she’d designed one of my websites, but those ecstasies were over. Diana had departed. Nate had disappeared. Only my father’s faxes sustained me:
Not dead yet? Keep at it, kid. You had all those sad suckers fooled, but not me. How long did you think it would last? The money, the women, the talks at the Y? The Y is for some vigorous cardio and steaming your nuts free of deadly nut toxins, not for listening to some junkie freak moan about his generation. Don’t you know there’s real suffering in the world? Slavers pimp out war orphans in hovels hung with rat-chewed velveteen. I saw it on the news! Didn’t you learn anything when I was promoted to vice president of sales in district seven and then got fired with everyone else the next day? When life knocks you down, don’t bother getting up. Because life will punish you for getting up. Life will bite your eyes out.
I’d pace my loft, smoke Egyptian cigarettes, drink vodka cocktails, snort any pill I could crush. Such binges
once primed me for another recovery, another memoir, but I couldn’t feel the magic anymore, that rush of becoming. All was murk and a sort of moister, muddier murk. Out my window was traffic, suffering, euphoria, pretzel carts. Inside was the petty spiral. I couldn’t stop thinking about the fat dude, his wonderful hair.
I picked up my father’s latest fax. Maybe a few hours in the vicinity of his rot could put me back on track. Also, I could teach him about the internet. I caught a bus across the river.
My father was semiretired, a freelance consultant. He drove around begging alms from men and women he’d once commanded. He got by, as many widowers do, on peanut butter and hate.
“Any booze around here?” I said.
“Why don’t you drink a pint of lye and get it over with?” my father said. “Why don’t you have yourself a nice
little lye-and-hantavirus smoothie? That’ll fix you up good, you piece of shit.”
My father flung himself across the table, flapped his hand in my face. It’s true he never hit me. A father need
not hit. His coughs, his smirks, are blows. Even a father’s embrace confers a kind of violence. Or so I once pronounced on public radio.
“This meat loaf is terrible,” I said now. “Worse than mom used to make.”
“It’s supposed to be terrible,” said my father. “This isn’t meant to be a pleasant experience. This is an intervention.”
“An intervention? Where is everybody?”
“Who everybody? It’s just me. Nobody else cares whether you live or die. And I’m on the fence.”
“Okay,” I told him. “Intervene.”
“I just did.”
“So, what’s the plan, Bigtime? I figure you’re almost out of money. Welcome back. Maybe you could land some menial job, night janitor, say, but who’s going to hire you, especially with your background as a self-aggrandising scum rag.”
“Rag. Is how we said it.”
“I’ve got to go,” I said. “Thanks for the intervention.”
I rode back to the city, spotted this damaged-looking beauty a few seats away. The damage wasn’t just the tortoiseshell tattooed over the entirety of her shaved skull, or the stern tortoise head glaring out from between her eyes. The damage, in fact, was everything not the tortoise, not the tattoo.
“I know who you are,” she said.
“That makes one of us,” I said.
“You mattered to me once.”
“You mattered to me less and less. Can you introduce me to Nate?”
“Forget Nate,” I said. “You’ve had struggles, yes?”
“Lay them on me, sister.”
The tortoise woman told me her story. She’d been a ward of the state, a runaway, a medievalist, a personal anal sex trainer, a robot rock chanteuse, a junior Olympic sprinter, the estranged wife of an ex–French legionnaire. Her story had heart havoc and threat, but no self-annihilation. She’d been stymied but always summoned the nerve to perdure. She was the opposite of me. I resented her and wanted to serve her. I wanted the world to pledge itself to her example.
“My God,” I said.
“You have one?”
“Please,” I said. “Let me write your story.”
I pictured us together in my loft, me with spiralbound pads and designer pencils worn to their nubs by her
inspirational tale. Critics would applaud my decision to invest my talent in this inked slut’s plight. My fans would swoon at the way I’d reached out to another wounded human. I’d get off drugs and drink for good, raise chickens upstate, produce some independent cinema.
“No way,” she said. “You’re a slimy, evil sellout hack.”
“Sure, but will you consider it?”
The bus pulled into Port Authority. The tortoise woman slipped away.
Diana lived in a building near the river. Somebody buzzed me up. A man stood in the doorway, shirtless, bleeding, words freshly carved into his chest. PEEPS PLEEZER, the gashes read.
“Diana’s not here,” said Nate. “Do you want to come in? You look like hell.”
“Hell is where I’m crashing these days, Nate. But what about you? You’re the mutilated interlocutor here.”
“I’m purging my defects via ritual.”
“Is that why you’re poking my wife?”
“I don’t poke her. We’ve got something more evolved than that. Besides, you know I’m gay.”
“You used to be homeless, too. Written any more bad versions of my books?”
“I no longer cite you as an influence.”
“I can live with that.”
“I’m having a hard time believing you can live with anything.”
“Nate abandoned and betrayed me,” I said.
“I’m right here,” said Nate.
“I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to God. God is my witness. Tell Diana I forgive her.”
“Tell her yourself,” said Nate. “I’m reading downtown tonight.”
“It’s listed in most free weeklies. Diana will be there.”
“Are you inviting me?”
“I’m sharing public information. Free weekly information.”
I walked along the river for a while, wove through the queer skaters, the club kids, the breeding units with their remote-controlled strollers. I hated them, the gays, the straights. The races. The genders and ages. None of them loved me. I was feeling that forlorn hum. Maybe another memoir was burbling up.
Home, I called Jenkins, my agent.
“Nate stole my style,” I told him. “My wife.”
“Your agent, too,” said Jenkins.
“I feel the forlorn hum coming on,” I said. “It’s going to be the best book yet. I’ve really suffered this time.”
“What do you mean it’s over?”
“It’s Nate’s time.”
The bookstore was packed with Nate’s people. They’d been my people once. I knew their faces, their fears. The tortoise woman was there in something skimpy, predatory. She was maybe pretending one of us was invisible.
Nate vaulted to the lectern in parachute pants, a fluorescent dickey. The crowd cheered as he picked a scab
near his nipple, flicked it.
“‘I was a homeless gay punk,’” Nate began. “‘I was a self-hating sick fuck, too. I beat up gay people. I set
homeless people on fire. Maybe it was because of my uncle Pete. We lived in Levittown, and when I was nine...’ ” Nate read on.
I noticed Diana leaning against the remainder table, her eyes rolled up under her Greek fisherman’s cap, her hand frig-deep in her jeans. Behind her were stacks of my last book, going for a dollar a pop.
“‘Every time I looked up into the dirty night sky,’” Nate read now, “‘I thought of each star as one more glittering taunt I had to endure –’ ”
“This guy’s got nothing!” I shouted. “This isn’t suffering!” Benches scraped the hardwood. Nate’s people whispered, strained to look.
“He was a homeless gay punk!” somebody called.
“He set homeless people on fire!” I said.
“It’s more complicated than that,” said another. “He was a self-confessed self-hating sick fuck!”
“But gay!” somebody shouted.
“The two are not related!”
“In a sense they are, but only in a metaphorical sense!”
“He’s not metaphorically gay,” said a woman in the back.
“Leave Nate be,” called the tortoise woman.
“He’s poking my wife,” I said. “And I have no idea why he qualifies as punk.”
“I don’t poke her,” said Nate.
“He doesn’t,” said Diana. “I only need to hear his voice to come.”
“Don’t you get it?” I said. “There are babies turning tricks on velveteen!”
“Those babies are homeless punks, too!” somebody shouted.
“Nate speaks for all of us!”
“Nate’s got arc!”
Now I felt them, the great arms bunching me up, the wisps of soft hair grazing my cheek. Next thing, I’m out on the sidewalk, staring up at that face, the one I’d never shaken from my dreams. He flashed an enormous steak knife.
“Why?” I said.
“Nate’s pain is now,” said the man in coveralls.
“But I have more I need to say.”
“That couldn’t possibly be true.”
“Who are you to decide?”
“I’m the guy.”
“That guy. The guy out there. The guy with the pulse. When you put your finger on the pulse, it’s my pulse. It’s my heart. I’m the guy with the heart.”
“What are those stains?” I said, pointed at his coveralls.
“That’s the blood of my heart. And other hearts. Various hearts. Also, I had some berries for lunch.”
“You should tell your story. Write a memoir. If you let me live, I’d be happy to help.”
“I respect the genre too much,” said the man, and took some practice swipes with his knife.
LIP SERVICE – an interview with the author taken from the March Issue of Dazed & Confused:
Three years ago, the wider world finally woke up to Sam Lipsyte. His third novel, The Ask, a dark, comic tale of a middle-aged miserablist stumbling from one personal disaster to another, catapulted the author on to the New York Times bestseller list and deep into the psyche of the alienated and hip. His preceding novel, 2004’s Home Land, a series of manically twisted college alumni newsletter entries, and short-story collection Venus Drive were so good that the Dazed Books Dept formed a press gang and urged strangers to enrol at the creative writing class he teaches at Columbia University. Now the man formerly known as Sam Shit, singer of notorious NYC noise act Dung Beetle, is back with The Fun Parts, a new compendium of shorts, from which “Nate’s Pain is Now” is lifted. We called Mr Lipsyte between classes to find out more about the origins of his brilliant, twisted writing...
Hi Sam. When no one wanted to know about your writing, was it a struggle to sustain enthusiam?
Sam Lipsyte: Yeah, it was difficult to sustain enthusiasm in sharing the work. I was going to write anyway, but had to decide whether to hoard it and keep it as a private hobby or send it out into the world to see if anybody gave a shit. Those early phases were instrumental in giving me the notion that others might like some of this. I started sending stuff out because I knew some other people who were writing and that’s what they did, and I thought that’s what you’re supposed to do. But when I did I started getting lots of rejections, which made me think that I must really suck. Then I began to get very angry. Anger was the fuel.
How did that impact your writing?
Sam Lipsyte: I stopped for a while. I got disgusted with myself and screamed in a band for a while, where you couldn’t hear my lyrics on purpose. I just wanted the sound to be heard, not the words.
Why? Because you were so disgusted with words themselves?
Sam Lipsyte: I was so disgusted with my inability to get to the places I wanted to get with them, but it was a good interlude in that way. I was pretty dead serious.
Was that the worst writer’s block you ever experienced?
Sam Lipsyte: I think most decent writers feel like that sometimes. It’s the people that think they’re awesome that you have to worry about.
Was it hard to write in such a brutally honest fashion at first?
Sam Lipsyte: It took a lot of humiliation. I suffered in life, and a lot of dumb shit that I did made me realise that no one really cared whether I wrote books or not, or whether I succeeded or not in this realm. Nobody woke up each morning thinking, ‘Boy, I hope Sam really finds his voice today.’ That was just down to me and how much I was willing to put on the table. That was sort of the revelation.
So did you spend a lot of your early life rebelling against everything, like many of your characters?
Sam Lipsyte: I’ve sort of always been a good boy, and to compensate for that did bad things to myself. I just used to oscillate a lot.
The protagonist in ‘Nate’s Pain is Now’ ends up exploiting and embellishing the darkest moments in his life for cash and literaryfame. Do you ever feel like him?
Sam Lipsyte: People’s pain is usually boring; you have to be able to transform those things into something else – that’s where the art part comes in. It’s not about communicating your feelings, it’s about creating an environment where a reader can have all of these emotional reactions and have new thoughts and feelings. You’re the one who built the thing and part of the material is your very fibre, but it’s not for you – it’s not to relieve you of any burden.
So you don’t see this as a cathartic release – it’s just something you love doing?
Sam Lipsyte: The routine of doing it probably helps me a lot. But no, I don’t do it for catharsis, I do it for other people’s catharsis, or I hope that there is something like that. Some reader experience or something.
Are you one of those authors whose lives become consumed with whatever they’re writing?
Sam Lipsyte: Yeah, when I’m deep into something everything becomes related to that thing. So what feels like serendipity – ‘Oh, I’m writing this story but then I was walking down the street and I saw this object and it gave me the solution to the next scene’ – is because your brain has now been wired to process all this information in relation to the thing you are working on. It can become very consuming in that way. With a book, when you’re really in it but you’re not near the end yet, sometimes I’ll lie in bed and think, ‘Oh, the reason that sentence isn’t working is because that word “claw” doesn’t sound right, but this one sounds better,’ and so I’ll get up and make that change.
Do you have the fear when it finally goes off to print and there’s nothing you can change about it?
Sam Lipsyte: Yeah, it never ends. I did the audiobook of The Ask and I was changing stuff while I was reading it in the studio - after the book had been published.
A lot of your stories have junkies in them, or hanging around on the periphery. Were you a big drug-user yourself?
Sam Lipsyte: When I was very young. I didn’t go as deep as the guys who died but I had some serious problems that needed to be worked out before I was gonna get anything else accomplished. I more than dabbled in certain drugs that got me into some bad addictions, but I found help before it took me to places that I didn’t want to go. I mean, I was already in some places that I didn’t want to go, but before it took me there permanently.
Do you think that’s why it’s such a recurring motif in your work?
Sam Lipsyte: Those kind of things stay with you. I don’t think it’s been such a big part of my work in a while, but there are certainly some of the older stories and some of the newer stories where I was going back to that time in this collection that deal with that stuff. I wrote ‘Nate’s Pain is Now’ probably about four or five years ago, but no one’s really seen it until now. They aren’t necessarily all about addicts, but they are about people dancing on the edge of things.
There’s another story in The Fun Parts called ‘The Worm in Philly’, which is based around a junkie whose sportswriter dad loses the plot. Your dad was a sportswriter – what did he think about that guy?
Sam Lipsyte: Not his favourite story. But I’ve written a number of father characters and this one is probably the least like my dad.
Do you ever regret plundering character traits from people in real life for your stories?
Sam Lipsyte: Sure, but not enough to stop. My main rule is that you have to do the worst stuff to yourself. Then it’s okay. Anyway, something may begin as an aspect of a real person but by the time it’s really on the page it’s been transformed. Five or six people I know think they are this one character in The Ask, but the truth is, the actual person, or even face, that triggered my idea for the character was somebody I met once, briefly. Shook his hand and said hello and never saw him again. Real people will only get you so far. And it’s all mostly you, anyway. That goes for all the figures in the book, regardless of age and gender and background.
There are a lot of masculinity issues running through your stories. Do you feel men today have more hang-ups than our fathers’generation?
Sam Lipsyte: Not more, just different. The old models of manhood are highly unstable now, and the new ones are still in experimental stages. Men don’t know how to be. Neither do women, for that matter. We’ll all keep trying. Until capitalism reduces us to ashes.
In another short story called ‘The Climber Room’, a character says ‘totes’ and gets ridiculed. Do you ever LOL?
Sam Lipsyte: Don’t LOL. Sometimes SBRN.
Sam Lipsyte: Shitting Blood Right Now.
Ouch. So when are Dung Beetle going to reform?
Sam Lipsyte: We’ve come together a few times over the years, for a wedding of a friend and the birthday party of another. Never the full original line-up. The drummer hates me, I think. But it’s probably better this way. We’d be dangerous to ourselves and others.
The Fun Parts is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in America on March 5, and by Granta in the UK on March 7