Sam Lipsyte on ‘Mental Archery,’ the Quest for Certainty, and Where All the Money Went

“It’s difficult to say what you really think. You’re too aware of the traps, the dead ends, the cul-de-sacs of utterance: all the ways we let cliché steer us in a certain direction, force us to say not quite what we mean…”

Ryan Chapman | Longreads | January 2019 | 15 minutes (4,079 words)

There’s an old Calvin & Hobbes comic strip where Calvin says, “Remember when ‘access’ was a thing? Now it’s something you do. It got verbed… Verbing weirds language.” With Hark, Sam Lipsyte’s sixth book and first novel in nine years, he has once again weirded language into an inimitable comic brio, capturing the roiling mess of late-capitalist/early-apocalypse America, and making us laugh while he pulls it off.

Here’s Lipsyte on Dieter Delgado, a titan of industry with a deep misreading of Naomi Klein: “Dieter hails from the throw-it-all-at-the-wall school. One war, one earthquake, one tsunami, one pandemic, one dating app and, assuming you are well positioned, you can cover your losses and get mega-rich all over again, ad mega-infinitum. Deets read a book about this that inspired him to seek out more catastrophe. The next hemoclysm may make him the world’s first trillionaire.”

Delgado is hoping to fund “mental archery,” a nascent fad started by Hark Morner. Equal parts cult leader and affectless blank, Morner has no dogma, no Jonestown dreams: He wants focus. This can be achieved through poses like Cantering Hun, Priapic Centaur, and Nottingham Surprise, which he extols in online videos and through corporate speeches in and around New York.

The chapters alternately follow Morner’s team of semi-professional proselytizers: Fraz Penzig, a man with a crumbling marriage and vague skillset; Teal Baker-Cassini, an ex-convict who provides improvised counseling to Fraz and his wife Tovah; Kate Crumpler, a trust funder who finances Hark’s operation and couriers organ donations around the globe; plus an ever-expanding circle of adherents, addicts, and billionaire vultures. It’s downright expansive, touching upon the wellness industry, religion, terrorism, foreign wars, hagiography, branding, and income inequality, with a swerve of an ending some may find hopeful—a rare sentiment in Lipsyte’s prose.

In the years since his last novel (The Ask) Lipsyte has published short fiction with comforting regularity in The New Yorker and The Paris Review. He’s currently chair of Columbia’s MFA program.

This interview occurred at the Old Town Bar over a moderate number of whiskeys. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

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Ryan Chapman: Shall we start with the basic question? What was the genesis of the book?

Sam Lipsyte: I started it in 2012. It really began with the idea that there would be this mindfulness practice called Mental Archery. I started to create some characters around this project. There was a whole set piece that never made it into the book that took place at a school picnic, it involved members of this cult or group. That was really the genesis. And then the second thing—which is now the second chapter—a description of Hark and Fraz going upstate to the fictional town of Pickering to give a presentation. And things grew in a bunch of different directions from that. That’s how it started.

There’s a chance the book could become so successful, in the way Spinal Tap inspired actual hair metal bands, that people who love GOOP will take up Mental Archery.

Well, if there’s a way for me to personally monetize that experience, I’m definitely open to it. (laughter)

Merchandising!

Anybody with a business sense, if they want to bring it to the table…

That ask is now out there.

I’m tired of being a broke writer. (laughter)

That Pickering chapter is our first chance of seeing Hark. He’s kind of a void in the beginning—

Kind of a cipher.

Yeah. He gives these great extemporaneous monologues. And when you think of Lewis “Teabag” Miner from Home Land, Milo Burke from The Ask, and Fraz Penzig in Hark, they’re all charismatic soapboxers, but also somewhat repulsive. Whereas Hark is a kind of blank soapboxer. Where did his voice came from?

I wanted it to be very different from that lineage you just described, where it’s kind of a cantankerous, aggressive ranting… What Fraz gets to be, what those previous characters didn’t get to be, is Hark’s “hype man.” That’s how he sees himself, anyway.

Those other characters were kind of tilting at the world without any real purchase. Fraz here has something to latch his utterance to, to promote. He’s a character who’s been looking for that his whole life.

He gets to play Paul the apostle.

That’s how he sees himself. “He was once Saul, and now he’s Paul.”

People who’ve read your work might be surprised to encounter the true believers in this book.

There are people that I take seriously who believe.

And this goes to the larger canvas. This is your first novel where the baton of narrative is being passed between characters.

Yeah, and I’ve never written a novel in third person before. That was a huge break from the singular point of view I used to work from. In embracing this bigger canvas there’s room for all these different registers, these different worldviews, these different stances in relation to questions of belief, in terms of the philosophical outlook of each character. That’s a great way to play.

I think E. M. Cioran said every book is a postponed suicide. Not to say that I’m suicidal. But there’s celebration in the fact that any book gets written.

There’s also a heartbreaking portrait of a marriage in trouble, which we get to see from both sides. There’s Tovah, one of your favorite names—

I think of them as the same Tovah.

It’s the same Tovah from “The Climber Room” and “Deniers”? It’s nice to see her poetry’s getting better.

Her poetry’s getting better, but her poetry career is in the toilet. (laughter)

I think that’s how it goes. Most poets might agree with you. (laughter)

This is your first novel since 2010’s The Ask, which dealt head-on (and presciently) with widening income inequality, the sense of society as nothing but winners and losers. The world is certainly more despairing since then. Did you find it difficult to return to a larger narrative when the culture has accelerated so much? And how do you maintain a balance between hope and despair for your characters?

I’ll take the last question first. I think E. M. Cioran said every book is a postponed suicide. Not to say that I’m suicidal. But there’s celebration in the fact that any book gets written. I think it’s beside the point to gauge its level of bleakness. Because to sit down and make art instead of doing nothing, or lying around crying, is a positive act.

So I don’t worry too much about the hope and the despair of my characters. I think life is just a cycle of hope and despair. Maybe a book will end on one or the other—and the other is about to arrive any second anyway.

As far as the acceleration goes, you can’t grab the world and make it stop just so you can write about it. You just keep writing and responding, and writing and responding, having an emotional and intellectual reaction to what’s going on. If you’re writing a long piece of fiction, those layers will accrue in the book. That’s part of the pleasure, to create some of those textures.

In earlier books the Lipsyte character was often the frustrated guy in his late-20s. His dreams didn’t pan out, and he’s thinking, I have one more shot at glory. In Hark, that guy’s in middle age, and now he’s desperately searching for certainty. But all is not lost. There’s Fraz and Tovah: married, two kids, with all of the financial pressures and relationship pressures such families experience—and some happiness too.

Do you feel like the Lipsyte man or woman is entering a new space with this novel?

I think you described it really well. What’s interesting is the way the Lipsyte man or woman still contains that earlier version. There’s not a complete transition. I think I’ve always been interested in the way we’re several selves at once, in different times in our life at once. Sometimes within the span of an hour we might be thinking the way we thought when we were twenty, thinking the way we should be thinking now, thinking the way we’re going to be thinking when we’re seventy-five. That’s a swirl within us we’re constantly negotiating, that’s driving us mad.

It’s not unlike Sabbath’s Theater, where Mickey Sabbath acts like a lusty twenty-year-old more and more the closer he gets to death.

But it’s not even just that. At fifty, which I am, you’re past being twenty-five and wondering, What the hell’s going to happen? Are you even going to do anything, or meet someone, or be okay?

At fifty you kind of know some of the answers to that. Yet you can easily fall back into that panic and it feels the same. And then looking forward, mortality gets heavier airplay. At fifty you start thinking, Do I get to sixty? Do I get to seventy? Eighty?

And again, these things can be maddening. So when there seems to be a simple solve, like in this case Mental Archery (laughter), or some sort of idol or guru, or some kind of system or cosmology—you use the word that I think is key, some kind of certainty. When all is uncertainty, that’s one of the ways the characters in this book get themselves into big trouble—the quest for certainty.

I think a lot of lesser writers would satirize that.

I would never make fun of that. It’s human and poignant, that quest. What I’m making fun of is some of the things we do to each other and to ourselves when we’re not being honest about what’s going on.


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You had said in an interview about receiving some good advice from Gordon Lish, about writing characters who have expertise beyond your ken. If you want to put a master of the universe in your book, you’re not going to learn what it means to run Goldman Sachs, but if you follow the rhythm of the character’s voice, if you pay attention to the sentences, that aspect will come through and feel true to the reader.

If you can remember what it was like bullying your younger siblings, you can probably capture what it’s like. (laughter)

That’s great advice! Tom Wolfe could have saved himself all that time researching…

Exactly!

Language in your work has always been something to be wrestled with, played with, perverted. Our public language has changed since the 1980s: it’s common for people to speak in winking, advertising slogans. Have you seen a change in your own relationship to language?

The glib irony of the 1990s became the language of advertising and the language of popular culture. And what you’re still doing as a writer is paying attention to the official language: the way certain phrases calcify and lose resonance and meaning through overuse. You have to stay attuned to that. You’re also paying attention to the way the given world frames ideas.

I listen to the language that comes out of the TV, that comes out of the radio, the given language, and when I’m with my family and friends we play with it. That process has always been the same, even if the angle changes.

Fraz seems to use language as a shield, and there’s a sadness to thinking there’s nothing behind the shield. Whereas Hark never needs it. You feel like Hark’s the guy who’s never seen a Simpsons episode, you know? He’s just purely trying to communicate with people.

Yes. If you’re saying on some level Fraz is paralyzed by that awareness, I think that’s true. But it’s also his way of feeling, and he can’t change it. He’s been formed that way. He has to go around those obstacles to get to feeling.

Maybe I feel like I’m like that too. In trying to formulate my feelings, in trying to find language for them—and I sense this is true for a lot of people—it’s difficult to say what you really think and feel. You’re too aware of the traps, the dead ends, the cul-de-sacs of utterance: and all the ways we let cliché steer us in a certain direction, force us to say not quite what we mean…

So we’re always wrestling with that. And I find that a noble fight. I don’t see Fraz as this corrupted, less pure, sad case. In a way, I see him like people I know who are heroically struggling against hearing too much.

The quest for certainty…. I would never make fun of that. It’s human and poignant, that quest. What I’m making fun of is some of the things we do to each other and to ourselves when we’re not being honest about what’s going on.

This came up in my class today. Someone used the phrase “active shooter” in a story. I said, you know, when I was growing up we didn’t have “active shooters,” we just had shooters—or whatever: “crazy people with guns,” “there’s a guy down at the mall with a machine gun.”

So, I keep thinking about “the active shooter” versus “the dormant shooter,” or “the passive shooter”… I guess I’m the kind of person who’s going to keep turning that phrase in my mind. Whereas other people, and maybe Hark speaks for them, aren’t going to be encumbered with that.

In the past you’ve mentioned the benefit of recognizing early on what you can and can’t do as a writer—figuring out your strengths.

I don’t know if you’ve seen the Yorgos Lanthimos film The Favourite, but seeing him direct a period film was really exciting. You know it’s going to be most abject period film you’ve ever seen.

I wondered if there were projects like that for you. Like a multi-volume series: Sam Lipsyte’s Dance to the Music of Time. Are there attempts that always end up on the cutting room floor?

You mean that slam up against my weaknesses?

Yeah.

I always think of Stanley Elkin, who talked about using a pretty conventional form to pour unconventional stuff in. He called himself a “putter inner.” He was not structurally innovative. But he was incredibly inventive on the level of the sentence, or the aria within a scene. But if you look at it structurally, or just as an outline for a novel, it’s fairly conventional. I find I’m similar in that way.

There have been times when I’ve tried to do a much more, shall we say, unconventional, structurally wild—

Did Hark have a fifty-page monologue at some point?

(Laughter) Yeah. Write in that mode, a kind of very deliberate, high modernist absurdism, perhaps, that I kind of hanker for, that part of me thinks is, you know, the high point of literature.

It’s the long shadow of the 1970s postmodernists. That pedestal is high but it’s made of Styrofoam.

But every time I try it, it feels so mannered and stupid and wrong. I guess it’s me. (laughter)

Maybe it can’t be done with a novel right now. Stories like “This Appointment Occurs in the Past” are very structurally innovative.

At least it has the veneer of the conventional story.

It reminds me a little of Donald Antrim’s fiction.

Where I’d say I failed is writing my version of an Antrim Hundred Brothers kind of book.

A 200-page rant? (laughter)

I don’t know where it is but I wrote fifty pages about this guy who was kidnapped by these hipsters, was being held hostage in a small cement room. And he would hear them practice their band, have political conversations through the wall… (laughter) Like a guy being held hostage by Fugazi.

They’re like, “Listen, we keep charging $10 a show and it’s not working. We need more money.” (laughter)

Right, he was some sort of businessman. But the idea never really went anywhere.

I think twenty years ago I was trying to write something that was more in the genre of fantasy, sci-fi… Maybe not unlike Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane, something that was not afraid to embrace those conventions. But I fall apart when I do that.

How long have you been teaching at Columbia?

Since 2004, and I was full time by 2006. I wrote Home Land before I had a full-time job, when I was beginning to adjunct.

Lewis Miner feels like a character written by a guy who’s underemployed. (laughter)

Yeah. And The Ask, you know, was my rage against having to have a job. (laughter)

The Ask is a secret great New York novel. Anybody who moves to New York City now should read it just to understand what they’re in for. Either you’re being asked or you’re making the ask.

That’s how I felt about it. Everything boiled down to that.

When you started teaching full-time most of your writing occurred in the early morning. Is that still true?

I was doing that for a while. Now it’s during the summers. I have this three-and-a-half-month block when I really get most of my writing done. During the school year I’ll write a short story or two, or do some editing on something I’ve already worked on. The consistent thing, of getting up and writing five or six hours a day, that’s mostly during the summer.

The glib irony of the 1990s became the language of advertising and the language of popular culture…. What you’re doing as a writer is paying attention to the official language: the way certain phrases calcify and lose resonance and meaning through overuse.

I have a working theory that there are caffeine-fueled writers, pill-fueled writers, and booze-fueled writers. And there’s a zip to the Lipsyte sentence that comes from caffeine.

I won’t say I’ve never written a word, but I’ve never published a word that I wrote with even a drop of alcohol in me. Harry Crews said writers don’t drink to write, they drink—like everyone else—to deal with other people. (laughter)

He seems like one of those people who could write through a hangover. And it worked.

Yeah. For a while. The later stuff, not so much.

I haven’t read his later work. I really love A Feast of Snakes.

A Feast of Snakes is incredible. I really like The Knockout Artist, that’s a good one. Car is great. The Hawk Is Dying… He was quite astonishing.

I hope there’s a Crews renaissance soon. The way there has been for Barry Hannah.

Has there been a Barry Hannah renaissance?

There was that great Grove collection of his stories, Long, Last, Happy, that came out of a few years ago.

I think it was like, ten years ago. (laughter)

You might be right. But now I feel like there are enough Barry Hannah acolytes and former students of his publishing their own books.

That’s good to hear. I mention him to my students and they’ve never heard of him. I’m always pushing him on my students. Airships should answer some questions for you, as a writer. Open some doors and close some others, set you on your way.

Which doors does it close?

It tells you so succinctly what to leave in and what to leave out. What’s wonderful about Hannah is he picks his spots where to dwell and where to zip along. Where to dilate and where to collapse. His stories, especially in Airships, have this jangly compression that, along with the music of his sentences, is incomparable.

I think he also has a sense of the sacred that emerging writers might feel is embarrassing. You just have to own it.

Yeah. Everyone understands you have to be vulnerable but they’re not exactly sure what that means. Hannah demonstrates a way to do that.

Do you feel like you’re seeing new kinds of fiction with your students? When I was younger, everyone was reading Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son.

I think one of the people in that slot right now is Ottessa Moshfegh. She’s somebody who everybody is trying to emulate.

That’s unfortunate for them. (laughter)

Yeah, it’s a big mistake. The same way it’s a mistake to try to be Denis Johnson.

What I am seeing that’s very interesting to me are writers who are both very interested in doing something with language and been shaped deeply by video games. The way the images and the strange dream-logic of video games are merging with the poetry.

That’s wild. Video games are my heroin, where I couldn’t do it just once. I’d get too addicted.

I just watch my son play. I don’t even want to touch the controller.

Is he playing Red Dead Redemption II?

Constantly.

Critics are calling it art. To walk around in that universe… It’s like a Cormac McCarthy novel.

I was trying to explain to a student what he had to do, for a certain moment in his story, I actually used a video game reference. I was very proud of myself. (laughter)

And then there was a standing ovation in class. (laughter)

There is this whole art-versus-play debate going on in the video game world, as I understand it, because my son is going around these towns in Red Dead Redemption II, shooting everybody, causing a ruckus… He wanted to get from one town to somewhere far away, which required riding his horse for five minutes across this prairie—utter tedium. So what did he do? He paid his little sister to ride the horse while he left the room. (laughter)

Smart kid.

He got himself something to drink and a snack, she rode the horse. So as these video game designers are thinking, “This is the art, the most contemplative five-minute ride through these waving stalks of prairie grass, as the horse thunders across the plains to the next town…” The little sister’s riding the horse. (laughter)

I hate to say it, but it sounds like your daughter’s going to have this rich inner life and your son’s going to be a Goldman Sachs exec.

I hope for my sake he’s a Goldman Sachs exec!

Would you recommend young writers come to New York City?

If you have a trust fund. (laughter) When I came here you could still come here with no money. I don’t know if there’s a place left in the five boroughs where you can do that. Maybe there is.

If they’re smart they won’t tell us.

If they’re smart we won’t find out about it. But you don’t have to be here. I moved here with a band, we were trying to do something as a collective. Anywhere you are you can forge some sort of scene. I forget who said it, but the mistake is to think the scene is all somewhere else. The scene is where you are, with people who you find exciting. Wherever that is.

It’s really nice to have a bar when you’re twenty-five to go to and get into conversations with like-minded people about books or art. That doesn’t have to be in New York. This used to be a city for artists, a city that welcomed artists. It’s just not anymore.

What do you think? Would you move here now?

I think the genius of Fugazi, Jack Kerouac, and Sylvia Plath is there will always be teenagers who identify with their work. Similarly, there will always be teenagers who grow up somewhere where they don’t identify with that place. They can now find their people online, but it’s not the same.

It used to be, you make your way to New York and get a job that pays crap, you could still have fun. You could find a bar with $4 well drinks, get drunk, find people, have those great long discussions about art. I don’t know if that’s true anymore.

When I was living out in Queens, I did have a community of people that I saw all the time, who talked about books, art, movies, and music. They hashed it out.

I recently met the novelist Matthew Thomas, who’s from Queens. He could recite lines from Martin Amis’s Money off the top of his head. I was like, I want to be friends with this guy.

Yeah, exactly.

Long interviews can demystify the writer, so I thought we could end on a new myth about yourself that you’d like to send out into the world. Something that will never be fact-checked.

Over the course of my life I’ve made and lost a hundred million dollars.

People should buy the book, ask to get it signed, and then ask about the money.

“What happened to the money?”

“Why’d you have to leave town so fast?”

“He knew where the bodies were buried. Then he forgot.” That’s another thing I want said about me. (laughter)

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Ryan Chapman lives in Kingston, New York. His writing has appeared in NewYorker.com, Bookforum, BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, The Millions, GQ.com, and elsewhere. His novel Riots I Have Known will be published by Simon & Schuster in May.

Editor: Dana Snitzky