May 2017

The Secret Is In The Satire

The Blackmail The Blackmail The Blackmail The Blackmail The Blackmail Text: Kat Hartmann

Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask is a book worthy of the heightened levels of reader and reviewer excitement it’s been inspiring of late. The satirical down-and-out tale of self-preservation in a world gone money speaks to the cynic and private naysayer in all of us. The raw honesty and lacklustre appeal – yes, sometimes the twain shall meet – of its protagonist and general life failure, Milo Burke is oddly alluring. So much so that, on some debased level, I unknowingly found myself relating to his paltry life and inability to move out of his self-created swelling circle of failed attempts.

The Ask’s Milo Burke is an unsuccessful artist whose high hopes for personal creative endeavours have amounted to little more than a shaky marriage, an observant-beyond-his-years offspring and a mid-level position at a soul-sucking place of employment. Read: and academic development officer at an art college. An unlikely premise for a compelling page-turner, but a successful one nonetheless. The secret is in the satire
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Lipsyte’s acuminous ability to delve into the shit-storm of awkwardness that is an extensive exploration – and portrayal – of a mediocre existence, without a hint of hesitation and seemingly no regard for the stain such activities might leave on his own metaphorical clothing is deserved of all of the online lauding that has thus far surrounded this author. We encountered it in Home Land’s dishwashing, weed-smoking protagonist Lewis Miner aka Teabag and here again in Milo Burke.

As a follow up to Home Land, The Ask sets Lipsyte comfortably at the helm of the hovercraft of satire scudding gracefully into the brave new world of publishing.

Speaking of Milo Burke and publishing…

Kat Hartmann: Where did the inspiration for a luckless anti-hero like Milo Burke come from?

Sam Lipsyte: I suppose from the times I’ve felt luckless and anti-heroic myself.

KH: Regarding your writing style, for both The Ask and earlier novels, are you more of a pre-planner or a write-then-edit author?

SL: Oh, I have no clue what I’m doing when I begin. The whole first draft is all groping and stumbling in the dark. At the beginning I’m just writing to find out what I’m writing. Everything worthwhile happens in revision.

KH: A lot of your writing has a darker, almost hopeless undertone that is hard to not either relate strongly to, or baulk against – depending on your natural disposition. Is that a product of personal perception or creative licence?

SL: Somebody said to me recently, “Your work is funny but also very sad, that’s your thing.” But I guess I think that’s the thing. My worldview informs my tone, but things are very much amplified and distorted by language to create various fictional effects. I’m a friendly, upbeat guy in person. I don’t dump doom on my family. But my fiction tries to probe the conflicts, the anxieties, and the often unintentional hilarity, of being a certain kind of human right now.

KH: You recently recounted a tale, in a Vice magazine interview in which you detailed an account of being denied email access by a Melbourne librarian you suspected of being a bigot, possibly even an exclusionist. How do you feel about that experience a few months on?

SL: I recant everything I said. I was sweaty and annoyed and I jumped to conclusions. I’m sure she was a very nice lady. She just wasn’t sure what to make of me. My wife’s family is Australian and they are wonderful and I love Melbourne. Everybody can relax.

KH: The author comparisons always come thick and fast at the release of a new Sam Lipsyte novel. Egger and Foster Wallace are two that instantly spring to mind. Do you ever get sick of/overly buoyed by such comparisons?

SL: I have no problem being compared to other writers, as long as I respect them, as I do the two you mentioned. And the comparisons are so varied that I never really feel burdened by them. I’ve been likened to both Grace Paley and to Céline — it’s hard to feel pigeonholed by that combination.

KH: I read a review for Home Land submitted by an Amazon user the other night, it may have been by Christopher Sorrentino but I cannot be certain. I found the opening line quite beautiful in its aptness. It read, ‘Sam Lipsyte sees things more clearly than most writers, and he doesn’t flinch.’ What are your thoughts regarding your perceptive clarity?

SL: I haven’t seen that one. I don’t know what to say about the way I perceive things, but I will say that Chris Sorrentino is a great writer. Also, some of the best prose ever to appear on Amazon was by Sorrentino in his many personas (he is the Pessoa of the internet) commenting on things like steak knives and in doing so forging some unforgettable riffs. But tragically I think the posts got taken down. I hope they were preserved. They would make a wonderful book.

KH: Speaking of Sorrentino, in a recent discussion with him you shared your thoughts that the publishing industry is about to see a return to smaller houses. You compared it to the music industries return to indie labels. Do you think that makes smaller publishers like McSweeney’s and Melville House more relevant being that they are already established and, as such, slightly ahead of the game.

SL: They are already extremely relevant, and they will be among those providing leadership to newer small houses, definitely, along with Soft Skull, Coffee House and several others.

KH: Lastly, we’re keen to find out what’s next on the agenda for you. Can you tell us a little about the collection of stories you are currently working on?

SL: There are will be some stories I’ve published in the last few years, and some new ones I’m working on now. I don’t have a title yet. I’m entertaining suggestions.

Next story: Old World Nostalgia – TMOD