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Killed by death

Satire and surrealism in Sam Lipsyte's new novel


Ani Difranco, the prolific anti-poetess of poverty, power, perjury and product placement, sings a satirical tune about brainwashing in America. Well, maybe she sings more than one, but the ditty I have in mind goes a little something like this:

“Cuz we know the difference between the font of 20 percent more, and the font of teriyaki; you tell me, how does it make you feel? You tell me what’s real.”

The Subject Steve, an all-inclusive satire by Sam Lipsyte, includes similar elucidations of cultural dupery and questionable realities. Toward the beginning of the novel two doctors, “The Mechanic” and “The Philosopher,” give a multimedia presentation on their latest discovery. As (the subject) Steve watches, his future foretold in the “bright ceremony of splice and dissolve,” he becomes aware of the background music: “American educational music, that old warped hope in major chords.” Through images of mountain views and bountiful valleys, the presentation culminates with darkness, “darkness with a few faraway pricks of light. The universe. Universal shorthand for the universe.” The font of the universe, if you will.

Alas, with a bitter inflection and a voice that carries too easily into the more torrid ranges, Ani was a bit too angry to get very far in the world of satire.

In the world of The Subject Steve, sincerity hinders no one. Nothing is serious, at least not for very long, after the charred skin and vengeful family members cool off. Steve, whose name is not Steve, has been diagnosed with PREXIS, a disease that is not a disease, insofar as diseases have symptoms and PREXIS simply has mass media attention.

Steve does have symptoms of disaffection (must be genetic, because his daughter has been enrolled in the School for Disaffected Daughters), boredom, loneliness and, the reader might add, dementia. “The Mechanic” and “The Philosopher” have declared Steve’s case terminal.

Despite his being in “fine fettle,” despite the fact that “Nothing was enveloping me or eating away at me or brandishing itself towards some violence in my brain,” despite all that, Steve is on the road to death, no question.

Of course when death will come is uncertain: “By their calculations there could be no calculations.” The simple conclusion, in terms nothing short of tautological, is that death is death and death will kill Steve.

Thus Steve commences a journey for the cure, sometimes willingly, sometimes ripped from his car by burly men with a tendency towards mind-altering violence and a predilection for mind-altering drugs. Through pseudo-anti-medicinal boot camps, a stint starring in reality television, and a fate fixed by Internet voting, Steve takes it all in stride, never so emotionally invested that he can’t handle being flayed by Heinrich of Newark (New Jersey, one presumes).

Author Lipsyte has developed quite a cast of characters and barely comprehensible scenarios in which to play out the trials of good and evil in this nearly contemporary, completely vacuous society. Steve’s ex-wife Maryse has left him for his best friend William the Fulfiller. William is rich and clueless thanks to Wall Street, to which he ran after deciding that enlightenment wasn’t cost-effective. Steve meets his true love Renee at the Center for Nondenominational Recovery and Redemption. She is paralyzed from the waist down and hails from the “Island of Lesbos,” neither of which conditions is an impediment to their consuming affair. After Steve escapes from the Center, Renee hooks up with Bobby, Steve’s old roommate and the perpetual junkie in Hollywood films, and Rad Balm girl, the technical support behind The Realms, a reality television show about the Center. Coincidentally (?), Rad Balm girl is the new tenant of Steve’s apartment, from which he was evicted without notice, leaving him with only a few possessions, most notably his “Jews of Jazz” calendar.

Remarkably, Lipsyte manages to weave these many plot twists and endless cameos into something that resembles a cohesive story. The tool that helps him most is his deft, comic use of language. Words bind together and spin off one another with even more velocity than the ideas themselves. He glides back and forth seamlessly between rivulets of poetry about a boyhood spent blissfully running through subdivision lots, and an offer by his old subdivision companion Cudahy to put in an order for “a new missus for less than ten grand. Tits, an adorable accent.” Cudahy deals in mail-order brides.

Language is both the tool and the target as Lipsyte tears into its many mis-uses. Puns, illogical logic, modifying modifiers, and infinite permutations of these mirror the meaninglessness of a commodified life—and death. In this world, finding truth is almost as impossible as escaping the cliché of truth.

There is perhaps one line in the book that holds some veracity, at least of the variety Lipsyte is hawking. Lem, son of one of the women at the Center, boyfriend of Steve’s disaffected daughter, drug dealer, drug consumer, and erstwhile nice guy, has come to visit Steve in the hospital. He explains that his mother, a “guru addict,” has gone off to another healing circle.

“We all need love,” Steve says optimistically.

“Bullshit,” says Lem. “We all need bullshit.”

In a four words or less, that’s what The Subject Steve is all about.

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