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Sam Lipsyte's Meta Family Fiction

Pieter M. van Hattem/Contour by Getty Images/Getty

Closure, for Sam Lipsyte, is generally a sign that things have hit rock bottom. Lipsyte's last two novels, Home Land and The Ask, were cris de coeur—the sweaty, panting quests of solo protagonists who alternately succumb to and rail against their failures. In Home Land, the narrator's goal is as modest as it is elusive: to force his high school alumni magazine to publish one (pathetically) truthful update. In The Ask, a similar anti-hero has become shabbily incapable of even that kind of noble failure. A dud filmmaker, he is fired from his job as a university fundraiser after telling a student, unequivocally, she is as untalented as he. Both go down fighting, but should they have started the fight at all?

In the stories that make up Lipsyte’s latest, The Fun Parts, that same kind of narrator—hobbled rather than freed by the truth and deeply frustrated with his lot in life—appears in various guises. There's the male doula who, annoyed by a baby's inability to latch, finally clears the mother's milk ducts by himself. (He's Tasered for his pains.) In “Deniers,” the daughter of a tight-lipped Holocaust survivor dates a recovering white supremacist to feel closer to her father. And in “The Climber Room,” a sour nursery school teacher only settles for a man after accepting she's far worse of a stereotype than he is. This is problem-solving, but only of that kind that leads to a bigger disaster.

In Lipsyte's former works, his protagonists have struggled with a mother figure—often coarse, often a lesbian, and frequently dying of cancer. In The Fun Parts, he's turned to a father figure not unlike Lipsyte's own real-life father, Robert Lipsyte. Sam Lipsyte’s fictional father figure (and his real father), is a sportswriter who, in the 1970s, had a great deal of success with first-person books for teenagers. The Fun Parts references unnamed works of the elder Lipsyte's teen oeuvre not as homage, but to show how central they were to the son's adolescent misery.

“Snacks,” for instance, references One Fat Summer—a real-life book, written by Lipsyte’s real-life father about a teen who triumphs over bullies and manages to lose his flab. “Snacks” is told from the perspective of the son of the author of One Fat Summer, and in the short story, the book actually causes the narrator humiliation: When his class is assigned the book a fellow student explains that it shows “how gross his son is.” (That real-life book is dedicated to Sam.) In another story, after we learn that a father character has left his wife, the narrator informs the reader he's going to sleep with the father's new girlfriend: “I just know, with a certainty I've never experienced, that before she is out of our lives forever, I will be in Lisa's ass.” The voice here perfectly mimics the tone of Robert Lipsyte’s protagonists—a perverse tribute. Speculating how much of an author's work is based on his real life is de rigueur, but Lipsyte seems to be questioning how much of his life was based on his father's work.

The machinery that turns life into art has long been a concern for Lipsyte: For him, the desire to tell the story itself is a kind of corruption. The father of a student in The Ask “had mortgaged his electronics store so his son could craft affecting screenplays about an emotionally distant, workaholic immigrant's quest for the American dream.” In “Nate's Pain is Now” (from The Fun Parts), a James Frey–like narrator who makes good use of his suffering is overshadowed by an acolyte who writes about his suffering at the narrator’s hands. The Fun Parts is Larkinesque story-telling: fractal narratives breeding pain upon pain.

Writers, in particular, make a difference in the stories that comprise The Fun Parts, just not the difference the writers would have wanted. The Holocaust survivor-father whispers shande at the young adult paperback his daughter is reading, the story of a teenager who befriends his neighbor, a wanted Nazi—even though she's only reading the book to try to learn about her father's tragic past.1 A junkie tries, like his sportswriter father, to sell a children's book based on the life story of a boxer. But it turns out the editor is only meeting with him to locate her addict brother for an intervention.

To use elements from your own life to question how close art is to life is a tricky project. Lipsyte's foray succeeds because it is actually a work of incredible empathy: His precise articulation of the insufficiency of art against life's disappointments reveals an impressive understanding of both. We like to think art reflects our lives and improves them. Lipsyte asks whether it does the opposite.

In his recent work, Lipsyte has moved from wittily and brilliantly depicted families to depicting artists in families, the betrayals and failures that are part of their creations. In The Fun Parts, Lipsyte explores a writer's inability to tell the truth so skillfully he convinces us completely—except by being convinced, we are acknowledging that at least one writer can certainly tell the truth: Lipsyte himself.

Lizzie Skurnick is the Editor-in-Chief of Lizzie Skurnick Books, an imprint of classic teen fiction. Her memoir of teen reading, Shelf Discovery, was published in 2010.

  1. The unnamed book is M.E. Kerr's Gentlehands, another popular book from the 1970s.