Sam Lipsyte: “The Climber Room”

11/23/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, November 21, 2011.

Sam Lipsyte is such a fantastic, funny, and inventive writer that even if he wasn’t making a point, even if this were an excerpt, I’d probably still recommend this story. The reason for this brief disclaimer is that Lipsyte’s given himself such room with Tovah, an out-of-work poet who has turned to working part-time at an elite preschool, that although there’s a solid if somewhat out-of-the-blue ending (which is the point), I almost wish it were an excerpt. Likewise, although his story is about the place of women in America (or simply the 99%, if you want to be general, or ensure that it relates more specifically to you as a reader), in that they seem to be endlessly climbing, there’s so much more that you might glide right past the message. (In fact, I may be reading into it.)

I read from a critical perspective, so the greatest praise I can level toward Lipsyte is that I knew what he was doing, and yet was still pleasantly distracted into the sheer entertainment. To put it another way, this is the equivalent of a magician performing a trick that I’m familiar with — like palming a quarter — and making it disappear even though I know that I’m looking for. The specific and disarming technique used here involves the comic rhythm of the piece and the originality of the descriptions: the former makes you bubble along, the latter has you latching on to things that are beside the point. Meanwhile, between those lines, there’s a whole subconscious thing going on, and Lipsyte plays with it well, filling his story with sorrowful echoes, most specifically about the inexplicable chemical desire and totally rational emotional reason to have children.

Listen to his use of a close third-person narrative, as Tovah listens to a parent (whose name she mishears, or correctly assesses, as Randy Goat) make an awful joke: “He looked at Tovah as though expecting some response, but what? Tolerant smile? Snappy retort? Hand job? These older fathers with their second, ‘doing it right this time’ families were the worst.” There’s plenty of opinion there, but what stands out is “hand job,” just as the description of this man as a “crypto-creepy progenitor” skews the way you’d normally process a sleazy guy like this. Later, Lipsyte toys with literal interruptions, too, as Tovah describes the man’s apartment: “Enormous, dazzling, a living (well, not quite living) embodiment (not embodiment, precisely) of the aspirational sconce porn that Tovah sometimes indulged in online or at magazine racks.” She’s a poet, which explains her attempts at precision, and so we’re drawn away from the magnitude of the house into her reaction to it, and in turn to an observation about her character . . . and yet, what’ll stick in our mind is the term “sconce porn,” which is a pretty unique way of description one’s jealous coveting of another man’s ornate fixtures. This continues as Tovah obsesses about her pending “cat-ladyhood” and stakes her life upon the hope that “the right man or even woman (what did it matter, really?) would appear, and, for goddamn certain, the right baby. Which meant any baby, within reason. Race or gender didn’t matter, but spine on the inside would be nice.”

Even sections that don’t totally work for me are intricately tied into Tovah’s pathetic obsessions. The scene in which she binges on Chinese food, anorexically worries about her weight, and then masturbates, has a perspective that’s a little confusing, tonally. But it’s battened down by descriptions, like the way “she felt slimy, garbage-juice sexy,” and elegant and raunchy, Baker-eseque metaphors, in which “Tovah’s legal pad, upon which she’d written only the title of her poem, ‘Needing the Wood,’ slid to the carpet. Her fountain pen, caught against an embroidered yellow pillow, impaled it.” And yet, this leads cleanly into Tovah’s remembrances of the last time she felt beautiful, upon meeting her former best friend’s brother, Sean, with whom she now (in the present) has an abrupt — after sixteen years — date: “This is the way Jesus must have worked, some petty wonder talk while revelation sank its celestial needle. An artificial insemination of the soul.” Note how artfully he ties into both magical-thinking drugs and baby-making, and in turn, watch how her desire for a baby develops from a biological impulse to an emotional defense: “She wanted to carry it and give birth to it and breast-feed it and live in a natural cocoon with it for as long as possible, with somebody on the outside slipping everything she needed through a slim vent. In this way life would be joyful instead of nearly unlivable.”

Of course, things don’t work out as expected: “She wanted Sean to save her and screw her and give her a baby,” and yet upon meeting him in “a place that specialized in artisinal scrapple” (which we can already see is far-removed from Tovah’s world), her hopes are crushed by his “shock of white hair,” his urban slang, and his joking reference to her as “Big Bones.” Hopes crushed, she instead allows herself to be sucked into the world of the infinitely wealthy Mr. Gautier (“Goat”), who uses his adopted daughter Dezzy to lure Tovah back to his apartment, as a “babysitter.” She knows what he’s after, and in fact she even allows herself to fantasize about being a part of his world, but as the time draws nearer, she sees herself more as an object, less a person, and has second thoughts. Reality cruelly sets in:

“Tovah, let’s be realistic. You’re not the high-school babysitter. I don’t play bridge with your father. We’re grown up and broken, just like everybody else. Stop acting like a precious flower.”

In response, Tovah unleashes a pent-up, stream-of-consciousness monologue about how difficult it is to be a woman, precisely because of “opportunities” like the one Mr. Gautier is offering her. She tells him off, she goes to reclaim herself, and then Lipsyte springs the real ending on us:

Tovah turned and saw that Mr. Gautier had tugged his penis out of his tuxedo pants. He gave a shrug, and, like a loved boy, beamed. “It’s O.K.,” he said. “I’m listening.”

To be patronized, ignored, and objectified all at once? It doesn’t get more demoralizing than that. As for the story itself? You can’t really get more invested or provoked than that, especially when you thought you were just here to be entertained. That’s good fiction: it has the power to hurt you as much as it hurts the characters, to teach you what it teaches them.


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