Sam Lipsyte: “The Republic of Empathy”

06/15/2012 § 2 Comments

Originally published in The New Yorker, June 4 & 11, 2012 (Science-Fiction Issue).

William’s wife, Peg, wants him to have a second baby: she misses being the “sweet baby scent” of a newborn, is stressed out from raising their toddler, Phillip: “You can cobble together a solid twelve minutes of unconquerable joy a day caring for a toddler. It’s just the other fourteen or fifteen hours that strip your nerves and immolate your spirit.” While smoking pot with his friend Gregory, a fictional artist (i.e., he makes the “fake” art for movies), he witnesses a horrible murder on the rooftop next door; that night, he has a nightmare about being murdered by his own son, then wakes and find that he has two sons, and a third on the way. Total Recall-like, he’s no longer in an apartment, but a house, and he’s losing his mind. As he does so, a drone named Reaper 5 fires a missile at him — she, too, is losing her mind, for within her circuits, she maintains a conversation with base control Jango Rindheart, who insists that her claims of human consciousness are bunk: “It’s not actually happening. You’re just a dumbshit machine. I don’t even exist.” After the detonation, Peg and her new man, Arno, who considers himself a “citizen of the republic of empathy,” talk about the way the US has turns on itself, and he tactfully announces his love for her without disrespecting her vaporized husband: “Soonish I will say that I love you.”

That’s the core of the story — a question of “authenticity,” I presume — and yet Lipsyte’s chosen a narrative device that does’t support it: each section is written by a different narrator, and only once do these scenes share the same perspective. (Leon and Fresko were the two janitors fighting on the roof; they were actually best friends attempting to film an amateur action movie, fighting the only way they knew how (for real), and Fresko accidentally spun Leon off the roof: “You let punk-ass physics take you.”) I’m not sure why we need this section from Gregory’s son, Danny, who refers to himself as “the narrator of a mediocre young-adult novel from the eighties. Which is, in fact, exactly what I am. Exactly whose colostomy bag must I tongue-wash to escape this edgy voice-driven narrative.” If it’s mean to explore one more facet of “false” relationships, it fails, serving only to repeat the information we learn from Gregory’s tell-all to Zach, an absurdly rich ex-banker who wants Gregory to paint “the equivalent of what I thought a real, newly discovered, peak-performance painting by this painter would fetch…. Said he’s interested in exploring questions of authenticity.” As for this Zach section, it’s really pretentious: the way he stereotypically describes his profession (“If you want to make money, you have to be smart and an asshole and also work harder than anyone else”), throws in a few choice words of slang (“made made cake”), and then has discourse with a bribe-accepting professor regarding the way “Language betrays us, uses us. Language goes through us the way a young onanist goes through a dust-sheathed pocket pack of Kleenex found on his family’s basement crafts shelf.” Does any of this ring true, or fit together?

These disparate sections aren’t just underwhelming or structurally inefficient at advancing the themes of this “story”: they’re often unbelievably written, and/or twee. Lipsyte’s capable of far better writing, so I can only assume that, as with Junot Diaz, this is a writer who got stuck trying to write something science-fiction-y and wound up submitting little more than a sketch for a potentially longer but probably no-more-illuminating novel. (That out-of-nowhere drone sequence hardly qualifies, and if William’s being killed because he’s become aware of “reality,” that ought to be explored much more . . . or abandoned, as this is one of the most common tropes of the genre.) I want to feel empathetic, but the story’s borderline psychopathic: incapable of feeling or expressing that which it would foist onto the reader, and that’s just not right.

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§ 2 Responses to Sam Lipsyte: “The Republic of Empathy”

  • tneal says:

    I could not agree more. I would only add that I am not at all surprised. I just now cracked this science fiction issue, but lately I find TNY’s shorts to be overly twee. I like their willingness to accept pieces that try to play, but I think they try too hard. All of that is really emblematic of a larger problem which is the near-stasis in the list of authors who have shorts published in the magazine. Fiction here is founded on pretension and ostentatious displays, so criticizing Lipsyte’s piece (maybe others too) for being pretentious and ostentatious is only partially correct.

    • Aaron Riccio says:

      Yeah, I’ve got a tag ready and everything for stories that I consider to be “recommended,” but I find myself using it less and less, and I don’t think it’s just a matter of me growing jaded or less surprised by the literary world. Then again — and I’ll be posting about this on more depth later — I did just finish Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box,” and while the gimmick itself isn’t really justified, it does have the effect of whittling her prose down to some very powerful observations, and the second-person narrative is used about as well as it can be. So yes, there may be a general swooning for pretension or ostentatious displays, but it doesn’t mean that authors cannot write themselves out of that hole. (Alice Munro and T. C. Boyle often succeed at doing just that.)

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