Sam Lipsyte Pans Out

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 loggernaut I read Sam Lipsyte's Home Land during one long, heroic bowel movement. I was spending a year in Rome and had just returned from Milan where a weekend of gorging on risotto had utterly stuffed up my beleaguered gastric system. It sounds medically improbable and not too aesthetically pleasing, but Lipsyte's work helped purge me. I laughed something stupid.I bounced up and down on my Roman bowl, until my backside was indented with the seat's ceramic crescent. "Comedy's hard, man," Lipsyte told me when I met him for an interview at the Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden in Queens recently. It's hard, I think, because ultimately comedy has a closer relation to tragedy than any other genre. Hence the success of the Jewish comic novel. Lipsyte's Home Land is that most improbable of things—a book about high school you simply can't do without. In fact, after Home Land, there will be no need for high school novels ever again. Lipsyte has just the right view of our country (nightmarish, that is), but his writing is oddly generous, too. There's a camaraderie to his sentences and an odd feeling that through laughter and companionship we just might outlive the seeping wasteland around us. -Gary Shteyngart

Gary Shteyngart: I'm interested in your evolution as a writer. How old were you when you wrote your first stories, the ones that went into the short story collection Venus Drive.

Sam Lipsyte: The bulk of them were written when I was around 28, 29. Some earlier.

Shteyngart: Were you a student of Gordon Lish?

Lipsyte: Yes, I studied with him. He published a couple of stories of mine in The Quarterly, after many rejections. They had that great form letter when they rejected you—it was about five hundred words long.

Shteyngart: I was studying writing at college and then this professor showed up, a disciple of Gordon Lish, and we operated according to the Lish method. You start reading your work and then as soon as you hit a false note she made you stop.

Lipsyte: Yeah, Lish would say, "That's bullshit!"

Shteyngart: That process completely derailed me. Took me years to recover my voice. But for you it actually seemed to have some kind of benefit.

Lipsyte: I think the process for me was to unlearn a lot of the sloppy habits I had. I learned a lot of new stuff from Lish. I struggled for a long time, but what you find out at the end is that there's no "method," it's just a way to get to your own thing.

Shteyngart: I'm thinking of the sentence in Venus Drive, "Gary's mother calls Gary." That's a Lishian sentence and you don't find those kinds of sentences in your next book, the novel The Subject Steve, which I think is such a vast improvement, just a big leap forward.

Lipsyte: Yeah, I don't like to use too many cheesy phrases like "finding your voice" but...these stories, some of them I'm still proud of, but they were demonstrations of certain kinds of writing. "Gary's mother calls Gary"—I'd still maintain there's strength to that. You're riding a line and the trick is just to not tip over into something too mannered.

Shteyngart: Like I said, for me the jump from Venus Drive to The Subject Steve was amazing. And I enjoyed Venus Drive a great deal. There's not a sentence out of place.

Lipsyte: Thank you. I think I became aware of my own behavior, my own tics, and when I come across a sentence that I think I've done too much, I stop myself.

Shteyngart: And I'm envious of the brevity of your books. Me, I just never know when to shut up.

Lipsyte: [laughs] I'm usually self-conscious about the fact that my books are too short, that there's a lack of gravity, literally. Usually I get off on a certain kind of compression. Doesn't mean I don't labor over all the sentences and the story, but I guess I don't think in terms of a huge canvas.

Shteyngart: Are you ever going to attempt the big canvas, do you think? Although, when I think of The Subject Steve, there's so much going on in terms of narrative, topically, morally...

Lipsyte: Well, I guess it is a pretty big canvas. Maybe it's not a valid way to think about all of this anyway. Look at a writer like Camus—very short books that packed a lot in. I think that writers have natural lengths. There are sprinters and marathoners, and maybe I'm more like a middle-distance runner with these last few books.

Shteyngart: "I didn't pan out." That's Teabag's [the narrator's] cry in Home Land. And a beautiful line. The line I remember most from Subject Steve is the credo "I am me." How did you go from "I am me" to "I didn't pan out?" I mean, in some ways, Home Land is almost a coming-of-age novel whereas Subject Steve is a middle-age novel.

Lipsyte: The Subject Steve was my first novel and I was very aware that I didn't want to write a coming-of-age novel. I didn't want to fall into that kind of trap and so I really went out of my way to write about a guy who was older than I was, and he was divorced with a child, and I had none of those experiences. But when I came to Home Land I thought it might be okay to delve into some of these coming-of-age...morsels.

Shteyngart: That's a juicy word.

Lipsyte: [laughs] Because I had already done The Subject Steve and I was now middle-aged anyway.

Shteyngart: Forty-eight is the new thirty-seven...

Lipsyte: Good, good...



[continues...]



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