Hark Morner, the antihero of Sam Lipsyte’s fourth novel, “Hark,” is a huckster. Armed with some half-baked philosophy and imagined historical facts, he seduces audiences with woolly pronouncements even he doesn’t quite believe in, like “If you grow silent, easeful, the body will launch the spirit’s shaft true.”
His audiences don’t quite believe it either. Hark’s “Mental Archery” brand targets skepticism-soaked corporate retreats and conferences infested with “internet imams, public atheists, and assorted bandwidth hustlers.” But we’ve collectively struck a deal with the hucksters, Lipsyte means to say. We’re now so eager for distraction from our anxieties that we’ll accept some well-packaged, Hark-ish nonsense if it helps us get away from it all.
Still, Lipsyte knows we’ve exhausted much of the satirical potential of hollow men like Hark. (In an Onion parody of TED Talks a few years back, a guru steps onstage, utters only the words “social media,” and receives a standing ovation. That pretty well covers it.) So much of the novel’s comic firepower — and it’s a very funny, if frustrating novel — comes from Lipsyte's assaults on the kind of middle-class despair that goads people Hark-ward. The novel's true hero, Fraz, is a middle-aged dad in a foundering marriage and go-nowhere career as a tutor when he falls into Hark’s circle. Too self-respecting to join a cult but too socially inept for conventional success, Fraz finds that Harkism fills a need, sort of. “Harkism is the answer because it offers none,” as Lipsyte puts it.
Fraz — an appropriate name for such a frazzled, unresolved man — is the latest iteration of a fictional male archetype that Lipsyte has all to himself, mainly because nobody else wants it: the schlub. Lipsyte’s breakthrough novel, 2004’s “Home Land,” was narrated by a schlub who couldn’t let go of high-school resentments. His 2010 book, “The Ask,” featured a schlub terrified of parenthood and professional accomplishment. His 2010 story collection “The Fun Parts” was populated with the likes of a schlubby addict, a “Dungeons & Dragons” obsessive, and an incompetent would-be male doula who barked breast-feeding advice like a drill sergeant.
Fraz is a schlub of a different order, though, because his fears run deeper. He wrings his hands over his missteps as a husband and father, not to mention encroaching death in a near-future world where a worsening global war — at first vaguely hinted at but which eventually claims the main stage — means “we will all maul each other for the last tin of peaches fairly soon.” An actual headline is “IBM supercomputer appointed state executioner in Texas.”
Lipsyte sometimes satirizes this world in lightly parodic ways, like the strip club that fancies itself a “post-cis neo-vaudeville burlesque” or the museum exhibition titled “Minor Whites: Contemplating Canonical Chaff.” But more often, Fraz’s observations have some bite to them, a twist of imminent mortality. His 8-year-old kids play a game called “Age of Genocide Two” and his sense of the center not holding is less lyrical than W.B. Yeats imagined: “Forget about the falcon not hearing the falconer. These days the falconer just totally ignores the falcon, checks celebrity news on his phone. The poor falcon soars around forsaken, bereft, eats spoiled bratwurst discarded on a rooftop, pukes.”
The darkness runs just as deep among the novel’s secondary characters. “Mental Archery” is co-opted by wealthy men, one of whom makes a play for Fraz’s wife, Tovah. One of Hark’s funders, who has a side hustle ferrying bone marrow, winds up serving an organ-smuggling ring. (“Think of us as Doctors Without Borders, but maybe more like doctors without boundaries. And we’re not all doctors.”) Another launches an app called Mercy Stream that “assists” refugees by giving them laptops to stream their misery. (“It’s all about empathy.”) Hark’s mindfulness movement curdles into just another form of mindlessness.
Lipsyte’s lament for our dehumanization is clear: We’re too easily corruptible, too easily manipulated by “the screens, the screens, the screens.” But when it comes to identifying the place where our humanity resides in this techno-sociopolitical mess, he has a harder time finding the target. A life-threatening family crisis late in the novel — of the sort that ought to shift Fraz (and Lipsyte, and the reader) into a higher gear of attentiveness — instead becomes more grist for Hark’s increasingly cultic mill. There’s a notable exception, though, when Tovah tries to will her loved one to survive: “Since she already knows this is magical thinking, she believes she can short-circuit rational critique. Stay alert to the fact that it’s illogical, and magical thinking can become magical reality.” It’s a brilliant pair of lines, witty and alert to the reasons why our chaotic, heartsick brains crave soothing machines. But the moment flickers by much too quickly, and we’re soon back to Hark’s shtick.
And lots of other kinds of shtick besides — educational rackets, political rackets, financial rackets. The flaws in “Hark” are of the trying-too-hard, swinging-for-the-fences sort. De-centered, Trumpish times — when every social norm seems to have been upended — have given Lipsyte plenty of satirical fodder. Indeed, the well is practically bottomless, and finding humor in it — that isn’t just meme-speak and Twitter zingers — is an accomplishment. We need more Lipsytes. But in the process, the novel becomes subject to the same sense of distraction that it’s meant to poke fun at.
But there’s one last flicker of genuine human feeling before everybody’s stockpiling peaches and Siri gets to throw the switch at Death Row. Toward the end of the novel, Tovah attends a writer’s retreat to reconnect with her creative side. A fellow attendee insists that this is no time for poetry to take half-measures. “Let’s not settle. Let’s be ruthless. … Let’s be midwives. Let’s be heroes,” he insists. Tovah’s poem turns out to fit the bill, to the gasps of her cohort. Of course, Lipsyte doesn’t provide a single word of of this life-changing, ruthless, heroic verse. How could he? You want some guidance about how to get through this world full of suffering? A poem? A motivational speech? A novel? Tough luck; we’re just going to have to imagine it for ourselves.
Simon & Schuster; 304 pp., $27