Review: The seven deadly sins of bad art friendship, explored in a debut novel
On the Shelf
By Andrew Lipstein
FSG: 304 pages, $27
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Ah, the sting for a writer when someone (not you) publishes a book. More grating still if it’s somehow wildly successful — especially if it isn’t very good. Pangs of literary envy can run so deep, take on so many flavors, that they spawn new literature. In nonfiction, these were recently explored in the New York Times magazine piece about the “bad art friend,” in which one woman appropriates the story of an acquaintance, which leads to lawsuits and the kind of public acrimony that made us all wonder: Who owns what? What is writing for? How do we decide what’s fair?
A new entrant in this conversation is the savvy but maddening “Last Resort,” Andrew Lipstein’s almost perfectly plotted debut novel on a topic — creative envy and artistic theft — that tastes like catnip to many readers of literary fiction. Unfortunately, it’s all brought down by a fatal flaw: its characters.
Whereas the New York Times piece concerned an organ donor with a savior complex, a chain of ugly text messages and a catty writer’s group, the nut of Lipstein’s novel is a foursome spearheaded by a woman with terminal cancer on a Greek island with two ad execs from New Jersey. And in place of the careful balance of shade and empathy maintained in “Bad Art Friend,” we have a pile-on of bad-taste friends not even drawn sharply enough to evoke dark amusement.
Our guide through all this mess is Caleb, the kind of neurotic but preening New Yorker who feels the need to tell us, “As a point of pride I still took the subway when I could.” He’s also the kind who, inexplicably, considers Maxim magazine a cultural touchstone years after anyone last said its name out loud. Here’s a typically useless Caleb observation: “Money does wonders, doesn’t it? Have enough and you can bring any artistic vision to life. But it can also be blinding, it can distract you from what you actually want, what’s worth having.”
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Caleb worked really hard on an unpublishable novel. He is about to start a second when he meets up with an old college bud, Avi, who makes the mistake of telling Caleb about this crazy tryst he had on a Greek island — a story Avi intends to turn into fiction. Avi “played tennis, was an editor on the literary magazine, was generally considered quite attractive — he looked a bit like James Dean if James Dean was a bit inbred[.]” Yes, inbred. I guess we could fault Caleb for this aperçu, but in a novel that purports to be about the slippery idea of authorship, let’s blame Lipstein. Caleb proceeds, of course, to steal Avi’s story.
Still flatter than these friends is the crude caricature of literary power, super-agent Ellis Buford, with whom Caleb has four Manhattans during a meeting that cements the publication of his tainted tale. Maybe it will get Caleb on Terry Gross, or even Seth Meyers?
“Something in me disliked this kind of talk,” Caleb says, “made me feel I should cling to the purity of Art when confronted with the vulgarities of Commerce, but another instinct, a better instinct, made me exhale, sit forward in my chair, put my elbows on the table, and listen intently as this man considered my book in much the same way he considered our waitress as she set down our drinks.”
On the level of character, we are in for far more of the same: broad types making inane observations we are perhaps meant to sneer at. (If not, more’s the pity.) And yet the novel is so easy to read. Ellis sells the book; Avi finds out. He is, no lie, microdosing, and guess what: He wants revenge. “My intent is for justice to be served,” he tells Caleb, who reacts viciously and shortsightedly: “I could only think about minimizing my loss, preventing Avi from taking what was mine — not what I actually wanted.”
Everything hurtles toward a queasy conclusion. Caleb’s novel succeeds wildly, but in case you don’t hate him enough, he also gets a big payout after working at a startup for two months. He’d probably blow some of the advance on a Bored Ape Yacht Club watch.
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His girlfriend Sandra feels like the only real person when, exasperated by another of Caleb’s childish outbursts, she says: “[E]veryone’s principles have a price. That’s why they’re called principles. To be completely honest, it sounds like you’re only protecting yourself from what you actually want.” She sets the wheels in motion toward a more strategic response to Avi’s challenge and a conclusion in which everybody wins and everyone loses.
What to say about a book that’s so infuriating but has one of the best endings in recent memory? Without giving too much away, Caleb has put all his eggs in one basket. He’s sitting on a plane, bound for a country he’s never been to, and everything seems to have gone terribly wrong. You’ll think about the possibilities for weeks after you read the last pages.
“It was why she was worth capturing, why I felt what I did when I was with her; she had something I was missing, something I’d spent all this time trying to get closer to: a life that didn’t need to survive itself,” Caleb thinks. It’s not about Sandra, but it is about the true story behind the competing fictions. “I’d found more than a character, I’d found one who lived off the page, somehow who might even make me that way too.”
Come for the idea, stay for the plot, try to ignore the characters, savor that conclusion. And pray that, in the future, Lipstein finds a way to populate his spellbinding stories with characters who can live off the page.
Deuel is the author of “Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East.”
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