Sam Lipsyte is a perverse national treasure. Alongside a handful of other literary artists with comedic chops – Gary Shteyngart, George Saunders – Lipsyte is mapping the absurdity and tragic beauty of modern America. His latest novel, The Ask follows Milo Burke: a sexually frustrated father and once promising painter, now working for the arts department of a shitty university, charged with wrangling cash from rich donors. It’s the sort of book that you’ll want to quote liberally: the most poetically vulgar novel in recent memory. (Lipsyte can make jerking off into a lofty act: “I rubbed on valiantly, shot what was doubtless, at my advanced age, some sullen autist into a superannuated tube sock.”) The Ask is savage and hilarious in its treatment of bitter, legless Iraq War vets, spoiled art students, precocious 7-year olds (and their pretentious daycares) and birthing clinics that serve guests gourmet breast milk. BlackBook recently spoke with Lipsyte about loser fiction, workplace porn, and his late 90s band, Dung Beetle, for which LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy played sound engineer.
Milo describes himself as “a piece of shit. A man with many privileges and zero skills.” His boss says if he were the protagonist of a novel she wouldn’t read a book like that – there’d be no reason for it. What’s drawn you to these—I don’t want to say losers necessarily, but maybe underdogs? A lot of people I know can identify with a character who has at least a medium dose of self-loathing. Some people need to find a character who has no self doubt. I prefer to write about characters who are very conflicted and filled with a strangely undefined sense of shame and inadequacy that puts them into troubling positions when they have to inflict themselves upon the world.
Do you feel that literary fiction is afraid to make people laugh these days? I think there’s a worry that if it’s funny then perhaps there’s something slight about it. That it’s not as important as a deeply researched, earnest, historical novel, or a kind of humorless tale of contemporary life. I think there possibly was a moment in the ’60s and ’70s when the serious books tended to be pretty funny. I don’t know if that’s as true these days.
Anyone in particular? I could talk about anyone from Barry Hannah and Stanley Elkin to Philip Roth, Joseph Heller, Terry Southern, Padgett Powell, Donald Barthelme, Grace Paley. These were all writers that wrote about the full spectrum of human experience. They were able to weave together darkness and humor in a way that was not only compelling and heightened, but also probably faithful to our experience of the world.
Who do you think is still doing that? Well, Padgett Powell is still doing it, Barry Hannah is still doing it. Ben Marcus can be hilarious. Gary Lutz, Deb Olin Unferth. These are all people that are really dead serious and dead funny, and I’m interested in that as well. Wells Tower. I think it’s being done, but it’s not as front and center, not as widely read as it used to be, fiction that does that sort of thing. Maybe it’s also linked to readerships, how they’ve changed over the years. Or maybe it all got eaten up by Harry Potter and Twilight. I think, more and more, that’s what adults read now. All the people we’ve talked about are people who write hilarious, heartwrenching, and often horrific fiction, and they wrote for grown-ups. Maybe there aren’t enough grownups who want to read that sort of thing anymore.
As far as making Milo an art student, a former art student, a former painter—why did you decide to give him that background? What were you like in college—as opposed to what Milo was like, this self-deluded, very confident ‘genius-in-the-making’? I’m sure I was as much of a poser as the next guy. One of the things that got me going was an offhand comment by a friend of mine—he’d been to a pretty well known art school out in California, and [he’s] struggling now. He said, “I’m just going to sue that school.” He was just disgusted. That keyed me into a kind of post-MFA bitterness that seemed interesting. I also had other friends who had artistic ambitions and were still pursuing them but were kind of slogging away within institutions that were very much like the ones they themselves had graduated from. And so they were now officers and administration or development or something in places that were very similar to the ones they had attended as students, as budding superstars.
I know you were in this band Dung Beetle a long time ago. James Murphy was the sound engineer. He would do our sound. He produced some stuff we recorded.
Do recordings exist? Are you hiding them? Our guitarist has some secret tapes somewhere in a trunk in California. We’re on a couple compilations. There was a movie called Half-Cocked, one of our songs was on there. There was a single we had out–each one was given a different cover. People may still have them, pieces of weird memorabilia from the early ’90s. We recorded several times but only released one single. There was a book called Scraps, photographs by Michael Galinsky, who was in a band called Sleepyhead. There was a little CD that came with that, that also had a Dung Beetle song on it.
Do you ever feel that the band could have gone on and that might have changed the entire course you took, that you might not have become a writer? Were you writing at the same time? No, I was writing lyrics for the band, I wasn’t really writing any fiction. The band breaking up definitely got me back to the thing I’d always done. It was the only time I’ve ever really collaborated. I’ve always been someone who preferred to work alone. During this period I really enjoyed the collaboration. Or maybe just the heavy drugging and drinking.
Is it something you could ever see doing again—the music, not the drugging and drinking? We played a wedding 6 or 7 years ago. Maybe a year ago or two years ago, the guitarist from Dung Beetle has his own little rotating group that he plays with…I did a song with them in some loft in Long Island City. They’re called, loosely, RAS: The Rock Appreciation Society.
You’re still teaching at Columbia? Yeah. I’m full-time here.
Obviously the school that Milo works at is not Columbia. It’s a mediocre, bottom of the barrel school. Do you feel like in this day and age getting an arts education is advisable? Depends what your goal is. I think they’re great, a fantastic experience. I wish I’d gone to one, I would have published much sooner and learned things much earlier. I think the good ones are really fantastic places. I’d be kind of an idiot, or really cynical, if I didn’t believe in them but taught in them. However, I think that it’s dangerous when a feeling builds up within an institution, among the students, that this is the ticket to a big time life in the arts. You can go through an MFA program and write great novels and short stories and you can probably get them published and find an audience for them and that’s wonderful. The only thing that I was against is feeling that there’s a guaranteed payday, a guaranteed livelihood at the end of all of this. That you’re not going to have to do something else as well.
Which generally probably is teaching… Yeah, or working in the insurance industry.
I wanted to ask you about porn, since it’s a small, recurring item in the book. Milo’s a fan of this niche porn site, “Spreadsheet Spreaders”… I haven’t registered the domain, but yeah..
It’s male employees that sleep with their female bosses for a raise. In order to research the book, I’m sure you had to look into online pornography. Anything you discovered? I had some assistants research it for me, so I wouldn’t have to actually look at the stuff myself.
Through Columbia, I’m sure? Yeah, right. No…what’s your question about porn?
Did you go out there to see what actually existed? I know what exists. I know what exists, yeah.
New York’s reputation for being the ‘place to be’ if you’re in the arts—does that still hold up? Is it still worth taking that risk to be here? It depends on what you’re trying to do. I do know that if you don’t have a passionate reason to be here, it’s really hell. You really do need some delusion to sustain you, because it’s really hard to live here. Short of that, I think these things go through phases. I was in Berlin several years ago and everybody kept asking me if I was from LA. When I said no, New York, they would just turn away from me. The main thing to remember is that a scene is wherever you are if you’re serious about what you’re trying to do.
Milo and Nick have this idea of a reality show: people on death row, celebrity chefs cooking their last meal. Do you watch a lot of reality TV? My first novel was called The Subject Steve. It came out in 2001—on 9/11. At the end the character, who is dying of an unnamed disease, becomes the centerpiece of a reality television kind of undertaking in which everybody is, either on TV or their computers, watching this guy die. I remember some reviewer took me to task for bringing in a device that was so tied to what was clearly a fad that was going to be over in a year or two: reality television. Ten years later, it’s still here. I hardly ever watch it. I think about it a lot, but I hardly ever watch it. With the exception of Steven Seagal’s show. He’s a deputy sheriff in Louisiana. I try to see that when I can. It’s basically cops, with a celebrity. An ex-celebrity. I just find it enjoyable watching Steven Seagal running, trying to tackle poor people in Louisiana.
I’d read about The Subject Steve being adapted for TV. This is a strange case of Wikipedia pranking. On my Wikipedia page there’s this separate paragraph about how The Subject Steve is being made into a TV show. I have no idea who put it there, or why. It’s completely false.
You can change that, you know. I know, but it’s complicated. Also, you know—maybe it’ll do me some good. There was a point when some guy optioned Subject Steve. He had been a producer of MacGyver. Maybe I told that to somebody and that ended up becoming part of my Wikipedia page. How do I change it exactly, as myself? Can I go in there as myself?
You go on to Wikipedia, click EDIT. If you were insanely rich, and some university, be it Columbia or otherwise, asked you to cough up a sum of money for something, what would you put that towards? What would the Sam Lipsyte Hall be, at Columbia, let’s say? Where I work I would use as much money as needed to fund all the students. Tuition, and the stipends, so they could live. My students are working so hard, busting their asses, making incredible sacrifices, going into debt. To lighten that would be a great thing. If my death row cooking show takes off I should be able to afford it. Wouldn’t you watch it?
I’d want them to show the actual execution. You could also do reenactments of the crime.
Using food. That’s a great idea! Maybe you should do this with me.
I’ll add it to the Wikipedia page immediately.
Photography by Ceridwen Morris