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The Fun Parts
By Sam Lipsyte
Reviewed by Travis Fortney
The Fun Parts is the second Sam Lipsyte I've read, after the 2011 novel The Ask. I'm definitely a fan. There's not enough this kind of wildness in modern fiction, and the less restrained short-story form allows Mr. Lipsyte to squeeze even more sharp little one liners, wry observations, jokes, grotesque details and absurdities onto each page.
Still, more isn't always better. I didn't realize this when reading The Ask but character work isn't Mr. Lipsyte's strong suit. The problem is that the worldview or voice that pulses through these stories is so clearly Mr. Lipsyte's. It's a wonderful, strange, distinctive way of looking out at the world, but it requires a suspension of disbelief to think that 16 different point of view characters (there are 13 stories in The Fun Parts but "The Republic of Empathy" toward the middle of the book is told in four different POV's) could each see the world through this lens. When a character admits to occasionally indulging herself in "aspirational sconce porn", and another character describes the sun as "almost licking him" it's good in any context. But these details just aren't as funny and hard-hitting if they're not firmly grounded in character. The reason the material about the turkey wraps, for example, is so funny in The Ask is because we know just exactly how Milo feels about turkey wraps, even though he doesn't really explicitly say it, because we know Milo so well as a character at that point. While there's plenty of funny material in this book, most of it doesn't compare favorably to The Ask (or, most likely, to Mr. Lipsyte's other novels). Part of the problem is inherent to the short story form, and part of the problem is that the characters, while very different on the surface, all see the world in pretty much the same way.
Still, "The Wisdom of the Doualas" (about the only certified male "doualo" in New York) is well worth the price of admission. The linked stories about troubled women "The Climber Room" and "Deniers" show Mr. Lipsyte's range (that he can write about bleak, depressive, desperate women as well as men). The first of these stories focuses on a failed poet and part time pre-school instructor named Tovah and kind of wanders aimlessly until coming to a disturbing end. The second story focuses on a recovering drug addict named Mandy whose father is a Holocaust survivor and who happens to meet and have sex with a reformed Neo Nazi. It's also more disturbing than funny. Tovah also appears in the second story, but she's such a blank as a character that she seems to have been inserted into the story only to provide that link.
Finally, I have to mention that there's an awful lot of crack, as in crack cocaine, in these stories. I've actually met a few crackheads, and believe it or not there's nothing inherently interesting in doing crack (or coke, or heroin, or meth). These people are more likely to lose a car or end up dead than the rest of us, perhaps, but that's about it. To pretend that drug addiction connotes existential crisis, or anything else that a general readership can or should be able to relate to, is just lazy writing. All in all, there's some fun to be had amidst all the darkness, and this book will fill the void for avid fans who have read all of Mr. Lipsyte's work and need a fix while waiting for his next novel, but for readers looking to dip into to his oeuvre for the first time, I would recommend The Ask or Homeland.
Out of 10: 8