Hark is of a piece with Lipsyte’s earlier books, and page by page as funny and inventive as any of them. But its roving omniscient narrator and peculiar narrative frame have frustrated a few of its critics in the US. All the hopscotching between characters makes it a diffuse affair: some of the cast and their subplots are more captivating than others, and a few receive attention that’s scant to the point of vanishing. As with Pynchon, these culs-de-sac and dwindling eddies are welcome if disposable features in the comic landscape but only so long as they amuse and provoke – which they do, mostly. The narrative frame is more perplexing: Fraz is among the followers of Hark Morner, teacher of a set of tips for achieving ‘focus’ called ‘mental archery’. ‘Pretty silly, he liked to say.’ Indeed, the absurdity of mental archery is pointed out constantly throughout the novel, especially when it becomes a nationwide viral sensation. A mix of mindfulness, yoga (there are poses that mimic holding a bow and shooting arrows) and Jordan Petersonesque folk-and-myth-inspired self-help (Hark delivers talks that invoke Odysseus, Hannibal, William Tell etc), mental archery isn’t exactly a lampoon of any of these practices. It’s silly, and the novel says it’s silly, but it isn’t silly for the novel’s characters. Lipsyte has now written three novels about middle-aged failures (Home Land and Venus Drive taking up distinctly youthful failure), and it doesn’t not make sense that a set of frustrated cases would seek out a programme of self-improvement. It doesn’t not make sense that mental archery is the novel’s organising principle. But it’s not what the novel is about.
Lipsyte’s satire runs rich and deep. His sentences roil with a kind of mania. And the novel is very funny — at least until towards the end, when it isn’t. Then, the zaniness and pyrotechnics give way to a sense of something real and serious. In Hark, Lipsyte is on to something big. But he unleashes too many arrows at too many targets, from tech gurus to parenting styles, from food fads to the modern workplace, and in so doing misses the bullseye.
Satirist Lipsyte, better known in America than here, critiques the whole slow apocalypse of modern life, capturing a dystopian and polluted world where soft drinks are “iridescent as factory ponds”. The book has a scattergun brilliance, endlessly throwing up finely cut phrases and manic riffs, but as a novel it’s a mess. What it needs, ironically, is more focus.
I’m giving the highest praise imaginable when I say that Lipsyte doesn’t need plot to hold the reader’s attention. In fact, how many writers alive are such good prose stylists that they can discard it altogether and still deliver an entertaining book? Lipsyte’s sentences are so dizzyingly brilliant, so sharp and energetic, that the plot feels like the distraction, the noise you wish you could drown out... [T]hough I admire his ambition, Hark is slightly unfocused. It was the discomfort and claustrophobia you felt as you plodded through life with the hapless Milo that made The Ask so singular. Even Lipsyte’s volatile bitterness, and biting disgust at those wielding power, are not as forceful here... A few hours spent offline with Lipsyte is a worthwhile investment.
But Hark didn’t engage me as much as I wanted it to. It’s not that nothing happens: there’s murder, infidelity, a child in a coma, populist armies rampaging through Ibiza and a talking catfish who may or may not be God. The stakes couldn’t be higher: the future of the planet, or “crudfest” as Lipsyte calls it. But it’s shown obliquely, a bit like reading a snarky commentary on events as opposed to an actual report. It’s as if Lipsyte wants to do all the fun parts of writing a novel (the splashy metaphors, the cosmic leaps, even some of the pathos) while maintaining a hipsterish disdain for the fiction-y bits like character and dramatic suspense.
This is an ebullient, irreverent and deeply serious novel in the noble tradition of Mark Twain, Sinclair Lewis (especially Babbitt and Elmer Gantry) and John Kennedy Toole. Sam Lipsyte certainly hits his prime target — the cultish behaviour around mindfulness, motivational speakers and pallid spiritual beliefs — but one of the joys of the novel is that over and above that there is a scatter-gun sniping at various fads. Although it is laugh-out-loud funny, it swerves towards the end (the reasons would be too much of a spoiler) into slightly more melancholy and mystical modes...The novel has a dazzling wit about it, which is only a shade of our surreal reality.
“Hark” is Lipsyte’s first novel since 2010’s much-loved “The Ask,” and similarities abound. Both are satires featuring underemployed, middle-aged New York Jewish protagonists with abandoned artistic dreams, cheating wives and snack-food obsessions. That’s a pretty specific box on the census form for a writer to check twice. Both also veer away from narrative to chase any excuse for a riff — then swing back with prose so good you feel guilty complaining about the whiplash. The difference is that in “Hark” the riffing has more serious consequences...Hark, meanwhile, is a great idea and a lousy character. He’s only ever alive as a vessel for riffs about belief, fraud, transcendence, corporate off-sites, etc. Many of these are dazzling, but hardly all of them, and Hark is in the book a lot.