Confronting the Winter Doldrums with Sam Lipsyte
Here's the thing that makes Sam Lipsyte special: He reaches somewhere deep inside of you and finds the thing that you most hate about yourself, like the time you bullied the one kid in high school who was somehow buried even deeper in the social strata than you, or that one afternoon when you said something cruel to someone you love just so you could exult in your capacity to be cruel, or when you look at something small and gentle that depends on you for life and all you can do is barely choke back bile and shoot streams of venom from your eye sockets, and then he shows that moment to you with the clarity and brutal honesty of a makeup mirror under fluorescent lights. Lipsyte's fiction makes you find the funny thing about the darkest moment, the thing that you never told anyone about. It's not a cathartic kind of laughter that cleanses and absolves the spirit, but it's not the wounded kind of throaty, guttural chuckle that drags you down, either. It's something else. It's recognition.
Get a load of this, from Lipsyte's new short-story collection, The Fun Parts, describing a failed poet named Tovah having an intensely private experience:
Now she was thirty-six and in one eating spree had become a vile sack of fat and rot. In her vision of herself she was not even obese, but more like a bloated carcass gaffed from a lake. There on the couch, her belly flopped over her jeans, the new chin she'd acquired in about five hours damp and rashy, rank scents curled from her pores and, especially, from her crotch, whenever she tugged at her waistband to ease the ache...she felt slimy, garbage-juice sexy. Her hand jerked inside her underwear for relief... Tovah's legal pad, upon which she'd written only the title of her poem, "Needing the Wood," slid to the carpet. Her fountain pen, caught against an embroidered yellow pillow, impaled it.
It's an awful image, a woman hate-fucking herself at a time when self-loathing turns the corner and runs smack into self-love and topples over and starts humping without a second thought. Then, read this description of a newborn child, as told by a delusional male doula who is not at all good at his job:
Picture a red onion with a mouth that isn't even a mouth, but more some kind of incredibly loud air horn used by Satan to signal his peons to mop up all the infernal poop and gunk that spills forth from his fiery pan-gendered holes as he gives birth to every evil in the world. It's a lot to picture, I know, and some of it isn't a picture at all, but you get the idea.
One of the more compelling theories of depression—and in Seattle, in the beginning of March, everyone tends to develop a lot of theories about depression—indicates that negative thoughts spread like a cancer and rig your brain and your eyes and your ears to accept only garbage inside, a self-fulfilling prophecy of awfulness. Psychiatrist David D. Burns's Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy—which is really, honestly, the only self-help book you'll ever need—suggests that the best path out of the cacophony caused by these skipping emotional records is to think good thoughts, to reason your way free from the darkness.
Art can't do that for you.
But what great art can do is show you the darkness in all of its complexity, shining a light on our worst thoughts and revealing them as not the all-powerful bogeymen we believe them to be, but rather as human moments that are just as silly and small and, yes, funny, as any other human moment we experience. What Lipsyte does better than anyone is this: He gives our worst selves back to us with just enough of a distance that they don't seem quite so terrible, so unforgivable, so omnipotent anymore.