Sam Lipsyte is probably the funniest American novelist in the business today, and that humor has become a demarcation, a classification for him. In the advance-reading copy of his newest novel, The Ask, which was released to reviewers, librarians, and booksellers, Lipsyte's editor Lorin Stein wrote an impassioned letter that began, "A generation ago, there was no shame in a book's being funny." It tied Lipsyte in to a long tradition of literary authors who weren't afraid of humor—Joseph Heller, Pynchon, Barry Hannah, some DeLillo and Roth—and then it continued to lament the "kind of desuetude" that humorous books have "fallen" into. It's a shame that interviews with Lipsyte—including my own—spend so much time talking about humor; his language is lyrical and endlessly inventive, and his characters are entire worlds unto themselves. We talked over the phone for about an hour about his influences and the clear progression of his novels.

I wanted to ask you first: Do you read Stanley Elkin?

Sponsored
HEY MUSICIANS! You've had 9 months to create something stupendous. Now is the time to get it sounding great.
Luna Sound can cover your production, recording & mixing needs. Mention the Stranger ad for a 15% discount!

Oh yeah, I have been steeped in Stanley Elkin.

This book in particular felt Elkinish to me. And I was wondering if you were thinking about him a lot when you were writing...

Well, I think that his example is always with me. The notion of doing it with language—whatever you're trying to do—of doing it with language and the example he set with his books is always with me. I don't consciously think, "Now I'm going to write a Stanley Elkin novel," but I think I have an idea of why that might have occurred to you and I think it's because it's the first of my books where the character's job is so central, and Elkin novels—I think that Elkin did say at one point that he can't even really get going until he knows what his character does for a living. And I think that Elkin novels invariably center on the protagonist's place of work or struggle to obtain work. Maybe that's a factor in some sort of association for you.

That could very well be. I also thought that you felt a little more playful with language—I mean you've always felt playful with language, but Elkin will do these amazing two-page riffs on a word and I think that was the sense I got from this book, that you felt more comfortable sort of toying with language in that sort of a way.

Yeah, I think I was doing some of that in Home Land as well. But it may feel different in this book, perhaps because the riffs in Home Land were anchored by the frame of the high school alumni bulletin and here they're a little more random and freewheeling. I mean, as you can imagine, it's very hard to analyze your own work. So I'm sure you could figure it out better than I can. But yeah, there is—I definitely was letting myself riff heavily in this book, and not always to advance whatever semblance of plot I have going.

So how did it feel having a character with a job, even one that he was hanging on to however loosely? I mean, it is kind of a step for you.

Yes. It is.

Did you do research for this sort of thing or...

No. I didn't do research into how a development office would work. I really have no idea. And I didn't want it to be an office novel, which I think it avoids being. And actually, for huge stretches of the book he's working on his own in the field with little contact with the main office. It was really just the word "ask" used in this manner that set me off. And I think—back to Elkin—that he did have a dictum: "Write what you don't know." And so I took him up on that, in terms of not really researching what this field is like. But sort of imagining what it might feel like.

This novel, also sort of like Home Land, has a learning institution figuring heavily into the book, and I was wondering if you've thought about that or if it's something that you did intentionally or it just happened that way.

Well, the next one will take place in grad school, I guess.

Okay. I can't wait until you hit the workforce.

[Laughs.] No. I noticed it. I think I was more interested in this book, in mirroring between his job and how he remembers himself as a student. But it didn't occur to me that succinctly that Home Land was in high school and this was college. With The Subject Steve, it was the medical-industrial complex. I guess I am interested in institutions as aesthetics, on some level.

Sometimes you'll get an author who's teaching creative writing, and then they'll write their college novel, where they have sex with a student, and you know...

Yeah.

And it's certainly not that.

I certainly wasn't trying to write that. That's why making him a person who is kind of on the other side of that wall and normally doesn't have interactions with students—that's probably why that one interaction in the beginning of the book is so disastrous. He's somebody who can be quite angry and cynical, because he has no interaction with students. I really love teaching, and as a teacher of creative writing, I get to engage with these young writers and work with them on their manuscripts, and it can be quite exciting. But a guy like Milo never gets that joy. He always sees things from kind of a stark budgetary perspective.

When I was reading the book, you know obviously the Iraq war was in there, and it felt like a lot of the financial downturn was in there and I believe you started writing this before all that, right?

Yeah, I started it right around after Home Land came out.

Yeah, that's what I thought. So I was wondering how much of this you went back and sort of recoded into the book.

I just have this gift. I can predict the economy.

And yet you spend your time being a writer. You just don't have the vision for financial planning, I guess.

Yeah, it just seems tedious. No, I didn't go back and put anything in. I wrote with the idea that this character was up against the wall. Even during the so-called fat times, most of the people I knew were still struggling on some level. And I think that I have kind of a pessimistic view of the way that wealth is distributed and the way the economy functions, so it wasn't hard for me to call it a dark time, even though it wasn't officially a dark time. And so then when it did become a dark time, it just sort of expanded things in the book.

I guess I'll have to go back and look. It felt really timely as I was reading it.

Well, as I wrote it and I started to see that things were crumbling, it informed things, absolutely. And I would do draft after draft. Certainly I was doing drafts of this book after things started to look really grim. So that's what I mean about it sort of widened the scope of the misery in the book.

Support The Stranger

The misery of the book is something I wanted to touch on. I mean it felt like I had a hole punched in me when I finished it; where Home Land had a depressing protagonist, this one felt darker to me. Did it feel darker as you were writing it?

Yes. I think that the protagonist or narrator of Home Land, Lewis Miner, had—for all of his bitterness, he had a romantic streak in him, and also he was at a time in his life where things, as dire as they seemed, could still be turned around perhaps. And his defiance was lovable. I think. I don't know. I'm not certain, but I see a difference in this. This was not supposed to be Lewis Miner 10 years later. He's a different guy. There are some similar ideas about the world [in both books,] but things [in The Ask] are bleaker. Things seem more irrevocable. And things wound in a more grown-up way. But then the flip side of that, I think, is that the laughter can be deeper as well.

I don't know if you've read the letter in front of the advanced reader's copy of the book, but it had this sort of weird defensive angle on humor in literature, and I read a couple interviews with you for this book that focused strictly on the humor. Are you tired of having to be defensive because you're funny?

Did I sound defensive in the interview?

No, you didn't sound defensive in the interview, but it feels like people are setting you up to... they're asking you loaded questions like, "Well everybody knows that humor used to be in books..." and it seems like sort of a false argument to me. I read funny things all the time.

Right. I think that that was more in the way of trying to explain to a lot of reviewers who might not have the depth of reading that you do, or the experience, that there might be, conceivably, a gap or a falling off from a moment—and maybe it was just a singular moment—in American fiction when things that were very funny were also taken very seriously. I don't know. It's not that that there are not plenty of those books being written. I think it's more about the reception or the way people regard them. The way a certain kind of somberness, along with lots of historical research, can get you a certain kind of reading public that perhaps a book that's funny won't. And I'm not complaining about it, from my experience; I've certainly been incredibly pleased by the responses to my books. I guess I think Lorin was just trying to create a context, to cite a tradition. And maybe the letter was useful for some people and not for others. I don't know.

I didn't think it was bad or anything. It's just something that struck me. It feels like you're going to be getting a lot of questions about the subject.

Right. And it's true; in interviews, a lot of people sort of said... quoted the letter and asked, did I think that a novel could be funny. [Laughs.]

One of the things that I loved about this book was that Milo's son seemed so well written. His dialogue was very childlike. He wasn't precocious in the way that a lot of literary children are.

Thanks for that. I really wanted to avoid that.

Yeah, and you did it really well. It was so striking that it was so unlike anything that I'd read, and it seemed true to children's voices. I was wondering how much work you put into that? It seemed to me to be one of the more centered parts of the novel. Not in a forceful way, but just... it seemed to be a choice on your part.

Yeah, a lot. I mean, the book is dedicated to my son for a reason, and I think that it's just by being his beautiful self—his strange and beautiful self—he kind of helped me find that voice for Bernie. My friends said to me, "You didn't make up any of that dialogue," which is untrue, but certainly what I really got from listening to my son was the rhythms and sort of the wild swerving that goes on, the returning to themes. I really wanted to get that right. The reason people write those precocious children is so that they're not boring. But it was important to me to find a way to write the way a kid might speak or think without resorting to the technique of injecting him with thoughts and utterances that would be impossible.

He felt to me sort of like a Greek chorus, in the way that he'd reiterate themes and it felt otherworldly and natural at the same time.

Well, I definitely found that Greek chorus happening. He was able to kind of amplify and resonate some of the anxieties and also excitements that are running through Milo. So having him around helped even the sections that even had to deal with Milo's inferiority.

Do you like reading your own stuff aloud, or are you averse to touring?

No, not at all. The first time I had a reading, I was nervous for about three months before it. (For some reason, I knew three months in advance that I was going to do it.) So over the years it's been about shortening that time, so now I just get gut-steelingly nervous just in the few seconds I have to walk from the chair up to the podium. But once I'm there, I really love it. And it kind of helps me with the work itself, especially if I'm reading stuff that hasn't been published yet. And I did do a series of readings with this book in New York. It was billed as reading a novel in progress. So, you know, I'm reading it as I'm writing it. It was at this place called the Russian Samovar. You can find some clips of me reading online. It's a nice way to get another perspective on revision. You know, of course you know if something's funny if there's laughter or boring if everyone's moving around in their seats or whispering to each other. But also, you get to hear yourself. And you immediately know which rhythms are working and which aren't, which riffs are maybe going on a few beats too long. Things like that are, to me, invaluable.

Yeah, I interviewed Jonathan Lethem when he was out here, and he did the same thing with Chronic City. Hopefully it's a trend that will catch on with writers, because it seems to be producing some pretty good stuff. He read the whole book over three days at a library in Maine or something like that.

Well I just read The Ask for an audiobook. And that was pretty grueling.

Unabridged?

Yeah, unabridged. For three days, six hours a day.

Wow.

You'd be in this little booth, and there's no audience. You were just staring out and the sound guy'd be checking his e-mail. And somebody else is just sitting at a table reading a cookbook. And you're reading your heart out to the void.

Oh God. Okay, I can't wait to see you read now that you've had the practice. recommended