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Known not by his arrows but his aim – ‘Hark’

January 16, 2019
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There’s very little overlap in the writing Venn diagram of “funny” and “literary” – even most ostensibly humorous literary fiction definitely deserves the scare quotes around “funny,” while genuinely funny stuff doesn’t often have the requisite stylistic heft to warrant the literary tag – but Sam Lipsyte lives right square in the middle of it all.

Lipsyte’s new novel “Hark” (Simon & Schuster, $27) is another example of the author’s incredible gift for balancing poetry and potty humor, for blending the profound and the profane. This latest book – his first since the 2012 story collection “The Fun Parts” – once again places the American experience square in its sights, embracing the depths of inescapable weirdness that exist just beyond casual cultural perception.

It’s a quick-fire reading experience, with short chapters and frequent perspective shifts, capturing the kind of inner turmoil that can only come from discovering someone who you believe might actually have answers to the toughest of tough questions, namely: why?

In an undefined near-future America, one marked by end-stage upheaval on every possible front – geopolitical, economic, cultural, environmental, you name it – Hark Morner (yes, as in “The herald angels sing”) is the central figure in something he calls “Mental Archery.” This … whatever it is … stitches together half-baked mindfulness and ripped-off yoga poses with tossed-off riffs on misremembered history and mythology. Oh, and archery of course. It’s a slapdash pastiche of new age nonsense and platitudes.

And yet, it works.

At least for some. For people like Fraz, a man in his 40s who stumbled across Hark in a parking lot and found himself following the tenets of mental archery; his family life – wife Tovah, twin kids David and Lisa – might be crumbling, but he’s become an integral part of Hark’s circle. Ditto Kate, a wealthy trust fund kid who is the primary financial backer of Mental Archery and spends her free time as a volunteer escort for organ transplants. And then there’s Teal, academic high achiever-turned-embezzler, now an ex-con looking to find the connections and reconnections she seeks through social work and self-help.

And flitting around the margins is a bizarre collection of weirdos – self-styled culture warriors and social media tycoons, poets and tech titans, the flat-broke and the billionaires. All of them seeking the solace that they believe they can find with Hark’s help. But Hark isn’t even sure that there IS meaning here – his only aim is to help people find focus. What they choose to focus on is up to them.

Of course, with popularity comes problems. Hark’s circle steadily expands, meaning that the voices of even those closest to him can be drowned out by the roaring of crowds. For Fraz and Tovah, for Kate and Teal, this means digging deep and determining just what Mental Archery is – and who or what Hark really is, the man whose teachings they’ve come to love even if they don’t really understand why.

“Hark” is one of those books wherein the reader can do little more than hang on tightly, pulled with breakneck pacing through a joyfully anarchic and chaotic, yet delicately detailed world. The America that Lipsyte has constructed is a strange (but logical in its strangeness) extrapolation from now to then. The timeline is left deliberately vague, while certain details make clear that the history of this version isn’t quite what we ourselves remember.

The faux-wisdom of Hark, who could be anything from an accident huckster to the Messiah depending on who you ask, makes up some of the funniest material in the book. His speeches are meandering declarations packed with off-the-cuff explorations of half-remembered tiny truths; he spins these kernels into larger narratives that are offered as accepted reality, no matter how far from the real they actually venture. Combine that with the striking physicality of bowless, arrowless archery poses and you’ve got a delightfully odd send-up of the blurry gray area between seeking self-help and dogmatic indoctrination – an area that Lipsyte takes no little joy in examining.

Of course, a large part of what makes “Hark” such an enjoyable read is the prose styling with which Lipsyte presents these ideas. He’s unafraid to let his characters hold forth with lengthy diatribes. Nor will he shy away from long and intricate looks inside their heads. And his choice to build the story of his titular character entirely via the impressions of others – Hark is one of the few into whose head we never venture – is an inspired one. It lends itself beautifully to the idea that we can never truly know the inner realities of others – even those others whom we install as our own personal magnetic norths.

It's remarkable what we’re willing to do – and what we’re willing to give up – in our search for meaning. Many of us seek to understand our place in the world – some look for help in finding it, others want confirmation of the status they’ve already claimed. And while there will always be people out there willing to help, so too will there always be people who want to exploit your quest for their own gain.

“Hark” is a rare thing – a genuinely funny work of literary fiction. If it’s any indication of what 2019’s offerings are going to be like, it’s going to be one hell of a year for books.

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