"Deniers" by Sam Lipsyte Originally published in the May 2, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
The first thing I’d read by Sam Lipsyte was “The Dungeon Master,” published last year in The New Yorker (my thoughts here). I was basically just above indifferent with that story, though looking back I’m more fond of it now than then.
But then there’s this one. I’ll have to ask commenters, does it get better after the half-way mark? Because that’s where I quit — for now. I actually started the story on Monday and have chipped away at it since, but I just can’t bring myself to finish it right now. Neither the story nor Lipsyte’s writing was doing anything for me, and I thought it better to cease and desist than proceed. Perhaps I was in a bad mood. Perhaps it’s that I just finished Alistair MacLeod’s wonderful No Great Mischief. But I can’t find it in my to finish this story now — and maybe I’ll never return to it (if I do, my thoughts will show up in this post).
It’s strange, because I still have the goal to go back and read the very few stories I’ve missed over the past two and a half years (I believe I still need to read three or four to remain a completist) — that, more than the story so far, is what will probably force me to return here sometime.
Not long after posting the above, I decided to start “Deniers” over and read it straight through. I’ve forced myself to do worse. It turned out that, though I still didn’t like the story, my very negative reaction the first time around was more my fault — and, sure, Alistair MacLeod’s — than the story’s. Still, there’s this sentence: “Hate-crime hands, loving now.” It’s meant to be ironic, but by the end of the story, where it appears, I was again quite annoyed.
When the story began, even the first time, I was interested. In a couple of pages we meet Mandy Gottlieb as a little girl. Her father Jacob is a Holocaust survivor who barely speaks to her, let alone about his experiences in the Holocaust.
His gastric arias mostly stood in for conversation, but some evenings he managed a few words, such as the night he spotted Mandy’s library book on the credenza. This teen novel told the story of a suburban boy who befriends an elderly neighbor, a wanted Nazi. Mandy watched her father study the book from across the room. The way he handled it made her think he was scornful of its binding or paper stock, but then he read the dust flap, shuddered. He whispered in his original language, the one he rarely used, so glottal, abyssal.
Mandy’s mother had hoped for a more exotic life, but when the exotic came to her in the form of “the older European man, handsomely gaunt, haunted, roaring up on his motorcycle at a county fair,” she married Jacob. After the book episode above, Mandy expresses a bit of disappointment that her father never speaks about it. “Mandy decided she wouldn’t read anything else about the era of her father’s agony. If she wasn’t good enough to hear his story, so be it. Other, more generous catastrophes would arrive.”
And it’s at this point the story began to lose me each time. There’s an affair tied to corporate America blighting the peace of the community, her mother’s subsequent suicide, and then Mandy’s recovering from a coke addiction and trying to distance herself from her crazy ex-boyfriend after she’s caught him in a threesome and he invites her to make it four. The tone of the piece is strange. After relaying in a quick summarizing fashion, it simply says, “Yes, the vicissitudes.” It gets a bit stranger when Mandy summons “her inner banshee,” and her now-ex-boyfriend leaves carrying his prized copy of Hamsun’s Hunger.
Perhaps the trite tone is a reflection of the way Mandy deals with the disasters in her life, but I couldn’t help but read it as Lipsyte himself trying to be stylistically hip. I find this passage speaks my mind:
At the plastic table on the patio, overlooking a tomato field, her father picked at bird crap.
“Daddy,” Mandy said. “That’s poop.”
Her father gave a lazy leer.
“How’s your mother?”
Jacob picked at the flecks.
That passage reflects Mandy a bit later. She’s regained some stability and now visits her ailing father in his rest home. Mandy soon finds her new stability threatened when she is befriended by a man in somewhat similar circumstances to the man in Francine Prose’s A Changed Man.
So after reading the story one and a half times, it is better than my first impression. Still, I found its tone trite and frustrating, even if Lipsyte can carry the reader through smoothly. Perhaps, again, though, it was more my fault than anything wrong with the story.