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?”

“You know.”


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.

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By |2016-06-29T18:38:21-04:00April 28th, 2011|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Sam Lipsyte|Tags: |7 Comments


  1. Trevor April 28, 2011 at 7:44 pm

    Okay, I already persuaded myself to give it another go, starting from the beginning and straight through to the finish line. I didn’t like it, but it wasn’t as much a chore this time through. I will post my thoughts later.

  2. Liz from Literary Masters April 29, 2011 at 10:57 am

    I read The Ask when it came out; I think the Economist gave it a thumbs up (so to speak) and I was looking forward to reading it but then found it…just okay.

  3. Jerry April 29, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    I thought it a good story, though I did like The Dungeon Master better.

    I am ambivilent about TNY publishing stories that are part of upcoming novels..it is something they have done since the days of Cheever after all.

    I did notice on their website that in fiction they were nominated for National Magazine Awards for Orphan by Clair Keegan and Costello by pardon me, I can’t remember the author’s name..I did think those were two of the best stories published last year.

  4. Trevor April 29, 2011 at 2:45 pm

    Many would agree with you about Claire Keegan’s story (it’s actually “Foster”). Not only has that been one of the most popular New Yorker story posts on this blog (both in terms of comments and hits) but it is one of the most popular posts on this blog that primarily focuses on books. At the time, I put “Costello” by Jim Gavin more in the middle, though it stands out to me more now.

    I actually think this year already has better stories than last year.

  5. Betsy April 29, 2011 at 10:38 pm

    I also found this story tiresome, Trevor. Somehow it felt carelessly written. Take the title – deniers – what is this word, I thought? My first thought was nylons – not a good start. In addition, the language, sentence by sentence, was often either difficult to follow, clunky, or off-putting. For example — “The day drained out of her and endorphins filled her floodplains” — just stopped me cold. The tough guy telling the story seemed to get in his own way repeatedly.

    I get it that we romanticize tragedy, as well as addiction and recovery. (Not to mention that we romanticize writing.) I get it that romanticizing is a kind of denial. But there is just so much going on in this story (so many ideas, so many complaints, and so many people), it is hard to stay with it. I’d like to argue quite a bit with Sam Lypsite over the whole thing. So I’ll argue just a little. I was truly interested in Tovah’s conversation with Mandy’s father, but I found it hard to believe that Mandy was so isolated from her father that she did not understand that Tovah and Jacob were speaking in Yiddish.

    What I do admire about Lypsite’s story is the head-on confrontation. He says – you think addiction is pretty? you think confession is easy? you think forgiveness – either asking for it or giving it – flows like wine? He makes us completely uncomfortable with these easy outs. There is honor in taking a tilt at this set of delusions – but I don’t think he wins this bout.

  6. Ken May 13, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    I liked this pretty much but definitely had some problems. I liked The Dungeon Master better. What I had a problem with was Mandy, she never seemed that focussed whereas the secondary characters seemed much clearer. She mostly seemed to react to them and yet not be that clear herself. In many ways, her journey seemed emblematic of typical fiction about addiction and recovery and seemed to check off the boxes: distant father, suicide mom, irritating but supportive friends, codependent relations with men-some fellow addicts, etc. And I agree some sentences were too ironic or just labored such as “Running Motor. Sealed garage. Sweet suburban sleep.” Ick! Then there were great ones like this amusing comment “A poem cycle. Like what some stuck-up clown would ride.” I found the story compelling and never a chore and did like the way it dealt with the topic of addiction in terms of being truthful and feeling right (especially about the grandiosity of those in recovery) and yet I also felt it was, as mentioned above, a check-list. Probably my most mixed feelings about a story that I can recall.

  7. Tim May 19, 2011 at 4:48 pm

    Haven’t been keeping up on my reading or writing. This story was painful to get through. That’s how I think about it: getting through. From the structure of the writing to the story itself, everything seemed tired and bland.

    I have a longer response at http://timlepczyk.com/2011/05/19/the-deniers-sam-lipsyte.html, though it all amounts to a thumbs down.

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