Sam Lipsyte: “The Climber Room”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  Sam Lipsyte’s “The Climber Room” was originally published in the November 21, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.

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I’m just not becoming a fan of Sam Lipsyte’s work.  I have not read one of his novels, but the more I read his short stories the less I feel like this is a gap worth filling.  I did enjoy – though not fully — the first piece of his I read, “The Dungeon Master,” published last year in The New Yorker (my thoughts here).  But since then, it has gone down hill.  I didn’t like “The Worm in Philly,” a short piece he published in the Fall 2010 issue of The Paris Review, and I really didn’t like “Deniers,” which was published in The New Yorker earlier this year (my thoughts here).  And now I find “The Climber Room” my least favorite of all, though I recognize that it could be the accumulated force of the last disappointments.

For me, Lipsyte has a vivid “voice” or style that sounds slightly irreverent and hip.  The stories move forward nicely, but I can never fully believe that what he’s saying comes from anything more than his desire to keep that slightly irreverent and hip tone — in other words, to me he injects a lot into his stories simply to shock the reader.  I say simply to shock because shock with purpose can be powerful, but I’ve never been fully convinced of real purpose.

“The Climber Room” is about Tovah Gold, a woman just creeping upon middle-age.  She is just beginning a new job in a preschool.  Soon after the story begins, Tovah meets one of the older fathers (“a skinny, gray-haired man in a polo shirt, old enough to be the grandfather of the girl who called him “Papa!”).  When the man introduces himself, Tovah thinks he says his name is “Randy Goat.”  Yes, she misheard him, and that little joke alone was okay, I guess, but combine the misheard name with the rest of the story and it is a blatant stunt that, for me, kept the story over-the-top.

Tovah is disappointed with her life.  She was once a promising poet, but she hasn’t been able to do anything there for quite a while, not since the days when she could freely eat loads of greasy food.  That night, after meeting the Goat Man (as she calls Randy Goat, whose real name is Gautier), she collapses into a mess of foods again.

Now she was thirty-six and in one eating spree had become a vile sack of fat and rot.  In this vision of herself she was not even obese but more like a bloated corpse gaffed from a lake.  There on the couch, her belly flopped over her jeans, the new chin she’d acquired in about five hours was damp and rashy, and rank scents curled from her pores and, especially, from her crotch whenever she tugged at her waistband to ease the ache.  It was all so awful, so evil, so unlike the Tovah of recent years, of modified appetites and reduced expectations, that her corpse-body surged with something revoltingly, smearishly pleasing.  She felt slimy, garbage-juice sexy.  Her hand jerked inside her underwear for relief.  She pictured the actual gaffer leaning over the side of the fishing boat: tan and rugged, with kind, lustful eyes under a brocaded cap.  Sparkle eyes.  Tovah’s legal pad, upon which she’d written only the title of her poem, “Needing the Wood,” slide to the carpet.  Her fountain pen, caught against an embroidered yellow pillow, impaled it.

This episode where we get an inside take on Tovah’s sexual fantasy with a gaffer pulling her bloated corpse out of the lake gives a good idea of what I’m talking about.  Yes, in a way, this episode tells a lot about Tovah’s mindset and foreshadows some of the means she’s willing to take to fulfill her desire which is increasingly becoming an obsession: she really would like to have a child: “A baby, however, especially a baby bred to be lean and coal-haired and jade-eyed and slant-smiled, like Sean, could learn to express Tovah’s feelings, too, without the torture of words.”  Yes, as the story moves along, achieving this desire involves The Goat Man.

It isn’t that I found this all disgusting and therefore somehow unworthy of fiction.  It’s that the story uses these images in place of nuance.  I suppose that my basic problem with Lipsyte is the same I have with many a showy writer.  We often hear praises sung to a writer who can write beautifully, though underneath the beautiful phrase is an empty thought.  The same thing can happen when someone writes ugliness.  The audience can see an ugly image and mistake it for profundity — why else would it be there?  I won’t give it away, but Exhibit A of an empty thought covered with false ugly profundity is the final few paragraphs.

KevinfromCanada has often likened his developing feelings toward a book, whether good or bad, to a tree falling.  At first, slight movements may sway the tree from “I like this” to “I hate this” and back again.  But as the tree begins to fall, the more force required to right that tree again.  Thus, if we are really starting to enjoy a book, it’s going to have to do something pretty horrendous to force the tree in the other direction.  The same if we are hating a book.  The same with an author.  I haven’t read a lot of Lipsyte, but the tree is falling fast to the “I hate this” side.  Because of that, I realize that my thoughts on this particular story may be a bit tainted because the tree was already falling even before I picked it up.  This was clear to me immediately as I wasn’t far into “The Climbing Room” before I was focusing on all of the annoying excesses, possibly to the exclusion of anything redemptive that would cast those excesses in better light.  Saying all of this, I’m not apologizing for my feelings here, but I do recommend taking my opinion with a grain of salt, as always.

9 thoughts on “Sam Lipsyte: “The Climber Room””

  1. Betsy says:

    Sam Lipsyte’s “The Climber Room” leaves this reader wondering about the requirements of satire. Can it be vicious? Yes. Jonathan Swift proved that, and Thackeray, too. Need it also be either funny or possessed, in some way, of a soul? Of course, the mildest of satire is just that: Garrison Keillor, Mark Twain, and Ben Franklin mark that territory well. In “My Name is Charlotte Simmons” Tom Wolfe skewers the modern college, and yet he keeps the reader reading because she is so drawn to Charlotte herself. My question is this: can satire succeed when it is merely vicious? When all of the soul work is left to the reader?

    Thirty-six year old Tovah Gold suddenly feels her biological clock ticking. A failed poet, a failed secretary, and a failed friend, Tovah has become a temp in a pre-school in order to keep body together. I say body alone, because she appears to have no soul. At one point, musing on her difficulties with people, Tovah thinks a baby – with anyone – “could learn to express Tovah’s feelings, too, without the torture of words.”

    Tovah is a horror.

    The story has an equally repellant man as Tovah’s opposite, Randy Gautier. Given his minimal interactions with Tovah, calling her (a pre-school aide for his daughter) “a tight-ass”, spitting in her direction when he meets her on the street, using his power to rearrange her schedule, pressuring her to baby-sit, this is someone to whom aa ordinary woman would have given a wide berth. Instead, sensing money and power, she gloms on, mucus be damned. When, in his apartment, she delivers an idiotic diatribe about the problems of the modern woman, she turns to find that he has “tugged his penis out of his tuxedo pants.”

    Gautier remarks, about himself, “It’s O.K., I’m listening.” And there the story ends.

    Gautier, of course, reminds one of an American Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the powerful Frenchman associated with sexual assault on a multitude of women. For those of old enough to remember, Gautier’s tuxedo maneuvers also reminds us of Nelson Rockefeller.

    But the real question in the story is not what an American Strauss-Kahn would look like, it is what would an American Strauss-Kahn look like if she were a woman. As a male failure-friend of Tovah’s remarks, “Thing is, we both need the same crap. Somebody with money, and security, and also did I mention money? To shore up our egos. To nurture our unrealistic dreams.”

    Tovah Gold is therefore aptly named, and as such, failed poet and failed secretary that she is, she is a terrible candidate to care for your children or mine, but there she is in the pre-school, trolling for possible hook-ups among the daddies.

    Her failures as a pre-school aide are monumental: she does not at first recognize a child to whom she had just recently paid a home visit, although she has a fine recall of the elegance of the house.

    She allows the father to call her “a tight-ass” in the child’s presence. Instead, she stands listening to him with her hand on the child’s head, something most children would dislike, and something most pre-school teachers would never do.

    And she calls herself a professional. What an insult. We know she is not professional – we know she is a liar. Professional pre-school teachers have worked for years in preparation for their jobs. They have degrees and specific training and certification. This woman is merely good-looking, perhaps her basis for hinting to Gautier that she is “professional”.

    At one point, trying to write a poem, Tovah eats herself to the point of vomiting. The reader, at that point, is feeling nauseous as well. How much is too much? One structural question I have is whether a satire can survive with no character to relieve its viciousness, no proper punishment for the wicked, or no underlying vibe from the writer to indicate a soul.

    The story should have been called “stomach bug”, given how frequently the reader feels nauseous. The “tight-ass moment” is first, followed by Tovah masturbating just after she vomits just after she eats a Chinese meal for three. Then, Gautier spits in her direction, another very queasy moment. Then, when she goes out on a date and is offered scrapple, the reader is treated to a full description of scrapple’s ingredients. “Sounds kind of trayf,” says Tovah. Not kind of.

    The whole story sounds kind of trayf. Which, of course, Mr. Lipsyte knows. (There’s some kind of righteous anger going on here, but I question the writer’s control of his effects.)

    The moment when Mr. Lipsyte completely loses me is this.

    Tovah is watching little Desdemona (the innocent one) on the climbing apparatus, and she is bored and annoyed. Dezzy suddenly lurches toward Tovah as kids do. Tovah is further irritated by the closeness, the feel of the girl’s frizzy hair and the smell of her breath.

    “‘I love you, Tovah!’ she said, and gurgled through surplus saliva. Desdemona wasn’t slow or anything, just charmless, a sloppy need machine.”

    An editorial comment, here, Mr. Lipsyte. You didn’t need to have the “wasn’t slow or anything” to make your point. This is the careless over-kill of the immature comic. We know Tovah is horrible. We know she doesn’t love children and would make a ghastly parent. We know she is on the make. We know she would use Dezzy to get some high life. We know she doesn’t deserve the kisses Dezzy lavishes on her. Just to know that Tovah thinks the affection of children is charmless and sloppy, just to know that Tovah thinks the child is a “need machine” is to know Tovah is whacked.

    The “wasn’t slow or anything” comment may be true to Tovah’s character, and may, in fact, reveal that Tovah is doubly unsuited to be a parent, in that she has set internal limits on what she has determined is permissible in people. (Who knows what fate may give Tovah for a baby? Who knows what Tovah would do with that baby?)

    But the choice of this locution feels easy, feels lazy, feels undeveloped in that nothing in the story redeems the use of it.

    The funny thing is, once you have known a child who might fit that description (slow and with a surplus of saliva), you understand that you are in the presence of luminous innocence, and you cannot get enough of it. Take my word for it.

    What I’m saying is – don’t go there. William Faulkner succeeded. But he was William Faulkner. And he took an entire book to justify his use of Benjy. He took the time to make it right. (Not that these days, Faulkner wouldn’t be completely wrong. But at the time, he was right. At least, his soul was right, and the work was right.)

    I guess I’m saying you have to earn it to be loose on certain topics.

    Which brings me back to the question of soul and satire. I think the Jonathan Swift essay on the solution to the Irish question does it. The essay establishes its soul through its pose and its extreme irony, much as the Benjamin Franklin essay on why Muslims shouldn’t free their European slaves also does. The pose establishes the soul, but the details still convey the writer’s horror.

    Finally, I just feel that satire, while it may flow from the writer like wine from the bottle, needs care. This story feels careless. Mark the story’s first paragraph in which it is hard to tell what the heck is going on, and mark especially the grammatical clumsiness of the second paragraph, a 49 or 50 word sentence containing two “as” clauses, which this reader found simply stumpifying.

    Perhaps I am searching for a category in which to fit Mr. Lipsyte. Shock-jock-satirist feels close. It doesn’t work for me. Maybe it does for you.

  2. Betsy says:

    The book bench interview with the author intimates that perhaps this Tovah piece is one of several stories of her, or part of a novel, perhaps. In that case, this reader’s criticisms would be mistaken. Extra development might answer my qualms, might balance the darkness. Perhaps some awakening lies in store for Tovah, or perhaps a leavening character is to emerge, with heart or innocence, or both.

  3. jerry says:

    I don’t really know how I feel about this one..as Betsy says parts of it are just disgusting what can one say?

    Yet I like Tovah for some reason, I found her more interesting than the woman in “Deniers” the earlier story this year by Lipsyte in the magazine. Maybe it’s because she is such a horror!

  4. Aaron says:

    I didn’t particularly find this story to be satirical, more of just a sad commentary on the constant need to “climb” when you’re poor or, specifically in this case, a woman. That Tovah happens to have disgusting moments in her life — I didn’t find quite so many as you, and those that were there I found to be far funnier than gross — is just something natural and human about us, and this story is filled with her disappointments and the shattering of her illusions, even as she fights against the physical compulsions to produce a baby. (She notes that they’re chemical; from an emotional standpoint, she’d also like not to be alone. Babies make good shields, and she’s seen far worse parents.)

    Is this really the way the world is, with people so callous? (I’d argue that Saunders is far cruder in his assessments, by the way.) I don’t know, but I can at least believe this depiction is true for some, and I’m happy to hear that there may be more (mis)adventures with this “hero.” More thoughts here: http://t.co/KrECYgnL.

  5. Reba M says:

    Well, I liked it. I am a mental health consultant and a child advocate and did not find this story offensive in the least. I would describe it as glaring. When we are brave enough to pull back the curtain, as Sam Lipsyte does, we discover an underbelly much like the one described in this story. Lots and lots of underbelly.

  6. Trevor says:

    I finally have posted my thoughts on this one above. I’m mostly with Betsy. I didn’t like it at all and consider Lipsyte to be more of a “shock-jock” than any kind of deep writer. The ugliness itself didn’t offend me, but one can use prettiness or ugliness to mimic profundity, and that’s what I think is going on here.

  7. I won’t dispute any of the criticisms of this story since I have not read it, but I will say that I thought Lipsyte’s novel The Ask had some genuinely humorous moments to it. And probably succeeded better at delivering satire than this story did.

  8. Trevor says:

    I remember you had a positive opinion of The Ask, Kevin, which is possibly one of the reasons I’ve kept trying Lipsyte when he appears in short story form. Perhaps it’s just that he’s a novelist. As Betsy says above, she thought this story might be better with some fleshing out in novel form. I’m not sure where I stand on that, except to say that it’s maybe unfortunate that I’ve come to know him (slightly) through his short fiction, which doesn’t lead me to pick up one of his novels.

  9. Ken says:

    I come late to this but…I liked this story. I didn’t find Tovah that horrible or the story that disgusting. Granted, it’s hardly cheery but my take is that it dealt with the tough lot in life of smart people who are forced by need of money/shelter/food into boring jobs and of smart women who are hostage to their biological clocks. Tovah is an intelligent, prickly, sarcastic person forced into a dull job and pathetically hoping for some sugar daddy. I thought the story was more like a trap slowly springing and the last line was the character snagged in a money pit

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