"The Climber Room" by Sam Lipsyte Originally published in the November 21, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
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.