Sam Lipsyte: “The Republic of Empathy”

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 Republic of Empathy” was originally published in the June 4 & 11, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.

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Two weeks ago, when the Science Fiction issue came out, I started this story.  Instead of finishing it, I read the other stories.  I tried it again.  Again, rather than finish, I read the rest of the magazine.  Finally, and not a day too soon, I have finished “The Republic of Empathy,” and it was only this blog project that got me through it.

For some reason, Sam Lipsyte’s sarcastic style drives me crazy.  I find no room in it for a genuine examination of anything other than clever tricks with voice and observation — and I don’t find it very clever.  Also, I always find the voice to be the same.  This story is told from the perspective of seven individuals and includes dialogue from others.  They all sound the same.  For example, here we have a father walking with his child, Philip, and Philip sounds just like the other characters.

I took Philip for a walk.  He tired easily, but his gait was significant.  He tended to clutch his hands behind his back, like the vexed ruler of something about to disintegrate.

“How about a brother or sister?” I asked.

“How about I just pooped,” Philip said.

“Thanks for your input.”

Peg always said I shouldn’t model sarcasm for hte boy, but who will?  Everybody’s so earnest around children.  Besides, I’ve always wanted to model.  To strut down the runway under all that strobe and glitter, while the fashion aristocrats cheer on my sarcasm.

 Yes, the idea here is that the child is alreayd following his father’s footsteps; it’s possibly just me, but the whole thing bugs me. 

Taking a step back, the first narrator (the father above) is William.  His wife wants to have another child (tells him if he doesn’t agree, it’s a deal-breaker).  Then we go on that walk with Philip, and finally we end up on a rooftop, smoking some dope with Gregory, his friend.  While up there, the two witness two men fighting on another rooftop.  One of them finally goes over the edge and dies (“The falling guy fell.”).  When William gets home that night, he goes to sleep and wakes up the next morning only to find he already has another son, and a third is on the way.

This is just the first of the six segments, all interrelated to some degree or another.  We meet Gregory’s son, the two men who brawled on the roof, a rich man who wants Gregory to copy some famous art for him, a drone headed toward William, and finally Peg, William’s wife.  Also, to one degree or another, the characters are worried about authenticity.  Indeed, if it weren’t so similar to other Lipsyte I’ve read, I’d even say the sarcasm is part of the look at authenticity.  However, it doesn’t ever add up, and it seems the concerns with authenticity cease after they are explicitly stated, leaving little for the reader to grapple with, not that what we have is much in the first place.

And science-fiction?  No.  It’s sad that The New Yorker had an opportunity to showcase some genuine science-fiction, and this is what they came up with.  Strangely, rather than broadening the scope of science-fiction itself, this issue showed the narrow perspective of the fiction editors.

10 thoughts on “Sam Lipsyte: “The Republic of Empathy””

  1. Lee Monks says:

    ‘For some reason, Sam Lipsyte’s sarcastic style drives me crazy. I find no room in it for a genuine examination of anything other than clever tricks with voice and observation — and I don’t find it very clever.’

    And I’m guessing the vast, vast majority of readers will fall down either your side or mine on this, Trevor! Lipsyte is very stylised (I can’t think of anyone writing the same way: The Ask feels to me like Groucho Marx meets John Barth by way of Woody Allen, Perelman, Nova, Beattie…and so on) but I think it’s a form that’s ‘getting at’ something beyond trickery about a contemporary mindset. Maybe I’m reaching due to my love for that voice…

  2. Trevor says:

    Boy, Lee, with this and Diaz, we’re certainly on two opposing sides! I’m sure some of this is my impatience with Lipsyte after a series of disappointments. He’s being published everywhere these days. I haven’t read The Ask, so maybe it’s his short stories for me. I’m also interested in your comparisons to Marx, Barth, Allen, Perelman, Nova and Beattie. Each of them have unique voices we can immediately recognize. Why do I accept such from them and not from Lipsyte? I’d argue it’s because I have never found anything more than voice with Lipsyte, but there just must be something there. That said, as much as I’d like to say “perhaps someone can convince me otherwise,” I’m sad to say I’ve probably finished closing my mind when it comes to Lipsyte’s work. Not a particularly good place to find myself situated, so we’ll see . . .

  3. Roger says:

    Agreed, Trevor. This story was a pretentious bore. I did get a couple of chuckles out of lines like “The falling guy fell” and even “How about I just pooped.” I’ll confess to that. But the jumbled identity switches struck me as pseudo-sophisticated tedium. I couldn’t motivate myself to try to figure them out and bet that they were not susceptible to being figured out.

  4. Ken says:

    I didn’t like this (but had liked his previous stories) and found it very unsatisfying and the structure is hardly innovative anymore and there wasn’t much there. It was readable for me and amusing at times but that’s about it.

  5. Lee Monks says:

    I think Lipsyte characters tend to be hiding behind elaborate constructs: the stand-up routine communication is neurotic distancing. I think the world he creates s full of people with their head resolutely in the sand, energised by rancorous nerviness. Therein lies the Nova similarity for me: every last moment of woe is recalibrated as bleakly funny.

  6. Aaron says:

    I’m going to get around to the science-fiction issue next week (I hope), but in the meantime, I’m hoping to convince you to put up a placeholder post about Ben Lerner’s “The Golden Vanity” from the 6/18/12 issue: I can’t dismiss it out of hand, he’s thought too much out for it to be random or poorly written. But I’m definitely of the opinion that it’s and overwrought and redundant piece, to the extent that he’s gotten in his own way: http://bit.ly/L6D8IU.

  7. Aaron says:

    I’m with Ken that I was surprising not to like this and that there wasn’t more there, considering how much I enjoyed earlier efforts from the author. As for Lee’s comparisons, I actually find myself thinking about George Saunders in relation to Lipsyte; I certainly don’t think he’s got a distinct voice or worldview. If anything, this story frustrated me with (1) how familiar parts felt and (2) how inconsistent the narrative voice was for each character, particularly Zach (which is a way of both agreeing and disagreeing with Trevor that all the characters sound the same; they’re all sloppily written).

    Anyway, more analysis, as usual, here (http://bit.ly/KHrb9K), where I complain, mostly, about the poor choice of narrative structure (you know, since we’re talking about artificiality in this format, Rick Moody’s “The Diviners” now comes to mind) and the issue that Trevor rightfully pointed out: this isn’t really science-fiction, it’s just bad fiction. (I.e., if I inserted a one-page sequence in which a delusional AI talks to itself into a novel about the present war in Afghanistan and then never mentioned it again, would that make it science-fiction?)

  8. Lisa says:

    I’ve only read his New Yorker story, but “The Republic of Empathy” strikes me as derisive of empathy (and empathy in literature) in a troublesome way. He reads, to me, as if he’s internalized the writing style of David Foster Wallace but minus DFW’s compassion.

  9. Madwomanintheattic says:

    Lee, if you need backup, take mine. I thought of the story as you did. I think it stands comparison to Maile Meloy’s “Proxy Marriage,”(5/14/12) which I thought trite/dull (but which people here seemed to like). The relationships among the segments here are ‘proxy marriages’ if you will, but a lot funnier, more touching, less predictable. I don’t extract a penalty for laughing – in fact, the sadness of the situations and even the sci fi bit (the world in which my grandchildren live now), touched me more because of the humor.

  10. Trevor says:

    I don’t extract a penalty for laughing

    I certainly hope I don’t either, Madwomanintheattic! Please strike me if I do. As with all types of humor, though, it works or it doesn’t, and so is the fate of the entire piece if humor is central.

    On this topic, I was just listening to Howard Jacobson, who I think is very funny and very serious about his humor. I don’t get the sense that Lipsyte is serious about his humor, though — it always feels juvenile to me — but I’m completely open to the idea that it’s just me. I’m missing something you and Lee have found.

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