"The Republic of Empathy" by Sam Lipsyte Originally published in the June 4 & 11, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
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 the 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.