Sam Lipsyte: “The Naturals”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker website. Sam Lipsyte’s “The Naturals” was originally published in the May 5, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.

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Betsy

I loved Sam Lipsyte’s story, “The Naturals.” A story about death, it’s crammed with life. It’s funny, poignant, awful, wonderful, thoughtful, scary, and witty. It is so filled with acts of love by such flawed people it’s like watching a Cirque du Soleil put on by the local Lions Club. How dare we live when we’re so bad at it? How fair is it that we die, when, occasionally, we’re so good at life? How do we deal with it all, anyway?

Caperton, a single guy with business problems, has to fly home. His father is dying — again. Home means revisiting his mother’s death, his lonely childhood, and his father’s failures as a father. Home means, in the words of his step mother Stell, the temptation or even compulsion to unleash the inner “crumbun.” Life, the way it does for all of us, seems to be happening all at once to Caperton: his father is dying, the love of his life has left him, and his consulting business is falling apart. That is not to mention the fact that Caperton has to watch his step-mother and his father’s best friend take solace in each other.

You’ve been in a house where someone is dying, right? It’s not all hospice and honey. (Though Hospice is one of the great, great inventions of the twentieth century.)

Caperton seems to have a split consciousness: that life ought to be capers and cream cheese, on the one hand, and that life is as heavy as heavy as a ton of bricks, on the other. He is filled with “an unassuageable rage,” and he tells us about how he is periodically seized by “The Intermittent Belt of Sorrow,” something that feels an awful lot like an impending heart attack to the reader. So familiar to me, and maybe to you, too. Is he going to make it, the story asks? Or, if he does, how?

I loved this story, I loved these people, I loved the riffs on food, and I loved the offhand fruitcake mélange of serious literary stuff. How do we deal with death? One way we deal is we eat. One way we deal is to flounder around. Inevitably, we deal by behaving really badly. In the house of death we even fight with each other. Sometimes we even rough each other up. Oh, so sad! So totally off-base! So true!

But way more to the point, we tell stories. That’s what Lipsyte does, and that’s what the characters in this story talk about — they talk about stories! But how they talk! Like real people.

Each of the characters in this story has a take on how stories work and why they’re important and what they should be. This potpourri about story-telling is fabulous and worth the read in and of itself. I want to take a minute and remark that TV, the internet, movies, memoir, advice, and stories are all legitimate parts of their discussion, and in fact, a rave about a TV serial (what Roddy Doyle would have called a “Box Set”)  turns out to be pivotal in the way Caperton’s father is able to give him a parting gift. Lipsyte is echoing Roddy Doyle: writing comes in all forms, and readers come in all types. I even wondered if either Lipsyte or The New Yorker editors were reacting to Roddy Doyle and the pull TV had for his characters a few weeks back in “Box Sets.” Caperton and his father discuss which version of The Natural is better, the movie, with its changed ending, or the dark, dark book. This is not so much a discussion of craft as one of philosophy: how should you look at life? What gets you through? But also, talking about stories is one of the ways we talk to each other. What we talk about when we talk about stories is what matters most to us.

In “The Naturals,” Lipsyte says:  life is full of love and death. And we’re so-so at both, and occasionally we’re god-awful, and occasionally we’re great. In talking about Thomas McGuane’s “Hubcaps,” I remarked that a couple of his characters chose love. But that was a dark, dark story, and we weren’t sure how McGuane’s boy would survive, even if a couple of people showed him love when his own parents didn’t. Lipsyte is more hopeful than that. In “The Naturals,” people are broken, limited, silly, and selfish, but they also redeem themselves with surprising, right, natural, wacky, wonderful acts of love.

Lipsyte makes a point of this. A guy Caperton meets on the airplane, a pro-wrestler named “The Rough Beast of Jerusalem,” is love itself, pumped-up, turned-on, unacceptable, larger-than-life love.

I don’t want to overstate the point of the wrestler’s name. Lipsyte doesn’t. Lipsyte is moving so fast in this story that he doesn’t linger or overstate. But the bravery! The writer embraces the idea that even a crumbun deserves love, and crumbuns though we all are, foolish and selfish as we are, we sometimes find the means to give it. Though he does echo the idea that it’s a choice.

I love the way the writer uses being funny to bear the weight of this lyric idea. I also love the way he says  that stories are part of how we survive.

What a great story. Lipsyte debates Yeats on the nature of the rough beast slouching toward Jerusalem. There’s a lot there to think about. But what craft — to be so real, so funny, so literary, so touching — in such a small space! What a great story.

9 thoughts on “Sam Lipsyte: “The Naturals””

  1. This post has been updated to include Betsy’s enthusiastic thoughts :-) .

    I have read the first bit of the story, so I hope to join the conversation soon.

  2. Roger says:

    I also saw a lot of wit and poignancy in this story, and some thoughtful, moving thematic elements. But, this is one of those stories where the intelligent, funny writer seems always present in almost every character, to the point where I could never suspend my disbelief to appreciate this as a work of realistic fiction. Several characters have very similar wisecracking voices: Caperton, his father, Burt (Larry’s impending successor), the Rough Beast of Bethlehem, even Miles the boyfriend/nanny who wittily threatens Carperton: “Someody who could find you and stomp on your urethra in what we foolishly call real time.” Stell and the characters in Chicago are the exceptions.

    I respect Lipsyte’s talent and much of this story, but at this level, in the New Yorker, craft matters, or it should. The shortcomings in craft drain the power of the story’s art, for me.

  3. Betsy Pelz says:

    That’s an interesting point, Roger, about how all the characters have a natural wit.

    But it’s startling to me how much families and their friends sound alike. It’s a defensible proposition to say that wit runs in families, that humor does, or that reserve does, and that these families collect people around them like them. I say that partially because my husband and I share best friends from long ago whose family dinner table was awash in wit. Wit was their bread and wine. But then, to come to your defense, there we sat as well, more reserved, in my husband’s case, and more clunky, in mine. I did love the company, though,

    I propose the Lipsyte story to be on the order of dining at the Amis dinner table or with the Brontes or the Adamses or the Jameses. Not that the Jameses were funny. But there would have been a common thread there. And then there are the Bachs – all of them sharing a common brain. Those men married women who thought like them. When they had family reunions they liked to sing in four part harmony. And look at Steve Jobs and Mona Simpson.

    So is Lipsyte’s world unbelievable? Caperton himself strikes me as more tongue-tied than witty, although his ready demand for a boutique sandwich did startle me. That Larry, Stell, and Burt would sound alike makes sense to me. And for that matter, that the only person who can reach Caperton is the Rough Beast makes sense to me, too – an alternative version of his family. That Daphne would seek out somebody, once again, with a witty turn is not unbelievable to me, either.

    But I take your point. And argue it! Does he get away with it this time the way Dickens or Twain get away with it? Speaking of Twain, the Duke sounds just like a twisty version of Huck, although I will admit that Jim is their opposite, and Jim is what gives the book a core.

    But! to just be at this particular Lipsyte dinner table for a half hour delighted and abashed me.

    But I take your point. I proposed that these people talked like real people. Well – like a very particular set of real people, I’ll admit.

    And I will yield on this point – that everyone in Elmore Leonard sounds the same – stupid to a fault. My husband loves the cynicism, because it’s true, to be human is to be stupid to a fault. But my romanticism yearns to deny it. I yearn to think there could be a dozen people who might get together and you just can’t shut the sparkle up, just cannot stop the rightness of it.

    So you want to change the story and add some dullness? give the guy who says “koisk” a bigger part? Not me!

    But it’s a really interesting point. How much do the people who people a writer’s universe sound the same? (Think Munro, think Melville, think Milton, just to start with M.) Your point is so interesting I am having trouble concluding. But I see that to go any further a lot more work would be required of me …. : ).

  4. Roger says:

    Betsy, I agree this is not a phenomenon unique to Lipsyte, but I noticed it more in this story, maybe because the sameness of the character voices seemed especially so, and especially pervasive among the characters. Some of it makes sense for reasons you mention and for other reasons. The narrator sounds like Carperton, which is fine because this is a very close third-person narrative. Carperton sounds like Larry, and that’s defensible since they are father and son. When Burt also sounds similar (as he does in his “Outliers” comment), it starts to become wearying.

    An argument can be made that Burt and Larry were friends who lived in the same area, so Larry sounds like Burt, Carperton sound like his father Larry, and the narrator sounds like Carperton. (Though I note that often, friends and relatives do not sound alike, in life or in fiction.) But the Rough Beast? It’s not just that the Beast is surprisingly new-age-sensitive; it’s that at times he speaks in a voice that is Carperton-esque (or really, Lipsyte-esque). “What man doesn’t cry for his father?”
    And Miles, who claims to be a former nose tackle? Of course, he could be faking – which would be consistent with his wittiness, right? I suppose there’s always one more plausible justification that can be found for one more sound-alike character, but for me credulity was stretched too far.

    Lipsyte is one of those genius writers who is so great at conjuring up a fun, clever, funny character that he may feel compelled to do it over and over again within the same story. I admire his talent. But the fact that he *can* do this and can do it so well doesn’t mean he *should* keep doing it. At a certain point, it undermines the dramatic force of the work, for me anyway. I was distracted by it, wondering as I read, and as I thought about the story afterward, how unlikely it would be that so many characters’ voices sound so similar.

    One potential explanation that’s only partially formed in my mind – Carperton (whom I see as Lipsyte’s avatar, especially in light of the New Yorker Q&A) emphasizes that almost everyone he meets identifies himself as a storyteller. It bothers him that he keeps encountering self-proclaimed storytellers, whether it’s the rival consultant in Chicago or the Rough Beast. It’s as if everyone claims to be a fiction writer, diminishing the status of the “true” fiction writers, like Lipsyte. Maybe Lipsyte is making a broader comment about our culture, where everyone is telling their stories, on Facebook, in blogs, or in the comments sections of blogs. And that sameness, or effort to reach storyteller status, is emphasized in a story where even a pro wrestler and a (possible) former nose tackle get to sound like Carperton, drowning out his uniqueness as the POV character we all are accustomed to seeing in a work of literary fiction. This doesn’t quite convince me that the sameness of the voices works dramatically, but it’s something I’m wondering about.

  5. Betsy says:

    So glad to have the point debated, Roger! And the point you make about this story’s interest in story-telling is worth a look. Hope somebody (else!) chimes in, or that you, Roger, take this a little further. The whole story-telling thing interests me.

  6. Betsy says:

    Looking back at Lipsyte’s “The Climber Room”, I notice that I enthusiastically hated it. Note to self – a little time between writing and posting might be in order.

    “The Climber Room”, upon re-reading, appealed to me – on this basis. Randy Gautier, the rich old single parent, is looking for someone to help him with the adopted daughter he has accidentally acquired.

    He says to Tovah, the beautiful, self-involved woman the little girl has picked out, “We’re grown up and broken, just like everybody else.”

    I have to admit I’m drawn to a writer who can find a way to say this.

    So, how annoying is Tovah? She’s annoying! So like oneself.

    Another thing that interests me upon re-reading is that this is a man writing inside the head of a woman. How right does he get it? Actually, there’s a lot to Tovah’s inner monologue that rings very true, as if Lipsyte has listened very carefully to a woman a lot like Tovah, Is he respectful of this woman? Well – the story seems to be Lipsyte’s means of saying, as Gautier does, “Stop acting like such a precious flower.”

    Does Tovah deserve that? Probably just as much as Caperton does.

    Why did I enthusiastically hate “The Climber Room” and just as enthusiastically love “The Naturals”? Probably because it’s easier for me to watch a writer gore the male psyche than the female. Note to self: watch that.

    Another thing: I notice that both stories have Jesus in their peripheral vision as a puzzle, a stumbling block. It surprised me, when re-reading “The Climber Room”, to see that Lipsyte has Tovah think about someone she knows: “This is the way Jesus must have worked – some petty wonder talk while revelation sank its celestial needle. An artificial insemination of the soul.”

    There is a pre-occupation with our need for redemption in these two stories that appeals to me. But I really like the way Lipsyte sneaks it in. The same we sneak it in.

    One last thing. I now notice the nice complexity embodied in the title, “The Naturals”.

    The on-line definition for natural is very long. “Natural” is a word that embodies opposites. There is the Malamud idea of the phenomenally skilled and artful athlete, and then there is this ” one born without the usual powers of reason and understanding”, such as a “birdbrain”.

    This is Lipsyte’s take on Faulkner, I suppose: – that we’re all Benjy Compson, broken and beautiful.

    There it is – the thing I like about both these stories – that we’re all both beautiful and broken.

  7. Betsy says:

    Trevor – I just read Lipsyte’s “The Republic of Empathy”from 2 years ago and also everyone’s comments. I’m a little flustered to see how much you didn’t like it, much for the same reason Roger argues here – that the voice never changes from person to person. It interests me that you tried and tried to read it and kept putting it off. This guy really is not your cup of tea!

    Just want to say that I liked “The Republic of Empathy” and thought, like Lee suggested, that the arch tone is a cover that allows Lipsyte to be utterly serious about the emptiness he is depicting. The coarse characters would be repulsive except for the seriousness of Lipsyte’s purpose, which in the case of ‘Empathy’ is to awaken our feelings to what it is a drone really is – a machine that helps us pretend that the way it kills is not really killing but merely a surgical maneuver, no more than a pin-point on a map.

    Lipsyte is brash, that’s for sure. One of his ‘Empathy’ narrators is a voice in a young adult novel, and this kid is thinking and doing things no YA writer could get away with.

    What’s ironic is that Lipsyte’s father (who is also a sports writer) has written a dozen successful Young Adult novels. Judging not only by having read “The Contender,” but also by having read the elder Lipsyte’s web page, the elder employs a balanced, serious tone. In contrast, the kid is very brash! I can’t imagine what Lipsyte the elder really thinks of the style of Lipsyte the younger!

    In a way, father and son are quite alike – their purposes both deal in decisions, morality, judgment and conscience. But their styles – wow, are they different. Regarding Robert and Sam Lipsyte, we’re in Shirley Jackson and Harold Bloom territory.

  8. Ken says:

    I found this intermittently touching but must agree with Roger here. I found the “wit” so irritating and off-putting in and of itself without even realizing, per Roger, that everyone does sound the same. This just seemed like a lot of snarkiness and display of authorial cleverness and yet underneath there is sadness, but any emotion I had was more than blunted by the tone.

  9. ethan barker says:

    I suppose nothing is ever everyone’s cup of tea, but lipsyte is one of my particular favorites, though I can’t say I have actually read much of his work. I did enjoy this one, not as much as “deniers,” but it was still good. I felt this one had maybe less insight than Deniers. This story did strike me as more humorous/witty/sarcastic than lipsytes other work (which is already witty/sarcastic), and I wonder why. Roger makes a compelling argument about the struggle of a storyteller to stand out, but I also agree with Roger that it may not be compelling enough/believable. But, the wit didn’t bother me, so I’m not too interested in looking into it. I’ll think about it more and post later. I think if we can ask why Lipsyte added extra snarkiness (maybe i’m wrong about this, haven’t read lipsyte in a year), we can understand this better.

    What do people make of comparing the Nanny to the Wrestler? They seem like definite foils. Both brutish, but one in a distinctly villainous way, where the other is comic and caring. The villain is in a position of nuturing (nanny) and promises real violence. The one whose profession is violence claims his profession isn’t about violence at all, but about empathy, and in fact shows great empathy to the narrator. Following this train of thought, the narrator screwed his relationship with Daphne because he didn’t want to have kids, yet he is the one who seems more emotionally invested in their relationship, still reaching out to her, whereas she won’t even respond.

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