May 14, 2010

What It Takes

In The Ask, the celebrated new comic novel by Sam Lipsyte (son of leftist sportswriter Robert Lipsyte), narrator Milo Burke is a failed painter now employed asking rich people for money for the arts programs of what Milo calls the Mediocre University at New York City:
People paid vast sums so their spawn could take hard drugs in suitable company, draw from life on their laptops, do radical things with video cameras and caulk. Still, the sums didn't quite do the trick. Not in the cutthroat world of arts education. Our job was to grovel for more money. We could always use more video cameras, more caulk, or a dance studio, or a gala for more groveling. ...

An ask could be a person, or what we wanted from that person. If they gave it to us, that was a give. The asks knew little about the student work they funded. Who could blame them? Some of the art these brats produced wouldn't stand up to the dreck my three-year-old demanded we tack to the kitchen wall. But I was biased, and not just because I often loved my son. Thing was, I'd been just like these wretches once. Now they stared through me, as though I were merely some drone in their sight line, a pathetic object momentarily obstructing their fabulous horizon. They were right.

When Milo tells the presumptuous daughter of a donor what he actually thinks of her art, he loses his job for hate speech. With nothing to do, he spends a lot of time at the Post Office:
I bought pistachios, ate them in line at the post office. Or on line at the post office. I could no longer recall which phrase came naturally. Either way, there was always a line at the post office, people with enormous packages bound, I assumed, for family in distant, historically f----d lands. What were they sending? TVs? TiVos? Hamburgers? Hamburger Helper? ... The line hardly moved. People couldn't fill out the forms. Others did not comprehend the notion of money orders. Come on, people, I thought-beamed. I'm on your side and I'm annoyed. Doesn't that concern you? Don't you worry your behavior will reduce me to generalizations about why your lands are historically f----d? Or does my nation's decline make my myopia moot?

That's a terrific passage, but that's not an unemployed painter worrying about whether he is in line or on line, that's an unemployed writer. Milo is never truly believable as a not-quite-good-enough painter, as, say, Charles Ryder was in Brideshead Revisited. Waugh had clearly thought a lot about the visual arts, while Lipsyte's obsessions are restricted to text and music, to putting some punk rock rhythms into his carefully crafted prose. Lipsyte is just repackaging his experiences in Creative Writing classes as painting classes without actually thinking like a painter.

So, The Ask's glass is only half full, but it's full of some fine sentences. Lipsyte is receiving much acclaim this spring for the excellence of his prose, a sentiment I share.

On the other hand, I wouldn't proclaim him a better prose stylist than, say, Dennis Dale of Untethered. Of these two slightly similar personalities, Lipsyte is somewhat funnier because he's more hostile, but Dennis has a superior eye. To pick a shard off the top of Untethered today:
Summer. Nineteen eighty-something. We were parting the traffic on the 605 southbound for Huntington Beach; I was wearing nothing but shorts and sandals, one hand holding on to the motorcycle seat, the other cradling a six-pack of beer, football-style. We leaned headlong into the wind like a pair of ski-jumpers, as P. effortlessly weaved the stodgy Honda CB350 through the cars, rendering them still as haystacks. I peered into them as we passed, looking for girls. My head rocked with spontaneous energy, to some silent beat, the effect of the youth spending itself within me. The exquisite expiration of childhood. We shouted back and forth in the gale we carried along with us, laughing through mouths windswept into lunatic grins; we cheerfully harried the odd fellow who was momentarily abreast and sharing our direction. We turned with the road into a direct and endless path toward a sun that will never set...

That paints a more memorable picture with words than anything Milo Burke does.

Sam Lipsyte's hostility is likely partly heritable. Here's a paragraph from the author's father, Robert Lipsyte, a sportswriter who takes pride in hating athletes, that I noticed while looking through his Robert.Lipsyte.com. The elder Lipsyte explains his reaction to the Columbine massacre thusly:
The Jock-Outsider gap became a Sunday morning discussable after the 1999 Columbine massacre. I weighed in with a New York Times column on the shootings as a response to the arrogant, entitled behavior of high school athletes, as encouraged by the adults who lived vicariously through them.

The man has some issues.

The younger Lipsyte's narrator has similar anger issues, but Sam is self-aware enough to be self-loathing. The Ask is a minor masterpiece of amorphous Jewish hostility in the tradition of Portnoy's Complaint and Annie Hall.

I want to end by quoting from a useful section of The Ask, Lipsyte's fourth book, where he is sincere about what it takes to be a novelist. Milo is remembering when he asked his painting professor at college to compare him to the other top painter at his school. She replies:
"Okay, fine. I know you think you're a better artist than Billy Raskov, but you're just a better draftsman. That's something. But there are mentally handicapped people who draw and paint with far more technical skill than either of you. So, like I always say, it all comes down to how much you need to inflict yourself on the world. You're good enough. If you kiss the right ass, you could certainly make a career. Get some shows. Teach. Like me, for instance. I'm not a failure. I'm in a very envied position. You have some big-dick fairy-tale idea of the art world, so you don't understand this yet, but hanging in, surviving, so you can keep working, that's all there is. Sure, there are stars, most of them hacks, who make silly amounts of money, but for the rest of us, it's just endurance, perdurance. Do you have the guts to perdure? To be dismissed by some pissant and keep coming? To be dumped by your gallerist? To scramble for teaching gigs? It's not very glamorous. Is this what you want? You're good enough for it. You're not the new sensation, but you're good enough to get by. But you have to be strong. And petty. That's really the main thing. Are you petty enough?"

31 comments:

Anonymous said...

How can you read this crap?

Just the few excerpts you posted make my skin crawl.

Blecch.

Kijkfaas McGee said...

'Don't you worry your behavior will reduce me to generalizations about why your lands are historically f----d? Or does my nation's decline make my myopia moot?'

Not bad for a Jew! Let's sit this guy down with Kagan. Maybe he can teach her a few things.

Black Sea said...

I appreciate Lipsyte's attempt to re-shape his failed writer into a fa─░led painter, even if it isn't particularly convincing. The world has had enough novels about failed writers for a while, and every writer is, of course, a failed writer.

You're right about Dennis Dale.

Anonymous said...

Great post.

Ronduck said...

Either way, there was always a line at the post office, people with enormous packages bound, I assumed, for family in distant, historically f----d lands. What were they sending? TVs? TiVos? Hamburgers? Hamburger Helper? ...

Based on my experience at the Mesa post office, those exotic people are sending shoes south of the border. Back at the peak of the housing bubble I had to wait in line at the Mesa main post office and as I stood there I got to see a pair of Mexicans addressing a shoebox, and later showing the counterclerk the shoes within.

LemmusLemmus said...

That's not the elder Lipsyte explaining his reaction to the Columbine massacre, that's a reader writing to him.

OneSTDV said...

(son of leftist sportswriter Robert Lipsyte)

What!??! Well thanks for ruining that cherished part of my childhood.

Brent Lane said...

That last paragraph pretty much sums up my nearly 30-year professional career: I'm must not be petty enough to be successful. I guess I'm okay with that.

Nice plug for Mr. Dale. He deserves it.

Big bill said...

Dennis Dale has got the chops. When I read his better essays I am transported.

I can appreciate Lipsyte's anxsty prose. How frustrating it must be to know you were selected by God to be a guiding light for all mankind until the coming of Moshiach (Messiah), to look around you and realize your tribe is the richest tribe on the face of the earth, and then to look in the mirror and realize you are just a work-a-day shmuck like all the goyim, grubbing for dollars and eating a sack lunch. Yeah, you can always feel superior to the Third Worlders imported into America, but then you have to face all those rich goyim, every day, begging for money.

I think of poor Mark Rudd, who, according to his own account, was so eaten up by the calm self-assurance of the goyishe leadership that he dedicated his life to tearing them down ... and is still unhappy.

One can understand why so many Jews are tempted to "go native" and marry shiksas. What a relief to just be able to relax and be a regular human being and not tasked by God to be a cosmic social worker and moral educator for one's entire life--to be a "good example" for eternity.

Anonymous said...

"But there are mentally handicapped people who draw and paint with far more technical skill than either of you."

Didn't Gore Vidal say Andy Warhol was the only genius he ever met with an IQ of 60?

l said...

Robert Lipsyte, a sportswriter who takes pride in hating athletes..."

You ain't kidding. WTF?

Anonymous said...

Steve, off topic here but you should really head over to the Pacific Sherman Oaks 5 and see Harry Brown so that you can write a review. This movie really is a good riff on "How Much Ruin In A Nation? UK vs US White Working Class"

Your post on "How Much Ruin" five years ago was really one of your all time greats, and this movie plays like an cinematic rendering of your post.

asdfadfasf said...

They made us read The Contender in 7th novel. Not a bad book. Rather enjoyed it.

afafasdfsdf said...

"Jewish hostility in the tradition of Portnoy's Complaint and Annie Hall"

I'm not sure PC and AH are really about Jewish hostility. They are more about self-pity and 'love me, love me, love me'.

Kylie said...

OneSTDV said...
"'(son of leftist sportswriter Robert Lipsyte)'

What!??! Well thanks for ruining that cherished part of my childhood."

You're not alone in having that experience. In my desperate effort to avoid the current Marxian malaise, I turned to rereading childhood favorites. Recently, I was thrilled to find a copy of one, a book by Troy Nesbit, The Jinx of Payrock Canyon, a modern Western set in Colorado, circa 1960 about teen boys learning to moutain climb. Great book.

I then made the fatal mistake of googling him. Turns out he's one Franklin Folsom, who also wrote about a black cowboy, the miseries suffered by American Indians, etc., which is fine, except I detected a distinct liberal slant. In other words, a lefty. Quel letdown! I don't have the heart to throw away my rediscovered childhood favorite. But I don't have the stomach to reread it, either.

I guess it's back to Gene Autry on Encore Westerns.

Jack Quinn said...

'scuse me...didn't Tom Wolfe demolish this sophomoric twaddle years ago in "The Painted Word"?

Anonymous said...

Although Ive seen DD post here I'd never gone to his site before now. Great stuff.

Slightly O/T.

Whats happened to Albertosaurus, I dont seem to have seen him around for a while.

You OK Bert?

Steve Sailer said...

"That's not the elder Lipsyte explaining his reaction to the Columbine massacre, that's a reader writing to him."

Right. Thanks. I'll change it to something where Lipsyte isn't just quoting with approval one of his readers views that the Columbine murder victims more or less had it coming, but is speaking directly in the first person.

l said...

On a related note, Nancy Pelosi tells "creative" people they don't have to work:

http://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/65950

MQ said...

Dennis Dale is a fantastic writer, best in the blogsphere. He would benefit by doing something longer and a little more conventional which would lead him to chill out a bit and curb his tendency to overwrite in the shorter set-piece essays he does.

Kylie said...

I was so busy commiserating with OneSTDV that I neglected to add my appreciation for Dennis Dale's formidably fine writing.


And I'm glad to know I wasn't the only one put off by the other writers mentioned in this entry. That artsy-fartsy combination of loathing and self-loathing apparently has some literary appeal to which I'm completely impervious, thank God.

idealart said...

Interesting writers who I haven't read yet. I will look into them.

Apropos this article and HBD: has anyone done a study of why certain people can draw well and others can't?

I taught life drawing for 7 years and I finally came to the conclusion that the people who couldn't learn to draw (realistically) had no innate sense of perspective. They could not visualize vanishing points and horizon lines, no matter how smart they were or how hard they tried. I believe this innate ability occurs around the age of 13 in certain people (maybe earlier but definitely by that age).

People who cannot draw must view the world in a way similar to medieval art in that the closer objects are at the bottom of their field of vision.

Has any scientific study shed light on this?

idealart said...

Which brings up another point those interested in HBD might be interested in. The ancient Greeks discovered perspective far and away before any other people. They also invented oil painting and glazing by about 450 BC, long before it was rediscovered during the renaissance. This technique seems to go hand-in-hand with the ability to reproduce perspective, both linear and atmospheric.

Mr. Anon said...

"I bought pistachios, ate them in line at the post office. Or on line at the post office. I could no longer recall which phrase came naturally."

That elicited a chuckle from me. I have often been amused at the pretensions of baby-boomer yuppies who started aping the speech patterns of the english or continental upper-crust. As if they had been "to the manor born", rather than what they really were - the children of blue-collar and lower middle-class parents who had moved out to some suburban sub-division.

I'll have to check out the writings of this guy, Lipsyte. He sounds fairly clever.

James Kabala said...

Mr. Anon: I think that's actually a reference to the difference in terminology between the New York metro area ("on line," which I suspect has become confusing in the Internet age, although New Yorkers I know still say it) and the rest of the country ("in line"). An upper-crust Englishman would, at least traditionally, say "in the queue."

Anonymous said...

thanks idealart - that was an interesting comment!

Anonymous said...

Thanks idealart, I'd never heard that.

However there is no HBD angle. I know this because tonight on Facebook a liberal informed me that the industrial revolution occurred in Britain rather than India for purely 'cultural' reasons.

So in the same vein perspective in art can only have arisen in Greece also due to 'cultural' factors.

And thus the entire history of human acheivement is reduced to one simple and unfalsifiable theory. Hurrah!

Anonymous said...

Idealart:

I can visualize perspective and spatial relationships perfectly in my mind, but am utterly unable to make my hands actually execute what I can see in my mind's eye. My lack of ability in the visual arts is an eternal source of shame to me.

Mr. Anon said...

"James Kabala said...

Mr. Anon: I think that's actually a reference to the difference in terminology between the New York metro area ("on line," which I suspect has become confusing in the Internet age, although New Yorkers I know still say it) and the rest of the country ("in line"). An upper-crust Englishman would, at least traditionally, say "in the queue."

Mr. Kabala:

You are of course right, and thanks for the correction (and I shouldn't have made that mistake - in the back of my mind, I knew that the British refer to a line as a queue). Still, I think my basic point holds - of yuppie would-be snobs immitating the speech patterns of whatever group they deem fashionable, more for the purpose of forgetting where they came from, than for getting to where they aspire to be.

David said...

Many Salieris, few Mozarts. Is this relationship inverse, or direct?

If you read that whole linked article, you'll probably plump for direct. What animates mediocrity most intensely is keeping its betters down.

idealart said...

"I can visualize perspective and spatial relationships perfectly in my mind, but am utterly unable to make my hands actually execute what I can see in my mind's eye. My lack of ability in the visual arts is an eternal source of shame to me."


That's interesting, Anon. Thanks.