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The Subject Steve: A Novel Paperback – September 24, 2002
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The Subject Steve, Sam Lipsyte's remarkable debut novel, is an ebullient, bawdy, and idiosyncratic assault on American consumer culture. Like fellow mercurial satirists Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, and David Foster Wallace, Lipsyte is an impressive stylist. His argot is the psychobabble of corporate jargon, advertising slogans, and sound bites. Wordplay rather than characterization is Lipsyte's métier and his language positively fizzes with invention. The characters here don't so much converse as exchange obtuse epigrammatic non sequiturs and indulge in linguistic quips. This should, of course, be utterly infuriating, but it isn't. The dialogue, like the rest of this savage, absurdist take on contemporary life (and more precisely our horror of death), is startlingly acute and unrelentingly funny.
The eponymous Steve (who claims his name is not Steve) is a mild-mannered 37-year old ad man who pens slogans celebrating the "ongoing orgasm of the information lifestyle." Unfortunately, he's dying, but "he's dying of something nobody has ever died of before: he's actually going to die of boredom." The scientists (who may not be scientists although they do wear white coats) "calculate that there can be no calculations" about how long he has left to live. Faced with this eventuality he embarks on a particularly wayward sexual, narcotic, and religious odyssey. Lipsyte fills Steve's journey with so many oddball doctors, multimedia weirdoes, dysfunctional gurus, and bizarre sexual encounters that it's actually rather difficult to imagine anyone dying of boredom. Exhaustion, perhaps. Ludicrous and occasionally even a little bit sick, Lipsyte's surreal, intelligent black comedy proves that death really can be a laughing matter. --Travis Elborough, Amazon.co.uk --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
Lipsyte's latest is a dark satire in which a protagonist named Steve is diagnosed with a vague but deadly disease called Prexis that sounds suspiciously like terminal boredom with modern life. Steve's doctors, two shadowy figures known only as the Mechanic and the Philosopher, try a variety of equally vague experimental treatments on him until their programs are exposed as fraudulent. His bizarre illness sets off a panic and a media frenzy, and Steve finds himself drawn to a clinic in upstate New York called the Center for Non-Denominational Recovery and Redemption run by a shady former torture expert known only as Heinrich of Newark, who uses pain-based "treatments." The cultish clinic proves equally ineffective, so Steve takes a couple of stabs at alternative medicine before heading west into the desert to join a futuristic cult called the Realm, where he prepares to meet his maker through a strange series of therapy sessions and off-the-wall broadcasts. In the stretches between the erratic and often bizarre plot twists, the author explores the disaffections of a divorced middle-aged man, delving into his professional disappointments, the emptiness of his marriage and love life, and the death of his best friend. Lipsyte (Venus Drive) has come up with an intriguing experimental concept, but the absence of coherent, linear plot means the commentary must be particularly sharp and interesting, and much of what Lipsyte offers is rambling, self-absorbed and at times just plain annoying. The troubles of the alienated and estranged offer plenty of opportunities for an adventurous approach, but much of what Lipsyte submits is familiar, a mannered echo, product of a sensibility halfway between Lish and Vonnegut.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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David Foster Wallace has this essay about the difficulty today's novelists have competing with mediated reality. Roth wrote this essay first, and Franzen's written it since (and has now written a novel following Wallace's advice) But despite W's literary catholicism, his fictions wallows in exactly the same stuff he abhors. And, of course, that's what makes it great, and it's what most fortysomething novelists spend a lot of time thinking about. I'd guess that Lipsyte's just get that this is stuff you learned in college--mediated reality is just a given.
This book is usually descibed as satire, and I guess that's true because it reminds me of Nathanial West--it manages to be scathing and poignant at the same time, and it's very human. It's also very--and I mean, <i>very</i>funny. It's like some sin not to be a realist today, but it's also not like the book is particularly difficult or anything (it's moving, but that's another story). I mean, it feels silly to recommend this book--you just want to thrust it into people's hands. On the other hand, this just might be a book that should have "this book is not for you" sticker slapped across the shrink wrap. You're always laughing at stuff that is real, which hurts. Which makes it so cool. Which also hurts.
I guess you all know this book is about a dying man whose condition is universal. Which is funny, because explains why something which reminds me of the best ever episode of the Simpsons has been reviewed as if it were an episode of ER. But it's not at all a morbid book. Steve-not-Steve (see? already it's confusing) really just has these poignant, hysterical adventures, told in these amazing sentences which read kind of like what street poetry would sound like if street poems were beautiful. Which is not to put down Franzen or street poetry or anything, but simply to say that if you have a good year you just might like this book. I did.
And at 256 pages, he is not dying nearly fast enough.
In the technical sense of the word, "satire" could be a valid term of description for "The Subject Steve." However, the same logic would classify MAD Magazine as being a Social Studies / Current Affairs periodical.
But the catch is, it's not funny. As humorous a subject like terminal illness can be, Lispyte drops the ball on every possible occassion. Each quirky passage doesn't merely fall flat in delivery - it explodes on contact, taking the lives of little old ladies and brown-eyed puppiy dogs with it. And then, it returns to beat them further into oblivion.
The characters, too, are not sympathetic. They aren't even caricatures or symbols of humanity - they are more along the lines of shells torn from foreign B-Movies, reanimated in some lunatic's mind, lobotomized in a sinister dungeon-laboratory hidden therein, and finally rendered in crayon on the back of a brown paper bag. That's where the author discovered them, and created a story revolving around them.
But the question is, how much of the story is his own creation? the mysterious illness scenario has been done before in the third season of Monty Python's Flying Circus. The track-suit wearing friend of Steve's appeared in all his glory in "The Tall Blond With One Red Shoe." The bizarre notes and "doctors" are all revived from Terry Gilliam's "Brazil." And all of the above were much funnier in their original settings.
Satire works best when taken subtle. In this case, the reader feels just as bruised and broken trudging through the mess as the articles Lipsyte savages in his novel. Savages, yes - with dulled bloody teeth.
I will, however, stay tuned--in the future he may find some story line worthy of his talents. As to craft, he is master of the one-liner, the joyously lunatic phrase, and the reading itself provided many, many laughs.