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Sam Lipsyte: Seems Like the Kind of Guy I'd Like to Have a Beer With

New Yorker Fiction Review: "The Naturals" by Sam Lipsyte

Issue: May 5, 2014

This week's story comes from Sam Lipsyte, a guy I've never heard of until a few days ago but who I'm pretty sure, based on the voice in his fiction, is an okay guy. This is the kind of person you wish you'd end up sitting next to on a plane: witty, opinionated, cynical, funny, but ultimately good-natured and friendly. The kind of person on whom you can always depend to say something interesting or provocative and never ever boring. Maybe that's not the ideal plane-seat companion...I think I just have plane seating stuck in my head because two scenes in this story take place on planes.

In "The Naturals," the main character, Caperton, travels back home to visit his dying father. He meets a pro wrestler on the plane named the The Rough Beast, he bickers with his step-mother about his constant need to comb the refrigerator, reflects on his father's life as a booze-addled traveling salesman, hopelessly and stalkerishly texts his not-so-recently-estranged girlfriend, finally makes nice with his father, and leaves town. During his flight home, on which he once again meets The Rough Beast, he learns that his father has died.

My description can't do justice to the humor and idiosyncrasy rife throughout this story. At first, Lipsyte's hyper-sarcastic, quippy-ness was a little hard to get into, but I very quickly got on-board with this character's voice and the overall "meta" nature of not only the character's observations, but the actual story itself.

At every turn, Caperton is confronted with the notion of "story." Everyone, from his colleagues, to the Rough Beast, to his father's ancient compadre Burt claims to be a story-teller or to be constructing a "narrative" of this or that aspect of life. I find this to be a very trenchant cultural observation. We are indeed bombarded by "story" in our society. Perhaps we have always been. But I think Lipsyte is harping on the fact that we are so self-consciously obsessed by story now that the notion seems to be everywhere. Brands and restaurants and menu items all seem to have a story. Before you go into a job interview, you're cautioned to concoct a "compelling narrative" for yourself. In investment banking, there's even the term "story credit" to describe a company who has a really interesting reason for their bad credit rating. Even T.V., once the realm of the throw-away, half-hour sitcom, as immediately satisfying but ultimately unfulfilling as popcorn, has now become a veritable vacuum-cleaner of story, sucking up and distributing more and better "story" than ever thought possible. Caperton's father even makes reference to the "golden-age of television" that we're supposedly in right now.

It's unclear how Caperton processes all this or if he's even able to; however, in this case, the medium is the message. In a short story there doesn't need to be a fantastic "culmination" of knowledge to make it worth it. The simple fact that Lipsyte is able to approach the ideas in a thoughtful way seems to be enough to leave the reader with something lasting, something to think about. We are bombarded, encased, suffocating in "story," and yet instead of helping us explain our lives, we're just as confused and scared as we've always been. Or are we? Great pieces of fiction (large and small) entertain you and leave you with questions to ponder. This story does both.

Intertextuality Watch: Okay, so the whole story is kind of intertextual, with the emphasis on "story" and all. However, in a specific moment of intertextuality, Caperton remembers watching a certain baseball movie, in which a baseball prospect appears from nowhere, leads his team to the playoffs, and hits the game winning home run. The movie, of course, is The Natural. But...the interesting thing here is that in the book The Natural, by Bernard Malamud, the hero Roy Hobbs actually strikes out at the end. Caperton, in his memory, discusses this with his father, who takes the opinion that the movie happy-ending version is better, while Caperton feels there is something brave about the un-happy ending.

Having read the book and seen the movie, I've always marveled at this as one of the most extreme and egregious cases of "Hollywood-ization," but in this particular story it serves a very clear purpose. Not only does it lend the story it's title, but it provides a clear window into Caperton's psychology. Perhaps he is more "real" because he's willing to risk his own un-happy ending, rather than fall victim to this need for "story" that surrounds and suffocates him. Perhaps, in order to keep his grip on his own reality, he needs NOT to have a story, and instead let events unfold in a seemingly meaningless way. The story is titled, "The Naturals" perhaps because we are all bi-furcated beings, like the movie and book versions of The Natural, attempting to write meaning and happy-endings on top of source material that is ultimately destined to have an ugly and possibly meaningless ending.

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