Sam Lipsyte on being an American writer in translation and the venerable tradition of masturbation in literature.
“It’s all over for the American dream and the American empire…Reading Lipsyte, it is clear that the US-European age is ending,” writes Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s leading daily, about the Swedish translation of Sam Lipsyte’s most recent book, The Ask. When a book is released in translation, it is essentially published anew, with new cover art and author tours, and, most importantly, it is granted fresh reviews. In translation, a book (particularly one like The Ask which was well-received at home) is often treated as a missive from the author’s motherland. Reviewers and readers tend to be particularly interested in interpreting what the work says about the culture in question, and this is never truer than when the country is the world’s leading superpower.
And so it is that, in translation, The Ask becomes much more than a hilarious and artful novel about a pitiful anti-hero fumbling his way through life in a confused and cynical world. Abroad, Lipsyte’s book is also being read as a statement about American hegemonic decline. As Svenska Dagbladet, Sweden’s second largest daily, wrote back in 2010, “Lipsyte is in many ways the sensitive connoisseur and chronicler of U.S. defeat.” In other words, the satire expands until the impotence of male characters like The Ask’s Milo Burke become stand-ins for the weakness of that once all-powerful global patriarch, America. In translation, Sam Lipsyte becomes not simply a writer, but an American writer – an unfamiliar epithet he does not fully embrace but cannot escape.
But the Lipsyteian breed of American dystopia is not something these critics merely infer. After all, The Ask is saturated with blatant end-of-empire intimations that are impossible to miss. Like this one: “We were stuck between meanings. Or we were the last dribbles of something. It was hard to figure. The fall of the Soviet Union, this was, the death of analog.” Yet, interestingly, American reviewers have interpreted these jabs more gently than their—in this case Swedish—counter-parts. For instance, Slate took the quote above as Lipsyte’s attempt to define Generation X.
Similarly, The New York Times review of The Ask talks less of a specifically American national failure than of “the futility, waste and presenteeism of late capitalism’s corporate wasteland.” Either the home audience simply prefers to cast the interpretive net wider, or the foreign audience is more eager to pounce on American critique delivered by one of the country’s own. But the shape-shifting of Lipsyte’s critical reception abroad shows his work to be multivalent—he is both defining a generation, and redefining a nation.
The Ask, originally published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2010, depicts the sorry existence of Milo Burke, a development officer at a mediocre university in New York who once dreamed of being an artist but now (barely) gets by on resignation and masturbation. Milo’s life is turned upside down when he is fired from the job he hates (but desperately needs), only to be re-hired on a special mission to pin down a huge “ask” who happens to be a crazy old friend of his from college. A side-splitting yet haunting charade ensues as Milo’s existence unravels across the novel’s masterfully composed pages.
I sat down with Lipsyte while he was in Stockholm promoting the new Swedish translation of The Ask (trans. Nina Nilsson). We talked about craft and what he thinks about being considered an American writer.
—Astri von Arbin Ahlander for Guernica
Guernica: The institutional view you give in The Ask not only provides a dystopian view of fundraising and liberal arts, but also of America.
Sam Lipsyte: I think when I was writing it, I was really interested in how this sort of philanthropy model played out in one’s professional life and how it intersected with certain ideas we have that are distinctly American in the level of their perversity—ideas of success and failure. Ideas about what it is to be considered somebody achieving something.
The other thing that was interesting to me about this idea of “asks” is the way that it would leak into everyday life, personal relationships, dynamics of family. Somehow this monetary model has also seeped into our lives and we are making asks and giving things under certain conditions.
Guernica: In your book The Subject Steve, you examine the failure of American health care. I know that your mother passed away—
Sam Lipsyte: Yes, there was a similar experience with her, certainly, that fueled some of the writing of The Subject Steve. The blanket absurdity of some of that stuff. Like, while you are dying, being told that your insurance has run out due to your pre-existing conditions. All of those things. And in that case I was also interested in the idea of branding diseases for pharmaceutical companies and all that.
Seeing the way somebody close to me was shuffled through a system to die certainly affected the way that that book went.
I am always interested not in America by itself, but America as an idea and how that idea has changed over time, in the eyes of the rest of the world and in the eyes of Americans.
Guernica: Do you intend your books to be overtly political?
Sam Lipsyte: No, not really. I am just really pissed off all the time. [laughs] Often it finds a political vent, sometimes a cultural angle, and sometimes it is just a cry. A sad cry for help.
Guernica: The cover of the Swedish translation of The Ask is an American flag. Do you consider yourself a very American writer?
Sam Lipsyte: I am a writer who is definitely working with a specific language and more than English, that language is American. And I work very much in idiom and am very interested in the play of different kinds of rhetoric, whether it is the more high-flown stuff that reeks of age. I love to juxtapose something like that with something more current or urgent. So there is a lot of play there that is certainly going to be understood by people steeped in the various facets of American language. I am always interested not in America by itself, but America as an idea and how that idea has changed over time, in the eyes of the rest of the world and in the eyes of Americans.
So I guess, yes, if you say that my books tend to take place in America and the figures in them tend to be Americans you could say that, and I am an American citizen. But I don’t know what it is to not be something. Unless you are just writing transatlantic fiction.
Guernica: Which is what, anyway?
Sam Lipsyte: I think it is about young people flying from city to city…I think there are novels about different nationalities grouping together and flying around and the language isn’t really rooted in anything specific…does that make sense?
Guernica: I don’t think I know examples of that so-called transatlantic fiction.
Sam Lipsyte: Maybe I am just inventing a new genre. [laughs] I am inventing a new genre.
Guernica: Maybe it will be your next project. What is your next project, do you know?
Sam Lipsyte: I think it will be a novel…about some young people flying around the world…
Guernica: Speaking in some strange, washed-out language that is not culturally specific…Written in Esperanto. You are lauded for being funny, and you are, but when I read The Ask I was very moved. It is very poetic, actually.
I have a really great Italian translator, but for a while she was just emailing me about practically every word saying, “Is this slang for penis?” I’d say, “No, that is a telephone,” or, “That is a spatula. It is not meant to be slang for penis…”
Sam Lipsyte: I had a teacher once who said, “If you are going to write fiction, you should only read poetry.” I have always been interested in the writers who care about their sentences and who really work on that level. I have always said that I hate writing, I love revision. So, the language is really important to me. And the comedy and the horror that come out of the language.
Guernica: It seemed as though you allowed yourself to wax more poetic–not just on the level of the line but in terms of sentiment–towards the end of the book.
Sam Lipsyte: I talked to my editor about this at the time. I made a real effort at the end of the book to create the effect that it almost felt like it had been riding on these rails, and then to sort of jump them and land them in another groove. I didn’t want it to be only about Milo (the protagonist of The Ask) and his shit in the end.
I felt like that was a great ride, but for the very end I wanted to open the thing up a little bit more so that you realize that he was just standing in the foreground of a bigger picture.
Guernica: Since you are so careful with language, how do you feel about being translated?
Sam Lipsyte: If you allow it to happen, you can’t really say anything about it. My understanding of it is that it is a collaboration. When a translator translates my book, it is no longer just my book. It is the translator’s book, too. So the book in another language is almost the work of two people. And that is quite interesting to me.
The book has been translated into several languages and in some case I have gotten to work closely with the translator, and I have really enjoyed those times. I have a really great Italian translator, but for a while she was just emailing me about practically every word saying, “Is this slang for penis?” I’d say, “No, that is a telephone,” or, “That is a spatula. It is not meant to be slang for penis…”
Guernica: So you invite that collaboration.
Sam Lipsyte: It is going to happen whether you want it to or not, so the question is if you can help. And also, the translator has to be a good writer. The translator has to hear music too. And it might not be exactly your music because the translator needs to translate the music. And so, that is what you are hoping for: a translator who gets what you are doing but who also gets all the ways in which it won’t work in the new language.
Guernica: The characters in your writing have strong voices. How do you find them? Do you hear them in your head, or is it a slow piecing together?
Sam Lipsyte: You want them to seem like furious flowing creations that just sort of occur in bolts of lightning or something, but that is a trick that takes a long time. Art is an artifice that you try to make seem natural.
I discover the voice as I am writing it. I can’t really do it ahead of time, I can’t really plan it. Because it is the act of composition that teaches me what the thing sounds like and what I’m trying to do with it.
Guernica: Speaking of character, you have made the angsty, impotent male character a specialty of yours. We see that sort of thing quite a bit now in American literature written by men: narratives saturated with sex but not with sexual conquests–which is what defined previous writing by the likes of Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, and John Updike. Instead, in your work, the characters are defined by constant thwarting and yearning and a weird sadness, which is also quite funny and played for laughs. I was wondering, what is with all the masturbation?
Sam Lipsyte: There was recently an interesting blog post about this, you probably saw it.
Guernica: Yes, in The New York Review of Books.
Sam Lipsyte: It is probably very generational. A bunch of us male writers came up after these pigs had dominated for so long. And we didn’t want to be that way. I wasn’t that way because my mother, for one thing, was a very big feminist and I was marching in ERA parades when I was three or four years old.
So I don’t think it is necessarily a conscious decision, I think it actually reflects some of the mixed messages and confusions of being a male in America at a certain point.
Guernica: That New York Review of Books article argued that it was due to a fear of losing the female reader.
Sam Lipsyte: I wish I could strategize like that. [laughs] It just felt like an honest representation of these strains in culture and in myself.
Maybe in my life I have masturbated a lot more than other people, I don’t know. But I think, in general, people masturbate more than you think.
Guernica: You are writing short stories again now, is that right?
Sam Lipsyte: I just handed in a collection.
Guernica: From you first story collection, Venus Drive, to here, there have been three novels in between. Your novels feel compressed, they are not sprawling in terms of pages—
Sam Lipsyte: They always say the novel is the loose, baggy monster, but I have a tight monster.
Guernica: Why return to the short story?
Sam Lipsyte: I don’t really know. I thought it was a good idea at the time. I was selling The Ask to FSG and wanted to do another book with them after that and I said it would be short stories. They were about as excited as a large publishing house gets when you tell them you are doing short stories…but they were kind enough to promise to put it out.
I thought at the time that I had most of it done. But I also worked hard on a bunch of new ones and it kind of got me going into new territory for me. So it has been exciting. When I was writing Venus Drive, all I cared about was compression. And I still care about that tightness, but not at the expense of all possibility or richness.
Guernica: You teach writing at Columbia University. You enjoy teaching, am I right?
Sam Lipsyte: I love teaching.
Guernica: Is it a reciprocal relationship or a one-way street?
Sam Lipsyte: No, I am getting constantly reinvigorated and energized. And trying not to steal.
Guernica: You want to steal sometimes?
Sam Lipsyte: Yeah! [laughs] “That is really great, but you are not ready to write that…”
Guernica: The classic path of American writers today is to get an MFA, publish a little, try to get an adjuncting job, teach new young writers who are getting their MFAs…
Sam Lipsyte: I skipped the MFA part.
Guernica: Right. You were shooting heroin and sitting in jail for a few days. Sounds much more Baudelaireian than these sort of sturdy college kids.
Sam Lipsyte: I think that should be a part of any good MFA program.
Guernica: It should be a required class.
Sam Lipsyte: I could actually teach that class. It could be a Master class, it wouldn’t have to go the whole semester, just four weeks or so. Where we masturbate, shoot heroin, and go to jail.
Astri von Arbin Ahlander is a writer and translator from Stockholm, Sweden. Her most recent book translation, the Swedish bestseller Easy Money by Jens Lapidus, was published by Pantheon in April, 2012. She is also Editor of the interview site The Days of Yore (www.thedaysofyore.com).