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Author spots humor in tragic situations

By Jeffrey A. Sartain - Guest Column
Sept. 20, 2016 at 3:48 p.m.
Updated Sept. 21, 2016 at 6 a.m.

Jeffrey A. Sartain

Jeffrey A. Sartain

This Thursday's speaker in the UHV/ABR Reading Series is Sam Lipsyte.

He is the author of three novels, "The Subject Steve," "Home Land" and "The Ask," as well as two collections of short stories, "Venus Drive" and "The Fun Parts." A frequent contributor to "The New Yorker" and former editor at "FEED," Lipsyte is a Columbia University creative writing professor.

I was first introduced to Lipsyte's work almost 15 years ago. Consistently, what I have found is a tragicomic sense of the absurd in everyday life. He has a keen sense of humor about the strange inversions, abstractions and permutations of postmodern life. He has a sharp eye for spotting the humor in the most tragic and heartbreaking situations.

Postmodern writing like Lipsyte's pokes fun at convention. It takes literature both more and less seriously. It pushes boundaries of style, technique and even taste. The postmodern is paradoxical, contradictory, often fun, often difficult and sometimes tragic. It is all of these things and more at the same time. It reflects the world around it. It is the world around it.

Often Lipsyte's subjects are normal people facing the horror of everyday situations. This is the plot, ostensibly, of Lipsyte's first novel, "The Subject Steve." The narrator is diagnosed with an incurable disease by his dubiously credentialed doctors. The disease turns out to be poorly defined, perhaps not even real, but this does not stop the narrator from being utterly terrified of his own demise - to the point that he makes himself sick trying to cure this fictional disease.

Lipsyte particularly delights in language games, where the words themselves often become the highlight of the story. This self-consciousness about words and writing is one hallmark of much postmodern fiction. Indeed, if Lipsyte were from another generation of American writers, he would be discussed in the same breath as luminaries like Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut.

Many authors can play language games in their fiction. In Lipsyte's work, there is something more than just language going on. There is a resonating sense of honesty, emotion and character to his comedic dark stories. The people in them, faced with very troublesome situations, respond in absurd, understandable and human ways. They deal with the absurdity of postmodern life as it comes, often having equally absurd reactions. Akiva Gottleib, of The Los Angeles Times, called Lipsyte "America's bard of highly educated disgruntlement."

While Lipsyte is too young to have enjoyed the heyday of postmodern literature in America, his work continues the tradition and emphasis. In postmodern fiction, consolation and hope come from the play in the language itself. Much like jazz, which makes things new through improvisation, postmodern literature takes the language that readers are familiar with and smashes it together in interesting, unpredictable ways in order to make it new again. Through the invention of language play, postmodern authors like Lipsyte hold out hope for new ideas, new formulations and new approaches to an absurd, often disturbing and dangerous world.

Lipsyte will read at noon Thursday at UHV's Alcorn Auditorium, 3007 N. Ben Wilson St. Admission is free and open to the public. For more information about the UHV/ABR Reading Series, call the American Book Review office at 361-570-4101 or go to americanbookreview.org.

Jeffrey A. Sartain is ABR managing editor and an assistant professor in the UHV School of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at SartainJ@uhv.edu.


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