"It's not the jokes," Eddie Waters tells a group of aspiring comedians in Trevor Griffiths's classic play Comedians (1975). "It's not the jokes. It's what lies behind 'em.... When a joke bases itself upon a distortion...and gives the lie to the truth so as to win a laugh and stay in favor, we've moved away from a comic art and into the world of 'entertainment' and slick success." From the misogynist, nihilist novels of Michel Houellebecq to randy popcorn films like The Hangover and The Ugly Truth, we have recently seen the flowering of a certain strain of humor: noxious, sexist and juvenile, this type of comedy sets itself up as an antisocial fun-zone free from the censure of political correctness, an unsafe space where guys can finally tell the truth about how things really are instead of mouthing the platitudes of gender equality expected of males in mixed company. Reveling in the unacceptable is confused with genuine humor, then further confused with truth-telling in the face of a supposedly dominant feminized culture. There can be no question of the mass appeal here, an analogue in comedy writing to the Tea Party movement, which panders to whatever percentage of white males feel disenfranchised by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. These works provide a solace similar to that proffered by Super Bowl ads like this year's incendiary spot "Man's Last Stand," for the Dodge Charger, which recommended the hot rod as the appropriate reward for any man enduring the soul-killing cheerlessness of a heterosexual relationship. "I will say yes when you want me to say yes," the voiceover intones. "I will carry your lip balm," but "I will drive the car I want to drive." Anyone who complains is no fun and no fair.
In Comedians, Eddie Waters offers his students an alternative:
A real comedian—that's a daring man. He dares to see what his listeners shy away from, fear to express. And what he sees is a sort of truth about people, and about their situation, about what hurts or terrifies them, about what's hard, above all, about what they want. A joke relieves the tension, says the unsayable, any joke pretty well. But a true joke, a comedian's joke, has to do more than release tension, it has to liberate the will and the desire, it has to change the situation.
Many of our best contemporary comic writers seem to have intuited Waters's lesson. From television shows like The Office and HBO's Eastbound & Down to the stories of George Saunders, Junot Díaz and David Foster Wallace, these writers, like their less able peers, use male narcissism as the foil for their jokes. Yet these writers are neither chauvinists nor nihilists; their depiction of men being men can be vicious, but it is never static or canned. Saunders, Díaz and Wallace are celebrated not only because they broach the unsayable but also because, despite their eagerness to transgress, their work is fundamentally humane.
Sam Lipsyte's fiction oscillates between these comic modes. In the four books he has published in the past decade, readers have witnessed an ongoing war in Lipsyte's comedy between empathy and nastiness. He has skewered the afflictions and affectations of his male protagonists to devastating effect, but he is sometimes unable to generate the escape velocity required to see a world beyond his narrators' self-absorption. Home Land (2004) was a decisive victory for empathy, and for Lipsyte's artistry. His latest novel, The Ask, feels disordered and inchoate by comparison. It's a retreat by a nonpareil comic stylist into the pure but flat art of the vile.
Lipsyte published his first book, a small-press short story collection, Venus Drive, in 2000. Its best pieces mix their shocks with a startling pathos, an effect that is similar to one employed by John Cassavetes in the film Faces, in which hilariously madcap human degradation becomes frightening and at times nearly tragic. In Lipsyte's "Cremains," the narrator inherits his deceased mother's apartment, where he spends his days playing handyman and confidante to the lonely elderly women in the building. He also inherits his mom's cancer stash of morphine and finds himself mainlining with a mixture of narcotics and his mother's ashes. "Is that the morphine, or is that my mother?" he asks. "Something is setting beautiful fires up and down my spine." In the final pages of Venus Drive, the story "Less Tar" ends with this remarkable cri de coeur: "I Love You, I Love You, Let's Make it Work, I Love You So Much, Let's Not Ever Ever Quit." It's understood that the characters in question will almost certainly fail, but their hopes and dreams (or, if one prefers, their necessary illusions) remain an active force in the narrative.
Lipsyte's first novel, The Subject Steve, about a dot-com ad man diagnosed with a vague but dangerous disease, premiered on September 10, 2001. In the "smoked-glass murk of corporate life" portrayed in the novel, one of the slogans generated by the narrator is the priceless "How Did You Like Tomorrow?" (Venus Drive's "My Life, For Promotional Use Only" features the efforts of a design team to create a White Noise–like "totalizing space for commerce and dialogue.") The Subject Steve shares the worst flaw of The Ask—chipboard characters who serve the jokes in an extraordinary series of one-liners, acid-bath sketches and witty set pieces that add up to something less than a novel. Like The Ask, it reads like a short story that has been fattened up to fill a full-size book or, were it expanded further, could be a television sitcom starring a cranky male protagonist. Still, Lipsyte's ability to generate a densely impacted poetry of despair is remarkable. In The Subject Steve, one character self-defines in a tight narrative arc of four words: "Smack, whiskey, alimony, syph."
Lipsyte's deservedly lauded follow-up, Home Land, was a carnival ride of pity and terror in epistolary form. Published first in Britain and later imported to the States in paperback, the book comprises a series of outrageously funny and poignant letters sent to a high school bulletin by a nonplussed alum who "did not pan out," Lewis Miner ("aka Teabag"), a depressed and onanistic antihero with a decidedly creepy sexual nostalgia for the chic leg warmers and white tube socks of the Reagan era.