Was It Ever Harder to Believe in Our World?

Sam Lipsyte, Hark

Granta, 304pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781783783212

reviewed by Jon Doyle

‘Listen, before Hark,’ opens Sam Lipsyte’s latest novel, ‘was it ever harder to be human? Was it ever harder to believe in our world?’ Whether the question refers to the novel or its titular character, the answer appears to be a resounding no. Ravaged by exploitative capitalism and climate breakdown, Lipsyte’s world is our own as caught in funhouse mirrors, stretched and heightened into forms both hilarious and terrible. America is at war with Europe, fighting for control of territories such as Liechtenstein. The rivers are ‘pharma-fed’ and stocked with ‘Oxytrout.’ The rich have levelled up from mega-yachts to aircraft carriers. And ‘the rest,’ Lipsyte writes, ‘the most, could glimpse their end on Earth, in the parched basins and roiling seas, but could not march against their masters. They slaughtered each other instead, retracted into glowing holes.’

Enter Hark Morner, the figurehead of wellness-practice-cum-quasi-religion ‘mental archery’ that combines yoga, mindfulness and positive thinking to help its practitioners survive this near-future hellscape. Recruiting a rag-tag set of followers and touring a circuit of corporate training days and productivity talks, Hark rises to something like prominence despite the lack of substance to his dogma. For mental archery is an ideology-free ideology. ‘As I keep telling everybody,’ Hark says, ‘I don’t have a message. There is no core philosophy, no Vedic truth, no Confucian wisdom, no grand Western synthesis, no radical breakthrough in the human endeavour.’ The practice is merely a training programme, promising to improve the focus of those enrolled.

Though perhaps the glib vacuity of mental archery is exactly what makes it so popular. With no message or philosophy, there is no chance of opposition. Hark’s ideas work for everybody precisely because they are designed for nobody, an inoffensive blank slate that cannot be contested but can be moulded toward whatever one’s spiritual needs might be. If your desire to be saved is great enough, mental archery can save you.

The idea aligns with the model of Alcoholics Anonymous in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, where addicts are told to suspend doubt and cynicism and commit to the Twelve Step programme in order to achieve salvation from their troubles. The rhetoric serves as a surrogate religion, a belief system stripped of all content beyond the importance of belief. What, or indeed if, you believe is beside the point. The important thing is that you follow the rituals of belief, commit to it is possibility.

‘You ask the scary old guys How AA Works and they smile their chilly smiles and say Just Fine. It just works, is all; end of story [. . .] This goofy slapdash anarchic system of low-rent gatherings and corny slogans and saccharin grins and hideous coffee is so lame you just know there’s no way it could possibly work except for the utterest morons [. . .] and then Gateley seems to find out AA turns out to be the very loyal friend he thought he’d had and then lost [. . .] the old guys say it doesn’t yet matter what you believe or don’t believe, Just Do It they say, and like a shock-trained organism without any kind of independent human will you do exactly like you’re told.’

Wallace’s concerns centred on what he saw as the omnipresence of postmodern cynicism in neoliberal society, the AA concept his stratagem to escape this empty state into a more meaningful, post-postmodern existence. Indeed, such an idea could be said to mark the post-postmodern position—not a return to the true beliefs of modernism or the Enlightenment, but rather a commitment to belief within the unbelievable contemporary moment. Post-postmodernism ‘marks an intensification and mutation within postmodernism,’ argues Jeffrey T. Nealon, author of Post-Postmodernism: or, the Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism. The stuttering ‘post-post’ does not signal the death of postmodernism but rather its escalation into ‘something recognizably different in its contours and workings,’ and not ‘absolutely foreign to whatever it was before.’

With Hark, Lipsyte offers a convincing vision of such an intensification. Society is still decidedly postmodern, governed by the forces of late capitalism even as those very powers dismantle the world around them. The switch from generalised cynicism to belief in mental archery is not some world-changing awakening of hope and conscience that the New Sincerity movement envisioned, rather a retreat into personal relief as humanity digs its own grave. Belief not as a spiritual compulsion but a consumer choice. ‘Your brain gets tired, brittle,’ Lipsyte writes. ‘It’s a bitch being attuned to the bleakness all the time. You crave a certain stupor, aka belief.’

That mental archery is pursued by various wealthy figures, including the dominant tech billionaire Dieter Delgado, is therefore of little surprise. Delgado sees potential in the idea and wants to ‘inject some capital. Create more powerful platforms for the message.’ The direction the practice takes and the ambitions it holds are immaterial to the money men, so long as it doesn’t become in any way radical enough to challenge the status quo of Western culture. ‘We’re not interested in any large-scale, systemic shift in how things are done on the planet,’ they say. ‘For that, the downtrodden are really just going to have to come and take our fucking shit and kill us.’ Whereas Wallace’s AA model could at least offer the corporeal salvation of sobriety, Lipsyte’s post-postmodern redemption is an impotent mutation of the present system, a philanthropic coping mechanism not unlike the contemporary wellness craze, controlled and supplied by old powers determined to maintain their grip.

Indeed, the commodification of mental archery began at its very genesis, crawling as it did from a hole in the market located after a curious form of research and stress testing. Hark started out as a stand-up comic, popular at open mics despite his awkwardness, and graduated to corporate events after doing a routine on office life. Only, the more Hark spoke with the businesspeople and tech careerists, the more the line between comedy and sincerity dissolved. ‘For Hark had begun to believe his words,’ Lipsyte writes. ‘Not everything, of course, but he saw the potential for an authentic appeal [. . .] The joke drained away and Hark retired his jester’s bells, his craven prance, he’d his fool’s skin, slithered out, translucent, sincere.’

In the world Lipsyte has created, truth and belief are no longer objective concepts but malleable commodities to be bought and sold and tailored to individual needs. Pacification replaces revolution, communal action lost amid the need for personal satisfaction. The people of Hark are too weary and cynical to change or salvage the situation, and so they focus on finding the most effective palliative care. Why go to the effort of searching for a cure when you can just pretend to be saved?
Jon Doyle is currently working on his debut novel as part of a PhD in Creative Writing at Swansea University. His writing has appeared in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 3:AM Magazine, Cardiff Review and other places, and he runs the arts website Various Small Flames.