Hark by Sam Lipsyte
Sam Lipsyte’s Hark plays like an inside joke that requires prerequisite familiarity with the author’s sensibility. There’s absolutely talent on the table here, an intriguing blend of the offbeat charm of George Saunders with the anything-goes nihilism of Chuck Palahniuk. But the story, about a self-help guru who evangelizes about his unique brand of self improvement, doesn’t quite know what it wants to say. Much like Molly Dektar’s The Ash Family earlier this year, the theme of unclear messaging is utilized deliberately as a source of conflict, and yields unrewarding results. The publisher certainly deserves credit for taking a risk on a book of such bold unorthodoxy, but inherent in that risk is a product that won’t be to the liking of many.
Spiritual mentor Hark Morner founded a focus-based regimen of “mental archery,” in which participants assume various archery poses to cultivate attention and serendipity (in the home or office). What begins as a lark gradually expands into a larger enterprise, merely by circumstance, and devoid of any agenda. In true Joseph Smith fashion, the movement attracts a troupe of devotees, one of whom is Fraz, a middle aged parent of pronounced eagerness and naivete. Much of the story tracks the eclectic team that assembles around its comparatively pure leader, as they struggle between the goals of messaging versus profitability. Many within the ranks cultivate differing views of exactly what that messaging even is, which isn’t helped by the inherent contradictions and inconsistencies within Hark’s primary lore.
The mental archery philosophy itself is far and away the novel’s most enjoyable offering. Hark delivers spirited lectures at business conferences and other public gatherings, and the ensuing monologues are entertaining in all their idiosyncrasy and intellectual precariousness. Once it becomes clear that some of the historical anecdotes employed to illustrate the concepts of mental archery feature some fabrications, Hark’s pseudo-sermons take on an extra intriguing layer. One particular yarn involving the alleged meditation traditions of ancient Korean archers is particularly memorable in its infamy. It’s amusing to witness one segment of the audience accept it without pause, while other initial devotees grow frustrated while fact checking. As Hark writes (in a journal that may itself be fabricated), “Some stories are true and some aren’t. Some are powerful because they are clearly true. Others are powerful because they speak to what we want to be true.” Without premeditation, Hark heaves it all out there in one big benevolent barrage; perhaps his utter lack of agenda is one reason his movement flourishes.
There’s an unfortunate prose gimmick Lipsyte leans on more than necessary, which quickly grows distracting. One line makes a statement that includes a certain phrase, then the next paragraph uses that same phrase in a comparatively unconventional manner. This requires readers to return to the original statement to review how the original phrase was used, thereby interrupting the narrative flow. Take this example in which Kate, a member of Hark’s brigade, explains to a team of contractors and decorators her vision for a new building (underlining mine):
“But it’s really only half Factory, because the other half is Chateau Marmontish, except for one area that would be, like, Faust’s library slash study. Can you do that?”
They proffered solemn nods, did that.
Or another, in which Kate ponders how she might live her life:
Now she was twenty-nine and had inherited from her inheritor progenitors enough money to live however she wanted.
The courier program seemed like a virtuous hobby while she figured out what this particular however entailed.
It would have been amusing to use once, or maybe one additional time as a kind of deliberate callback, but once it’s used three times within the first hundred pages it achieves crutch status. It undermines the experience of the author’s unconventional perspective, leaning on contrivances in place of genuinely original insights.
Due to these gimmicks and other questionable choices of structure, Hark feels like jumping into an experimental HBO show on season 3. At a minimum, Lipsyte deserves some credit for delivering his unusual flavor confidently and apologetically. But the story can be sustained only so much by Fraz’s endearing naivete and Hark’s bizarre, blasé mishmash of philosophies. Beyond that, the chronicle feels thin and disjointed, almost like a short story kernel of an idea that didn’t benefit from novel-length expansion. Among all the aimless chaos, Fraz’s daughter abruptly has a needless accident that lands her in the hospital, artificially providing the jumbled plot something to coalesce around, in hopes that she’ll recover. It’s an unfortunate and clumsy necessity in a muddled novel that nonetheless features some scattered insights on the wealthy, the spiritually confused, and the power hungry.