- Paperback: 256 pages
- Publisher: Flamingo; New Ed edition (3 Mar. 2003)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0007133669
- ISBN-13: 978-0007133666
- Product Dimensions: 19.2 x 12.8 x 1.8 cm
- Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,027,970 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
The Subject Steve Paperback – 3 Mar 2003
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The Subject Steve, Sam Lipsyte's remarkable debut novel, is an ebullient, bawdy and idiosyncratic assault on American consumer culture. Like fellow mercurial satirists Don Delillo, Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace, Lipsyte is an impressive stylist. His argot is the psychobabble of corporate jargon, advertising slogans and soundbites. Wordplay, rather than characterisation is Lipsyte's métier and his language positively fizzes with invention. The characters here don't so much converse as exchange obtuse epigrammatic non-sequiturs and indulge in linguistic quips. This should, of course, be utterly infuriating but it isn't. The dialogue, like the rest of this savage, absurdist take on contemporary life (and more precisely our horror of death), is startlingly acute and unrelentingly funny.
The eponymous Steve (who claims his name is not Steve) is a mild-mannered 37-year old ad man who pens slogans celebrating the "ongoing orgasm of the information lifestyle". Unfortunately he's dying but "he's dying of something nobody has ever died of before: he's actually going to die of boredom". The scientists (who may not be scientists although they do wear white coats) "calculate that there can be no calculations" about how long he has left to live. Faced with this eventuality he embarks on a particularly wayward sexual, narcotic and religious odyssey. Lipsyte fills Steve's journey with so many oddball doctors, multimedia weirdoes, dysfunctional gurus and bizarre sexual encounters it's actually rather difficult to imagine anyone dying of boredom. Exhaustion, perhaps.
Steve hires prostitutes, catches up with old friends, foes, his ex-wife, disaffected daughter and seeks a cure at Henrich of Newark's "Center for Nondenominational Recovery and Redemption". Henrich, a former government interrogator who now maintains discipline by forcing mothers to fellate their own sons, has an interesting line in cheese spreads, "decisive violence" and bestiality fables. His devotees include Bobby Trubate, a clapped-out actor with messianic delusions; Renee, a legless lesbian who takes a surprising interest in Steve's sexual organ and Parish, a psychopathic chief who puts kiwi fruits in the stew. They're odd but as everyone else keeps telling him he's "a goner" what choice does Steve have? Ludicrous and occasionally even a little bit sick, Lipsyte's surreal, intelligent black comedy proves that death really can be a laughing matter. --Travis Elborough --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
‘Sam Lipsyte is a gifted stylist, precise, original, devious, and very funny. In a time when the language of most novels is dead on arrival, this book, about a dying man, is startlingly alive.’ Jeffrey Eugenides, author of ‘Middlesex’ and ‘The Virgin Suicides’
‘An all-American tale made up of smart deliveries and cracking ideas…reminiscent of Douglas Coupland or “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”.’ Observer
‘I laughed out loud – and I never laugh out loud…’ Chuck Palahniuk, author of ‘Fight Club’
‘An original voice: smart, savvy…intensely funny.’ TLS
‘The best thing since George Saunders last broke cover…Kind of Beckett meets “Six Feet Under”, comedy doesn’t come much blacker than this.’ Uncut
‘Rowdy, shocking and lyrical…very funny.’ New Yorker
‘Dark, lancing humour, first-rate satire and writing that dares to be bold and edgy.’ San Francisco Chronicle
‘Laugh-out-loud funny…By turns strange, disturbing and hilarious.’ Irish IndependentSee all Product Description
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Top Customer Reviews
The book deals with the modern fad for naming everything a `syndrome', even if there is no symptom and the subject is in fine fettle; it deals with ambition and venal desire for recognition, even for made-up work; it deals with the loneliness of modern life, nuclear families and lack of community; it deals with the soul-sapping mundaneness of modern work; it deals with the deep-seated desire for spiritual enlightenment and quick fixes; it deals with the gullibility of the public and the commercialization of science; it deals with exploitative "reality" TV and psychobabble. In short, it deals with important issues and does so with a comic touch, which is often far more powerful than a dull, worthy lecture. The writing style is pithy and articulate. The dialogue between characters is witty and there are truly funny passages in the book. All of this points to a winner of a novel. Sadly, I was never fully engaged with the book. Although it is a short read, it felt too long, as if the vehicle for these ideas just wasn't strong enough to see them through. The novel just fell a little short for me, although I have to admire the ambition and motivation behind the book.
Sam Lipsyte's style is trying so hard to be like Chuck Palahniuk's - short, sharp bursts of prose with enough gaps for you to read it in bite-size chunks. There are shocking moments rendered too funny to be truly shocking. But the difference is, that no matter how weird Chuck Palahniuk gets, there's a story at the heart of it, and a GOOD one. Here there is not, there's just a random series of events with ultimately no catalyst and no goal.
The dialogue is bad, and attempts at cleverness or jarring the reader only lead to frustration and feeling like you're a four year old having to read a line slowly whilst moving your lips. The book has its moments, the ideas are IN there, they're just too laboured.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
David Foster Wallace has this essay about the difficulty today's novelists have competing with mediated reality. Roth wrote this essay first, and Franzen's written it since (and has now written a novel following Wallace's advice) But despite W's literary catholicism, his fictions wallows in exactly the same stuff he abhors. And, of course, that's what makes it great, and it's what most fortysomething novelists spend a lot of time thinking about. I'd guess that Lipsyte's just get that this is stuff you learned in college--mediated reality is just a given.
This book is usually descibed as satire, and I guess that's true because it reminds me of Nathanial West--it manages to be scathing and poignant at the same time, and it's very human. It's also very--and I mean, <i>very</i>funny. It's like some sin not to be a realist today, but it's also not like the book is particularly difficult or anything (it's moving, but that's another story). I mean, it feels silly to recommend this book--you just want to thrust it into people's hands. On the other hand, this just might be a book that should have "this book is not for you" sticker slapped across the shrink wrap. You're always laughing at stuff that is real, which hurts. Which makes it so cool. Which also hurts.
I guess you all know this book is about a dying man whose condition is universal. Which is funny, because explains why something which reminds me of the best ever episode of the Simpsons has been reviewed as if it were an episode of ER. But it's not at all a morbid book. Steve-not-Steve (see? already it's confusing) really just has these poignant, hysterical adventures, told in these amazing sentences which read kind of like what street poetry would sound like if street poems were beautiful. Which is not to put down Franzen or street poetry or anything, but simply to say that if you have a good year you just might like this book. I did.
Personally, I found the book abhorrent. Central character development is inconsistent, and dialogue is filled with calculated non-sequiturs, monosyllabic questions, and frequent dead ends. If these conversational dead ends piqued the interest of the reader (as I can only assume they must be intended to), the technique could be interesting, but unfortunately the result is simply dizzying and dull.
To his credit, Lipsyte develops the adolescent media-paranoia of the first half of the book into what is almost a full-fledged social commentary at the end--complete with a FAQ sheet and faux web links in the text--but the character development of Steve has been so sparse that you simply don't care what happens to him.
The book could almost approach allegory level, but the Lipsyte's over-the-top attempts to evoke outrage are exhausting and distracting. While the social issues addressed are valuable--the medical industry, mass media, and self-help gurus are all attacked--the book's graphic descriptions of "water sports" with prostitutes, bestiality, incest, drug use, and torture are so obviously calculated to evoke disgust that they merely irritate.
Interestingly, however, one of the few truly engaging passages in the book was a story of a zookeeper having intercourse with a tigress.
"The Subject Steve" simply wasn't my cup of tea, but if you're into this sort of writing (ala Fight Club and Trainspotting), you might enjoy it.
"Home, I threw away my watches my clocks, my clock-radios. I kept my Jews of Jazz Calendar up on the kitchen door. The knowledge of days was crucial, I decided, the marking of hours a mistake."
"I called up my daughter at the School for disaffected daughters."
"I readied myself for the period in which I'd have to get ready. I waited for the time during which I'd have to get ready. I waited for the time during which I'd have to wait. I tied up loose ends, tidied up my accounts, put my papers in order, called old friends. I didn't really have any papers.
I did have friends.
I had Cudahy.
I called Cudahy.
'I'm coming to see you,' said Cudahy.
'Come soon,' I said.
I called my ex-wife, nothing if not a loose end, or at least a bit of untidiness, what with all we had left unaccounted for. .
'I knew you'd call,' said Maryse. 'I had a dream about you last week. You were walking through the pet food aisle at the supermarket and a kind of viscid bile was streaming down your chin.'
'It wasn't a dream,' I said. 'I'm dying.'
'I know, baby. I'm dying, too. But we've tried so many times already. We just have to learn to live with things the way they are. Things are not so bad. Truth be told, I'm not unfilled by William.'
'William's a very good fellow,' I said.
'He's not you,' said my ex-wife, 'but then again, you're not him.'
William had once been my hero. Then he whisked away my wife. Now he was a very good fellow, a f**cker, a thief. He deserved to die of whatever everybody had ever died of before, but with more agony, a heavier soiling of sheets.
'You may not hear from me again,' I said.
'That's probably a wise choice,' said Maryse.
'I don't think it's a choice,' I said. 'I really am dying.'
'Don't threaten me, said Maryse.'"
* * *
Well and so, I'd tell Mr. Sentance to go write like that, or, at least, to try and get his spelling down. It'd be a bit unfair, though-few of our best writers can write with such concentrated force, such compassion, and such humor.
Look: Each generation gets one or two, perhaps a few, writers this good--we should treasure them. Shower them with grants. Erect Town Square statues. Read them aloud to our lovers and lovers-to-be. Argue about them, heatedly. Sure. But not attack them, idiotically, anonymously, in the Rambles of Amazon Park.
For those who are Palahniuk fans and have blown through all of his books (not a difficult task), THE SUBJECT STEVE may be a good followup. It veers a couple degrees farther away from reality (and closer to a Vonnegut-esque satirical future), and is potentially even more willfully transgressive than any of Palahniuk's work, without any of the underlying thematic logic that Palahniuk's transgressive bits seem to have.
But there's definitely something with potential here, and it's intermittently fulfilled. Perhaps the biggest problem is that it's attempting to be a satire, and the target (or targets) of its satire gets so diffuse by the end of the book that it's obscured entirely. Regardless, a quick read, and there will be those who love it, so definitely check it out if your tastes lean in the directions outlined in this and other reviews.