Sam Lipsyte comes up with the world’s best band names. Take the one from “The Worm in Philly,” the seventh story in his new collection, “The Fun Parts.” Readers will remember the titular worm, Gary, from Lipsyte’s earlier works “Venus Drive” and “Home Land” as a thumbless drug dealer with questionable personal values. A few beats after Gary rants about “the cunning rhetoric of the soft left (he was the hard),” Lipsyte reveals the name of his band: the Annihilation of the Soft Left.
People of a certain age who went to liberal arts colleges or know people who went to liberal arts colleges or, like Lipsyte, went to Brown, probably know someone who has been or should be in a band called the Annihilation of the Soft Left. People who have worried about questions of cultural and personal authenticity and whether punk rock accomplished what we hoped it would and still feel a little silly, but also a little self-righteous, for having worried about those things. People for whom calling someone a “poseur” or a “scenester” was tantamount to character assassination. People who aspired to bohemian deviance but, through some accident of history, missed their chance.
These are the characters that populate “The Fun Parts.”
Their ethos is distilled when the narrator of “This Appointment Occurs in the Past” recalls his college days: “We slurped whiskey in our basement apartments with our friends and possible girlfriends. Davis was the guru. I was his handsome disciple. Eventually Davis would get huffy about the cigarette smoke and stomp around the piles of books and laundry, the stray Stratocaster, the tripod with the liquid swivel. We were making an experimental video for our band, the Interpellations, but who wasn’t?”
Although this passage imbues grimy dorm rooms with a kind of deranged romanticism, don’t mistake Lipsyte for a Gen X apologist: In this story, nostalgia is literally crippling. The collection’s first and most devastating story, “The Climber Room,” shows the futility of that generation’s ideals. The narrator, Tovah, a 36-year-old poet, finds herself questioning a life based on half-cocked notions of spiritual and artistic purity. She works part-time at a day care, lives like a nun, and has personal revelations at D’Agostino’s over crackers and sodium-free vegetable broth. Does this make any other 30-something want to throw herself off a bridge?
What saves Lipsyte’s work from being hopelessly abject is his sense of humor, one brought to the attention of the wider world in his 2010 novel, “The Ask,” the story of a hapless fund-raiser macerated by late capitalism’s spiky gears. The closest analog to Lipsyte’s brutal humor — in film, or maybe anywhere — is the brilliant final scene of “There Will Be Blood,” when Daniel Day Lewis gleefully beats Paul Dano to death with a bowling pin. His sentences are exhilarating in the way only truly desperate things can be, a perfect soundtrack to our exhausted, entropic times.
This is not to say “The Fun Parts” is a perfect collection. “Deniers,” a story about a Jewish woman in thrall to a white supremacist, and “The Dungeon Master,” a story about the power dynamics of dribbling teenage dorks (both of which appeared in The New Yorker), fall back on familiar terrain. They’re still far funnier than the vast majority of contemporary American fiction, but might ring a little stale to die-hard Lipsyte fans. “Peasely,” an extended, labored riff on a line from F. Scott Fitzgerald, is the only unnecessary one of the lot, but at less than five pages, it’s a forgivable misstep.
For the most part, “The Fun Parts” sticks to the fun parts, or whatever passes for fun for the deeply ambivalent.