Rejected by 35 publishers, “Home Land,’’ Sam Lipsyte’s second novel, revealed the writer as the reigning king of riff. Told in a series of chipper and increasingly demented missives to an alumni newsletter from a ne’er-do-well known as Teabag, the 2004 novel stands as a poisonously uproarious monument to the disappointments and soul-chafing alienation of early adulthood. It presented a tauter, deadlier distillation of the jagged and oftentimes brilliant voice Lipsyte had introduced in his earlier novel and stories, one now being compared, favorably, to that of Phillip Roth.
Five years later, Lipsyte came out with “The Ask,’’ an even tighter, more commercially successful novel about yet another failure, this one a nonprofit administrator forced to bow before an immeasurably wealthy tech bro. In its wake, The New York Times hailed Lipsyte as a generational avatar whose book had “announced the onset of the Generation X midlife crisis.” Somewhere along the way, he became chairman of the writing department at Columbia University and a regular in the fiction pages of The New Yorker. Our foremost chronicler of failures had achieved every marker of worldly success.
Enter his latest novel, the long-awaited “Hark.’’ It takes on what seems like a can’t-miss target: the moneyed mindfulness movement nudged along by the emergent spirituality of the tech sphere’s professional-managerial class — think TED Talks and Burning Man and Soul Cycle. This subject has proven irresistible for Gen-X avatars across all media; witness the 2015 reprise of David Cross and Bob Odenkirk’s classic ’90s sketch comedy program “Mr. Show with Bob and David,’’ which featured a feeble bit about a guru quite obviously modeled on a real-life guru named David “Shingy’’ Shing, a denim-clad Aussie with receding Sonic the Hedgehog hair and clear glasses who holds the unfathomable job title of “digital prophet” at Verizon Media Group.
Lipsyte’s guru is the titular Hark Morner, a failed comic who has written a wildly popular book on Mental Archery, a method of focus he is invited to present in boardrooms and at corporate retreats. It blends mindfulness and visualizations around archery.
Mental Archery, although it affects people deeply, has no deeper meaning, something its principal practitioner frequently reminds his ever-larger audiences. “I don’t have a message,” Hark says. “There is no core philosophy, no Vedic truth, no Confucian wisdom, no grand Western synthesis, no radical breakthrough in the grand human endeavor.”
This lack of focus (pun intended) proves troubling to the reader — how can she engage with a text whose central figure has such little substance? The lack of message also proves troubling to Hark’s acolytes, from whose points of view we get the narrative. More or less.
Frank “Fraz” Penzig, our requisite Gen-X failure, mithering through late middle age, gets the most column inches. His marriage is failing; his teaching career is in the toilet; and he doesn’t feel at home in a newly sincere world. “Irony is bad,” a student of Fraz’s explains in an early scene one wishes were funnier.
Rounding out Hark’s crew are a pair of attractive, sophisticated, two-dimensional women in their early 30s named Kate and Teal. Teal has been to prison for embezzlement, and super-rich Kate bankrolls Hark. Meanwhile, as America engages in a land war with Europe — the conclusion of a series of unfortunate events kicked off by a terrible president — the trio will find themselves caught up in a farce of global proportions.
Ultimately, this is a book about the dangerous rise of sincerity. Or of earnestness. Or the limitations of Gen-X cynicism. Or the merits of Gen-X cynicism. Or the futility of man’s search for meaning. Or something.
The biggest problem with “Hark’’ is not that it lacks the antic energy of Lipsyte’s past efforts, but that Lipsyte, in broadening his scope to include matters both societal and domestic, often loses the thread. Even his riffs are rambling. Where is the reader left in all this? Exactly.
By Sam Lipsyte
Simon & Schuster, 304 pp., $27
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Eugenia Williamson is a Chicago writer and editor.