Hark is a Misfire Remake of Being There

Hark (2019)*
By Sam Lipsyte
Simon & Schuster, 304 pages

There is a thin line between that which is snarky and hip, and prose that loses its impact. Sam Lipsyte's Hark weaves across both sides of that border on a regular basis.

The first chapter, which serves as something of a prologue, is so chaotic that I almost bailed on the novel before I even got started. I received an uncorrected advance copy, so perhaps editors have rescued the book's gateway, but the rest of what I read is a mix of sharp satire and sociology masquerading as fiction. Maybe Hark rushes to a brilliant conclusion, but I can't comment upon this. Hark is a work that I kept pushing aside in annoyance and picking up again in the hope that I was missing something. There will be no spoilers in this review; I gave up for good two-thirds of the way in.

Lipsyte's intent is to skewer celebrity culture, as well as Americans' rush to jog down a dollar-strewn path to bliss. His antihero is Hark Morner, who just wants everyone to "focus" and pay attention. His is essentially a Ram Dass Be Here Now point of view that replaces Dass' idea of building mental mandalas with "mental archery." What is mental archery, you ask? It's pretty much as it sounds. There are 52 exercises in which one strikes various archers' poses. There is no quiver or arrow; the act of moving and visualizing allegedly helps one "focus." This is an intriguing backdoor critique of the American Rut, one marked by rushing from one mindless task to another, and the anesthetizing effects of helter-skelter surfing in a plugged in and screen bound world.

Hark's only message is that we need to "focus," but American society isn't big on simple messages unless they can be monetized. Hark is a blissful naïf, but his devotees are neither. Lipsyte populates Hark's world with those who think mental archery is a marketable concept, though they've clearly failed to achieve the focused state Hark advocates. Or, more accurately, they are focused on quite different goals. Hark wants to give mental archery to the world as a gift; his devotees want to promote him as a pay-to-see guru.

Hark is thus shoved into a world of hucksterism and hype that he neither desires nor understand. Imagine a motivational speaker who only tells people to focus. No one would pony up to hear that, right? Wrong! The best parts of Lipsyte's novel probe how easy it is to get people to buy bromides and placebos, no matter how improbable or trite. Hark doesn't even tell his massed audiences what we should focus upon. He is akin to a benign and clueless Wizard of Oz, but there is no Toto to pull back the curtain.   The problem, though, is that because we already know this, we plow through Hark hoping to find interesting character backstories. Alas, mainly we find a cast that's either amoral, dull, or both. What is left is a lampoon for the yoga-and-sprouts crowd that they probably won't get.

I leave open the possibility that others will find this book funnier than I. There is, however, no getting around the fact that we are riding the one-trick pony that is the runt litter of a mighty stallion: Jerzy Kosinski's Being There (1970). Hark Morner is an updated Chance Gardner, the shut-in innocent groundskeeper set adrift, and whose knowledge base consists of advertising hooks he overheard on television. Chance is similarly embraced and promoted by those seeking easy answers. Toss in the focus angle from Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) and Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-sided (2009), her searing critique of the positive thinking movement, and you've got Hark.

There is, of course, room for revisiting old ideas; with the exception of Ehrenreich, we are talking about decades-old works. Alas, Hark is not that book. Lipsyte's pursuit of a hipster vibe that is just out of his reach is made manifest in a lack of thoughtful or likable characters. This distances the reader from both the humor and the author's chosen tone. Regarding the latter, there is a sense that maybe Lipsyte really wanted to remake the values-challenged world of Bonfire of the Vanities.

Once again, I cannot comment upon how Lipsyte resolved (or failed to resolve) all of this. I guess I lost my focus.

Rob Weir

* This book is scheduled for release in 2019, but it's already widely available.    

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