Homeland by Sam Lypsyte raises the question, for me at least, of whether it is wise to be part of a reading group. I would not have read this novel if it weren't proposed by the guy who had the choice of what we'd take up next, and after fifteen pages I began considering whether I should stop reading the book and stop going to the reading group altogether.
To take the latter point first--droping out of the reading group--I should note that I am a particular reader who does his best to find good books that meet his particular interests and needs. I should also add that when I "worked" for a living before transitioning to writing full-time, I had to read thousands of pages of stuff every year that I didn't especially want to read (though sometimes it was interesting.) Now I don't do anything I don't want to do, and that includes reading things people tell me I ought to read or would love to read. I might love reading it, or I might not, or I might be pursuing a reading agenda that I have loosely mapped out for myself months in advance. In other words, what I read is mine, and I can't read everything, so I read what I want and as and when I want to read it.
This extends to the way I read newspapers. Once upon a time I read five or six newspapers every morning as part of my job; then I would be briefed by one of my assistants who had done the same and we would compare notes on what we thought was important and what wasn't important. This went on for years in various countries around the world. Now I look at the front page and sports page of one newspaper and periodiodically check the web page of the New York Times for updates through the course of the day. On Sundays the massive New York Times and just as massive Washington Post arrive on my driveway. The Post comes in a clear plastic bag, the Times comes in a blue plastic bag I look at their front pages and turn them over to my wife. For days she tries to catch up with them, bringing Thoreau to mind: he said he'd need a week to read a newspaper properly. Well, I don't have a week for that sort of thing anymore. Supplementing whatever I miss by limiting my newspaper intake, I receive ten to fifteen emails a day from various sources, all pointing me toward world affairs. I glance at them, sometimes I read them in full, sometimes I push the trash button in less than a second.
What I really want to read are the specific books I choose to read. Books are infinitely more rewarding, challenging, and memorable than the news, or "articles," or news summaries. They brave the difficulty of dealing with a subject in depth; the demonstrate, or try to, a command of a subject, factual or fictional. They are the product of a writer's personal style and worldview, not the style and worldview (and style book) of a news organization.
So when a friend with whom I have long discussed books asked if I would like to join a new reading group he and some others were forming, I said, with some trepidation, okay, I'd give it a try.
As a writer I was interested in how these guys reacted to writing, what they valued, what they questioned, and what they found that resonated in their own lives. I didn't foresee Homeland by Sam Lypsyte coming down the pike.
This is a satirical novel that is firmly embedded in the culture it satirizes, i.e., cosmic New Jersey suburbia (New Jersey is the world, didn't you know that?). The trope--which is a fancy way of saying the hackneyed concept--has to do with a loser who was miserable in high school being encouraged to contribute notes to his high school class alumni newsletter. Our anti-hero, known unpleasantly as Teabag, is witty, perceptive, and hot on the trail of the hypocrites who somehow got up on him back then…and still do. The opening chapters read like a stand-up comic's endless act.
So I put the book aside and came back to it when I'd simmered down. This seemed to make Homeland easier to take. Fragments of characters episodically matter and are not stereotypes. Some descriptive writing focused on the dead birds in the gutters and the armpit stink of someone's basement apartment bespeak a certain grisly humor. But who was it who wrote about quiet desperation? Ah, Thoreau again: ""Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them." Here we have it; not as a lament, though, as a farce. This isn't a book about adolescence (and post-adolescence) as painfully honest as Catcher in the Rye. It certainly isn't a book as beautifully tragic as Billy Budd. It's a book disturbingly gifted in eliciting the jargon-filled, drug-induced, sexually-confused, ambition-craven qualities of our good old U.S.A., circa 21st century.
So, hell, as it is by now clear, I finished Homeland, and as I anticipated, there was a semi-apocalyptic comeuppance at the end and, trope of all tropes, a squeak of sincere candor implying that all the rage, all the wrongs, all the schlock, all the betrayals, all the ferociously wound-up linguistic energy herein presented had to do with something hard to believe in anymore: love.
Aha, so that's what this was all about? Well, not quite. To give Homeland perhaps an excess of credit, let me conclude by aligning it one more time with Thoreau: "Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth." Lypsyte, it seems to me, can't pull this book out of its nosedive on the very last page. One can see him edging in that direction with some of Teabag's wittticisms and actions in the final chapters, but if you're going to be a satirist, be one until the end. The world of Homeland is not a world of distorted, dysfunctional love; it's a world of lost souls living atomized lives of noisy, rather repugnant desperation.
For more of my comments on contemporary writing, see Tuppence Reviews (Kindle).
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