THE SUBJECT STEVE
By Sam Lipsyte
I usually don’t quote at length from the books I review, but in the case of Sam Lipsyte’s The Subject Steve there is a passage that I think deserves some attention. It comes near the end, as part of a long monologue:
There are beautiful things in this world, and if you can escape your narcissism, or the collective hallucination of the media, or the singular hallucination of your narcissism, you might get to see them sometime. But it’s like you’re encased in some kind of fucking titanium pod cruising through the atmosphere, you’re not quite the pilot but there’s a joystick in your hand, and it feels like you’re steering but you’ve never been steering, never in your life have you been steering, not when your dad remarried for the seventh time, not when your mom got weird and distant, not when your brother tried to butt in with the raising of your dog that you alone were raising from puppyhood, you’ve never been steering anything, really, you’ve just been cruising along in this pod with all of these gleaming buttons on the control panel but they don’t connect to anything, and you’re just whistling along through the dead air, dead space, through the nothingness of the world’s chatter and the nothingness of your own-most you jabbering away in your head, and you just have to get out of that pod, you must eject from that fucking pod, and you’re like, Oh fuck, I must fucking eject, I must, I must fucking eject . . . and then you notice a little button that’s gleaming, that’s glowing a little differently from the others, and it’s got a big E on it and it’s glowing and it’s even kind of blinking as though maybe this button, as opposed to the other buttons, maybe this button actually fucking works, so you hit it, you it hard . . .
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the young man making this speech is publicly masturbating. The calls to eject/ejaculate and the reference to the pilot not quite in control but with a joystick in his hand help paint the scene. In this there may be something allegorical. Isn’t there something about the act of masturbation that reflects the condition of the artist in modern times? Is it not the representative act of these lonely people? Attempting to describe the changing role of the artist at the beginning of the industrial revolution, “cut off from a recognizable function, patron or public and left to cast his soul as a commodity upon a blind market,” Eric Hobsbawm imagines a figure “shouting into the night, uncertain even of an echo.” It is an image only slightly less poetic than Shelley’s, reporting on the same transformation, describing the poet as a nightingale “who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds.” Is today’s portrait of an artist the picture of a wanking man?
We know the young man is the figure of an author because of how sensitive a guy he is. He speaks in metaphors and is resentful of the modern media (which, we can safely assume, ignores him). All that “nothingness of the world’s chatter” and “dead air” is wormwood to the poet. And then there is the way he speaks. His monologue is full of the verbal overload and gnawing repetitiveness that has come to replace the quality of rhythm in today’s prose. There are also the familiar non sequiturs and paranoid mutterings, as well as the blending of the domestic with the fantastic that critics are so fond of saying “makes us see the familiar in a different light” (which it doesn’t).
The rest of the book is not always up to this. The Steve of the title (though that isn’t his real name) is diagnosed with a terminal case of something unknown to medical science, but which is dubbed PREXIS by a pair of quacks. In an attempt to find a cure for this uncertain death sentence he betakes himself to the Center for Nondenominational Recovery and Prevention, an upstate cult run by a sadistic warden named Heinrich of Newark. Escaping, he realizes there is really no escape.
The Subject Steve is, in short, another tract in the now thick American tradition of paranoid culture novels. That it is literary fiction is evidenced by its emphasis on language. The fact that Steve’s disease has no name is typical of a world where words can never be found to express anything important. As an ex-advertising man, Steve is representative of the way the empty media communicates by cliché (remember that “nothingness of the world’s chatter”). Characters are always saying things they don’t really mean, and having it pointed out to them. The only safe speech is tautology, such as we hear in the babble of the Center’s cultspeak.
Even Kafka sometimes went on too long. Without a human center, dream narratives tend to lose their grip on the reader’s attention. We feel the double edge of allegory when we get to the point where we’ve figured it out, or given up trying. Like many of its paranoid cousins, The Subject Steve is a possibly profound yet weightless exercise.
Review first published online November 1, 2001.