Venus Drive — Sam Lipsyte

Sam Lipsyte’s forthcoming novel The Ask is already poised to be one of the major critical successes of 2010. In concordance with its publication, Picador will print a new trade paperback edition of his short story collection Venus Drive, the first such publication since its original debut from Open City a decade ago.

The thirteen stories in Venus Drive compose a sort of novel-in-stories. The title of the collection takes its name from a banal suburban street mentioned in a few of the stories, and many of the characters seem like iterations of the same type or voice. There are washed up would-be indie rock stars, small-time coke peddlers, and underemployed and overeducated addicts. There are deviants and perverts and outsiders. There are bullies. There are dead or dying mothers, dead or dying sisters. In short, Venus Drive is its own tightly-drawn, tightly-coiled, and highly-compressed world.

As the plot points double and re-double in these stories, so do the themes. “Our culture is afraid of death, and considers it something we must wage battle against,” says Tessa, a pain specialist, a peripheral character in “Cremains.” She continues: “I say, surrender, submit. Go gentle. Terminal means terminal.” Death informs almost all of these stories in some way, and Tessa’s commentary presents the problem with death, or at least the problem these characters have with dealing with death: it’s not easy to go gentle. It goes against our culture and our nature to surrender. If she’s presented as a voice of wisdom, she’s also an ironic character, one of the many would-be authorities Lipsyte’s weirdos and outsiders can’t help but mock. “The Drury Girl,” part-suburban satire and pure pathos, posits a pre-pubescent narrator obsessed with his teenage babysitter; his dad’s cancer plays second fiddle to his lust. Thus the story neatly ties together the overarching themes of Venus Drive, sex and death. Admittedly, these are probably the only real themes of proper literature, but Lipsyte does it so damn well and lays it all out so bare and does so in such humor and grace that it really sticks. It’s good stuff.

That humor is desert-dry, of course, and succeeds so well because his characters are so endearing in their pathetic pathologies. The antiheroes of “Beautiful Game” and “My Life, for Promotional Use Only,” are also-rans in the sordid history of underground rock, addicts approaching washed-up (Are they the same person? Maybe. They have different names, of course. Doesn’t matter). A scene from “Beautiful Game” shows the ambivalence at the core of many of these characters: “At the bank machine, Gary doesn’t check the balance. Better to leave it to the gods. Someday the bank machine will shun him. Why know when?” Gene, the ex-rocker in “My Life, for Promotional Use Only” now suffers the indignities of working for his ex-girlfriend. Everyone in the story is an ex-something, everyone is growing up and leaving art (or is it “Art”?) behind. In a poignant and funny and cruel scene, familiar to many of us, Gene sees some of himself in a waitress:

Rosalie calls over the waitress and they talk for a while about somebody’s new art gallery. The waitress is famous for a piece where she served the Bloody Marys mixed with her menstrual blood. Word had it she overdid the tabasco.

I wait for the moment when our waitress stops being a notorious transgressor of social mores and becomes a waitress again, look for it in her eyes, that sad blink, and order a beer.

Gene, a former “notorious transgressor of social mores” himself feels both sorrow and hate for the waitress. He sees her job as menial and pathetic — just like his own. He doesn’t seem to think much of her art, either. Lipsyte telegraphs so much there with so few words, his sentences clean, spare, precise, and rarely of the compound variety. There’s a truncated, clipped rhythm that Lipsyte builds over the thirteen-story run that helps propel the immediacy of his tales. The stories are short, too; the longest is sixteen pages and most run to eight or ten. Lipsyte’s rhetorical gift is to shine the grubby and, at times, his sentences can feel almost too perfect, too-fussed over–but this (minor) complaint, it must be noted, comes from someone who admires occasional ambiguity or incoherence. Lipsyte removes his own authorial voice and thus achieves lucidity in his characters’ voices; somehow, though — and paradoxically — these voices bear the ghostly trace of his absence. But that seems like a silly conversation, and certainly not one for this post.

Venus Drive reminds me very much of one of my favorite books, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which I would also call a novel-in-stories, also a spare and precise collection, also a study of weirdos and addicts and outsiders. Jesus’ Son is something of a standard in creative writing workshops (or at least it used to be) and a sensible teacher would add Venus Drive to her syllabus as well. Finally, like Jesus’ Son, Lipsyte’s book is seething, funny, and poignant, with characters tipped toward some redemption, awful or otherwise, for all their myriad sins. The book might take its name from a geographic location, but the “Venus drive” is also a spiritual inclination toward love and hope. Highly recommended.

Venus Drive is available March 2nd, 2010 in trade paperback from Picador.

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