The Subject Steve – Sam Lipsyte

2 out of 5

I know why this book was given to me.

I will always be skeptical of books gifted to me, or forcefully recommended, and that was probably even more true 20 years ago, when I’d received The Subject Steve. But I totally got it: it’s got Heller’s wordplay, some Vonnegutian fanciful wanderings, and a hefty dose of Tom Robbins nonsense. It should probably also be noted that Robbins tops the list of authors I was always told to read; I’d love him; etc; and I did buy a couple books to give them a whirl, but could not get past the first few chapters. Robbins had a loop-de-loop style that reminded people of my own (because I was in the habit of foisting short stories upon others, and perhaps foisting better and actually accomplished writers upon me was their way of stopping that), and maybe it was partial jealousy of that that stymied my enjoyment of his works – gasp! Someone else did it first! – although I’ve tried to go back since and it’s very possible that I just don’t like his themes and approaches. Tastes are hard to objectively qualify, sometimes.

And then to The Subject Steve. I think this recommendation hooked me a little more because, if I recall, it was couched in a backhanded format, paraphrased: “I haven’t read this and don’t think I’d like it but I think you might like it because it reminds me of your writing.” Mixture of praise and rejection together? Sold! Also: I read the first few pages and knew this person was fucking right. This was exactly like something I’d write. That Lipsyte motherfucker: I wished I had written it, and in fact, it felt like ideas I’d been stewing upon, and fie to people who actually see things through. I thanked the gifter for their gift, put it on my shelf, and never read it. (Just so you have a full understanding of the fascinating methods by which my bookshelf is stocked: I continued to buy new Sam Lipsyte books, and never read them as well.)

But, hey, 20 years on, and my storage space is sagging in need of more room for Judge Dredd trades and new volumes of Golden Kamuy. So I’ve been going through those dusty books that’ve made for pretty spines but the contents of which I can’t speak to.

The Subject Steve opens with Steve – not his name – being told by two doctors, who are referred to as ‘The Philosopher’ and ‘The Mechanic’ that he is dying, though they don’t know of what. When will he die? What side effects might occur? More research is needed! he’s told, though he’s surely dying. And shortly thereafter, his illness is given a sexy abbreviation – PREXIS – and the two doctors (because they’re wearing white lab coats – so surely they are doctors) leverage their “discovery” of this illness into some fame, which tapped in to the burgeoning internetty / budding social media culture of the day. This is told in bantery back-and-forth, in which conversations are all handled in puns and “Steve” (whose real name we never learn) mostly plays the straight man. Scenes stumble into one another in a very Heller-istic fashion. Man, this opening section is fantastic.

Had I had the confidence to read past that first chapter…

The Subject Steve was also written (or published) some 20 years ago, and while I know I relied on plenty of nonsense to fuel my early writings, I also hope that by the time I was trying to formalize that into something publishable, I wasn’t as stuck on that train as Lipsyte was at the time of this book. In other words: yes, that first chapter; but I hope I didn’t (and don’t) write like the chapters that followed, which mostly just tell the same joke in the same way, over and over, but with even less cohesiveness and import, and more and more characters who seem to matter less and less. At a high level, something I admire about the book is that there is a vague plot. Writers who can be said to “write about nothing” – and that’s not exactly about nothing, of course, but I go back to Heller, who was able to stretch moments inbetween events into hundreds of pages of navel-gazing – seem to relegate plotting to specific chapters or moments; if you’re not in tune with what’s going on between those chapters, it can definitely be a slog.

Lipsyte, also of this “nothing” crowd, actually keeps things rolling along a general trajectory: Steve falls in with a cult-like group of which the leader – Heinrich – claims to be able to cure his disease; he escapes said cult, only to get wrapped back up in a new iteration of it… This throughline, along with that opening concept, really does work for me. And there is a better version of this book (by my take) that more strongly ties these things together, but in the version of The Subject Steve we have, right after the announcement of the unsolvable PREXIS disease, they pretty much “solve” it be suggesting that Steve is dying of boredom. Haha, good joke. But whereas the initial premise is weird and intriguing, the followup is a punchline, and sets everything thereafter into snide and cynical rambling. There are some good yuks in there, but they’re stretched between pages of nigh nonsense; word association jumbles; dialogue back and forths that just keep on going, pun after pun, losing any thread of focus or purpose. And yes, that can be read as all being in support of the premise, but do you really want to read 200+ pages of disconnected strings of text just to “prove” the ennui-riddled thesis that’s pretty obvious from the first chapter? This style also makes any of what could be said to be relevant details to the plot hard as hell to track: once the cult characters start showing up, their names and personalities are all fleeting to the point of not mattering: I didn’t give a fuck who was saying what and why, because it didn’t matter. And the way Lipsyte punishes every paragraph with either harsh juxtapositions (lots of blabber followed up by concise crassness) or loopy, flourished imagery feeds into that rolling joke vibe, in which nothing is to be taken with very much salt.

So, again, why would we want to read it?

I guess because of the potential of the opening section, and because it’s conceptually interesting, and occasionally funny. And surely, opinions being what they are, and Chuck Palahniuk offering ‘I laughed out loud’-style praise on his back-of-book blurb, that will be enough for some people, affecting them in ways that didn’t happen for me. But if I’d read past the opening chapter back in the day, I’m pretty doubtful I’d have other Lipsyte books on my shelf.