A Short Review of "Hark" by Sam Lipsyte
Have you ever read a book you just didn’t get? That’s what happened to me when I read “Hark” by Sam Lipsyte. The premise was intriguing, the plot moved along just fine, and the characters were okay, but at the end of the book I was left wondering, “What was the point?”
“Hark” beings strong with Lipsyte’s description of Fraz, a miserable, underemployed fool, “terminal, but not quite near the terminus.” “Hark” takes place in the not-too-distant future when the effects of global warming are more pronounced: “the fouled sky, the polluted food, the pharma-fed rivers full of sad-eyed Oxytrout, the jeans on the outlet shelves in their modalities of size…And the wave of rot, of course, the pixel-assisted suicide, the screens, the screens, the screens.”
From there we learn about Hark Morner, Fraz’s guru. Hark is the founder of mental archery, a bogus combination of imaginary archery, mindfulness, and yoga. Throughout the book, he and his apostles (yes, Hark is a Christ figure) spread the word about mental archery. Hark has no interest in using mental archery to make money and only wants people to focus. His apostles, Fraz in particular, disagree on the future of mental archery.
There are moments of brilliance scattered throughout “Hark.” For example, Lipsyte suggests that humanity is on the brink of extinction due to climate change and war, but no one is panicked. Sure they follow Hark for meaning? Focus? Calm? but there doesn’t seem to be the large scale abandonment of hope that I imagine would precede a known, imminent extinction event. But that’s reflective of what’s happening now, helplessness in the face of environmental, political, and social challenges that leaves us with nothing to do but live our lives in the same way we’ve always lived them.
The premise of “Hark” is also brilliant. The popularity of yoga, mindfulness, pharmaceuticals, essential oils, and other tools for feeling less frazzled is cannon fodder for a satirist who notices how everyone struggles to make sense of the world. It’s obvious that we humans have issues, both on an individual and societal level, and books like “Hark” can help us think critically about the ways we pursue solace and meaning.
Unfortunately, these moments of brilliance are loosely tied together by the workaday lives of Hark and his followers, mostly Fraz though. “Hark” as a whole also doesn’t make a statement, or it made one that went way over my head. On the plus side, Lipsyte’s writing style is smart and artistic, which is both rare and welcome.
I don’t want to discourage anyone from reading “Hark,” but it did fall flat for me, which is particularly disappointing because satire usually makes me giddy. The reviews of “Hark” on Goodreads are so-so, but Lipsyte is a prominent satirist who’s written a number of books, many of them well-received. So, if you’re interested in Lipsyte’s work, start with a different book.
Any other satire fans out there? What’s your favorite? “Animal Farm” by George Orwell has been my favorite since high school.