Madeline Poage ’16 / Emertainemnt Monthly Staff Writer
In Sam Lipsyte’s groundbreaking first novel, published by Picador in 2001, the rules of a traditional narrative are turned upside down. The story focuses on the titular Steve, despite the fact that he spends most of his time reminding people that this is not, in fact, his real name. He is named so for the purposes of his leech-like specialist doctors, who insist that he is dying while they perform test after test on him to determine what exactly is killing him. Surprise for Steve—it’s boredom. The book follows Steve’s quest to halt his own imminent death, battling health care professionals, family, a backwoods non-denominational cult, and his own demons along the way.
A satirical take on American medical practices, religion, and disease, The Subject Steve is merciless in its critique. The eponymous Steve’s newfound disease, an illness which has no symptoms, no ill effects, yet is killing him, is met with a sour concoction of fascination and apathy by all. His own teenage daughter alternates between begging her father not to die and claiming to want to kill him herself. His two doctors only see him as the golden ticket to fame. His insurance is spent on strippers. No one cares about Steve, and at times it feels as though even the reader isn’t supposed to. Steve is tossed from place to place, abused, exploited, and tortured by everyone he meets along the way with a heavy feeling of nonchalance.
The book has an almost absurdist tone, each word drenched in the nihilism and the unfulfilled dreams the entire depressed cast of characters. While this is a hallmark of Lipsyte’s snappy cynicism, it isn’t as sharp as it wants to be. Lipsyte’s later works are simultaneously raw and polished, with high-concepts and well-developed intellect told through a fantastically crude voice, but The Subject Steve has nothing to keep it grounded. The book seems to lose focus along the way, and Steve doesn’t have the magnetic pull or powerful voice many of Lipsyte’s other narrators have, which would’ve helped keep the conflict pinned down. There’s no heart, there’s no playfulness. With caricatures rather than characters, it’s impossible to care for almost anyone. Much of the dialogue frustrates rather than illuminates, and any theoretical meaning slips out of the reader’s grasp.
Not to say the book isn’t without merit. It’s hysterical. The dialogue is ridiculous, the characters are coarse, and the events spiral out of control. Lipsyte’s originality emerges both in rare, beautiful moments of real connection between the characters and in quick flashes of hilarity. All of this is doused with the author’s typical dose of daddy issues and sexual deviance, and reading it is certainly a ride. There are a few screws loose, but even though this hurts the overall structure and support of the story, the results are an off-the-rails, go-for-broke, runaway story. Is it doomed? Maybe, but if it is, it’s determined to drag the reader down with it.