If Gwyneth Paltrow was a wiry, indiscriminately-aged young man with the heart of a prophet and the social skills of a well-trained ferret, the result would most definitely be Hark Morner, the titular character of Sam Lipsyte’s new novel “Hark.” When I initially picked this book up off the Arts desk a few weeks ago, the rest of the writers were both shocked and delighted that someone had decided to dive into its bizarre mythos. And boy, was it bizarre.
“Hark” is, without a doubt, one of the weirdest books I’ve ever read. Off the heels of his critically acclaimed 2004 novel “Home Land” and its 2010 follow-up “The Ask,” Lipsyte has established himself in the literary world as a sort of satire boy genius, continuously challenging his readers with underdog male leads in scenarios that mirror our own world, through a slightly off-kilter lens. Lipsyte’s writing is just as funny as it is uncomfortable, an uncanny valley version of today’s insane realities. The novel is equal parts social commentary and vehicle for Lipsyte’s most fascinating fever dreams: a fictional “Army of the Just” wages an anti-capitalist war in Europe next to a talking catfish.
“Hark” surprisingly does not focus its narrative around Hark Morner himself, but instead on his loyal sidekick and spiritual convert Fraz, a middle-aged man caught in both the whirlwind of Hark’s mythology and also a brutal midlife crisis. This mythology, named “Mental Archery” in a tongue-in-cheek nod to the new-agey practices of today’s health nuts, is never explained in full detail throughout the book’s 284 pages. We hear of a practice called “stringing the bow,” get a hint of “The Archer’s Paradox,” hear Hark’s call to “focus on focus” an estimated hundreds of times, but never crack the surface of the pseudo-religion’s jargon to see what’s underneath.
Instead, the antics of Hark Morner and those around him function as whatever the reader imagines them to be, heightening the satire of “Hark” to a hectic reflection of its audience’s personal opinions on the modern era. The novel almost entirely operates on metaphor and allusion, its foundational ideology resting on the backs of proverbs like that of William Tell shooting an apple off a boy’s head, of armies tightening their bows in battle hundreds of years ago, of anything and everything archery-related in the least. “Hark” is a narrative wrapped up in itself to the maximum extent, an arguable feat in world-building that works to both the story’s benefit and disadvantage.
The banter between Fraz, Hark and the various cast members that Lipsyte attaches to their cause along the way is a definitive highlight of this world, full of insane phrases that require several reads to fully understand, but work nonetheless. Right around the novel’s midpoint, there is an exchange between Fraz and one of these random players, Seth: “‘Fraz, isn’t a fool,’ Seth says, ‘He’s a jester. And every smart king needs one.’” After Hark offers a rebuttal, Fraz explains that he is “just a troubled bitch.”
This small excerpt of dialogue can give anyone the jist of what “Hark” is at its core: a brutally honest depiction of life among the chaos of the modern world. In a traditional narrative Fraz would be a kingmaker (and is heralded as one by Hark’s devotees later in the story), but here he is merely a guy trying not to lose his mind in the midst of people just as crazy, if not more, than himself. In Fraz’s unhappy and seemingly aimless journey through time, the novel presents a kind of eternal male shrug found in work like David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest,” and not in a good way. Though there are bright spots within the pages of “Hark,” the desperation that hides behind each character hangs over the narrative like a dark cloud.
The base elements of “Hark,” if assembled correctly, could have made a hilarious and poignant story much like Lipsyte’s own “The Ask,” one that balances its brutish humor with interesting ideas and concepts. Yet the novel stumbles too many times for this to fully work. There is a difference between making a reader uncomfortable for a predestined purpose and prolonging their confusion for seemingly no reason but to mess with their perceptions. “Hark” does not walk this line carefully, and veers from solid satire into sad-boy sincerity in a zigzagged pattern that is nearly impossible to walk as a reader. The book may be a product of our time, of the desperate clamor that many artists feel to make something relevant to the current political and social climate. Except Lipsyte is too obvious in this desire, and it is the crux that the value of “Hark” balances on, teetering back and forth until it falls.