There are only so many hours in the day. That fact is a compelling marketing hook for the writers, consultants and other professionals interested in selling strategies for maximizing productivity. The trouble is knowing whom to trust: It can be difficult to tell the genuine article from a well-credentialed facsimile. The search for a quick fix or an enlightened guide is the ground on which Sam Lipsyte’s new novel, “Hark,” walks.
Lifestyle guru Hark Morner, and the zealots and grifters who glom on to him, follow a system called “mental archery,” based on a series of affirmations and techniques to help people focus better at work and at home. The “archery” involves fictional, bow-and-arrow-centric anecdotes Hark passes off as history during his lectures, including apocryphal tales of folk hero William Tell’s prowess as a marksman.
Hark insists he has no political aims, though there is some question of how authentically he actually buys what he is selling. “He’s so commanding when he speaks to a crowd, but he’s got a weird sense of humor about it,” someone remarks after hearing one of Hark’s speeches. “Like part of him thinks it’s a put on.” That nobody trusts Hark but they follow him anyway creates an exciting tension: His hold over his flock is tenuous at best, so readers find themselves both invested in Hark’s success and hoping that his acolytes wise up for their own good.
Among Hark’s followers and eventual employees is a sad sack half-believer named Fraz Penzig, acting out his midlife crisis by trying to attach himself to the right ascendant figure at the right time. His marriage is falling apart, and mental archery is his last defense against feeling completely powerless. This is the type of character Lipsyte excels at portraying — equal parts pathetic and ruthless — and the novel is at its best when it focuses on Fraz’s struggles, including his conflicted relationship with Hark. “I want to help carry your message to millions,” he tells Hark at one point, hoping to stir some enthusiasm and project confidence. But Hark simply reiterates his uncertainty that Fraz even knows what mental archery is about.
That seed of doubt planted, Fraz’s insecurity begins to manifest in other aspects of his life. At home, he can’t even bring himself to correct his children, who believe a viral online rumor that the world’s leaders secretly have lizard heads. “Is it lousy child-rearing to dismiss the existence of the lizard heads outright? What does Fraz know about it? He never got tapped for Skull and Bones, or supped at the Bilderberg. What makes him an authority?” Lipsyte is marvelous at inspiring equal parts sympathy and scorn.
The book abruptly shifts gears at the midway point, and starts to slip out of Lipsyte’s hands, when Hark’s followers note — with only passing interest — that World War III is raging across Europe. A group known as the Army of the Just, whose goals are to eliminate poverty and oppression, is gaining control of huge amounts of territory. Hark and his followers remain the focus of the novel, but the war looms stubbornly in the background like an incoming weather event: something to worry about and prepare for before admitting one’s limitations and letting nature take its course.
The ideologies of those fighting overseas remain nebulous, so when a rift forms among Hark’s adherents, the factionalism feels poorly sketched, taking oxygen from the day-to-day details that make the first half of the book so rich.
It’s a shame that “Hark” comes to this. It begins as an energetic and compassionate satire of what we choose to pay attention to and why. Lipsyte’s vision of the political nature of having no politics feels spot-on, and his sentences are as sharp as ever. That the novel has so many good things going for it makes the back half’s hard landing hurt all the more.
Bradley Babendir is a freelance writer in Boston.
By Sam Lipsyte
Simon & Schuster.
304 pp. $27.