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Wednesday, September 19th, 2001


The Subject Steve

by Sam Lipsyte

A review by Adrienne Miller

A man whom we had better call Steve (what he calls himself, although not his real name), is dying, but of what? Is it ennui (as Cole Porter would have called it)? Is he allergic to the so-called postmodern condition (the good old postmodern condition: don't you love it?)? Such is the set-up for Sam Lipsyte's funny, rambling, too-cute, too-clever-by-half, but nonetheless weirdly effective first novel.

Steve has two doctors, you see the mystically named The Mechanic and The Philosopher, neither of whom can figure out what's wrong with him. Hence, he joins one cult, then two, because, well, cults: aren't they always the answer? Stylistically, The Subject Steve falls somewhere between Chuck Palahniuk (minus the misanthropy) and George Saunders (minus the heart). Let's throw Vonnegut in there as an influence, too. And Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, while we're at it. This is Satire with a capital-S, and must be read as such there's zero in the way of character or setting, its humor is so broad, its plot ("conceit" might be a better word) so outrageous that one has to judge this novel sentence-by-sentence. And are the sentences that good? The author is so obviously smart and he's so great with the one-liner that this book almost, sort of, succeeds, although he is a bit too fond of the Big Statement. Witness: "He fell in love with a woman who believed in falling in love. They made a creature together. People made creatures to pass themselves onward, but that's not how he saw it. He wanted to stop the Steveness. He needed a family to destroy his Steveness." This is an enormously likable first novel, at any rate, from a writer to watch.

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