November 7, 2002

Subject to Mortality

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Sam Lipsyte’s first novel, The Subject Steve, is a mind-wrecking presentation of the limitations of our standard societal logic and morality. The best part is, Lipsyte doesn’t make his point through grand explanations or preachy parable, rather he creates a world in which what we would consider to be inconsistencies or opposites seem to be the foundation of a mass, fanatical lauding of tautologies, the most prevalent of which being death itself.

At the onset of the book, Steve is diagnosed as having Goldfarb-Blackstone Preparatory Extinction Symdrome, or, PREXIS. His two doctors, the Philosopher and the Mechanic, tell him he is dying and has left an indeterminate amount of time. “By their calculations there could be no calculations.”

Steve has no symptoms, but he will die of something no one has died of before, something akin to boredom. The doctors immediately attempt to market their discovery, and are uncovered as frauds. Regardless, Steve is still dying and so sets himself on a search for the cure, or at least, an escape. His exploration leads him through a warped world of fluctuating personal pity, estranged familial relationships, upstate masochistic cults, and a society quickly becoming obsessed with it’s own mortality.

The Subject Steve seems full to the brim with social, moral, and ethical allegory, but Lipsyte tends to exhibit more questions than he answers. His novel presents an encompassing environment of societal contradictions, logical inconsistencies, and morally irrational behavior, and leaves it to the reader to piece them together. The question becomes whether these situations even can be justified, or pieced together, in the first place.

For example, it’s no surprise to the reader that Steve is dying, or going to die; he is dying simply in the same way that every living thing is dying. This concept is almost uncomfortably fatalistic, but not uncommon. Yet, even when Steve’s doctors admit to being charlatans, they still insist Steve is dying of something no one has ever died of before, and Steve still believes them. Cases of PREXIS pop up all over the country, and the doctors are blamed (and sued) not because they somehow caused the epidemic, but because the disease does not really exist.

At every page turn, Lipsyte manages to turn conventional societal logic on its head. He creates a world in which opposites occur simultaneously, and feed off of each other. Steve is not the main character’s real name, just a name the doctors pick out for him as a subject. Even so, the name is, from the start, almost the essence of his definition by others, and, to a certain extent, of himself. He comes to be more and more identified through (and by) his “disease,” and therefore, through his subject name, Steve. Still, throughout the story, he adamantly denies that his name is Steve.

Lipsyte also toys with the idea of morality in containment, where crude actions are tolerated as long as they are performed somewhere else, and involve a small number of people the general populous does not know.

The obvious example of this is the perverse morality of the cult, a contained unit in an upstate area. However, eventually their masochistic ideals bleed into the rest of society and somehow become acceptable through advertising and television. Incidentally, Steve, before the discovery that he was terminally ill, was an advertising slogan writer. Coincidence? Lipsyte wouldn’t allow it.

All in all, The Subject Steve is a dense book, but not at all intolerable because of it. The underlying meanings and allegorical structures seem to lurk just below the surface and change shape whenever you get close to them. You can’t necessarily pin them down, much in the same way that Steve’s illness cannot be pinned down. The creation and limited questioning of paradoxes, along with the widespread near non-sequitor communication between characters can leave the reader feeling somewhat perplexed. This is a book that makes you alternately feel enlightened and left out. But, maybe that’s what Lipsyte had in mind.


Archived article by Thea Brown