Is he a daring visionary? A shameless fraud? Are his teachings deceptively profound? Or is he just the marketable face of a fact-averse personality cult?
Questions like these follow Hark Morner, a 30-ish New Yorker, everywhere he goes. The title character of Sam Lipsyte’s new book, he’s a mindfulness guru whose ideas are daffy and increasingly popular. “Hark,” Lipsyte’s first novel since 2010’s superb “The Ask,” is a droll, humane satire that circles several big themes.
Hark teaches “mental archery,” an idiosyncratic blend of meditation and low-impact exercise. In brief, you strike a bow hunter’s stance, picture an arrow finding its target. This, in the suggestive lingo spoken by Harkists, is Shaft Impact Visualization. The archery poses have extravagant names such as Arc of Totality, but there’s no equipment involved.
According to Hark, his regimen boosts intellectual clarity. His program isn’t backed by scientific studies — but neither has anyone demonstrated that it doesn’t work. His grandiose aphorisms are spread by ardent proselytizers.
Hark’s top devotee is Fraz Penzig, an ex-teacher. Fraz’s job was eliminated in budget cuts, and in his subsequent search for meaning, he alighted on “radiant, inscrutable” Hark. Confident that mental archery will restore his “original wholeness,” Fraz happily serves as Hark’s unpaid chauffeur, ferrying him to lucrative speaking engagements at corporate campuses.
Fraz’s wife, Tovah, is duly puzzled by his ardor for Hark. But with screen-addicted twins and a demanding career, she has no time to coddle him. Her boss is an egomaniacal internet mogul, and lately, he’s talked of capitalizing on Hark’s appeal. Harkism, it seems, is headed for upheaval.
Although its plot gets a little shaggy — there are betrayals, crimes, geopolitical chaos — “Hark” is a tartly effective sendup of 21st-century America. Mining comedy and pathos from economic inequality, shifting social mores and basic human yearnings, Lipsyte ably skewers our fads and phony gods. His sharpest observations focus on language itself, like the Silicon Valley-birthed babble that melds mindfulness and corporate-speak. When an internet CEO seeks Hark’s help in creating “a vibrant life poem with which to propel ourselves into a succession of profitable quarters,” you’re reminded that tech tycoons aren’t our friends.
Some of the book’s slyest bits focus on political correctness and our heightened sensitivities, such as the idea that we should judge all of history by the moral code of the 2010s. In a museum, Hark spots a dead artist’s painting. An accompanying label says, “We should enjoy (his) work but not forget that he was distant with his family in later years and once considered having an affair with a neighbor.”
Meanwhile, Lipsyte crafts an arresting portrait of a charlatan and his hopeful but misguided public. “Every age gets the savior it deserves,” Fraz says. It’s a frightening notion — and as depicted in “Hark,” it’s an awfully funny one, too.
Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City.
By: Sam Lipsyte.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 284 pages, $27.