Collection of short stories translates as contrived

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Sex, drugs and a guitar or two abound in “The Fun Parts,” Sam Lipsyte’s most recent collection of character-focused vignettes. From coke addicts to a Dungeons and Dragons aficionado, all of his characters have something in common: an almost masochistic flirtation with misfortune. Unfortunately for Lipsyte, what results is a hit-and-miss read with a few real gems and far too many forced laughs.

“The Fun Parts” tries really hard. Too hard, actually. Lipsyte is a seasoned and highly praised author, but “The Fun Parts” seems like a sophomoric effort riding on the back of a lucky first success. While there are some truly meaningful lines — even chapters, such as a story about the daughter of a Holocaust survivor — many more are contrived, trying and failing to be poignant. At one point, a character says, “I sound like the narrator of a mediocre young adult novel from the eighties,” which is, ironically, true of many of the less self-aware narrators.

Further tainting the narrative is Lipsyte’s stilted, forced dialogue, some of which sounds more like a caricature of a bad ’80s sitcom than actual spoken words. In one story, a character overuses the word “totes” — to the protagonist’s cartoonish confusion — in order to drive home his already apparent douchebaggery, an out-of-touch joke that simply falls flat. In quite a few others, Lipsyte drops a wide variety of slang for cocaine, as if the junkie jargon — rather than the scenes of tourniquets, needles and crack spoons — will convince us that the characters really are addicts.

Even outside of the dialogue, most of the characters aren’t exactly likeable — but, to be fair, that’s sort of the point. The constant inability (and unwillingness) of the characters to succeed is supposed to be funny, except Lipsyte doesn’t quite pull it off consistently. The “totes” guy, for example, was supposed to be a date gone horribly wrong, but the situation was too ridiculous and worth only a meager, pity-driven chuckle. However, there are also some fantastically developed characters with some funny quips, and Lipsyte’s characterization manages to shine (rather dimly) despite his poor execution elsewhere.

The structure of “The Fun Parts” is its saving grace in this regard. Each character’s story is only a chapter long — which cuts down the time readers have to spend with the more insufferable ones — and although they’re completely separate from each other, they’re all related in theme or mood. It’s here that Lipsyte gets it right, emphasizing a general topic or emotion in the stories rather than interpersonal relationships. This, too, is what makes the book somewhat successful as a whole, because individual characters can be ignored for the broader picture — and that broader picture is actually worth seeing.

The best part about “The Fun Parts” is, without a doubt, that it’s thought-provoking. Some of those thoughts might be negative (“Why is this idiot saying ‘totes’ over and over?”), but there are quite a few interesting things to focus on too. Characters deal with drugs and childhood issues, identity crises and death, but the fascinating thing is that none of them deal with their issues well. It’s a bit of a trainwreck, but you can’t take your eyes off of it. If you can deal with the bad parts, you should pick up “The Fun Parts.”

Still, if you’re planning to read Lipsyte, “The Fun Parts” probably isn’t the best place to start. The writing is somewhat amateur, the humor is spotty and the characters can be overly irritating. It’s about as “meh” as any forgettable work would be, except it’s not quite forgettable.

A great read? No. Interesting? Totes.

Contact Kallie Plagge at [email protected].