“Hark” is split into halves, the first of which is extremely funny. In a few swift pages we learn that Hark started as a stooge on the corporate speaker’s circuit, hired to bore audiences with meaningless aphorisms (“You are the arrow! But you are also what it pierces”) until an executive ringer would eject him from the stage to heroic applause. “Hark wasn’t the only person who worked this niche. A guy named Cornelius the Corporate Impostor had the gig before Hark. Big Lev from Biz Dev had sewn up Silicon Valley. But they were too broad. Nobody bought their acts after a line or two. Hark twitched with the plausible.”
[Read: Sam Lipsyte on the role of sex scenes in fiction.]
In the midst of these gigs, Hark has his revelation. It’s a recurring joke that no one can explain mental archery beyond its “focus on focus,” but pamphlets are written, yoga poses created (“Priapic Centaur, Roaring Rama, Encircling Sioux”), and a core of acolytes gather. There’s the heiress Kate Rumpler and Teal, Kate’s anticapitalist, ex-convict ex-girlfriend. (Kate: “You did do time for embezzlement.” Teal: “That company was building fascism in America. And its shipping policies were absurd.”) Kate funds Hark with her inheritance. Teal runs Hark Hub, home of the latest Hark videos and social threads. Fraz fancies himself the movement’s Steve Bannon, while the others regard him as its Michael Cohen. All are mired in ironic detachment from their misery and attracted to Hark’s simple message. But they’re unsure if his odd speech and mannerisms are signs of sanctity or just weirdness. “Maybe Fraz is too impure to know the difference.”
Having dropped Hark at the edge of a Tony Robbins-like breakthrough in Part 1, the story unravels some in Part 2 — for Hark and for “Hark.” Lipsyte crowds the plot with a stalker/Svengali, an organ-donation kidnapping thingumajig, and an Elon Musk-y villain, complete with surgically dyed irises, who exists mostly as a reason for Lipsyte to groove on big tech. He also shoves his skeptical Greek chorus aggressively toward belief, leading to lines like this from Fraz to Kate: “There’s something a little too uncomplicated in Hark for people like us. Thing is, we’ve got to change, not him.”
That’s a honker of a passage, though it serves Lipsyte’s point — that modern life is so grim, people will bend far below the limbo bar of logic in search of some peace. Even the author can’t make up his mind about Hark and mental archery. “Fraz does believe,” he writes, only to double back a few sentences later and suggest that he doesn’t.
But the battle between Hark and Fraz is never a fair fight. Regardless of the deficiencies Lipsyte piles onto them, Fraz, Kate, Teal and others are fully formed characters. We know Fraz’s inner life, see moments of tenderness with his kids, and even get the occasional glimpse of his appeal. Calling back to Fraz’s courtship with Tovah, Lipsyte writes: “He told her to consider him a downed wire: unpredictable, potentially lethal. Tovah thought him more a lost shoelace, but adorable.”