Cowardly, miserly, boring, territorial, deceitful, opportunistic: there aren’t enough shady adjectives in the dictionary to describe the narrator of Andrew Lipstein’s “Last Resort.” How funny! A great thing about well-drawn weasels in fiction is that you can always find a bit of yourself in them.
“Last Resort” is about a novelist who stole the plot of his best-selling novel from a story told to him by an acquaintance. Now, if you read last year’s “The Plot” by Jean Hanff Korelitz, you’ll notice that this novel has a similar plot to that one. Given the timelines for publication, surely the emergence of these – not identical, but let’s say sibling – stories a few months apart is pure coincidence. But there must be something in the air that led to the double serving of this Faustian varietal on the cheap.
Both novels are anti-Künstlernovel – books not on the formation of authentic artists but on the self-destruction of fake artists. They are both intellectual property thrillers. Korelitz’s book was tighter and darker. Lipstein’s is funnier. Both are incredibly entertaining.
Caleb is the Faust of “Last Resort,” an aspiring novelist in his twenties who doesn’t have a compelling subject until he reunites with a college pal named Avi, who recounts a series of remarkable recent events. – Greek island, doomed affair, group sex with repressed married couple, death – which Caleb appreciates as an antique dealer would study the marquetry of a Louis XVI secretaire. Soon, unscrupulously, Caleb expands Avi’s anecdote into a full novel with enough commercial viability to turn its unknown author into a flashy agent.
When this agent shops for the manuscript, Avi—who, much to Caleb’s chagrin, has changed careers and now works in publishing—discovers the betrayal. The two men meet under the eye of a lawyer, and reach an agreement: Avi’s name will be printed on the book, like its author, but all the money will go to Caleb. (Not being a literary agent, I was curious if that premise was realistic or crazy. I asked an agent with considerable experience. He replied that it was “a bit long but not off of this world”.)
Caleb’s novel turns out to be a success, although it is perhaps more accurate to describe what he wrote as “content” – a substance designed to be digested and excreted with minimal demands on the brain of the consumer. From the first meeting with his agent, Caleb thinks about marketing, not art: typefaces (Caslon, in particular – he’s pretty basic) and fringed edges and the Frankfurt Book Fair.
This is where the alarm bells are supposed to ring in the mind of the reader. Ah! we think: Caleb is not an artist, but a careerist! And the careerist must suffer humiliation and defeat; he must be unmasked as an impostor; he must be dumped by a worthy woman who mistakenly projected her sterling values onto him. Plus, he should probably be prosecuted.
Or – should he? If Lipstein had written a less cunning book, he could have pitted Caleb against a character who represented artistic purity, whatever that might be. But everyone here falls somewhere on the con-artist spectrum, including the real people (Avi, doomed wife, repressed married couple) that Caleb’s characters are based on.
Lipstein seems ambivalent, as he should be, about the trade-offs required of anyone who wants to make money selling words. It’s hard to innocently jump into a career as a professional writer. The pool of aspirants is too big and the amount of jobs too small, and of those jobs, only a teaspoon pays enough to pay for things like rent. But Lipstein does not imply that a person must be either heavenly lucky or satanically unscrupulous, or both, to “succeed”.
Caleb, on the other hand, is not an evil genius. An evil genius wouldn’t send self-incriminating text messages (first rule of being evil: don’t write anything down), or fail to change the names of the people he romances. What kind of doofus fails to cover his tracks so obviously? Well, exactly the type of doofus that Caleb is. His hackness as a writer mirrors his hackiness as a moral agent – or maybe it goes in the opposite direction. Caleb is delighted with his flaws, admitting that “I’m not one to dot my i’s or even completely dry my back after a shower.”
In addition to a happy streak, Caleb has a cruel streak, a mean-spirited streak, and an intemperate streak, and Lipstein deals comedy with those traits almost as well as Kingsley Amis did in “Lucky Jim.” Caleb observes that Avi looked “like James Dean if James Dean was a bit inbred”. A Nissan Altima has “the color of a wet dog”. The Muzak pumped through his coworking space consists of “Top 40 tracks seemingly drained of memorable choruses, bridges and hooks, played at a volume that could be described as enough.” Lipstein even turns out a Friends-level observation on the topic of drunkenness: “I was at the drunken stage when certain footsteps take you by surprise.”
It is somewhat obvious to locate the underlying anxieties of “last resort” – fraud, vanity – in the well-documented and rapidly growing reluctance of readers to give credibility to the media. Novelists are not “the media”. (Thank goodness.) But it is true that authors of almost every sort are engaged in a losing skirmish to retain their status, and that their authority is so diminished that we should probably find another name for them.
The coexistence of “The Plot” and “Last Resort” could be a random incident – the way “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact” both appeared in the summer of 1998 – or it could mark the advent of an entire genre. which allegorizes the professional writer’s suspicion that he might be a trickster. The main narrative distinction between the novels is not in whether the scheming writers are punished for their sins – they are, they are – but in how. For an author to steal someone’s story is unforgivable desecration. For the other, a minor offence.