June 4, 2012

Sci-Fi Issue: "The Republic of Empathy"

By Sam Lipsyte
~5000 words

Interrelated stuff happens, from six different points of view.

Poor William. His wife wants to have another kid, but he’s just getting used to the first one. While he moans about his plight to his artist pal Gregory, the two of them witness a brawl on a city rooftop. A man falls to his death. Then it’s Rip Van Winkle time: Gregory wakes up in the middle of the next night, only to discover he’s in a different era (and maybe a different world). Damned if he doesn’t already have a second kid, and there’s a third bun in the oven. William wanders through his now unfamiliar home, stepping out onto the moonlit front lawn. Little does he know, but a drone fighter is bearing down on him in the night sky, missiles loaded.

That summary leaves out a few tidbits. Like the story of Danny, the embittered child of a sexually frisky (but somehow neutered) homicide detective. And don’t forget Leon and Fresko, the two janitors who roughhouse on the roof of the building they clean, play-fighting until one of them is accidentally winged off the edge. And there’s Zach, the gazillionaire who wonders about authenticity, and wants to hire a hack named Gregory (remember him from the first paragraph?) to paint in the style of a famous artist. And we shouldn’t forget Reaper 5, the chatty drone aircraft preparing to fire on William.

Lipsyte’s tale starts simply:
My wife wanted another baby. But I thought Philip was enough. A toddler is a lot. I couldn’t picture us going through the whole ordeal again. We’d just gotten our lives back. We needed time to snuggle with them, plan their futures.
Soon the tender tone slips, and we find ourselves edging into sarcasm and sass. The world turns increasingly unreal, and the narrative wheels through six vignettes loosely connected by the rooftop murder and a universal anxiety about authenticity. Each story is too short for the characters to evolve very much—although that doesn’t really matter, since all the characters are basically the same, at least in terms of attitude. Each is endowed with snappy dialogue that might have boiled over from Dashiell Hammett. True, it seems a bit arch at times, but it’s also aware of its own archness—a feature that will irritate some and entertain others.

The surprising thing about “The Republic of Empathy” is that it more or less works. Each vignette builds on some aspect of the others, and gradually something akin to a story emerges. The murder isn’t a real murder, but rather a pretend murder gone wrong. The artist refuses to produce knock-offs for the gazillionaire, preferring to paint works that stand in for the “original” work of pretend artists in films and TV shows. Even the tone is complicit with unreality: after all, what is sarcasm if not the copy of something authentic, pronounced with a hint of inauthenticity (though I’m sure you already picked up on that, didn’t you)?

Not a moving piece, but a fiendishly clever one.


Reader poll: I found "The Republic of Empathy" to be ___.

Also from the sci-fi issue: "Monstro," "Black Box," "My Internet."

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