In a Barbara Smaller cartoon, first published in The New Yorker in 1999, two media executives sit across from each other. They look to be in the sort of conversation that might determine the direction of new programming or an ad campaign. One executive says to the other, “It’s been done, but I don’t think it’s been redone.” The cartoon is commenting on originality—or lack thereof—the laziness, perhaps, of doing the same things over and over. Failing to come up with one’s own ideas and relying on what’s already there. In our current media landscape, especially that of film and television, existing IP reigns supreme with the reboot following close behind. If originality is present, it is in the form of a “new spin” or “fresh take” on old content—the reshaping and updating of a premise that itself has been reshaped, updated. It’s easy to deride this approach, but maybe it’s all we have, a form of artistic evolution. We have to start somewhere. After all, John Gardner told us “there are only two kinds of stories…”
I kept thinking about the Smaller cartoon as I read Andrew Lipstein’s debut novel, Last Resort. The novel, like the cartoon, is asking us to look much deeper than lines of text. The premise of Last Resort centers on one writer co-opting the idea of another writer. Taking the germ of a story and making it one’s own—taking it further than the original conception was ever going to go. Both the novel and the Smaller cartoon are asking questions in the subtext: questions about originality, yes; but also questions of creative ownership, authenticity, intellectual property, and just how much are we willing to give up to chase after what we want (or what we think we want). The novel is asking the reader to reckon with their own notion of what an idea is worth, and maybe where does one person’s art stop and another’s begin. Lipstein is shrewd enough to examine these questions with the right touch of irony so that Last Resort never feels didactic or too satirical. Instead, the book and its ideas serve as provocative conversation starters.
Last Resort is broken into three parts, and part one introduces the novel’s main character and narrator, Caleb, as he decides to pursue writing, leaves his job in advertising and moves to Florida. He’s looking for someplace cheap and unknown where he can live off his savings and spend his days writing. No longer will corporate behemoths get his best time and his best words. Writing lets Caleb “feel free. It let me be honest in a way I couldn’t otherwise. It brought me closer to myself.” This is a noble pursuit: attempting to find oneself through creative expression rather than through high wages in the service of capitalist conglomerates. But it’s not working. His words, even his best words, are hollow, and his manuscript is rejected by every agent he sends it to. Caleb determines the problem is that he doesn’t have enough to say, that he doesn’t have enough experience. So he leaves Florida, leaves the girl he’s in love with and hits the road. All life is just material for us to fashion into whatever art form we choose.
Caleb ends up crashing with Avi, an acquaintance from college. There is an immediate underlying tension between the two. Both feign affability, but each wants to be just a bit of who the other is. They spend their evening together drinking and swapping sob stories: Caleb tells Avi about Florida and his struggles writing, and Avi tells Caleb a sophomoric tale about his trip to a Greek island that involved a whirlwind infatuation with a woman and a foursome with a married couple.
Everything is fiction. Avi the person is a captivating storyteller; Avi the writer, not so much. As Caleb continues his trip, he reads a draft of the Greek tryst that Avi has been trying to render as a short story, “His story was bad, yes, but why exactly?” It’s as if Caleb thinks I could do this better and here’s how. From there, he takes Avi’s bad short story, rewrites it, and passes it off as his own novel. A novel that a prominent literary agent wants to represent and that will eventually induce a bidding war between several publishing houses. When Avi finds out, he wants a piece—he wants to come to some agreement. He understands it’s not his novel, but it is his original idea.The agreement is this: Caleb receives the value of the book: any money stemming from sales, film rights, etc; and Avi gets the recognition, gets his name on the dust jacket, the author’s photo, the creative clout. Once the decision is made and the agreements are signed, everything turns to shit, at least for Caleb.
The first third of Last Resort is the most thought provoking—perhaps the most interesting—on an ethical and intellectual level. It asks the hypothetical authorial audience what they would do in this situation—it’s a thought experiment in many ways. Part of that is to ask why you’re doing something, why you’re creating something: is it for money, is it for fame, is for recognition, is it because you have to.
The middle part finds Caleb trying to reckon with his choices—what he now has, and who he has now become. The money, nearly one million dollars, has turned him into a financially stable—if creatively stuck Brooklyn socialite. The kind that has quasi-salons, and dinner parties with interesting people, who “still takes the subway as a matter of principle.” But he’s also uncomfortable in his new skin; he’s lost something: his sense of self, his name, the chance at a literary reputation. This realization leads to a sense of revenge, self-sabotage, and self-reclamation—a willingness to burn it all down.
There is a telling moment, an inciting metaphor in this reclamation process, when Caleb accompanies his girlfriend’s father to The Rockaways to see the first building project on which he had been the lead. “We pushed Emmitt over and helped him stand as he put his hands on the brick. [W]hen I looked at his face I saw that he was, in no small way, thrilled.” His health is failing, but seeing and touching a thing he had made still brings him joy. Before leaving, Caleb helps him look for a cornerstone with the building firm’s name. There isn’t one, but that doesn’t seem to matter, “It wasn’t so important that the world knew who built it, just that he could claim it as his own.” This is something Caleb doesn’t have, something he wants maybe more than anything else.
Another moment in the last third, doesn’t come off as well—when Caleb goes to meet the real-life woman from Avi’s Greek affair. It feels contrived. She’s in New York, not hard to find, and she’s not much of a character. When they do meet, there’s a forced conversation, and an even more forced kiss and spark of attraction. It’s a bit too “deus ex machina,” to resolve a problem and to get Caleb where Lipstein wants him to go, which is to have him repeat past mistakes and start from scratch. The characters in Last Resort might be a little underdeveloped, but, really, we’re interested in Caleb and he’s as unreliable a narrator as there is—and that unreliability allows us to dig into the creative/ethical/intellectual questions we have. Caleb is also more fun for his unreliability: we oscillate between admiration and dislike; understanding and revulsion. Regardless, Caleb is always driven by what he wants, and he never wavers in this and this makes him interesting. We may not like his decisions, we may not have done the same things, but it’s a testament to Lipstein that we don’t doubt that this character, Caleb, would do exactly what he’s done. Caleb, as the (anti)hero of his own rehashed story will imbue it with his own touches.
Last Resort gives us a reflection on the messiness of life and art—how their respective messes and meaning making are one in the same. We steal from each other every day. That’s what inspiration is: creative theft. I’m being reductive, yes. But, isn’t our task, as makers of things, to take in all that we see (the details, the minutiae) and translate it into something that is ours, that we can understand? To think beyond, to question, whatever current decadence exists in our ever-changing cultural situation. Something that carries our voice, our vision, our “originality”—to hell with who thought of it first.
by Andrew Lipstein
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published January 18th, 2022
Brock Kingsley is a writer and educator living in Fort Worth, Texas. His work has appeared in publications such as Brooklyn Rail, Paste Magazine, Tahoma Literary Review, Waxwing, and elsewhere.