A cottage industry of likability discourse manifests with regularity, and Jerks, Sara Lippmann’s new collection of stories, will no doubt inspire a certain level of curiosity with the subject. The characters are not nice, they are not kind, they are not good people; they are, as the title suggests, jerks. That isn’t to say this is a collection featuring exclusively unpleasant characters, but throughout the book there is a persistent theme of unpleasantness.
In 2013, Claire Messud, in discussing her novel The Woman Upstairs, raised the issue of likability as a criticism flung on women who display anger, and cites a series of despicable male characters who somehow avoid the critique. Lippmann’s characters are less angry than they are simply fallible. They are depressed, alienated, put upon by the world around them, and often these flaws are the result of their own choices. They are not people we would want to spend time with. However, even if they are unlikable, we know people who are like them, and perhaps their allure as characters is their reflection of us.
Lippmann succeeds in focusing on the harshness of the world around us. There is little distraction in the austere prose. Lippmann’s world is not beautiful. Instead, she depicts the mundane places where life occurs, setting the stories in living rooms and suburban yards and institutions in places like New Jersey. Despite the efficiency of the prose and the quick, short narratives, Lippmann constructs complexities with the characters. At times there is a sense that all or most of these characters are versions of the author, alternate mirror universe versions perhaps, the meaner, agitated version. But that feeling means the characters seem like real people. And the familiarity of this world is what is so fascinating. Or put another way, “Watching other people is a distraction. It takes me out of myself”, as the narrator of “No Time For Losers,” observes. The desire to scrutinize the lives of other people is why, despite their disagreeable nature, Jerks prods us to read on.
There are plenty of unlikable characters in this collection. In the title story, the characters prepare beef jerky to give away as holiday gifts. Their rationale: “it is better to give part of ourselves than it is to give cash,” but as the unnamed narrator says the words, even she doesn’t quite believe it. Brian is full of such aphorisms affirming his and the narrator’s choices – decisions we as the reader are likely intended to recognize as not very good ideas. But the narrator is, like us, here to peer into the lives of other people. She and Brian attend a party, mainly because the invitation offers them an opportunity “to see how other people live.” Lippmann understands the human inclination to want to examine and judge people. The unlikability of these characters is not a liability, but instead the reason we are drawn to observe them.
There are a few exceptions to the stark, naturalistic depictions of life in Lippmann’s stories. In “Runner’s Paradise,” the narrative strays from the absolute realism of the other stories. The narrator takes up running and equips herself with expensive running gear. She’s a bit disappointed when her “stomach bulges over the elastic waistband” despite the new clothing. Her husband, Adam, is a real jerk himself, commenting on her “expectations.”
The real deviation in tone happens on the running course when she finds herself in a Hieronymus Bosch painting. During her run, she stumbles into the garden of earthly delights, where other runners perform various sex acts on each other. Is it fantasy? Is the runner’s paradise where bored suburban people go to screw? Or is it just her husband? By placing this story alongside other naturalistic depictions of modernity, the line between whether it was a symbolic or literal orgy in the park remains blurred. In that gray area we find more conflict. If the narrator is breaking her marriage vows of fifteen years with strangers in the park, she’s behaving like a jerk. On the other hand, the orgy could be a metaphoric representation of the runner’s high. Either way, Lippmann has craftily slipped this story among less allegorical tales of suburban angst.
There are of course characters to empathize with. In the first story of the collection, “Wolf Or Deer,” a teen narrator at sleepaway camp who has “handjob lessons with the shaft of a curling iron,” garners sympathy. Her parents are undergoing a divorce while they’ve shipped her off to sports camp. The other campers are cruel to her, accusing her of having lice. And her heart is broken by a flirtatious counselor, whom she walks in on in bed with Raquel, a presumably age appropriate woman. Few individuals can claim surviving puberty without a broken heart, and we’re meant to feel bad on behalf of the teen narrator.
But that’s the thing about unlikable characters. The primary reason to read books, listen to music, experience plays, or stare at paintings is to share emotions. We consume art to feel. Great art abstracts emotions, condenses them in a way to allow us to experience them. What throws us off is when those emotions are not warm and cuddly, when we feel anger and anxiety. These are equally valid emotions for a story to catalyze. Our reaction to these unsettling feelings is to blame the characters as unlikable because we don’t enjoy spending time with them. We don’t enjoy feeling bad.
In Jerks, Sara Lippmann has crafted a very naturalistic depiction of middle-class, middle of suburbia, middle-aged life. There are things to dislike about the world she has written about, but those are the things we dislike about ourselves. You probably won’t love these characters, but you will see yourself in them, and in that reflection we can see the things about ourselves that are unlikable.
By Sara Lippmann
Mason Jar Press
Published March 22, 2022
Ian MacAllen is the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American, forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield in 2022. His writing has appeared in Chicago Review of Books, The Rumpus, The Offing, Electric Literature, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and elsewhere. He serves as the Deputy Editor of The Rumpus, holds an MA in English from Rutgers University, tweets @IanMacAllen and is online at IanMacAllen.com.