Andrew Lipstein’s Last Resort is a debut novel about publishing a debut novel of the same name. One might think, then, that this novel will be a foray into the fractal world of ‘meta’ but the novel’s title is merely a reference to the title of the novel written by Lipstein’s narrator, Caleb.
Last Resort serves up a layered narrative relating to the processes and pitfalls of both writing a novel and publishing one, all surrounded by a cloud of legal accusations and unstable personal relationships. The latter encompass Caleb’s mutating relationship with Avi, a college friend, and, presented at times with an excess of detail that can slow the pulse of the narrative, Caleb’s morphing constellation of girlfriends.
As to relationships, the plot is twisty. Avi tells Caleb about a salacious event on a Greek island involving himself, a woman he was rooming with, and another couple. Both Avi and Caleb write fiction and Avi has begun a piece based on his island experience, sending the draft to Caleb for comment. After reading it, Caleb writes what eventually becomes his debut novel based on Avi’s tale. Avi learns of Caleb’s novel as it is being shopped to publishers by a high-powered agent, and plot points raising a number of provocative issues ensue.
On the legal front, there are several meetings among various combinations of characters: Avi (accusing Caleb of stealing his story), Caleb, Caleb’s agent, the novel’s publisher, and the publisher’s lawyer. These well-wrought scenes serve as narrative tentpoles, realistically portraying such meetings in terms of shifting power dynamics and the complicated evolution of arguments made and pressure points exploited. These scenes also display the delta between what the narrator is asserting and what he is thinking.
Caleb is, to put it mildly, a deeply introspective narrator. One welcomed consequence of his constant self-reflection is a granular focus on the processes of writing and publishing and their penumbra, the hyper-critical evaluation of a writer’s own work, the thrill of finding an agent and experiencing a bidding war among publishers, the anticipation of reading the reviews, and the deflation experienced upon actually reading them. It is interesting to note that Lipstein has produced an online interview series, Thick Skin, in which he speaks with authors about their handling of poor reviews.
Lipstein deftly uses the publication of a widely read but critical article reviewing Caleb’s novel to raise an interesting philosophical interpretation of novel-writing as a way to cheat mortality. The narrator states:
…there was consolation in the fact that the article had been written, that it would always exist. Thirty years from now, no matter if Last Resort was still in print or completely forgotten, it would be proof of what I’d done.
And yet, as the denouement approaches, the narrator wonders “what solace could be found in a picture, a book, press clippings?” and he questions why he had “spent all this time trying to get closer to…a life that [needed]to survive itself.”
The narrator’s extraordinarily rich inner life makes this novel tick but carries with it the risk of pacing his story too slowly between major plot points; there is much ruminating leading to quotidian busyness on the part of the narrator, which might enhance characterization but does not always move the narrative forward.
Lipstein’s treatment of the writing and publication of fiction is refracted through an ingenious lens. The legal wrangling results in the notions of authorial credit and authorial remuneration being split apart, the concept of ‘story’ is set against that of ‘novel’, and ‘character’ distinguished from ‘real person’. Such dichotomizing has dramatic effects, including both a book launch from hell at which Avi, the novel’s public-facing ‘author’, is to be interviewed about writing a novel he did not write, as well as efforts to incentivize the real persons depicted in the island tale to sue Avi for invasion of privacy.
Appropriation is having a moment in the literary world. There are other newly published novels about this topic, such as Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Plot (2021), and The New York Times Magazine recently published a non-fiction feature by Robert Kolker, “Who Is the Bad Art Friend“, about the same matter. It is a topic weighted with drama, both legal and personal, as is well-developed in Last Resort.
Although certain turns in the path nearing the novel’s ultimate resolution may strike readers as at times unrealistic (until the reveal of a final, clarifying plot twist), Lipstein presents a richly drawn and clever tale. He is adept at weaving timelines, framing with finesse scenes involving multiple flashbacks. Lipstein is a confident writer, presenting a complex and often funny story involving a panoply of characters under pressure, both social and legal.
Instructors of creative writing often emphasize to budding writers the importance of asking ‘why is this character under pressure – what’s at stake here?’’ Lipstein has no trouble answering that question.