Broken People follows a lonesome, queer character named Sam in his search for a total transformation of himself. Sam Lansky’s debut novel, a work of autofiction, opens at a dinner party in Los Angeles. Sam overhears guests discussing a shaman who can fix everything that’s wrong with a person in three days. The promise seduces Sam, who, amidst superficial strangers and empty conversation, alights on a disturbing revelation. “It would be better to be dead, he thought… He did not want to die, in a practical sense—the corporeal permanence of death terrified him—but rather, to already be dead, to skip the death process and coast into a static condition of un-being, was something he fantasized about often. Certainly that had to be more bearable than sustained consciousness.” Broken People, full of gorgeous meditations of quiet desperation like this, is a fever-dream account of whether any of us can change, whether our disappointments and discontents might forever disappear.
At 28, Sam experiences palpable loneliness and self-doubt, combined with the unease that modern life reflected “his own inadequacy…back to him.” As an entertainment editor for an unnamed magazine (ostensily Time), Sam feels the life he’s created for himself, or “had stumbled into…through sheer dumb luck,” was an illusion. He’s written a memoir about his addiction as an adolescent growing up in New York, which is ostensibly The Gilded Razor, the acclaimed coming-of-age story Lansky published in 2016. Sam has since recovered, and yet a hole lies at the center of his story. He looks in the mirror at a body he wants to be invisible, but try as he might, he can’t see himself as anything but diminished and undeserving of love.
Would this heap of anxieties, then, warrant seeking out a radical transformation of oneself? Lansky has no choice but to travel deeper into Sam’s mind, sustaining tension by offering prolonged scenes of his thoughts, thoughts Sam believes could be useful for a new memoir. Sam tells his agent it’s “about finding myself in my twenties.” Here, Broken People begins to assume an ouroboric complexity. The novel, which enacts a kind of navel-gazing, becomes a stunning work of self-witnessing. Says Sam, “I have this loud internal narrator who tells me that I’m a piece of shit, that I don’t deserve anything I have, that any day now the whole thing will come crashing down… I don’t know how to be a person.” Perhaps, then, Sam, or Lansky—it’s not clear—can be a character in his own story. The tantalizing risk that some distance between memoir and fiction, between confession and invention, will collapse is what keeps readers reading.
Many novels have taken place in fewer than three days—but surely fixing everything wrong with Sam in such a short time is impossible. Still, he and Buck, a fifty-something architect from the dinner party, enlist the help of a shaman named Jacob to perform “open-soul surgery” on them. Using large, Latinate words like “transdimensional intercession,” and channeling the new-age language of healing, Jacob explains how each night he’ll hold what he calls “ceremony” (no article). Sam and Buck will take ayahuasca to open themselves up to the medicine’s spirit, what Jacob refers to as “she” or “her.”
Sam’s cynicism of the process echoes in some way that of the reader. Lansky’s use of a trip to effect some deeper personal revelation is, while a bit flimsy, a strategy not to forget the body. A work that traces consciousness—brilliant recent examples by Garth Greenwell and Brandon Taylor come to mind—can, if done poorly, start to look like a disembodied head thinking on the page. Lansky places Sam’s body in grave physical danger, and he gets a preview of the terrifying effects the drug will have on him. Sam becomes aware of “a black mass in his belly, sore and tumescent, the color and texture of lava rock.” But the stakes are higher than whatever Sam needs to emit from his core. Jacob asks Sam and Buck not to die during ceremony. Lansky merges the florid, roving language of an unsettled mind with the churning, roaring, “twisting and gawping” sensations within Sam’s organs. This vivid interplay, disconnect, and tension offers readers a beautiful portrait of Sam the inconsolable initiate.
Lansky puts Sam on a path to be shown places within himself from which he’s long hidden. On each night of ceremony, Sam travels deeper into his past, revisiting memories of former lovers and flings, ever doubtful that he’ll be healed. He’s reunited with his 25-year-old self. As a rather hopeful man who, sober and newly recovered from a period of addiction, Sam sees the world with possibility. Dating in New York, Sam asks himself, “When will I be loved?” He gets a chance at an enchanting life with Charles, a dashing, well-dressed risk analyst whose family money and finance job offer Sam comfort, beauty, and freedom. They spend weekends in the Hamptons, vacations in Paris, and thousands at Louis Vuitton. But beyond the veneer, there’s so much, Sam doesn’t wish to remember. “I don’t know why all the little things feel like big things,” Sam tells Charles during a heated exchange. There are tantrums thrown, fits of paralysis threaten the writing of his first memoir, and Sam sees through Charles’ eyes the surprising “capacity for cruelty” he himself possessed. At the heart of Sam’s brokenness lies fear. Except it looks like lashing out to the ones who love him the most.
Throughout the novel, Lansky weaves the story of Sam’s relationship with Noah, a reckless but also hardened man who had a rougher history of addiction than Sam. While his character is less nuanced than Charles, Noah illuminates Sam’s desire for danger, prompting an important facet of the story Sam tells himself about who he is. In a final twist, Lansky delivers an exciting formal flourish while on his last trip. His narrator-self and character-self split in two, two Is that look at one another. It’s a bold aesthetic choice that Lansky pulls off with considerable style. This, as Edmund White says, is the great experience one has in reading fiction, the splitting of a self. Such a disorientation results in re-seeing what we’ve long resisted looking at.
“The great curse of being a person in the world—you only ever get to be yourself,” writes Lansky. Yet Broken People ends on a note of hope. For Sam’s shamanic experience doesn’t fix anything that’s wrong with him, for nothing was wrong—except his perspective. Sam doesn’t get to be different, but he can train himself to see differently. His troubled past wasn’t the problem so much as how he saw his memories, how those memories made him think himself broken. Lansky’s choice to turn the seemingly true events of his life into a work of fiction, through the rather harrowing aide-memoire of an out-of-body trip, creates the distance a work of self-examination requires. Into the space Sam makes for himself, he emerges more generous. His flaws form a fuller self, rather than the sapped one some carry from coast to coast.
Broken PeopleBy Sam Lanksy
Hanover Square Press
Paperback, 9781335013934, 304 pp.