Title: The Ask
Author: Sam Lipsyte
Publisher: Picador USA
PP: 304 Pages
The Ask is a weird novel to find yourself really enjoying–it’s like getting punched in the face and laughing about it. It’s hilarious and dead serious at the same time; on one page you laugh out loud, only to be soberly put in your place on the next by the pitiless resentment and biting cynicism that plagues Milo, Lipsyte’s hapless protagonist, who gets fired from his job at the development office of a Manhattan university after mouthing off to an overly entitled student. Then there’s all the other failure in Milo’s life–the failure to be a successful painter, son, husband, and father–and the added burden when his college friend Purdy (the picture of wealth and success) comes out of the past with a particularly awkward proposition for him.
An early review at the Quarterly Conversation has called The Ask “another unrelenting tour de force of black bile…there is no cushy fictional distance between the world [Lipsyte:] describes and the world he inhabits.” But even though The Ask ends on the most unnerving note possible–and regardless of whether or not you’re repelled by Milo’s view that “stories were like people…we pretended they all counted, but almost none of them did,” you at least realize (as Milo does) the guilt-inducing fact that there are always people worse off than you, that no matter how low you think you’ve gone, there are things to feel lucky for. “Everybody wanted to get home,” Milo reminisces after he hits rock bottom at his childhood home in New Jersey, where his lesbian mother lives with her longtime lover. “Home could be a ruined place, joyless, heaped with the ashes of scorched hearts, but come evening everybody hustled to get there.” A concrete sense of home is what Milo apparently seeks the most, but ultimately he wants a life free of illusions about what “home” really means.
What really won me over in The Ask was not only the razor-sharp writing–phrases like “sexagenarian whippersnappers” and “greeting card ontology” are abundant–but Lipsyte’s equally razor-sharp observations about the absurd truths of American life: of the spoiled, uber-connected kids at the university (“they were happy, or seemed happy, or maybe they were blogging about how they seemed happy”); the purgatorial middle class existence he is destined never to leave (“We still did not own the devices that let you skip the commercials. Would we always be part of the slow television movement?”); the satirical, misguided manifestos of child daycare centers; and the sobering realities embodied by war veterans. The Ask avoids tempering the bitterness that comes with all this; instead, it stews in it, even embraces it. It’s sort of exhilarating to finish the book seeing Milo “digging in for the long night of here.”If he gains anything, it will be peace…maybe