(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)
In his own words, Milo Burke, the quasi-anti-hero of Sam Lipsyte’s novel, The Ask, is “A man with many privileges and zero skills.” An impotent and spineless everyman, Milo is reflected time and again in the characters he encounters throughout The Ask, widening his despair and our own. Over the course of the novel we see Milo as a struggling artist, a member of the legion of the unemployed and an unenthused middling career-man. Watching Milo drift from station to station is one of the books real joys. It allows us to see him as a one-man cross-section of our culture.
Anyone who has seen a studio feature film in the last decade will doubtless recognize the story arc that carries them through The Ask. It is virtually text-book. This is not a detraction, however. Rather, it is a testament to Lipsyte’s skill that while navigating familiar narrative territory, the reader never feels the sense of anything old or worn out. The common structure of the book feels like a favorite sweater. While reading The Ask, one begins to question not so much what will happen to Milo, but how deftly Lipsyte will unfold his predictable world and how wonderfully will he describe it. And he is wonderful at describing things.
Lipsyte’s true skill is in his use of language. Every object in the author’s world shimmers with novel description shifting constantly between the literal and the metaphoric. From the opening chapter he co-opts aspects of our vernacular, redefining words such as “Ask,” and “Give,” and “Me.” This device is crisp and clever and pulls the reader easily into Lipsyte’s new foreign world. In doing this he also redefines notions of charity and philanthropy, coloring them heavily with aspects of greed and desperation and hunger. No one truly believes that there is such a thing as selfless giving in the world any more, but Lipsyte shows this to be true unequivocally. However, in places The Ask is overwritten, full of too much verbiage, too cleverly arranged. Lipsyte’s descriptives are not flowery, just full. At times this works brilliantly and to a hilarious end, at other times it weighs too heavily on the characters and their situations and disrupts the flow of the read.
At the center of the book there is a moment of curious, jarring violence. One made doubly jarring because the ambiance of the work up to this point is one of such stilted impotence. The scene is cast in a pronounced relief, but the most pronounced aspect of it is that amid the whirlwind of activity, the fear and the tension, Milo remains as placid and unmoving as he is throughout the rest of the story. The contrast of this moment to the relative calm in the pages that surround it, betrays the stillness of not just the ineffectual Milo, but the entire host of characters. It is as though, in Lipsyte’s world, his main character’s fault has infected everything. The Ask is riddled with examples of this; the coffee shop haunted by the homeless and unemployed who all seem caught between their fantasies and their lives; Milo’s unfathomably rich college buddy; the co-worker who lives in a cage in Bushwick; a double amputee Iraq War vet. While none of them are as hopeless as Milo, they are all locked in the same vague stasis which the moment of violence right at the heart of The Ask illuminates impeccably.
The Ask is a deeply thoughtful, observant work. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is Lipsyte’s take on the artist (Milo was a brilliant painter back at school). It’s an old thought that for a true artist, the craft itself should be enough of a reward and not the remunerations. But Lipsyte goes a step further with the thesis. In The Ask, artistic skill is more a responsibility than it is a gift. It is something bestowed, but is also something that can be easily taken away. Not only is success a far off dream, nearly impossible to attain, but even the ability to produce art is something that artist must battle for, tooth and nail. The world Lispyte builds around Milo is a minefield constantly working against him and his art. It is so much easier, Milo discovers, to not produce. To not employ your talents. It is easier to just build wooden decks and run errands.
Ineffective and bordering on pointless, Milo is the quintessential man in Lipsyte’s world. He acts very little as an agent in his own life and at almost every turn, he invariably fails and makes his situation more dire and more desperate. But for all its grimness, The Ask is a hilarious work, startling and surprising. It has never been more fun to watch a man slowly drown