The Ask, by Sam Lipsyte

Purchased at Chapters.ca

Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask was carrying a fairly heavy load of expectational baggage by the time I finally opened the front cover. I had originally purchased it, intrigued by the knowledge that the central character was a development officer (hence, “the ask”) at a not-very-good (read, third-rank) New York City university. I’ve known more than a few fund-raisers in my time, but had never mentally cast one of them as the central character in a novel — so the idea sparked more than idle curiosity. But it was a piece in the New York Times (link is here) that really upped the stakes.

In that story, A.O. Scott argues that the novel marks the arrival of Generation X at its “mid-life crisis”. For those of us born on the front edge of the Baby Boom, the idea that GenX is now into mid-life crisis (we thought we still owned that turf) is a painful, but instant, aging experience. Another essay in a literary review (sorry, I forget where — it was just an aside), proclaimed the book post-modern (not my favorite style) but spiced that with the idea that Lipsyte was portraying a world of “late capitalism”, while acknowledging that the author did not make it clear whether capitalism was in its mature stages or was already deceased.

Lipsyte wastes no time in putting all those themes/threats on the agenda. The book opens with observations from his central character, Milo Burke:

America, said Horace, the office temp, was a run-down and demented pimp. Our republic’s whoremaster days were through. Whither that frost-nerved, diamond-fanged hustler who’d stormed Normandy, dick-smacked the Soviets, turned out such firm emerging market flesh? Now our nation slumped in the corner of the pool hall, some gummy coot with a pint of Mad Dog and soggy yellow eyes, just another mark for the juvenile wolves.

“We’re the bitches of the First World,” said Horace, his own eyes braziers of delight.

We all loved Horace, his clownish pronouncements. He was a white kid from Armonk who had learned to speak and feel from a half-dozen VHS tapes in his father’s garage. Besides, here at our desks with our turkey wraps, I did not disagree.

That episode takes place in the development office of what Milo calls the Mediocre University at New York City. We meet some of his co-workers in the arts division (obviously, the hardest discipline in which to generate “asks” — moneyed people want to offer support to science, health or business not wasteful fields like classics, art and literature). In addition to Horace (Whore-Ass), there is Vargina (a sympathetic nurse inserted the “r” after her mother proclaimed her name at birth), Dean Cooley (not a dean but chief development officer, known as War Crimes because of his background in the Marines) and some others. Some aspects of post-modernism are tedious, I must say, but I’m learning to live with them.

It will turn out to be Milo’s last day of full-time work there. He’s not very good at raising funds anyway (tends to drink too much at crucial lunches) but seals his fate when the student daughter of a signifcant benefactor “forced my hand”:

What I said to McKenzie, there is no point repeating. It’s enough to report my words contained nothing an arrogant, talentless, daddy-damaged waif wants to hear about herself. When I was finished she did not speak. A thickish vein in her pale head fluttered. The blue thing seemed to veer and switch direction. Then she took a few steps back and, still staring at me, phoned her damager. What was done to me was done in hours. My outburst was deemed hate speech, which called for immediate dismissal. I could hardly argue with them. I think it probably was hate speech. I really fucking hated that girl.

Milo is now out on the street, but only for a couple of weeks. He is brought back for a very specific project, at the specific request of the potential donor. As Dean Cooley puts it: “We must fasten our lips to the spigot and suck, so to speak. Which is where you come in, Mr. Burke.” “The ask” is an old school-mate who has sold his high-tech company for hundreds of millions and is now getting into philanthropy. He in fact wants Milo involved to deliver on a far more personal project — covering up a problem from his student past which is inconvenient right now — but is willing to part with a few tens of millions in a donation to Mediocre U to make sure that more pressing personal job gets done. In the course of pursuing that, Milo will run into Don, a legless vet from the war in Iraq (he calls his hi-tech metal protheses “my girls”), who opens up a whole new world for author Lipsyte to train his satire on.

It is not a stretch to see that Lipsyte has now sown the seeds for both his Gen-X mid-life crisis (nothing every came easy for this group) and musing about “late capitalism”:

“We were stuck between meanings. Or we were the last dribbles of something. The fall of the Soviet Union, this was, the death of analog. The beginning of aggressively marketed nachos.”

Note the contrast between the global and locally consumerist absurd in that quote. It is at the centre of Milo’s critique and the technique does supply the novel with some of its better moments.

There is an off-setting, more human story — Milo’s marriage and his intense love for his son, Bernie. The marriage is not going too well as wife Maura is quite a bit more successful at her work than Milo is at his, although the job does consume all her time. Things are also not going that well for four-year-old Bernie in his non-home life. His pre-school, the Happy Salamanders, keeps closing for a couple of days while the ideological staff head off to Vermont for pedagogical retreats — his day minder also frequently leaves her young charges abandoned on a concrete pad where they explore each other’s body parts while she goes about other questionable business. (Her housemate has an idea for a reality tv show that is worth the price of the book in itself — no reveal until someone asks in the comments, however.)

All this is more fodder for Lipsyte’s observational skills and he does not hesitate to exploit them. Like many books that get labelled post-modern, the beauty is in the detail, not the big picture. The Ask is a much better book than any plot summary will make it seem, but it is hard to provide concise examples to prove that point.

So let me offer a couple of comparisons to books that came to mind more than once while I was reading this one. One is Man Gone Down by Michael Thomas, a book I abandoned three-quarters of the way through but which did win the 2009 IMPAC award. If you check the comments under my review, you will find some passionate arguments for the book from people who know post-modernism far better than I do. Where I found similarities in the two novels was in the central character since both are mature men who, through a combination of their own failings and the environment in which they live, are playing out a bad hand.

The other comparison would be Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin, winner of the 2009 National Book Award and a novel that landed with me much more conclusively positive than Thomas’. While McCann’s and Lipsyte’s books are set some decades apart, they both explore what I would call the “class complexity” of Manhattan — drug addicts and the homeless on one end, “philanthropists” worth hundreds of millions at the other. Fans of Martin Amis, might well like to add Money into that mix.

The Ask does have its shortcomings and I am not sure it ranks with those other books — only some distance from reading it will answer that question, although 10 days after finishing it I am thinking that it does. I am not a GenXer so parts of it probably did not resound as well with me as they would with someone a couple of decades younger. Even for this Baby Boomer, however, it was a fast-paced, well-written journey into Milo’s rather strange world.

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7 Responses to “The Ask, by Sam Lipsyte”

  1. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I left this quote from The Ask on John Self’s The Asylum the other day, as part of a discussion regarding what I feel is Yann Martel’s offensive treatment of the Holocaust in Beatrice & Virgil ( a dreadful book that will not be reviewed here). I could not figure out a way to get it into my review and since author Linda Grant (whose work I admire very much) said it was a great quote, I thought I would abuse my own blog and make the first comment on The Ask:

    Would Cooley mention the Teitelbaum ask had once been mine? I’d screwed that one up good at a lunch, made the mistake, in listing the kinds of exhibits that might be mounted in a proposed gallery space, of mentioning the work of a Polish artist who built a model of Treblinka with Tinker Toys. The camp guards were freeze-dried ants. Teitelbaum, a Holocaust orphan, was not amused.

    “What did he make the Jews out of?” the old man snarled over his salade Nicoise.

    “Vintage coins from the Weimar Reublic,” I mumbled.

    “Money? He made them out of money?”

    “It was a point about historical perception. The artist is Jewish himself.”

    But Teitelbaum, who’d made a fortune in optics, was not so intrigued by this notion of perception.

    Lipsyte might not link all the set pieces, but he certainly has some wonderful ones.

  2. Tom C Says:

    You have written an engaging review of a book which seems to have a wide range of themes to pull out. As a baby-boomer, I also like to read widely beyond my generation – this one seems to be quite a complex read but it sounds as though you thought it was worth the effort

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom: Definitely worth the effort for me. Lipsyte moves things along so quickly that even when you are in a not-very-good part you know it won’t last for long. He also has a wonderful sense for obscure humor as I hope the quotes illustrate.

  4. Kerry Says:

    Great review, Kevin. This looks like one I will have to keep in mind. I am a Gen-Xer, so I will be interested to see how/if our different generational perspectives shade my view.

    I do like Lipsyte’s humor. At least, I like as much of it as I can see in your review.

    As for the list of books that include characters from all walks of Manhattan life, Lethem’s Chronic City is another. It was not my favorite of his work (and I am still working up to Fortress of Solitude), but I did enjoy it. In fact, I think I am talking myself into reading The Ask sooner rather than later.

    Good review, Kevin. I was going to avoid it, now I will read it.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: Mrs. KfC started it about an hour ago — she’s much more selective about fiction than I am (and also knows the fund-raising world very well). She just observed “this book’s hilarious” , which is probably a better recommendation than my review.

    I’m pretty sure my next New York book is going to be The Tenants of Moonbloom — I have Fortress of Solitude on hand as well but, like you, I seem to be thinking that it is a book that needs to be “worked up to”.

  6. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Hm. Not sure about the quotes on this one. They seemed to be trying very hard. Douglas Coupland is harder to imitate than he looks.

    As an aside, I hate the descriptor late capitalism. We have no idea if our capitalism is late, we aren’t dead yet. For all we know capitalism could be around in various forms another ten thousand years and ours could be later described as early stage capitalism. By definition, we don’t know. I’ve seen it a few times and I think it’s sloppy thinking.

    The problem is that the dialogue sounds like dialogue, it doesn’t sound like conversation. That isn’t necessarily problematic, lots of great books have stylised dialogue, but I did feel the quotes were rather telling me what to think.

    Have you read much Coupland Kevin? I’ve only read a couple and this did remind me of him, but with perhaps less wit. Any thoughts?

    I suppose I’m Gen X, I hadn’t really thought about it before. That said, I’m not terribly persuaded the generation exists, it’s a good novel but I’m not sure it’s good demographics.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: The writing is better than the quotes would indicate. One of the problems of using a first person narrator (part of whose charm is his incompleteness) is that the “voice” succeeds by building him as a character (which Lipsyte did for me) rather than easily quotable observations. And of course part of what is most intriguing about Milo is his total incompetence at dealing with some pretty ordinary challenges.

    I should have made it clear that Lipsyte does not use the label “late capitalism” — rather that came from the critic in whatever literary publication it was where I read the discussion of the book. I agree that the label doesn’t make much (if any) sense. Having said that, there is an economic factor that is a major driver in the book which indicates that modern capitalism is different — the “ask” is a youngish tech success, not a Carnegie or Rockefeller. One of the things that I liked about the book is that Lipsyte does capture the way the world is moving more quickly than it once did.

    I’ve only reader Generation X by Coupland, and don’t remember much about it beyond the obvious. I’ve looked at a couple of others but never been interested — he seems to use his fiction as one vehicle for his broader social commentary, which is of marginal interest to me.

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