Archive for the ‘Lipsyte, Sam’ Category

The Ask, by Sam Lipsyte

June 9, 2010

Purchased at

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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