Let’s get right to it: This is no master work. If anything, it feels like two books that got workshopped into one.
The majority of Sam Lipsyte’s 2010 novel “The Ask” is an exercise in witty glibness, a chance for Lipsyte to show off his humor skills. Lipsyte is clever and creative–funny is the right word–and he has created some entertaining foils for protagonist Milo Burke. It’s hard not to smile at the joke of an unwanted child whose mother named her “Vagina,” and of the kindly hospital worker who introduced an “r” to save her some self-respect. Likewise the entertaining, faux-hip linguistic stylings of Horace, who makes up words and terms at will, and who (we discover) lives in some cage-filled converted Brooklyn warehouse that seems both realistic and far-fetched. Together the three of them work in the development department of one of New York’s lesser universities, hence the title’s reference to a basic fundraising activity.
But the jokes about Horace and Vargina wear thin after a while, as does the antagonism with and between Milo and his son Bernie and wife Maura. Milo himself grows tired of them all, and in an unwritten and explosive moment early in the book, he loses his job by offending a student whose very expression bore the kind of entitlement that Milo couldn’t stand (and also envied). But while it would be charitable to ascribe all of this ennui to authorial intent, I have the feeling it’s mere coincidence. Tiresome is tiresome.
It is also hard to make a legless Iraq war vet a good comic foil for anything, and so it’s hardly a surprise that it doesn’t work well here. Don is the bastard son of Milo’s long-lost, wealthy college friend of Purdy, and Milo–whose own childhood suffered from a different kind of bastardization–seems to want to find some sympathetic kinship with Don, to express an appreciation for a level of childhood loss that Milo believes is part of his own pain and yet, of course, Don has more pressing concerns.
Purdy gets Milo his job back, as part of the a vague commitment to make a gift to the university. Purdy also sets Milo to the task of being his go-between with Don, the son he can barely stand to acknowledge let alone see. But the humor again grows thin as Milo himself starts to fall apart, under the weight of an adulteress of a wife, an ungrateful child, a demanding friend, a lost-and-barely-regained job, and his own misery at having abandoned his artistic pursuits in favor of some kind of faux-bo-ho existence.
The book, too, starts to fall apart under this weight. Then, in the last 5o pages, Lipsyte takes off ardently in a different and, at times, more earnest direction. It is a transition–from glibness to sadness–that doesn’t work well, and the arrows in Lipsyte’s quiver are neither as sharp nor as well-aimed as he thinks. Unlike (say) a Roth or an Updike, who (particularly in their early work) managed such effective takedowns of different parts of society along with the unhappinesses of their characters, Lipsyte offers no such salvation here. Early on there’s an effective series of jabs at the fundraising culture at unesteemed institutions of higher education. But as social commentary it ranks low and, by the end of the book, it’s lost in Milo’s self-absorbtion.
Lipsyte is clearly good for clever, 21st century turns-of-phrase. Perhaps this story just got away from him. But honestly, I’d have run away too.