Posts tagged ‘Books’

November 4th, 2010

Don’t Ask

“The Ask”, by Sam Lipsyte – New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010

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.

July 23rd, 2010

“Inside Out” is Right Side Up

I do not identify much with the Kristols, either father or son; their blowhard brand of elitist neocon bullshit has never sat well, and their cheerleading for the war-mongering, anti-Constitutional presidency of George W. Bush only sealed their fate. (See my piece “Kristolize That Thought” as one sample.) In that context, it was particularly apropos (and amusing) to find this quote from Irving Kristol kicking off part three of Barry Eisler’s new book, “Inside Out”:

“‘There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people,’ he [Kristol] says in an interview. ‘There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn’t work.’”

The quote comes from a 1997 Reason Magazine story about the renewed rejection of Darwin and various justifications (excuses, really) for the “intelligent design” movement, for which the senior Kristol is also an apologist. But it is just as appropriate in this spot in Eisler’s novel—a book about the intellectual corruption of our government, its terrifying commitment to torture, the degree to which most of the American citizenry are complicit, and the importance (implicitly) of independent journalism—as it was in its original context. (It’s on page 237.)

I have been reading Eisler’s novels for a few years, and writing about them periodically (here and there) as well. Like many authors in the thriller / espionage genre, he brings a particular political and worldview to his stories, though this aspect of his fiction has grown stronger since he branched out from writing about the assassin John Rain to the covert operative Ben Treven. Treven was introduced in the novel “Fault Line,” which was entertaining and useful for establishing a new set of characters, but less sharp and well-defined than the Rain series. “Inside Out” has Eisler coming back strongly, and picks up where “Fault Line” left off: exploring the political undercurrent and motivations, not to mention the pervasive distrust, that is so sadly central to our country’s failings over the last decade. The premise of the new book (about a hunt for secret torture tapes) only serves to underscore the point.

It is also why the Kristol quote fits in so perfectly and disturbingly well: because in order for our government and our political parties to sustain such levels of dishonesty, there must be an internal rational—and Kristol has clearly framed it. Whether we are talking about George W. Bush, or Barack Obama, or Bill Clinton, or George H.W. Bush, or Nancy Pelosi, or John Boehner, or Henry Waxman, or Jeff Sessions, or Arlen Specter, or Sarah Palin, or…whoever you can think of in positions of power and “leadership,” this seems rather clear. Our country increasingly survives by drawing different levels of distinctions around the truths that citizens are allowed to know and understand. Even among the conservative (faux-)anti-elites, it functions as a clear form of elitism.

This is also why there is little significant discussion about the meaninglessness of healthcare reform (aside from misleading partisan talking points) or Social Security (ditto). It’s why we channel people through low-level state college systems that pretend to educate in ways that matter, but ultimately create false expectations for intellectual quality and credibility—instead of training people for jobs that serve our society and our lives. It is why President Obama can campaign on the idea of closing down the illegal prison at Guantanamo Bay, and claim in his December 2009 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech to have ordered the prison closed, and yet the prison remains open and the issues surrounding it largely unresolved. (If anything, the issues are now more fraught, as the Obama administration has picked up the mantle of executive supremacy and pushed back on what had been a growing sense that the prisoners there have rights under the U.S. Constitution and international law.)

“Inside Out” is a good, brisk, engaging read, with the usual bits that make such thrillers compelling. It surpasses many of its peers because of Eisler’s insights, and his ability to interweave these different issues—realtime issues, not just fictions—into the story. That he credits so many different journalists and critics at the end, has dedicated some appearances as fundraisers for independent journalism outlets, and includes a list of actual sources and stories, makes it even stronger. If you like these kinds of thrillers, you will certainly enjoy this book. If you are politically engaged, you can’t help but enjoy it and find it very disturbing, too.