If you suspect that twenty-first century America is a nation whose crippling schizophrenia is badly hidden behind excess and superficial spectacle, then Sam Lipsyte’s your man, and The Ask is your novel.
Your narrator and protagonist Milo Burke was going to be a great artist, but he wound up wheedling funding out of fat cats for the arts department of a second-rate university. When he unleashes his pent-up frustrations on the pushy daughter of a wealthy contributor, however, final ruin begins howling at his door. But Milo has one last chance: he can secure a huge gratuity from college buddy Purdy Stuart or kiss his job goodbye forever.
Pandering to Purdy’s every whim isn’t going to be all beer and skittles: there’s Purdy’s love-child to pay off (Don, who lost his legs in Iraq), and on the side Milo must deal with a troublesome young son, a lunatic collective who run an experimental pre-school and a wife who is rapidly losing faith in him.
At his best, Lipsyte writes delightfully cynical dismissals of modern life: we learn that Purdy
had been one of the first to predict that people really only wanted to be alone … staring at screens and firing off sequences of virulent gibberish at other deliquescing life-forms.
And Lipsyte has a good line in uncommon obscenity. How about ‘I don’t give a slutty snow-monkey’s prolapsed uterus for your office politics’? or ‘I rubbed on valiantly, shot what was doubtless, at my advanced age, some sullen autist into a superannuated tube sock’? Stinging. But rather fun.
Lipsyte writes prose that writhes like an untended high-pressure hose, and he is enormously entertaining – but unfortunately it’s impossible to call him original.
Impossible because you can’t escape similarities between The Ask and the novels of Martin Amis. While I’m tempted to call The Ask derivative, the polite thing to say is that Lipsyte has been heavily influenced by Amis. The rivalry between Purdy and Milo is right out of Amis’ The Information (in which two novelists are at loggerheads), as is the relationship between Milo and his son Bernie (both Amis and Lipsyte are happy to acknowledge that children regularly devastate their parents). It’s also possible to see in Bernie a watered-down version of Marmaduke from London Fields – Milo’s decline brings to mind the fate of John Self from Money, and The Ask’s occasional bit of puerile ultra-realism recalls Dead Babies.
Lipsyte’s conscious intellectualism is another trait he shares with Amis: how many modern novelists would mention Diderot in passing, for instance? Or write of an opulent apartment: ‘One end was for high-tech pleasures, the other for reading Gibbon while being blown in a wingback chair’? The Ask sets up a huge range of targets for obliteration: corporate immorality and greed, American foreign policy, new-age vacuity, the administration of tertiary education and parenting myths. That’s a lot to take on – in fact, in three hundred pages, it’s simply too much. Lipsyte is very good at bitterly dark comic turns, and he has an interesting eye for human folly. But The Ask, having tried to be too many things in too many places all at once, feels half-formed and unfinished.
The most damning criticism you can make against The Ask, though, comes from The Ask itself. When Milo suffers a panic attack upon regaining his job, he wants to share a doubt with his supervisor (the charmingly named Vargina): ‘I mean, if I were the protagonist of a book or a movie, it would be hard to like me, to identify with me, right?’ Vargina’s answer? ‘I would never read a book like that, Milo. I can’t think of anyone who would. There’s no reason for it.’
The Ask, Sam Lipsyte
Misha Adair lives in North Melbourne, where he spends more time reading and writing than socialising, a fact which troubles his friends less than he would like it to.