How is it that Sam Lipsyte has not killed himself? This is a writer whose deeply intelligent sense of black comedy is a direct descendant from the bitter wellsprings of David Foster Wallace and John Kennedy Toole, except firmly anchored in realism. Like an extended outtake from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men or A Confederacy of Dunces that substitutes the corporate end of academia for New Orleans, Lipsyte’s third novel is destined to delight in a way his previous two books did not. In fairness to Lipsyte, probably his initially bright career trajectory was cut short by the fact that his first book was released on 9/11, so reviewers had other things to think about. But it is precisely his experience with this type of tragic coincidence that informs the lives of his characters so well.
Lipsyte’s double-duty as narrator for his book leaves us doubly blessed. Told from the perspective of Milo Burke, a finder of funding at a mediocre school in New York, Lipsyte’s uncanny ear for dialogue really shines as Milo tries to remain respectably under the radar of a militaristic dean, sufficiently snooty in the company of an ideas tycoon with whom he went to art school, convincingly authoritative under the scrutiny of his toddler of terror, and attentively supportive to his cheating wife. Once upon a time, Milo was going to be a successful painter. But Milo is now basically an over-educated drone just trying to eke out a mildly respectable and not-too-schmucky sustainable life for himself and his crumbling family. His comparatively big break comes when an old acquaintance is interested in making a hefty donation to Milo’s school. If Milo can make it happen, he’ll be a hero. But Milo is not good at making things happen, or at being a hero. He is, at best, a wonderful loser.
The cadences of the assorted conversations going on in this book are so absolutely real that you’ll wonder if Lipsyte has been spying on you. He perfectly captures the despairing dialogue between a parent about to crack and a child who oscillates between naive violence, ceaseless rhetorical questioning, and practical selfishness. These traits are interestingly mirrored in the witty back and forths between Milo and Don. Don is the secret love child of Milo’s old acquaintance, and keeping Don happily under wraps is what Milo will have to do in exchange for securing his big donation. But Don is an unhappy smack junkie who lost both legs in Iraq, and he is not too interested in daddy’s hush money.
Lipsyte does not deliver a happy ending for anyone, because happy endings do not reflect reality, but he does deliver a satisfyingly solid treatise on the joyous, mysterious failure that is our maddeningly complex pursuit of staying alive. Lipsyte as author is no holds barred, but Lipsyte as narrator voices not one depressing note. You will want to cry, but you will laugh instead and hope that Sam Lipsyte lives long enough to deliver many more works of such profoundly true meditations on our frail modern life. Megan Volpert
Milo Burke, a development officer at a third-tier university, has "not been developing": after a run-in with a well--connected undergrad, he finds himself among the burgeoning class of the newly unemployed. Grasping after odd jobs to support his wife and child, Milo is offered one last chance by his former employer: he must reel in a potential donor--a major "ask"--who, mysteriously, has requested Milo's involvement. But it turns out that the ask is Milo's sinister college classmate Purdy Stuart. And the "give" won't come cheap.
Probing many themes--or, perhaps, anxieties--including work, war, sex, class, child rearing, romantic comedies, Benjamin Franklin, cooking shows on death row, and the eroticization of chicken wire, The Ask is a burst of genius by a young American master who has already demonstrated that the truly provocative and important fictions are often the funniest ones.
©2010 Sam Lipsyte (P)2010 Macmillan Audio
"Lipsyte's pitch-black comedy takes aim at marriage, work, parenting, abject failure (the author's signature soapbox) and a host of subjects you haven't figured out how to feel bad about yet." (Publishers Weekly)
"The kind of book that gets passed around, underlined, dog-eared . . . It makes one laugh out loud while pondering all the ways in which all lives, invariably, go wrong." (Esquire)
I heard the author read of a segment of this book on the WTF podcast and had to try it out, and I have devoured the audiobook in record time.
It is a very funny, unflinching, and direct novel, and has the kind of edge to it that comes from a writer who is up for actually going with the truth. Also, for me personally, I really loved the way he captured the neighborhood of Astoria in Queens. So much of that rang true, and so many of his chapters went from enjoying moments of recognition, to being punched in the gut, like the end of chapter 8.
I am really glad I got this, and look forward to seeking out more from Lipsyte (who is also a very good reader, there is something about his pacing in the audiobook that strikes a perfect tone for the main character, so hopefully at some point more audiobooks of his prior work will be added to Audible).
David D. (via my wife and my shared account)
Lipsyte loves paradox, puns and all manner of wordplay, and this book is a real delight as far as that goes. The plot is satisfyingly convoluted, and well told. Every single character, except the protagonist, is insulting and murderously aggressive toward all the other characters; every character, except the protagonist, has reached adulthood with a more or less coherent identity based in aggression. Though amusing, in a nasty way, they all sound alike, and a tender soul is grateful her own world doesn't contain more than a few of them. The world of this book, however, contains nothing but. The protagonist, Miles, is struggling for maturity, decency and basic coherence against overwhelming self-loathing, self-pity, resentment, envy and paralysis. As a consequence, Miles is someone you don't want to spend 10 minutes with, much less 8+ hours. Still, the story rocks along, and I stuck with it, but perhaps I'm not sophisticated enough to enjoy cruelty, which is mostly what this book is about.
This is a great book if you're an artist who went to art school and/or if you work in academia - biting and accurate personality profiles, and unflinchingly meticulous descriptions of university office politics - at least at the beginning. Sadly the narrative dives into a more predictable, heavy handed, and less specific plot with less realistic, more cartoonish characters. I wished it would have meandered in the lives of the more ordinary, bitter office workers. I got the feeling that someone told the author to hurry up and finish the book somewhere in the middle. I like the first person narration, however. It was interestingly noticeable that the reader never got to find out the viewpoint of the other characters, and was forced to be as blind as the main character.
Having read his hilarious HOMELAND, I was intrigued to hear Lipsyte perform his new book, THE ASK. Here is a writer extremely attentive to language: he builds tremendous humor out of his discoveries of eccentric phrases, institutional jargon, ad-speak, and, well, the strange agency of the language governing our lives to breed creatures apart from those species concerned with communication, transparency, and honesty. He isn't precious with the stuff -- he is extremely ruthless with his observations of spoken language and the dead phrases we inflict on one another. Hearing his reading of THE ASK was not only the chance for me to catch a strong reader (you can tell Lipsyte enjoys reading, must really kill on the bookstore appearance circuit) but also was the opportunity for me to catch a secondary layer of meaning, built up through the nuance of highly intentional delivery and phrasing. It is gallows humor on the page -- but somehow with the author teasing you carefully through it, the audiobook deepens as both "dark" and "comedy."
I cannot remember if a book has ever made me both laugh out loud and sit in depressive contemplation as much as this one. The latter side-effect may not be everyone's cup of tea, but I found it a powerful experience. Through perhaps more style than substance, Lipsyte manages to paint beautiful rants of a malcontent writer that somehow also captures the setting perfectly as well: elite America at the start of its decline still struggling with denial over the impact of inequality on its downward spiral.
So as a liberal, I've always found conservatives' obsession with the concept of liberal guilt amusing. To hear them tell it, liberals just can't get over the whole killing the Indians and enslaving the blacks thing, and all the men have vagina envy.
Well, none of the liberals I know are anything like that, but the main character in this book clearly is, and as far as I could tell, Lipsyte doesn't mean this ironically. Milo is jealous and bitter at those who have gotten more out of life than him, and simultaneously sorry for everyone who has less. He works a crummy job asking wealthy people to donate money to an art school for self-indulgent and privileged students, and is fired after a false allegation of sexual harassment by a male colleague. He's rehired on the sole condition that he can get a large check out of a former college friend, who has a special personal mission he thinks Milo would be perfect for. Meanwhile, Milo's wife is cheating on him and refuses to stop, and his son is enrolled in an experimental daycare, which is constantly causing problems.
One of the funniest scenes has Milo asking a colleague whether she would read a book about a guy like him. No, she replies, he's just not relatable. I won't go quite that far. Lipsyte is clearly a writer of some talent (I haven't read any of his other works). But in this book he seems obsessed with what strikes me as a caricature of the political left. To be clear, this is an at least somewhat approving portrait. Lipsyte is certainly not a conservative offering up Milo as a cautionary tale. But neither does he offer us any hope in Milo's struggles. Nobody really cares about Milo, including the reader, because he is an inherently sad and unlikable person, and because in the grand scheme of things he's not nearly as badly off as some others. Milo is simply stuck in the system, every bit as much at the end of the novel as at the beginning. Typical liberal, always blaming society for his problems.
Business Physicist and Astronomer
There are some great lines in this book and some wonderful dialogue.
So, I was mildly entertained.
The plot, or storyline is a mess. I can't recommend this book unless you have absolutely nothing to do.
The premise is great. Failure to execute.
This is the latest of a (sadly) growing number of books that publishers have inexplicably chosen to have read by their author, when the author has no dramatic ability and no apparent director to oversee the production. Sam Lipsyte's droning reading keeps you guessing which characters are saying what in long conversations, and eventually proves distracting enough to keep you from following the story at all. This is one to avoid.
I tried to listen, listened too long. No redeeming value. I think he just goes for shock value, near obscenity. Gratuitous. Trying to be an American Nick Hornby. I was hopeful. But it misses the mark by a long shot. Disappointing. A waste of time. (And I was stuck in the car with nothing else to listen to.) And I felt like I needed a shower. Don't buy this book!
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