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The Ask: A Novel Hardcover – March 2, 2010
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, March 2010: How can a life so miserable be so funny? Is it because the stakes are so low (Milo Burke, the antihero of Sam Lipsyte's novel, The Ask, is a failure at many things, but most prominently at his job of pulling in major donors for a deadwater arts program at a middling university neither you nor he care about), or because they are so high (among them death, love, and the general squandering of the glories of creation on trivia)? Lipsyte's brilliant bile earned his previous novel, Home Land, one of the most passionate cult followings in recent years, and in The Ask that verbal invention is often the only thing that can rouse Milo and his peers from their ennui. They bait and badger each other and toss off complex cultural analyses to little effect, all the while haunted by the gap between wit and wisdom. Lipsyte manages to be both sour and tender to his characters, Milo in particular, whose barest shambles toward self-respect come to seem like the first baby steps of an honorable quest. --Tom Nissley
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. 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. This latest slice of mucked-up life follows Milo Burke, a washed-up painter living in Astoria, Queens, with his wife and three-year-old son, as he's jerked in and out of employment at a mediocre university where Milo and his equally jaded cohorts solicit funding from the Asks, or those who financially support the art program. Milo's latest target is Purdy Stuart, a former classmate turned nouveau aristocrat to whom Milo quickly becomes indentured. Purdy, it turns out, needs Milo to deliver payments to Purdy's illegitimate son, a veteran of the Iraq War whose titanium legs are fodder for a disgruntlement that makes the chip on Milo's shoulder a mere speck of dust by comparison. Submission is the order of the day, but where Home Land had a working-class trajectory, this takes its tone of lucid lament to the devastated white-collar sector; in its merciless assault on the duel between privilege and expectation, it arrives at a rare articulation of empire in decline. (Mar.)
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So where was I? Oh, right: the protagonist. That would be Milo Burke, development officer at...well, we don't know where. This is because, unfortunately, Lipsyte decided to leave the narrating to this pathetic little man, who apparently felt that revealing his university's identity would be anathema to his nihilist philosophy. (I'm being generous, of course; there's no way Milo actually has a discernible philosophy.) Thus, we are left with a story of a man whose wife is having an affair, whose job is never really gone after his firing and whose firing is always imminent when he is actually working. Along the way he rekindles a friendship with Purdy Stuart, an old friend from college. The renewed relationship is one of subservience, however, as Milo is actually recruiting Purdy to donate a large sum of money to the university, a task whose outcome will determine Milo's fate as a development officer. Unfortunately, I could not bring myself to care. Maybe this is because of sentences like, "It might sound ridiculous now, but he had been one of the first to predict that people really only wanted to be alone and scratching themselves and smelling their fingers and staring at screens and firing off sequences of virulent gibberish at other deliquescing life-forms." Perhaps there is nothing technically wrong with this sentence, other than the fact that it is not interesting. But isn't that reason enough to stop reading?
Unfortunately, I have trouble putting a book down once I've started it: the economic logic of sunk costs has never really penetrated my actual decison-making processes, so I struggled on. I read of Milo's increasingly strained relationship with his wife; apparently home life becomes somewhat awkward following the revelation of an affair. Persevering readers will also find more about Purdy Stuart, who continues to hang out with old college buddies, literally paying to keep them around, as he fights his way through a present that he never wanted by pretending that the past has yet to end. In other words, Purdy is dealing with a slightly more acute version of the notorious phenomenon known as mid-life crisis.
Perhaps I'm being overly harsh. Parts of The Ask were humorous or even touching. But Lipsyte's unwillingness to take his own writing seriously undermines his readers' ability to fare any better, and his overemphasis on dialogue leaves his characters looking and feeling like half-finished caricatures of real people. Some of the basic elements of humanity are there, but you have to squint really hard and ignore the glaring omissions. At some point, it just becomes easier to give up. Considering the fact that Milo Burke has already reached this point by the beginning of the book, anyone who manages to finish reading The Ask deserves a pat on the back simply for finishing ahead of its protagonist.
No matter how it is presented this book is toxic garbage. The only redeeming feature for me was when I finished reading it. It is a sad, sad world we live in now when ugliness is thrown in our face and obvious talent is wasted on nonsense.
The author must be laughing all the way to the bank by the idiots who bought his rambling gibberish.
There are no sympathetic characters at all. None. The three year old child is as repulsive and unrealistic as any of the adults. Perhaps I missed that each individual in the book is supposed to represent something or another. If I missed it, then I did, but I'd bet I missed little.
What's most bothersome about the book is simply that the characters make no sense whatsoever. Their behavior isn't consistent with themselves or with real characters out here in this world. Time after time people behave oddly and the others never question this behavior nor does the author explain it making for persistent frustration on the part of the reader or at least this reader.
I recommend this book for its style and writing skill, but only for those who wish to learn a particular writing style. For those wishing a good read, and believe me, I read every word of this mess, pass it by.
There is no part of this book that is uplifting except for the humor itself. I actually laughed out loud several times, and bookmarked a few of the choice phrases for later reference. I particularly enjoyed the laser-like precision of Milo's views on life with a 3-year old, which are really, truly, a spot-on and honest look at the frustrations (and joy) of being the parent of a young child in these times.
I would recommend this book to most of my friends, but not to my mother. I don't think she's ready for this type of language.
Most recent customer reviews
of a defrocked Asker caught in a collision of fruitions. I loved the book.Read more