A Review of The Ask by Sam Lipsyte

Cover of The Ask by Sam Lipsyte
(New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)

In his introduction to the advance reader copy of Sam Lipsyte’s new novel The Ask, Lipsyte’s editor offers the opinion that the comic novel is currently out of favor. I would argue that the exact opposite is true, that it’s the un-comic novel that is out of favor. Comedy is so ubiquitous in American fiction now that we can easily forget that other modes—writing of the kind produced by the likes of James Salter, say, in the vein of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, or Joan Didion in the vein of Nathanael West—are increasingly hard to find among younger writers. Seriousness seems to be a stance difficult to maintain for very long without sliding into cloying sincerity.  Bleakness of any kind unleavened by humor comes off as pretentious or even ridiculous. The trend in literary fiction now is anti-Romantic, which makes sense in a time as politically conservative as the one we have been living in for many years now. I think this holds especially true for writers who came of age any time after the Seventies.

I agree: turkey wraps are funny—maybe the dullest food since Schopenhauer sat down in resignation to his bowl of pasta—but a few pages into Lipsyte’s The Ask I was relieved to find that in this book turkey wraps also become something more than just funny. Wraps are what Milo, Lipsyte’s fortyish protagonist, eats for lunch every day, mostly out of habit but not entirely. The wrap has also become a small enticement in a life enriched by his young son Bernie but so diminished by his dying marriage and his absurd job that Milo scarcely recognizes that life as his own. Years before, his father sent him off to college with a Spanish dueling knife and louche advice about carousing with “girls who know how to fuck.” Like the father who gives it, the advice comes across as roguishly charming, as opposed to crassly chauvinistic, because it evokes so obviously the color and style of another era. Between Milo’s generation and his father’s lies the great demographic slump of an American era when anyone who is not a millionaire begins to feel poor and the right to swagger has devolved to a handful of jerks in certain parts of Manhattan. Let the others eat turkey wraps and live in little cages—sometimes literally cages in Lipsyte’s novel—across the river somewhere in Queens or the ever farther reaches of Brooklyn.

It’s a situation we’re deeply familiar with, and writing about this situation seems to require an emphasis not on anguish or heartbreak but on satire and absurdism. Any other stance would be an embarrassment—somehow marred by a lack of perspective that fails to acknowledge how many other, worse plights there are on this earth. But as I was thinking about this, I remembered something Louise Glück wrote in her introduction to Jay Hopler’s recent collection of poems, Green Squall:

Irony has become less part of a whole tonal range than a scrupulous inhibiting armor, the disguise by which one modern soul recognizes another. In contemporary practice, it is characterized by acute self-consciousness without analytic detachment, a frozen position as opposed to a means of inquiry. Essential, at every moment, to signal that one knows one is not the first to think or feel what one thinks or feels. This stance is absolutely at odds with the actual sensations of feeling, certainly, as well with the sensations of making—the sense, immediate and absolute, of unprecedented being, the exalted intensification of that fundamental isolation which marks all things mortal.

The problem with many funny novels is that they are only funny—they skimp on psychology and nuance, which is difficult to render, and instead invest all their energy in out-absurding the already absurd. This can be a joyful relief at times, but it can also begin to yield diminishing returns, perhaps because of comedy’s inherent view that people are slightly ridiculous (if not outright buffoons) and our unfortunate knowledge that this is not really the case—people in real life are complicated, and those who are buffoons are frequently dangerous. To say this is to sound like a humorless bore, I know, and yet even a humorless bore like me recognizes that the way out of irony is not naïve sincerity. The way out is an intensity of powerful and surprising feeling.

The Ask, like Geoff Dyer’s recent Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, made me laugh but it also made me think about the times we live in and what those times exact from us. It never coasts and though it knows when to steer towards pathos it never lurches there stupidly. This to me is an example of real, earned pathos in a book like Lipsyte’s:

Maura and I had already found each other.  The desperate, emboldening quest for love, the beautiful, electrifying unknowingness of it all, was forever gone. (Unless we divorced, started over, which would surely be disastrous. She’d find happiness with some curt, sporty banker. I’d live in the laminated basement of a Cypriot retiree near the airport, never talk to a woman under seventy-five again.)

One lyrical sentence about love—not so different in its cadences from Glück’s language about poetry—then the devastatingly specific rebuttal, the laminated basement that Milo knows is the most likely alternative to the failing marriage he wants to revive. So much for the Spanish dueling knife. Milo, through Lipsyte, sees the glory of the knife, and also sees through the glory of it, and also sees what’s been lost in the exchange. Something to do with masculinity? But in the world of The Ask even the word “masculinity” sounds slightly preposterous. Loss upon loss is what we’re talking about, and the book knows this and insists on it, even though it also the funniest book you could ask for.

“I had always been bitter, was still bitter, bitter about the bitterness,” Milo reflects toward the book’s end. But I didn’t really think of Milo as bitter.  I saw him more as a supplicant in a Bush-ian world of buffoons and the people they damage. At one extreme is the spoiled heir Purdy Stuart, infantile in his candy addiction but Machiavellian in every other way, and at the other is Don Charboneau, an Iraq War veteran with prosthetic legs he calls his “girls.” Is it any wonder that when Milo is forced to mediate between these two very different American lives he botches the job? Lipsyte is so delicate in the way he handles all this that I didn’t read the book as a creaky, didactic critique of America in the ’00s. But when I looked back I remembered that from its very first pages it signals this ambition in the “actual sensations” of the wisecracks about our waning empire made over those turkey wraps.

It will be clear by now that I am a strange reader for Lipsyte’s book. As I get older, I am drawn more and more to the austere, the pared-down, the craggy, the laconic—hardly the mode du jour and hardly the mode of The Ask. But the surprise is that The Ask, for all its wild comic imagining, is not just a satire but a howl of disbelief at how things really are. It is a late addition to the American canon of rollicking male failure that includes the Rabbit books, Richard Ford’s Independence Day and David Gates’s wonderful Jernigan and Preston Falls. What’s new here is how low things already are at the beginning of the book. Milo is a character who has never even had the opportunity to fuck things up in the way men used to fuck them up. He is a loving father who does not abandon wife and son but who is kicked to the curb. How is it that Lipsyte never once let me think of him as a sadsack? On every page, I laughed. But on every page, I also witnessed something more serious. Louise Glück calls it the “intensification of that fundamental isolation which marks all things mortal.” Lipsyte would never have put it this way himself, but then you would be hard-pressed now to find an American novelist who would.


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Cover of TLR's "Machismo" issue
TLR Machismo cover art: “Marisol Khali Takes Her Lumps” (c) 2006 Stephen Ferry. Courtesy of the artist. stephenferry.com

Zachary Lazar reviewed The Ask for TLR’s Winter 2010 issue, Machismo: A Field Guide.