My friend Steve asked me a few weeks ago if I ever read something just because the writing’s good. I can’t remember what exactly we were arguing about (and we were arguing because that’s all we ever do), but I remember my answer was an exasperated, “Duh, yes I do.” Of course I couldn’t think of a single example of anything I had read just because the writing was good.
Well, Steve, here’s your answer: The Ask by Sam Lipsyte. So there! If it weren’t for the strength of Lipsyte’s writing I’d have invoked the 100-page rule and closed the cover on this one for good.
Lipsyte’s novel is about Milo Burke a sort of schlubby thirty-something dude who works in Institutional Development (or toosh dev as his hipper-than-though officemate, Horace, calls it) for a school he calls Mediocre U in New York. As the book opens Milo’s had enough of the ass-kissing that comes with asking monied big wigs to donate to Mediocre. When the spawn of a big wig comes in to the office demanding something asinine, Milo unleashes years of pent up venom on the unwitting co-ed and is promptly fired from his job.
Of course, all is not lost because shortly afterward one of Milo’s old college buddies comes to his rescue. Purdy, who’s a gozillionaire, says he’ll donate a huge sum of money to Mediocre, but he wants Milo to broker the deal. Only Purdy doesn’t really want Milo to broker anything, instead he wants him to act as the middleman in delivering hush money to Purdy’s illegitimate, double-amputee, gulf-war-II-vet son that he didn’t know he had until the boy was eighteen.
On top of that Milo’s got a cheating wife, a dead father, a lesbian mother, and a precocious son who doesn’t seem to think much of his old man. Plus, he hasn’t quite gotten over his college years when he was full of potential and sleeping with his art professor.
Seems a little disjointed, doesn’t it? Because it is.
A lot is being said about The Ask’s acerbic wit and stinging social satire. This is all true. Milo waxes acidic on just about everything you can think of: art, war, drugs, nachos, porn, education (from pre-K to college), mental health, children, reality TV, romantic comedies, sex, turkey wraps, and pretty much anything else in American society you can think of to comment on. Most of this is funny as hell and it’s fun to read.
But, is wit and satire enough to carry a novel? No. The story here is nothing short of confusing and feels a little beside the point. All these characters, all the action, everything seems to exist only so Milo can spout off about society and say things that are supposed to be shocking. The whole book feels schticky and it wears thin pretty quickly. I found myself skimming entire paragraphs because I didn’t want to read again how Milo’s penchant for turkey wraps was sad and pathetic and indicative of how he’s gotten stuck.
Instead of giving us The Ask, I wish Lipsyte would have given us a book of essays filled with this bitter, angry, funny as hell social commentary. Cutting his points up into bite-sized chapters on different topics would have been a more enjoyable read. Shoving all that commentary into the mouth of Milo, a mediocre character stuck in a confusing novel didn’t work. Like Christa said in her review, this book would probably be best enjoyed Russian Roulette style where you just randomly open to a page and read until you get tired because there’s not enough of a plot or story here for a reader to worry about.