By Sam Lipsyte (FSG, $25).
Mon Mar 1 2010
Time Out Ratings<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5
Sam Lipsyte’s highly anticipated third novel tackles the darkest days of midlife: missed opportunities, “nostalgia for a nonexistent past,” sexless marriage, failure, “the fester of family.” Bleak as these topics are, they’re depicted in a brilliantly comedic tone. Endearingly despicable Milo Burke has just been fired from his fund-raising position at “Mediocre University” and then is given a shot at redemption. If Milo—“ostensibly upstanding, a bald husband, a slab-bellied father”—can pull in a major “ask” (a donor who, if properly finessed, will drop a load of cash to MU), he can have his old job back. The target in question is an estranged friend of Milo’s, a guy who “made his own money out of his father’s money.” The Ask is deeply funny, but as with most great comedies, the madcap surface cloaks serious anxieties.
Lipsyte’s brand of absurdity is deeply rooted in the now. The recession, text messaging, reality TV—all are up for grabs. What’s particularly effective is Lipsyte’s acerbic yet subtle approach. Milo scoffs at love (revisiting, hilariously, a disastrous orgy in Greenpoint), at modern parenthood, at his taste in Internet porn (Milo’s favorite site is Spreadsheet Spreaders, where men pleasure their female employers for “raises up to 20%”). But he’s never simply bitter; one can always sense a yearning in this book, even at its most acidic moments.
Lipsyte’s attack is two-pronged: Sentences here are syntactic marvels, clearly labored over, yet the delivery is effortless and often hysterical. Milo’s riffs, even those only loosely tethered to the plot, are well worth the ride. Lipsyte’s observational tone also affords opportunities for the heartfelt. Stuck in traffic, Milo says of the commuters around him, “Everybody wanted to get home. Home could be a ruined place, joyless, heaped with the ashes of scorched hearts, but come evening everybody hustled to get there.” Precision and painstaking craft have granted Lipsyte complete authority in The Ask, his most acidic and empathetic work to date.—Kimberly King Parsons
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