Wednesday April 14th, 2010

The Grim Jester

The Ask by Sam Lipsyte
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 304 pp., $25.00

Literary fiction is not renowned for its sense of humor, and in fact, prolonged exposure to it can warp one’s compass. There are people who think Don DeLillo is funny. So when a writer as riotous as Sam Lipsyte comes along, people will notice. Eventually. His last novel, Home Land, was rejected by more than a dozen editors before finding a home, but once published it attracted a rabid following. As if some god of karma had carefully noted the initial snubs of Home Land, Lipsyte’s new novel, The Ask, has been the opposite of ignored.

The Ask is narrated by Milo Burke, who works in the development office of a university in New York. Having been fired for colorfully insulting a female art student (Milo was once an aspiring painter himself), he’s given a second chance at his job. Purdy Stuart, a millionaire and one-time college friend of Milo’s, is contemplating a sizable donation to the school. But he wants Milo to handle his case. (In development speak, Purdy is an “ask”; his potential donation is a “give.”) If Milo can secure the money, he can have his job back.

In the meantime, he is left to confront, in his late 30s, both his tenuous work status and his increasingly unsatisfying family life. He and wife Maura lack any spark, and their 3-year-old son, Bernie, is a source of bewilderment and fear:

Not long ago Bernie said “Beep-beep” every time he heard a car horn. Later his favorite word was “Mine.” Now he was fluent in the cant of his tiny world. His leaps in speech had seemed so otherworldly. What else was he mastering behind our backs? Little Judas. Maura and I had worked so hard to dig the family ditch for the three of us to rot in and now here came the rope of language to haul the boy out. “Beep-beep” begets “Mine,” which begets “I hate you, Dad.” Then, if you’re lucky, there’s a quick “I love you, Dad,” followed by “Let go, Dad,” these last words whispered under the thrum of ventilators, EKG machines.

Passages like that are so snappy that their sourness is almost smuggled past. Which is probably a good thing, since that is some potent sourness. It’s one thing to have a conflicted or tumultuous relationship with one’s family, a more or less universal condition. It’s another to believe in the idea that life is one long “I hate you, Dad” interrupted by a pro forma declaration of love before the unplugging of the machines. But this is Lipsyte’s universe, a cold, terrifying place where the only consolation is grim laughter.

In an essay about James Thurber, Wilfrid Sheed once wrote, “In general, comic essayists tend to work with the same worn deck of cards, getting their effects with small variations of patter and style.” He didn’t mean it as an insult, just an observation, and it’s one that applies to comic novelists as well. Lipsyte has recurring strategies for his consistently cynical vision. He toys with platitudes (describing an elite university as “A bastion of, et cetera.”); uses outsize descriptors (“That gangrenous wino from Utica was correct.”); and has characters express themselves with brutal honesty: Milo’s mother tells him, “For heaven’s sake, the system’s rigged for white men and you still can’t tap in.” Or Milo asks Maura, “But how can you believe in me? You don’t believe in God, but you believe in me?” And she answers, “I had certain expectations with God.” (That joins a short list of the best deity-themed comebacks, alongside Woody Allen’s in Manhattan. Told that he thinks he’s God, Allen’s character says, “I’ve gotta model myself after someone.”)

But Lipsyte mostly distinguishes his comic tone by so resolutely sustaining it, powering through paragraph after paragraph like this one:

I’ve never been much for drunken wakefulness, always admired those blackout artists who seemed perfectly alert while entirely unconscious, who rode trains and conducted real estate deals and pleasured lovers in a technical sleep state, who woke up in the Cleveland Hilton with inexplicable amounts of river silt in their pants cuffs. My overhooched evenings tended to expire with a lone ax stroke to the motherboard. Lucky nights I’d get one last surge of consciousness, like those precious seconds of life savored, if certain movies are to be believed, by severed heads.

Lipsyte’s zaniness, like anyone’s, can lapse into the juvenile. Encountering a character named Vargina isn’t really funny the first time you read it; the 25th, it’s kind of painful. And when he transplants his penchant for wordplay from narration into the mouths of his characters, the results can be strained and irritating: “I know you do. Or, well, it seems that way, anyway. Or well. George Orwell. That’s funny. I never thought of that before.” Some jokes — or germinal jokes — should have been left in an early draft. But these duds are remarkably rare for someone who attempts so many jokes per page.

Purely as a gung-ho stylist and a generator of laughs, Lipsyte deserves all the praise he gets. What’s less clear is whether he’s suited to conventional novels. It turns out that Milo has not one, but two tests to pass: Purdy wants help with an illegitimate son, Don, a veteran of the Iraq War who lost his legs overseas. Milo has to help appease Don, and keep him a secret from Purdy’s current wife.

Home Land, more memorable as a series of hysterical riffs than as a story, was more potent than The Ask because the insanity of its protagonist, Lewis “Teabag” Miner, who sends unhinged letters to his high school alumni newsletter, was a perfect fit for the (pleasurable) insanity of Lipsyte’s sense of humor. Home Land is more clearly a gag than The Ask, and Lipsyte seems more comfortable on that terrain.

The author told the Wall Street Journal, “I sit down and try to [create the perfect plot machine] and realize I am not the guy for that.” But he’s perhaps letting himself off the hook too easily (or ignoring the question of whether he should actively avoid plot) when he follows that up with, “I’m never going to write The Da Vinci Code.” There’s a lot of middle ground elided there. Some critics have been eager to bridge that ground on Lipsyte’s behalf, finding a dubious amount of deeper resonance in The Ask’s plot.

In a review for Slate, Michael Agger called Lipsyte “an apt writer for our meritocratic moment. In America, we labor under the delusion that if we were all just a little more highly effective, a little more focused, we could ascend into a realm of first-class check-in, enviable real estate, and unruffled contentment.” Whether we all really labor under that delusion or not, Milo’s cranky detachment from conventional effort and striving might not make him the best example of failed meritocracy, and near the end of his review Agger seems to realize this, when he brings up “the Lipsyte question that nags at me: How useful, in the end, as a life strategy, is wallowing in bitterness? Should we strive to move beyond it, or is that just more silly striving, the thing that got us into the deep end of the bitter pool to begin with?”

Dan Kois said, “The Ask is a novel deeply in tune with the asks and the gives of the current economy, and with a city whose boroughs are full of the walking wounded.” And Lydia Millet wrote, “And that’s why this book is a success: not only the belly laughs but also the sadness attendant upon the cultural failure it describes. There’s a genuine disappointment visible through the cynic’s jibes — the grief that comes with the end of empire and the collapse of an ideal.”

Reactions like those give a character like Milo too much credit. He often comes across as less beleaguered than loathsome. Teabag was a caricature of the socially maladjusted outsider. It may be harder to distinguish the extent to which Milo is at the mercy of cultural forces from the extent to which he’s just another part of the problem, someone too immature and self-obsessed to realize that trying to squeeze e-mail into your baby’s nap time shouldn’t be compared to hiding from the Nazis, even as a joke. He is not laid off from his job, but loses it because of (socially maladjusted) incompetence. His social protests (sticking American-flag stamps upside down on his bills) and internal confessions (he finds himself envying lo-cal scallion cream cheese because it doesn’t have offspring to support) are very funny but also indicative of deeper problems. “I knew what churned inside me,” Milo says at one point, reflecting back on his childhood. “It was foul, viscous stuff. It wasn’t to be understood, but maybe collected in barrels and drained in a dead corner of our lawn.”

This is not to say that characters have to be likable — far from it, and maybe especially in comedy (John Self in Martin Amis’ Money, Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces, and Teabag himself are three of a parade that come to mind). But the social padding around Milo’s unlikability — the economy, the alternative preschools, the tragedies of the Iraq War — come off as contrived distractions from the portrait of a slightly more presentable version of Teabag. What Lipsyte does well he does remarkably well. But the more distilled his voice, I suppose, as in Home Land, the less likely his work will find a big audience. It’s lamentably easy to understand why The Ask, which cuts its bitterness with a broader scope and nods to today’s headlines, might garner more attention. And maybe Lipsyte is simply moving in a direction that will yield a satisfyingly rounded novel, a novel that Teabag might call “spherical.” In any case, it’s hard to care too much when you’re laughing this hard.

John Williams is the editor of The Second Pass.

Mentioned in this review:

The Ask
Home Land
A Confederacy of Dunces