Ask Not What Your Novels Can Do for You. . .

“I’m not very likable, am I?”
“You’re likable enough,” said Vargina [sic].
“No, I mean, if I were the protagonist of a book or a movie, it would be hard to like me, to identify with me, right?”
“I would never read a book like that, Milo. I can’t think of anyone who would. There’s no reason for it.”
“Oh.”

Sam Lipsyte‘s The Ask is the great comedic novel of 2010, or at least that’s what scattered posts on lit blogs had me hoping. The book follows Milo Burke, a–stop me if you’ve heard this one before–middle-aged New Yorker with a failing marriage and a floundering career on the fringe of academia. (The titular “ask” is “a person, or what we wanted from that person,” we being the university fundraising department in which Milo works.) Early in the novel, Purdy, an affluent friend from Milo’s college days, resurfaces, dangling in front of Milo a potentially massive give that could keep him employed. Before committing to the give, Purdy keeps Milo on unofficial retainer, encouraging Milo to act as a buffer between him and his estranged, legless Iraq-vet son. The humor Lipsyte deals out is dark, as you might imagine, and taken as a whole, The Ask makes for a bitter pill, absent the normal sort of healing-type properties the metaphor usually implies.

The book’s brazen honesty is (theoretically) the source of its appeal (with the honesty I guess being sorta theoretical too); Milo confides in the reader things we’re all (once again, theoretically) afraid to say out loud. On his son:

Bernie was a beautiful boy. Good thing, too, as he’d become an expensive hobby. Preschool, preclothing for the preschool. Then there were the hidden costs, like food. Funny, isn’t it, how much you can detest the very being you’d die for in an instant? I guess that’s just families.

Sam Lipsyte

The above passage can be found near the beginning of the book, and Lipsyte’s apparent willingness to make Milo more unlikable than other protagonists in other middle class, mid-life, existential middle-of-nowhere novels is pretty admirable. Still, The Ask hits predictable beats–Milo finds his wife cheating, alienates his friends, reflects on his troubled childhood–and is, despite its descriptions of Milo staring down a coworkers shirt or surfing high-concept porn sites, a fairly mannered novel. (If Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day is a gaze at the abyss, The Ask is a staring contest.) The book’s strengths are the same reason it’s ultimately a bore; Milo has no epiphany, fails really to change at all, so what we end with is a highlight reel of a man’s personal and professional failures. (Milo, not Lipsyte, who wins awards and teaches at Columbia, and forgetting my opinion of the book for a second, good for him.)

Since finishing The Ask (since shortly after starting it, really), I’ve been preoccupied with why I disliked the book. I loved, for instance, the Coen Bros.’s A Serious Man, a film about a middle-aged Midwesterner with a failing marriage and floundering academic career. Maybe it’s in the execution. (Maybe it’s a Midwestern bias, but between you and me, sometimes I wanna get the F out of this place.) The Ask is–admittedly, but only intermittently–quite funny. But the book’s best gag–a friend of Milo’s dream of producing a reality show about gourmet chef’s cooking for death row inmates–reads like a McSweeney’s online piece shoehorned into the larger story. And The Ask abounds with similar moments, lines or passages that prompt the reader to wonder if Lipsyte asked himself, ‘Well, where else am I going to use that?’

If film shows us who we want to be, literature shows us who we are, or so the adage goes. But literature can also make us feel less alone; reading is the most communal solitary activity a person can partake in, a sustained engagement (after a fashion) with the refined, concentrated consciousness of another human being. In deliberately constructing such an unbearable prick of a narrator, Lipsyte uses his medium to full advantage: there’s nothing like the allure of images or a reader’s fondness for a particular actor to lure us around to Milo’s side. With that said, the only things I felt The Ask showed me were that (1) if I’m a jerk, I’m still less of a jerk than the jerk I just finished reading about, and (2) that I’m a more conservative reader than I’d prefer to think. Because I finished the book wanting some sort of takeaway that was larger and more useful than what I got–a legit (if small-scale) isolating feeling. (In fairness, this is still a stronger reaction than I’ve had to other recent reads. After closing Murakami’s Wild Sheep Chase, I was mostly like, ‘I did finish that, right? What happened?’)

No novel bears an obligation to morally nurture its readers. But the best fiction tends to anyway, intentionally or not. (Even Nabokov’s work, which tend to state its moral ambivalence proudly, features the kind of aesthetic feats that have the power to move, to reassure, to instill wonder–to at least leave the reader better prepared for moral nourishment, in other words.) Again, maybe it’s all in the execution–not enough new ideas in The Ask (not even enough good jokes) to complement its bleakness.

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