I included The Ask in my first ever 20 Books of Summer challenge and didn’t get round to reading it. It was pushed back to the bottom of the TBR pile (and we all know how low that is!) that is until I read Sam Lipsyte’s hilarious and very moving story The Naturals in Belinda McKeon’s recent and great collection of stories on distance A Kind of Compass. In The Naturals, a father and son try to bond during their final days together but don’t quite get there, despite advice from a pro-wrestler called ‘The Rough Beast of Bethlehem’.
The Ask also tackles dark days and the father/ son relationship with that same mix of humour, bathos and insight.
Plot definitely takes a back seat to style in The Ask, but calling it slight isn’t meant as a criticism. Our narrator, Milo Burke once hoped to be a painter, but is now a fundraiser at ‘Mediocre University’ in New York, trying to solicit donations from potential rich benefactors (hence ‘the ask’). Milo, by his own admission is not very successful at his job. He says himself
I’d become one of those mistakes you sometimes find in an office, a not unpleasant but mostly unproductive presence bobbing along on the energy tides of others, a walking reminder of somebody’s error in judgment.
In an attempt to keep his job, he is tasked with an ask of an old college friend, Purdy Stuart, who is now fantastically wealthy. In return for fulfilling the ask, Purdy has an ask of his own. Purdy has a son by an old, now dead girlfriend and that son Don, a twenty-one year old Iraq veteran who has lost his legs in combat, is threatening to go public and announce his existence to Purdy’s current, pregnant wife and to the world. Milo is to keep an eye on Don and deliver his hush money and in return Purdy will fund whatever the university wants allowing Milo to keep his job.
Even with added narrative strands involving Milo’s failing marriage and relationship with his son Bernie, and his unresolved relationship with his own dead father, that’s not an awful lot of story. Yet around these bones is the stylistic meat and that’s where Lipsyte comes in to his own.
This is a funny novel.
A very funny novel and with the best works of comedic fiction, the flights of linguistic brilliance mask the very serious anxieties at its core.
Some lines are throwaway;
I’d had a hard time deciding whether or not to carry a knapsack, a messenger bag, a canvas book bag, or a briefcase. Each seemed to embody a particular kind of confusion and loss. But the knapsack did the least spinal damage.
Others appear throwaway but hide deeper, more universal truths. While resting his hand on his child’s head, Milo muses,
I wondered if this gesture, some compound of fond feeling and flight readiness, was hardwired by nature, or maybe television. It felt natural. But so did television.
As Milo lurches from his unsatisfactory home life, his precarious job and his work for Purdy, he muses on past events in his life, trying to understand why someone who thought he was going to be America’s Next Great Artist is now a balding, disappointed man facing middle age with just enough knowledge to be aware that what he has achieved in life hasn’t counted for much. Lipsyte captures perfectly a downward spiral of disappointment and self-awareness, with Milo always quick to find the punchline.
Later, in bed, Maura and I cuddled in the way of a couple about to not have sex. It never appeared to bother us much, unless we watched one of those cable dramas about a sexless marriage. Then we’d curse the inanity of the show, its implausibility, switch over to something where the human wreckage was too crass to touch us
Milo’s relationship with his son Bernie brings some much needed warmth to the novel, with Milo trying to balance the notion of how much he loves his son with his role as a father. His own father was a rarely-there heroin addict, whose gift of a knife becomes a talisman for all that Milo has lost. Milo is one of those men who sees forced obsolescence even in familial relationships.
Not long ago, Bernie said ‘beep-beep’ every time he heard a car horn. Later his favourite word was ‘mine’… ‘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.
It’s funny, it’s unrealistic, but at its core it has a hint of cynical truth. And like Martin Amis’ Keith Talent, or Ignatius JReilly, Milo is the hero who can’t face the profundities he recognises and so resorts to the punchline to avoid the punch.
It is his self-knowledge and bathos that make him hard to dislike, hard not to root for, even when you know you shouldn’t. Milo is never merely bitter, there is always a wish for better behind his jokes. In a nod and a wink of a passage, Milo asks a colleague if he is ‘likeable’,
‘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’
So is there a reason for a book about Milo? Well, yes. Because The Ask is ultimately a state of the nation novel, an exploration of a collapsing society and a generation caught in-between, not knowing their place in a changing world.
The book opens with Milo’s colleague Horace stating that
America…was a run-down and demented pimp…Now our nation slumped in the corner of the pool hall, some gummy coot with a pint of Mad Dog and soggy yellow eyes, just another mark for the juvenile wolves
The very important point being made is that the country is ‘departing the age of the big give’ as the gap between the rich and the poor widens and many are lost in between. The theme of distance is once again explored, distance between parents and children, distance between old friends and distance between those with money and those without. America is just a whole series of asks and gives, but the asks are multiplying while the gives are dwindling away.
While Milo’s rich friend Purdy drinks ‘hind milk smoothies’ and hires ‘a Ghanian griot for our Friday meetings’, a war veteran turns to blackmail and a carpenter thinks he will get rich pitching a reality TV show where famous chefs cook the final meals for prisoners on Death Row (‘Dead Man Dining’).
The Ask reminded me very much of early Martin Amis novels like Money or London Fields with its heroic anti-hero and heightened characters. There is a sense that, like Amis, Lipsyte feels he has nothing to lose and the linguistic tricks and sheer confidence of the writing often leave you marveling at how perfectly a sentence has been crafted after the laughter has subsided. This is a book that is simultaneously intricately constructed and seemingly effortless.
I will admit that The Ask won’t be for everyone. It is funny, but knows it is funny and the humour may wear thin if not to the reader’s taste but for me this is black comedy at its finest, both precise and deep, cynical and heartbreaking.
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