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Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Ask by Sam Lipsyte

296 pages
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

What are the tenants of a good story? For me, I mean? Snappy dialogue? Interesting, complex characters? Forward moving plot with a brisk pace? New ideas, observations? Vibrant sentences? Well, all those bullet points apply to The Ask. I had read The Subject Steve a while back and while I liked it, I felt that Lipsyte took me to the edge but never quite delivered. The Ask is the novel I was waiting for him to write. And then he wrote it. And here it is. And I really liked it, a lot.

So we have Milo Burke, our protagonist (though I use that loosely) who is, let's admit, a rather pathetic modern man. He is a failed painter(though failure implies trying). He is a failed fundraiser (though not for lack of trying). He is a failed husband (equal parts trying and not trying). The only thing he seems to be good at is being a father, and even that has mixed results. But he loves his son. And his wife. So that counts for something.After being fired from his fundraising job at Mediocre University, his office requires his services one last time (with the prospect of getting his job back) as one donor with deep pockets is requesting his personal involvement. One big Ask, for one big Give. Turns out this mysterious donor is...well, I won't give too much away.

Lipsyte's sentences and diction are one of a kind, though not always with positive results. It can be a little much, his hype, ironic, satirical wording. I know he is a student of Gordon Lish (I feel like I'm seeing his name every where these days) and I know Lish was big on writing sentences that hadn't been written before, every phrase unique, every word useful. As is my understanding. And you can imagine that can lead to some...curious phrasing. But overall, it works for Lipsyte. One reviewer said that though the sentences were "dazzling", it was ultimately an "empty story about nothing". Ha! Are you kidding me? About nothing? Wow. Just wow. J-wow.

Reviewed by Schuyler


"Most of the time he avoided me, or humored me, or peppered me with blandly supportive exhortations. "Keep it up," he might say, or "way to go," apropos of nothing I could discern. Sometimes if I walked into the room he'd just say, "Here comes the kid!" Invariably I'd wheel to catch a glimpse of this mysterious presence. Maybe it was clear to both of us we were never going to understand each other, not because we were complicated people, or even at loggerheads, but because of the minor obligation involved. I really couldn't blame him. I knew what churned inside me. It was foul, viscous stuff. It wasn't meant to be understood, but maybe collected in barrels and drained in a dead corner of our lawn." pg. 149-150

"You're growing up. All you need to remember is that nothing changes. New technology, new markets, global interconnectivity, doesn't matter. It's still the rulers and the ruled. The fleecers and the fleeced." pg. 195

"I'm only trying to be a decent dad."

"Don't waste your time. It's not in your genes. Besides, try making some money. That might be a good dad move. For heaven's sake, the system's rigged for white men and you still can't tap in." pg. 77

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