Sunday, March 28, 2010

#15: The Ask

I'm not exactly sure what The Ask was about. The first sentence reads, "America, said Horace, the office temp, was a run-down and demented pimp." Later, describing the apartment rented by Don Charboneau, the long-estranged son of the protagonist's college friend: "He had never owned much, but now he was down to the card table, one folding chair, a saucepan, some smudged water glasses, a spoon. Papers lay curled under the radiator." Sam Lipsyte, the author, celebrates these adjectives of derision ("run-down!" "demented!" "smudged!" "curled!"), even revels in them, and the result is a viscerally repulsive read.

So where was I? Oh, right: the protagonist. That would be Milo Burke, development officer at...well, we don't know where. This is because, unfortunately, Lipsyte decided to leave the narrating to this pathetic little man, who apparently felt that revealing his university's identity would be anathema to his nihilist philosophy. (I'm being generous, of course; there's no way Milo actually has a discernible philosophy.) Thus, we are left with a story of a man whose wife is having an affair, whose job is never really gone after his firing and whose firing is always imminent when he is actually working. Along the way he rekindles a friendship with Purdy Stuart, an old friend from college. The renewed relationship is one of subservience, however, as Milo is actually recruiting Purdy to donate a large sum of money to the university, a task whose outcome will determine Milo's fate as a development officer. Unfortunately, I could not bring myself to care. Maybe this is because of sentences like, "It might sound ridiculous now, but he had been one of the first to predict that people really only wanted to be alone and scratching themselves and smelling their fingers and staring at screens and firing off sequences of virulent gibberish at other deliquescing life-forms." Perhaps there is nothing technically wrong with this sentence, other than the fact that it is not interesting. But isn't that reason enough to stop reading?

Unfortunately, I have trouble putting a book down once I've started it: the economic logic of sunk costs has never really penetrated my actual decison-making processes, so I struggled on. I read of Milo's increasingly strained relationship with his wife; apparently home life becomes somewhat awkward following the revelation of an affair. Persevering readers will also find more about Purdy Stuart, who continues to hang out with old college buddies, literally paying to keep them around, as he fights his way through a present that he never wanted by pretending that the past has yet to end. In other words, Purdy is dealing with a slightly more acute version of the notorious phenomenon known as mid-life crisis.

Perhaps I'm being overly harsh. Parts of The Ask were humorous or even touching. But Lipsyte's unwillingness to take his own writing seriously undermines his readers' ability to fare any better, and his overemphasis on dialogue leaves his characters looking and feeling like half-finished caricatures of real people. Some of the basic elements of humanity are there, but you have to squint really hard and ignore the glaring omissions. At some point, it becomes easier to just give up. Considering the fact that Milo Burke has already reached this point by the beginning of the book, anyone who manages to finish reading The Ask deserves a pat on the back simply for finishing ahead of its protagonist.

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