As a Canadian, I’m ashamed that American fiction, which is largely underwritten by a market, has a keener social eye than Canadian fiction, which is underwritten significantly by state-funded, supposedly arms-length grants. Contemporary American novels from maturing writers like Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Egan, Michael Cunningham and Sam Lipsyte (author of this superb novel The Ask) as well as emerging novelists Joshua Ferris and Jonathan Dee examine, castigate and celebrate today, while my fellow Canadian writers remain obsessed with yester-year. Egan’s recent A Visit from the Goon Squad mocks celebrity culture and trophy marriages. Dee’s The Privileges boldly reasserts that novels about money are not the exclusive domain of the Victorian novel. Ferris’s chilling The Unnamed and Cunningham’s By Nightfall fearlessly plumb the life-time relationship. Here in Canada we get muskeg tales of outport woe (see February by Lisa Moore and/or Annabel by Kathleen Winter). With The Book of Negroes, a mega bestseller in Canada, Lawrence Hill digs deep to conclude that slavery was bad. Canadian writing grants that should make our fiction brave and bold too often leave it feeling like it was written (reluctantly) by a harried committee at a government ministry.
Sam Lipsyte’s searing, hilarious and moving new novel The Ask is able to judge the society it records without sounding as sanctimonious as a government recycling campaign. Most fiction writers at some point feel the pull of Chekhov’s claim (or Thornton Wilder’s paraphrase) that literature is not bound to answer questions but rather to pose them fairly. However, Chekhov’s advice can create a crippling rudderlessness that leaves superficial fiction misidrected and unengaged. Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad has an utterly condemning scene with a self-inflicted scar. Franzen’s The Corrections has that minor but unforgettable couple who lost their adult daughter to murder. The father responds by eventually deciding to never speak of the matter again. The mother draws the killer’s gun every day then rips up her (near perfect) drawing. Social portraiture is alive and well in American fiction. In The Ask, the multi-talented Sam Lipsyte laughs and cries along with the characters he condemns and condones.
Lipsyte’s Milo Burke isn’t exactly sure how he went from being a promising student painter to a development officer at a “mediocre university in New York City,” but he is generally content to steal art supplies and provide for his small family. When his cynicism about the art world he used to believe in and his day job selling an arts university to and for over-privileged undergrads collide in an articulate, insightful and entirely unwelcome tirade, his career appears even more uncertain. With education, creativity and identity already commodified around him, Milo’s languishing career may be saved (or damned) by Purdy, a former college friend and subsequent dot-com kajillionaire. In development terms, Purdy’s wealth makes him an “ask.” Whether or not he’ll provide “a give,” seems to hinge on Milo, the past they shared and a separate past Purdy would like to keep private.
The Ask is driven by a complex, insistent voice, yet here in his fourth book of fiction Lipsyte transcends the monotonic trap of good voice writing. Milo questions, condemns, wonders and laments, all at rapid-fire. He’s “ostensibly upstanding, a bald husband, a slab-bellied father.” His day job allows the nouveau riche to pay “vast sums so their spawn could take hard drugs in suitable company, draw from life on their laptops, do radical things with video cameras and caulk.” Crucially, however, Lipsyte layers Milo’s voice with acute social readings. Falling into bed after another day with their three-year-old son, Milo and his wife “cuddled in the way of a couple about to not have sex.” Milo’s divorced parents are deities in the dysfunctional family pantheon. Bad parents at daycare inappropriately pitch reality TV shows to Milo because he works around media education. Another character doesn’t lament his mother’s financially thwarted education but laments plenty, and notably, when he returns legless after a combat tour of Iraq.
The Ask combines the layered social portraiture of Franzen’s The Corrections with the infectious vocal cool of Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao. Those who find Diaz to be a one-trick pony saying little in a catchy voice can rest assured that Lipsyte is always multi-tasking. Much better than a novel celebrating collegiate youth pontificating in “the House of Drinking and Smoking” is this stereoscopic novel that renders the endearing hope of undergrad bullshit sessions but also skewers the meretricious marketplace of North American post-secondary education. Milo’s work at “the Mediocre University” also aligns The Ask with American campus novels. More substantial than Richard Russo’s verbose Straight Man and less hermetically sealed than Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, The Ask (and its writing prof author) know how much comedy and condemnation lurk on the contemporary campus. Milo’s boss’s boss, Dean Cooley, is a former Marine turned salesman. When he demands a response to a nonsensical non-speech of his, another professional asker mashes up enough buzzwords to discuss:
the role of culture as both a bulwark of the civilization we cherish and a bridge, an interconnective bridge, to other incredibly and wonderfully global modes of thinking and being, as well as a story about young and diverse and often sexy people expressing themselves through their creativity and in doing so spreading a kind of artistic balm on the wounds of the world, a balm that not only heals but promotes understanding, especially in a world, a globe, as global as ours, where isolation is no option, where the only choices are globality or chaos.
Lipsyte’s infallible social barometer enables these scenes of comedy as well as other memorable (but never self-indulgent) disquisitions on parenting, love and its loss as well as twenty-first-century America.
Respect for Lipsyte’s moving and impressive plot forbid too much attention to the novel’s darkest subplot and its role in this bravely honest novel’s sobering, clear-eyed ending. Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask should be one—if not the—American novel of its decade. Bibliophiles should snatch up the original FSG hardcover. Lipsyte himself also does a great reading of an audiobook at Audible.com and elsewhere.
Darryl Whetter is a prof of writing and literature at Université Sainte-Anne. His latest book is the The Push & the Pull, a novel of love, death and bicycling.