May 302011

Sam Lipsyte, © Robert Reynolds

The Ask
Sam Lipsyte
296 pp.
ISBN  978-0-374-29891-3 

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 and elsewhere.

Darryl Whetter

Darryl Whetter and the love.

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.

  21 Responses to “Titboning Vargina (and Other Social Readings): Review of Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask — Darryl Whetter”

  1. Re. the welfare-state literature of Canada vs. the free market literature of the United States, one can take a slightly different view. The American pro-market public discourse conceals a vast corporate welfare empire that begins with farm and water subsidies, oil company tax breaks, and extends to huge bailouts for the automobile industry and banks—the list goes on and on. The public discourse is very much at odds with actual practice. In terms of publishing, the US has much the same problems as Canada except perhaps delayed by a decade: commercial freemarket publishing is dwindling and subject to amalgamation and foreign takeover; there are only three main book retail outlets—Barnes and Noble, Borders, and Amazon (Borders just went under more or less, Barnes and Noble is being rescued temporarily, and Amazon continues the same monopolistic practices we see at Indigo Books in Canada, squeezing publishers and authors alike); instead of direct government support of publishers (as in Canada), the U.S. now supports an enormous publishing industry indirectly through the university and college press system.

    What you say in the opening of your review conflates a lot of old arguments. The implication is that an economic system is a value system that may or may not promote great art. State supported art will be bad art (the implication is that art can’t stand free and tall, like a cowboy); free market art will be better (because it stands free and tall and isn’t beholden to anyone). Of course, most great art until the 19th century was created in circumstances of patronage; artists were always beholden to someone. If you follow your syllogism all the way, you’re going to have to say that a) Shakespeare wrote bad plays, and b) that Shakespeare was a Canadian.

    • As for the brilliance of free market publishing in terms of fostering genius, you’ve just reminded me of an anecdote.

      I was sitting in my study quietly trying to be a genius, when the phone rang. It was Gordon Lish.

      He said (without preamble as usual): Have you heard of Dean Koontz?
      Me: No. Who’s that?
      Lish (clearly impatient with me): He has just been signed as a Knopf author.
      This was followed by backfill and explanation since I had no idea what he was talking about.
      There was mournfulness and exasperation in his voice. The old art house was going for the money. Class to crass. He new his days at Knopf were numbered (and they were–probably because he published my novel).

      • This isn’t “free” enterprise. Free enterprise is supposed to give us choices.

        “The U.S. now supports an enormous publishing industry indirectly through the university and college press system”—note that these presses aren’t supporting writing however. How many are publishing novels?

  2. Thanks, Darryl. You got my interest.

  3. First, Darryl, terrific review. Going to buy this novel this week.

    Second, to add to the publishing ‘debate,’ I recently read Gabriel Cohen’s interview with John B. Thompson in the March/April Poets & Writers. Thompson has recenty pubished *Merchants of Culture: Publishing in the Twenty-First Century.”

    The insightful, broad and (somewhat) hopeful perspective of Thompson felt new. He talked about 3 changes to publishing since the 60’s:
    1. The growth of the retail chains (now crumbling)

    2. The advent of the superagent (Dean Koontz be damned)

    3. The “consolidation of publishing houses under the umbrella of large corporations.”

    These three developments “produced a polarization of the field. When you look at it now, you see that there are a small number of larage corporate groups and a large number of of very small indie presses. But there’s very little in between.”

    He talks about how the large corporations, driven by profit, favor a ‘big book’ approach but how the small presses can survivie in a ‘favor’ economy (doing each other favors, cooperating as it were.)

    Thompson makes the case for the return of the medium-sized publishing houses. Of course he offers no practical tips for how this might happen, but as the huge retailers fail, will the mega-pub houses follow? Perhaps change is in the wind…

    • Thanks, Rich. Interesting how people can analyze the problematic situation, but the only solution they can come up with is to go back to the old ways which, yes, are already dead. The medium-size publisher could not survive in today’s so-called market economy.

      The “favor” economy idea is interesting but he ignores the vast amount of college-subsidized publishing (indirectly government-subsidized). Just look at the press ads in the AWP Chronicle.

      • Just another thought: Numero Cinq is a free market literary publication beholden to no one for money (course, it doesn’t make any money either–something wrong with my business model–no, wait, I don’t have a business model–story of my life).

        • I’m saying this, not in jest (too much), but perhaps a place like NC is the new horizon. A literary community beholden to no one. Fifty years ago, access would have been limited to such a place as ours. Today, it’s widely available. Maybe our little corner is exactly what the world needs, multiplied and diversified. Is it too much to say that the Arab uprisisings, the Arab Spring as its being called, was orchestrated by social media? In a way, this is an exciting time to be alive. Or maybe I’m just feeling optimistic because my fucking move is done! 🙂

      • The other way to look at the problem is from the demand side, building intelligent, engaged readers. Which takes us back to the schools, among other places. But the complaint I’ve read—exaggerated, but how much?—is that the academics have abandoned lit in favor of pursuing their own special, extra-literary theoretical interests. Just what are all those subsidized academic presses publishing, anyway?

        • Given all that we hear, read and experience about our reduced attention spans and competition for our time, looking at the demand side seems logical. We’ve heard that Amazon is now selling more e-books than paper, but what about the totals? Does anyone know of any demand-side data? Are we reading/buying fewer books?

        • Why do I always feel like I am being dragged into a debate I don’t want to have? 🙂

  4. Also, I think Darryl is in transit somewhere and not available for email right now.

  5. Does anyone know if dg, rgg, and lq are related? These initials look suspicious. I suspect a conspiracy.

    (Sorry, Darryl–come back and join in.)

    • It’s a communist plot. In the P&W interview I referenced somewhere above, Thompson talks about the ‘content value’ vs. the value of the book, the artifact. I was recently in a local B&N and the woman tried to sell me their e-reader. She said, and I quote, “You never know what you might end up liking.” Besides the obvious sexual innuendo of said-comment (it was obvious in my mind!) I found her medium pressure sales tactic a bit odd. If we all end up with e-readers, we won’t need bookstores. She was selling me her livelihood, in a sense. I get that the retailers make huge profits, but I was a bit surprised that a BOOK STORE would find a BOOK LOVER offensive (in a way.) This is in responsne to Lynne’s comments about amazon. If Blue Dog Press begins rolling soon, I’d like to be in charge of the Talisker Division.

  6. By the way, can someone please explain the title of Darryl’s review to me? Is this an inside joke? Am I just that dumb?

  7. I enjoyed the following-up comments almost more than this chewy and enticing review. It did get me wondering what the true reasons might be for the scarcity of social commentary in contemporary Canuck novels. I am not persuaded that it’s due to the gov-subsidies,on which our publishing industry survives, but I’ll reconsider the possibilities of that.
    I suspect it’s more deeply embedded in our own Canadian sensibility, if one can generalize about such a thing. I notice, anecdotally, amongst my circle, a deep reluctance to talk social politics on most levels. It invites disagreement which could lead to conflict which, if pushed further …could generate tears and estrangement. We Canuckers care not for that. The sensibility that ‘Things are cold and dark enough already’ tends to chill debate.
    Thank you for raising the subject.

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