by Sam Lipsyte
296 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review by Marc Nash
Milo Burke is married, has a 3 year old son and works at what he calls the University of Mediocrity, as a fundraiser. His department are responsible for tapping up patrons, "The Asks" of the title, to endow various new facilities for the Fine Arts whether they are needed or not (such as an Observatory that doesn't work). The key thing is to get the money coming in, not the efficacy and usefulness of its purpose. Milo isn't terribly good at his job. It may have something to do with his own lingering artistic pretensions that he has failed to realise. He has a stand up row with a talentless scion of a patron - if you've built an Arts Pavilion, then your talentless offspring is entitled to attend the fine arts course and use the facilities you provided in the first place.
The concept of "The Ask" is an interesting one. The book undermines notions of aspirational culture, positing that like any venerable European monarchy, the American rich still sit at the top table and the serfs wait for the few scraps to be swept down to them. Lipsyte refers to "Dead America" throughout, without ever elaborating (though often it is in relation to the colonial/superpower dead end represented by a paraplegic veteran). I credit that it is the vain clinging to the vestiges of the American Dream that he is referring to.
The book is constructed of brilliant exchanges of dialogue between its drift of characters. Each stands within an idiom and jargon of their station in life. There is military vernacular, crazed managerial incentivising speak, TV executive pitch talk, political cant, street talk, faddish educationalist ideologues, the personal growth psychobabble and so on and so forth. In the character of Horace, his rival and tormentor in the office, his "many swerves in diction always amazed... he spoke several dialects: Standard American English, Black American English, American Television English, East Coast Faux Skater English, Foodie French and Drug Russian". Lipsyte's linguistic skills are a marvel to behold, each verbal exchange hilarious and razor sharp. But they don't suggest they are leading anywhere. Ultimately this book doesn't analyse the need for these jargons, it is not a book about language, but a reproduction of them.
In Paris, social interaction is predicated on semiotic reading of status of the protagonists; in London deferral before class and etiquette are key; I had always imagined in NYC that social interaction lacking both of these, was all about bluster, attitude and self-assertion - it's not what is said, but how it is said to win an argument. Everything is contending, nothing is about negotiation (it may not be like this at all, but this was my impression at least pre-9/11). This book replicates that certainly and to amusing effect.
But it doesn't lead anywhere. Milo is not a particularly likeable character. On a couple of occasions he loses himself and charges at people, only to be beaten down. It's hard for the reader to have much sympathy for him given his lack of self-control. At one point Lipsyte threatens to engender him as human, when having misread signals from an unattached woman, "saw the surprise there, the disgust, the deeper disgust, the moral judgment. the slight flattery, the steepening dive into new realms of physical revulsion, followed by pity's steadying hand". If only this hadn't been treated as a list, it actually could have been an interesting insight into how we bounce up and down the emotional spectrum at the speed of light, so that contrary emotions might both hit us simultaneously. But this book is not really about emotions, even when his marriage threatens to fall apart, the two characters are jousting, not as vying for moral or emotional superiority, merely to score linguistic points. The dealings with his child are both touching and searingly dispassionate and analytical. These contrast with the Vet's absent father trying to buy off the affections of his crippled (physically and emotionally) son.
Milo and the book drift rather aimlessly from encounter to encounter. The one special "Ask" he is assigned fades out of focus and is relegated to the background. There is thus no plot to speak of. The problem for a book about the soulessness of modern life, is that it is rather, well souless. The many parts do not add up to a larger whole. The focus of the book towards the end shifts to the paraplegic veteran, but his story dribbles away its energy despite the best efforts of a shocking ending which actually just feels cursory.
I almost think that literature is the wrong medium for this material. I more imagine it as a radio play of disembodied voices having these encounters in a complete vacuum - a sort of NYC version of the perambulation through Dublin of Joyce's "Ulysses". However, the book undoubtedly has its merits. How's this for a wonderful line: "wondered if the gesture... was hard wired by Nature or television". Therefore I'm interested enough to go back and read Lipsyte's debut novel "The Subject Steve" to see which side of judgement I'm going to come down on with this author. I'll get back to you when I know.