Courtney Johnston's Reviews > The Ask

The Ask by Sam Lipsyte
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Feb 26, 11

it was ok
bookshelves: abandoned, borrowed, fiction
Read on February 27, 2011

I might return to 'The Ask', but right now the hard cynicism, the luxuriant white-collar loserdom, is too much for me.

'The Ask' is a story of middle-class urban woe: Milo Burke is a development officer in a middling NYC university, going after potential donors with the Ask, hoping they'll reciprocate with the Give. He loses this job in the opening scenes, after insulting the daughter of a donor when she demands to be admitted into a closed seminar. It's not a principled stand - Milo is mostly just full of resentment and boredom. After being dismissed, Milo is brought back in for one last Ask - one from an old college mate who has something he wants Milo to do for him.

Lipsyte's writing is terrific. The plot of 'The Ask' is slow and quite simple, but his writing is hard-hitting, speedy, enjoyably profane. The scenes between Milo and his son Bernie are beautifully described, with deep cynicism (or honesty - being childless, I'm not sure where the line is drawn):

"Togsocker! Macklegleen! Ficklesnatch!"
Nonsense words had become impromptu mantras for the boy, just pleasing bursts of Anglo-Saxon sound, though occasionally he'd hit on one with inadvertent resonance. The last word just uttered, for instance, did describe his mother at certain regrettable points in her history.

Overall, reading the book right now feels like an ordeal, something to push myself through, rather than an enjoyable act (though in another week, another mindset, it might be just that). I can't deny Lipsyte his acuity though. One small story - a largely throwaway flashback, one of many the book is filled with - contains a gem of insight that hit me hard. Milo is talking about college, and the death of his father from cancer which his mother, it seems, refused to shell out for aggressive treatment.

Everyone knew about my father. I made a habit of getting blotto and cornering people so I could describe the exact nature of his monstrosity. Now I winced when I recalled the bathos, the drool. I was a raincoat perv with my wound.

"I was a raincoat perv with my wound." Who hasn't, at some point in their late teens or early twenties, pulled out their tragedy to frighten and impress others, seeking a strange mix of sympathy and admiration? And who hasn't felt dirty and sickened by themselves afterward? And looked back with shame and bewilderment? Recognising those feelings enjoyably funny - it's hurtful humour. Too hurtful for right now.
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Jonathan Ashworth Good job. I'm reading this as research for my own book of satirical stories. I'm beginning to feel worn down by it.

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