Paul Bryant's Reviews > The Ask

The Ask by Sam Lipsyte
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it was ok
bookshelves: novels

This is not a bad book, Sam Lipsyte has a cute turn of phrase, but it's just not funny at all and makes you feel bad when you're actually reading it so that you feel good when you stop. Ugh. I checked up my list of all time favourite novels to answer the question - well, maybe you just don't like comic novels. Here are the ones on my list with some comic elements:

the fountain overflows
the mezzanine
catch 22
the curious incident of the dog in the night-time

You might possibly say that The Mezzanine, Catch-22 and Eighty-Sixed are comic novels rather than novels which have a lot of comedy in them, but you will note that two of these three are about Aids and War & so have that tragic undertow. Only The Mezzanine proudly declares itself to be Light as in light music. The narrator never impales himself on a stapler. He suffers mortal embarrassment in a men's urinal, but he figures out how to overcome his urethric strangulation problem and everything's plain sailing apart from the shoelaces.

Novels which notice everything about Modern Life in America and then jeer loudly at it like The Ask have three terrible giants breathing down their neck; there's Tom Wolfe, who invented this micro-trend the-future-is-already-happening Americans-are-really-absurd stuff way way back in great books like The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby which was in like 1965 which was, well, before before; there’s Jonathan Franzen who is doing this sort of stuff in giant novels once every 8 years (and how glad I am he's so slow); and of course there’s David Foster Wallace about whom I would not wish to comment because I haven't read enough but he is the Galactic Warpdrive model of all Noticing Machines. It’s a brave author who sails his skiff into those waters hoping to catch an overlooked eel. And Mr Lipsyte then goes and sets his novel in a not-very-good University, just like about ten thousand novelists have been doing since the 50s – Snow, Bradbury, Barth, Amis, Sharpe, Lodge, Delillo, Jacobsen, Byatt, Tartt, Powers, Smiley, Chabon, Roth, Coetzee, Roth, Roth, Roth… and so you see that even though Mr Lipsyte has a cute turn of phrase, sometimes very cute, nonetheless, I have to report that this stuff has been

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Reading Progress

March 8, 2011 – Started Reading
March 8, 2011 – Shelved
March 13, 2011 – Shelved as: novels
March 13, 2011 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-22 of 22 (22 new)

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Krok Zero You'll probably hate Lipsyte. He's brilliant though. Home Land is his best.

Paul Bryant Well, he has a comic style, I'll give him that. But it's tough tough tough to write a comic novel.

message 3: by Donna (new)

Donna I found it about as funny as a comedy festival and as rockin' as a song about rock n' roll. Couldn't dance to it either.

message 4: by Paul (last edited Mar 13, 2011 03:34PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Paul Bryant Hey, Krok & Donna - you weren't wrong.

message 5: by Ian (new)

Ian "Marvin" Graye Something in me wanted to say that the Great American (Comic) Novel will have to be written by someone from outside the US (e.g., Canada, Mexico, the UK, the UKraine or aUStralia).
The last has the best chance, because it's effectively Little America in the sub-tropics of the southern hemisphere.
Australia is a colony that the US won, not by military conquest, but by trade, TV, Yahoo (seriously), YouTube and Twitter (even before Two and a Half Men).
So one day an Australian author is going to sail into those waters, not hoping to catch an overlooked eel, more likely hoping to show off the literary equivalent of a winged keel.
I was going to say that it might already have been done, by DBC Pierre, but then I read Paul's review of "Vernon God Little".
Crikey, there is nothing more pathetic than a "failed joke" (as my daughters describe my attempts at sit-down comedy) and no review more scornful than a review of a comic novel that didn't tickle the reviewer's funny bone.
Of course, there is another possible explanation, and that is that right now, as we read, somewhere in the pretty, gritty city of Nottingham someone is typing away at their own version of the Great American (Comic) Novel.
I'll buy it, I'll admire it, I'll rate it five long as it's not set in a university or a newspaper or a TV station or a library or a pub or a club or a coffee shop or, for that matter, a Tardus (only because it's so Cardiff).

message 6: by Donna (new)

Donna What's funny to people is as varied as how people like their scrambled eggs. You're right, Paul about what a thankless task this is, and about the giants breathing down his neck. The good writers must have those moments when they feel the weight of history with all those big shoes to fill. I'm amazed how many dare to start, and in some cases, I'm so happy that they did. But if you're going to rock comic misanthropy, you'd better have one helluv an eye and ear for the telling detail. Lipsyte's character sees nothing beyond his out of joint nose. He hears nothing but his own snicker. And I found Lipsyte the writer rather tone deaf. He wants to dance. He wants to lead! But he wants me to supply the whole orchestra. A better writer could begin that beguine with a triangle.
I might ignore tunelessness in some non-fiction where I really want the information--say a rock bio or some stock-market porn, but I ain't no Britney Spears. I'm not shelling out for my own diamond so I can lick the beer off the chest of some dancer whose beat is the kazoo in his head. Let me in on it. Call the tune. Connect! I have to write the book in my head too? The jokes don't always write themselves.
Speaking of seeing etcetera, I still remember Tom Wolfe's series of drawings for Harper's back in 1977. My favorite was of some mall shoppers in down coats. His caption was 'the down-filled people. They walk around looking like hand-grenades...' I have endured countless Canadian winters downless. Thanks a lot, Mister Wolfe.

Paul Bryant Hey Donna, I think

I'm not shelling out for my own diamond so I can lick the beer off the chest of some dancer whose beat is the kazoo in his head

should go in a list of best sentences. I'm still figuring out its precise meaning.

message 8: by Jenn(ifer) (new)

Jenn(ifer) " he is the Galactic Warpdrive model of all Noticing Machines" great line!

message 9: by Steve (last edited Feb 21, 2012 08:11AM) (new)

Steve I think I see the problem here. Paul, you're simply too well-read. ;-)

Actually, I've taken The Ask off my list even though I laughed more than once reading Home Land. You and others I respect have been luke warm at best on this one.

I was going to work in something about how your jadedness may be a benefit if it inspires your own creativity. You don't want to seem stale to yourself, after all. But then the example I was going to use was your DFW line. After Jennifer's comment, all I can do now is say ditto.

message 10: by Ian (new)

Ian "Marvin" Graye Missing like corrected.

message 11: by Ian (new)

Ian "Marvin" Graye It doesn't worry me that the subject matter has been done to death. The impression that most reviews give is that his writing is a bit too self-consciously cute for its own good.

message 12: by Alexander (new)

Alexander I've only read the excerpt from Harper's a few years back (about the knife the narrator "stole" from his former roommate), and found it quite amusing.

James Wood outlined the distinction between comic novel and comedy novel in, I believe, The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel. The latter is jokey, absurdist, ribald, or satirical, living or dying on the reader's LOLs, in the mode of the Jeeves And Wooster Omnibus. The former is a carefully-observed realist novel about deflating hubris and the travails of awkwardness wherein the protagonist muddles through a new situation or alien geography or potentially-unattainable objective, in the mode of A House for Mr. Biswas.

It may be a morbid failure of imagination on my part, but hasn't everything been "done to death"...?

Homo Sapien has been Done to Death!! ;-)

message 13: by Alexander (new)

Alexander Have you read Arthur Krystal's "Putting Down the Books" in Agitations: Essays On Life And Literature...?

It's a confession from a literary scholar who hits his 50s and finds himself unable to read novels anymore. Everything has been DONE TO DEATH.

I go through Krystal phases, but the hunger for fiction usually resurfaces. However, there may come a point when I've "had my fill," joining the Martin Amises and Cormac McCarthys who admit they haven't read a novel in years. =)

message 14: by Ian (new)

Ian "Marvin" Graye Alexander wrote: "It may be a morbid failure of imagination on my part, but hasn't everything been "done to death"...?

Homo Sapien has been Done to Death!! ;-) "

I agree.

Fiction is like golf.

Everybody is trying to get their balls into the same holes. Only they all go about it in a slightly different way.

You don't hear people talking about the death of golf all the time.

message 15: by Alexander (new)

Alexander Ha ha.

"When a man is tired of London, he is tired of Life." -Dr. Johnson

"When a man is tired of Galactic Warpdrive-model Noticing Machines, he is tired of Literature." -paraphrasing Arthur Krystal

Although Krystal admits in his essay that he still enjoys thrillers -- perhaps plot-driven fiction of the Elmore Leonard variety is a good palette-cleanser and folk remedy for bibliohangovers.

message 16: by Ian (new)

Ian "Marvin" Graye I suspect B.R.Myers is into thrillers and judges everything else by the same plot-driven standards.

Not that I don't enjoy that stuff.

"When a Reader is tired of Fiction, they are tired of Life." - Dr Ian Graye

"When a GoodReader is tired of Metafiction, they are tired of Life." - Dr Ian Graye

message 17: by Alexander (new)

Alexander Palate-cleanser. (sic)


"In the bookstore I'll sometimes sample what all the fuss is about, but one glance at the affected prose -- 'furious dabs of tulips stuttering,' say, or 'in the dark before the day yet was' -- and I'm hightailing it to the friendly black spines of the Penguin Classics." -B.R. Myers

So he loves Lit, just tends to project his personal tastes onto a metaphysical plane. As do so many of us.

Aiden Weber Not funny at all?? I literally laughed out loud with almost every page.

message 19: by Paul (new) - rated it 2 stars

Paul Bryant it's strange but true how different tastes in comedy can be. Some people don't like Curb Your Enthusiasm, whereas I think it's mostly hilarious. But we're here on gr to report our reactions to stuff, so that was mine.

Aiden Weber Well, that only further befuddles me. Curb is one of the funniest shows of all time for me.

Aiden Weber Seeing now that you're English, which may make a big difference relating to this book. My closest literary friend is English and I've been reticent about suggesting "The Ask" to him, because of doubts about the comedic compatibility.

message 22: by Paul (last edited Jun 28, 2018 11:41PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Paul Bryant but it's not like there is any great difference anymore between British and American humour.

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