Sam Lipsyte’s “The Ask” and the problem with ironic distance

Sam Lipsyte’s novel The Ask is very funny. It’s also sufficiently dark and morbid. And it lacks something that I can’t seem to define, so I don’t think it’s really fair for me to bitch about it, on account of that inability to articulate fault, but I’m not going to let that stop me.

I think it has something to do with the ironic distance that the narrating protagonist, Milo Burke, puts between himself and his entire world. It’s a jaded cynicism that also keeps the reader at a distance from every moment of any kind of emotional heft. I’m not attacking Lipsyte’s ability to produce a powerful cringe of recognition in one of the comically unflattering iterations of Milo’s thoughts or deeds -there’s a gut-level connection borne of empathy and mutual embarrassment. This isn’t the exaggerated cringe humor of the office, but a painfully honest exhibition of the postmodern male’s most unflattering aspects. It’s a shame the extent to which these revelations descend into bathos.

I would absolutely be lying if I were to claim that I hadn’t enjoyed the damn book. But there’s some profound lack of satisfaction in the reading. I can’t fault the prose, and I can’t fault anything craft-related in the novel itself. Maybe the whole thing is just to self-aware. Maybe Milo knows his audience too well, and tells them what he knows they don’t want to hear -which is, of course, what they actually want to hear.

Recommendation: This is another tricky one. Give it a read if you get the chance, but don’t rush to put it at the top of your to-read pile, I guess.

The Ask
by Sam Lipsyte

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