Sam Lipsyte

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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