The New York Times
The Askby Sam Lipsyte
A searing, beautiful, and deeply comic novel by a young American master
Milo Burke, a development officer at a third-tier university, has "not been developing": after a run-in with a well-connected undergrad, he finds himself among the burgeoning class of the newly unemployed. Grasping after odd jobs to support his wife and child, Milo is offered one/b>
A searing, beautiful, and deeply comic novel by a young American master
Milo Burke, a development officer at a third-tier university, has "not been developing": after a run-in with a well-connected undergrad, he finds himself among the burgeoning class of the newly unemployed. Grasping after odd jobs to support his wife and child, Milo is offered one last chance by his former employer: he must reel in a potential donora major "ask"who, mysteriously, has requested Milo's involvement. But it turns out that the ask is Milo's sinister college classmate Purdy Stuart. And the "give" won't come cheap.
Probing many themes or, perhaps, anxietiesincluding work, war, sex, class, child rearing, romantic comedies, Benjamin Franklin, cooking shows on death row, and the eroticization of chicken wire, Sam Lipsyte's The Ask is a burst of genius by an author who has already demonstrated that the truly provocative and important fictions are often the funniest ones.
A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
The New York Times
The Washington Post
“If you've heard anything about Sam Lipsyte, you've probably heard that he's funny. Scabrously, deliriously, piss-yourself funny (his characters would no doubt find a dirtier, and funnier, way of putting it), drawing audible snorts even from the kind of people, such as the people in his novels, who are way too cool to laugh out loud . . . Lipsyte's prose arrows fly with gloriously weird spin, tracing punch-drunk curlicues before hitting their marks--or landing in some weird alternate.” Jennifer Schuessler, The New York Review of Books
“Lipsyte shakes his comic cocktail of sarcasm and bitter impotence to eloquent effect: briefcases on wheels are ""luggage for people not going anywhere,"" and a Manhattan salad bar consists of ""go-goo for the regular folk, these lumpy lumpen lunches."" Milo is repulsive, hilarious, and devastatingly self-aware, but it is his country that is Lipsyte's real subject.” The New Yorker
“So let's read Lipsyte and rejoice; let's celebrate the laugh-producing Milo Burkes who are all too rarely brought to us by brave and bitter men--let's celebrate the canny, well-educated yet perpetually failing furtive Internet onanists, the dark, half-crippled, doughnut-gobbling man-apes of the literary world, who cast their lumpen shadows across the rest of us. These are the kind of unlikeable, lovable protagonists we miss; these are the self-loathing, mediocre secret geniuses who can set our people free.” Lydia Millet, The New York Times Book Review
“[The Ask] is a biting, bilious and often brilliant book . . . It started, for me, as a comic, bad-boy outing on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. It concludes somewhere much darker and richer than a theme park. 'Heavens to Betsy,' I murmured when I finished. 'What a book.'” Karen Long, The Plain Dealer
“Lipsyte's brand of absurdity is deeply rooted in the now. The recession, text messaging, reality TV--all are up for grabs. What's particularly effective is Lipsyte's acerbic yet subtle approach . . . But he's never simply bitter; one can always sense a yearning in this book, even at its most acidic moments . . . Precision and painstaking craft have granted Lipsyte complete authority in The Ask, his most acidic and empathetic work to date.” Kimberly King Parsons, Time Out New York (five stars)
“Sardonic, brilliant . . . Lipsyte skewers everything from precious preschools to academia, displaying an effortless grace and style all his own.” People (three-and-a-half stars)
“An off-kilter and hilarious novel about work, war, sex, class, children--and Benjamin Franklin.” O, The Oprah Magazine
“The riffs on fatherhood, work, and sex in Sam Lipsyte's unsparingly comic novel The Ask explode like a string of firecrackers--so funny you might lose an eye.” Vanity Fair
“It's customary for radically sardonic, corrosively funny writers to put in time as mere cult icons, but enough already: everybody should read Sam Lipsyte.” TIME
“One of the greatest black-humorists alive, Lipsyte has gone unnoticed for far too long. With his third novel, about the painfully hilarious adventures of a failed painter in a dead-end job, he should finally get the acclaim he deserves.” Details
“[The] gift is Lipsyte's writing: a chewy, corrosive, and syntactically dazzling prose style that doesn't so much run across the page as pick it up and throttle it. A-” Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly
“Acrid, hilarious, and hard to put down.” The Must List, Entertainment Weekly
“It's not easy to write a really funny book about such anxiety-producing topics as love, death, failure and our currently terrifying economy, but that's exactly what Sam Lipsyte has accomplished with his terrific new novel, The Ask . . . This novel isn't afraid to show the darker side of life, but while The Ask can be a bone-chilling read, it somehow still makes you laugh out loud.” The Observer's Very Short List
“If you're the sort of person who underlines amusing or thought-provoking lines in books, you best gird yourself, as Lipsyte is an inexhaustible fount of eloquent prurience, deftly mingling high- and low-mindedness.” Rob Harvilla, Village Voice
“With this novel, Mr. Lipsyte has proven himself to be one of the most unapologetic voices of contemporary literature. He mines the sexual frustration of Philip Roth, combines it with the paranoia of Don DeLillo and fills the space in between with a cast of characters as absurd and enigmatic as anything in a Thomas Pynchon novel . . . The Ask is a hilarious book about failure; a scathing unhappy comedy obsessed with a culture that's obsessed with obsessions.” Michael Miller, The New York Observer
“There's probably not a living American writer who has so comprehensively mined the comic possibilities of that particular anguished, hapless combination of the overeducated and the underachieving as Sam Lipsyte. Against all odds, his heroes refuse to succeed, and they and we are rewarded with the endlessly entertaining spectacle of their nonstop humiliation.” Jim Shepard, Bookforum
“Another savage, hilarious black comedy from Lipsyte . . . Once again, Lipsyte creates a main character whose lacerating, hyper-eloquent wit is directed both outward at the world--sardonic commentary on parenthood, class privilege, sexuality, the working world, education, ideas of Americanness and much more--and inward; Milo spares himself no degradation, no self-loathing, nothing. As it goes on one can't help noticing, beneath the fevered playfulness, a deeply earnest moral vision akin to that of Joseph Heller or Stanley Elkin. The author's most ambitious work yet--a brilliant and scabrously entertaining riff on contemporary America.” Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Lipsyte's pitch-black comedy takes aim at marriage, work, parenting, abject failure (the author's signature soapbox) and a host of subjects you haven't figured out how to feel bad about yet. This latest slice of mucked-up life follows Milo Burke, a washed-up painter living in Astoria, Queens, with his wife and three-year-old son, as he's jerked in and out of employment at a mediocre university where Milo and his equally jaded cohorts solicit funding from the ""Asks,"" or those who financially support the art program. Milo's latest target is Purdy Stuart, a former classmate turned nouveau aristocrat to whom Milo quickly becomes indentured. Purdy, it turns out, needs Milo to deliver payments to Purdy's illegitimate son, a veteran of the Iraq War whose titanium legs are fodder for a disgruntlement that makes the chip on Milo's shoulder a mere speck of dust by comparison. Submission is the order of the day, but where Home Land had a working-class trajectory, this takes its tone of lucid lament to the devastated white-collar sector; in its merciless assault on the duel between privilege and expectation, it arrives at a rare articulation of empire in decline.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Lipsyte's third novel, a darkly humorous story of sons and fathers, is both his most realistic and convulsively hilarious to date . . . Lipsyte's razor-sharp eye filets dying America (a fractiously culty daycare; a reality cooking show set on death row; the scarified plaguescape of a lonely first generation social networking site), throwing off brilliant riffs and exhilaratingly steep dives from frontal lobe to perineum, sauced with yummy dollops of white liberal guilt . . . Yet for all his wit, Lipsyte's narrator is not above it all but deeply, messily down in it: the casual miracles of parenthood, the deepening thrum of mortality, the grim perdurance of a shaky marriage, 'warm with that feeling of wanting a feeling that maybe had already fled.' Seriously funny, Lipsyte sits alongside such illustrious Daves as Gates, Eggers, and Foster Wallace on the self-conscious shelf, but with a heartfelt brilliance all his own.” David Wright, Booklist (starred review)
“Lipsyte endows his narrator with a sharpness of wit and dexterity of language arguably unmatched in contemporary fiction.” Alice Gregory, More Intelligent Life
“[A] dark humorous satiric novel, a witty paean to white-collar loserdom.” The New York Times Book Review (Editor's Choice)
“The Ask is a novel deeply in tune with the asks and the gives of the current economy, and with a city whose boroughs are full of the walking wounded . . . It comes out in the author's supremely distinctive voice, particularly his knack for brutal curlicues of prose--extravagant linguistic flourishes that only make the lonely truths hidden inside more piercing.” Dan Kois, New York Magazine
“The Ask eschews the shopworn conventions of modern fiction; it offers a rare and welcome departure from today's contrived, über-plotted novels written for the big screen. Here is a satire in its purest form . . . Lipsyte possesses the syntactical dexterity of a top brain surgeon . . . [and] manages, with breathtaking success, to render Milo's life so plausibly and with such sureness of hand and that the novel's wildest developments seem as inevitable as they are believable . . . You put down The Ask with that sinking feeling of loss that only the best reads can engender.” Kirk Davis Swinehart, Chicago Tribune
“Sam Lipsyte's way with words is exceptional, his ability to turn a phrase dazzling . . . [The Ask] is powerful and certainly speaks to our times.” Carlo Wolff, The Boston Globe
“A biting, bilious and often brilliant book.” Karen R. Long, Cleveland.com
“This melancholy book about a failed college fund-raiser is surely one of the best novels of the year.” Frank Bures, Star Tribune
“2010 will also be remembered as the year when, thanks to a single book, the literary merit of that somewhat neglected beast, the comic novel, could no longer be denied: Sam Lipsyte's relentlessly and hilariously brilliant The Ask.” Geoff Dyer, The Guardian
“Sam Lipsyte wants you to shit your pants. By that I mean parts of The Ask are so sphincter-looseningly funny that you will want to invest in some adult undergarments before reading it. As the author of several previous novels, including the Believer Book Award–winning Home Land, Lipsyte has cultivated a well-earned reputation as our preeminent chronicler of the absurd. There isn't a funnier author working today. . . The carefully nuanced look at our own world, of our phobias and obsessions and stupidities, forces us to understand them all too clearly. The Ask is a hilarious book that poses serious questions and never, ever feels slight.” Andrew Ervin, The Believer
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Read an Excerpt
By Sam Lipsyte
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2010 Sam Lipsyte
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAmerica, said Horace, the office temp, was a run-down and demented pimp. Our republic's whoremaster days were through. Whither that frost-nerved, diamond-fanged hustler who'd stormed Normandy, dick-smacked the Soviets, turned out such firm emerging market flesh? Now our nation slumped in the corner of the pool hall, some gummy coot with a pint of Mad Dog and soggy yellow eyes, just another mark for the juvenile wolves.
"We're the bitches of the First World," said Horace, his own eyes braziers of delight.
We all loved Horace, his clownish pronouncements. He was a white kid from Armonk who had learned to speak and feel from a half-dozen VHS tapes in his father's garage. Besides, here at our desks with our turkey wraps, I did not disagree.
But I let him have it. It was my duty. We were in what they call a university setting. A bastion of, et cetera. Little did I know this was my last normal day at said bastion, that my old friend Purdy was about to butt back into my world, mangle it. I just figured this was what my worst teachers used to call a teachable moment.
"Horace," I said. "That's a pretty sexist way to frame a discussion of America's decline, don't you think? Not to mention racist."
"I didn't mention anybody's race," said Horace.
"You didn't have to."
"Did you get avocado on yours?"
"Fattening," I said.
"Don't worry, baby," said Horace. "I like big women."
"What about hairy ones?" I said, parted my shirt to air my nipple fuzz. Horace let me be a cretin with him. You could call him my infantilism provider, though you'd sound like an idiot. Otherwise, I was ostensibly upstanding, a bald husband, a slab-bellied father.
"Gentlemen," said our supervisor, Vargina, coming out from her command nook. "Did you send off those emails about the Belgian art exchange?"
Horace swiveled back to his monitor with the mock panic of a sitcom serf. Vargina took scant notice of our talk, tolerated foul banter for purposes of morale. But the fact remained, we had forgotten the afternoon's assignment. The gods of task flow did not easily forgive.
Where we worked was in the development office of a mediocre university in New York City. It was an expensive and strangely obscure institution, named for its syphilitic Whig founder, but we often called it, with what we considered a certain panache, the Mediocre University at New York City. By we, I mean Horace and I. By often, I mean once.
Our group raised funds and materials for the university's arts programs. People paid vast sums so their spawn could take hard drugs in suitable company, draw from life on their laptops, do radical things with video cameras and caulk. Still, the sums didn't quite do the trick. Not in the cutthroat world of arts education. Our job was to grovel for more money. We could always use more video cameras, more caulk, or a dance studio, or a gala for more groveling. The asks liked galas, openings, recitals, shows. They liked dinner with a famous filmmaker for them to fawn over or else dismiss as frivolous.
An ask could be a person, or what we wanted from that person. If they gave it to us, that was a give. The asks knew little about the student work they funded. Who could blame them? Some of the art these brats produced wouldn't stand up to the dreck my three-year-old demanded we tack to the kitchen wall. But I was biased, and not just because I often loved my son. Thing was, I'd been just like these wretches once. Now they stared through me, as though I were merely some drone in their sight line, a pathetic object momentarily obstructing their fabulous horizon. They were right. That's exactly what I was.
A solitudinous roil, my bitterness. Horace, after all, was their age. He had no health insurance, just hope. Our rainmaker, Llewellyn, seemed born to this job, keen for any chance to tickle the rectal bristles of the rich with his Tidewater tongue. He was almost never in the office, instead sealing the deal on a Gulfstream IV to Bucharest, or lying topside on a Corfu yacht, slathered in bronzer.
Llewellyn delivered endowed chairs, editing suites, sculpture gardens. My record was not so impressive. My last big ask, for example, had failed to yield a few plasma TVs from the father of a recent film graduate.
Mr. Ramadathan had mortgaged his electronics store so his son could craft affecting screenplays about an emotionally distant, workaholic immigrant's quest for the American dream. But the father's giddiness had begun to wear off. The boy was unemployable. Now Mr. Ramadathan was maybe not so eager to relinquish his showroom models.
I'd made the hot, khaki-moistening hike past all the car dealerships and muffler shops on Northern Boulevard in Queens, stood in the sleek, dingy cool of the store. Mr. Ramadathan sat near the register in a wicker chair. The plasmas were not on display. Sold or hidden, I had no idea. Mr. Ramadathan stared at me, at the sweat patches on my crotch. He pointed toward some old video game consoles, a used floor fan, dregs of the dream.
"Please," he said, "take those. So that others may learn."
Unlike the time Llewellyn secured a Foley stage for the film department, there was no celebration on the Mediocre patio. No sour chardonnay got guzzled in my honor, nor did any lithe director of communications flick her tongue in my ear, vow to put me on the splash page of Excellence, the university's public relations blog.
If not so ecstatic in her position as Llewellyn, Vargina seemed happy enough, or at least adopted a mode of wise, unruffled decency in the office. She'd been a crack baby, apparently due to her mother being a crackhead, one of the early ones, the baking soda vanguard. Vargina was a miracle, and that's maybe the only time I have used the word sincerely. Her mother had named her the word her name resembled. A sympathetic nurse added the "r."
"Milo," she said now. "How is the Teitelbaum ask going?"
Vargina had enormous breasts I liked to picture flopping out of a sheer burgundy bra. Sometimes they just burst out in slow motion. Sometimes she scooped them out with her slender hands, asked me to join her reading group.
"Making progress," I said. "Chipping away."
"Maybe you need a larger tool," said Vargina, appeared to shudder slightly, perhaps worried her innocent metaphor would be misconstrued as sexual. Her words, however, were not misconstrued at all. I had already begun to picture my cock in high quiver, sliding up the lubed swell of her chest. We were in a library of lacquered wood. Viola tones rose from a carved alcove. Baby oil beaded on rare folios.
"Well," said Vargina, tapped the plastic parapet of my cube wall. "Just stick with it."
Truth was, the Teitelbaum ask was going nowhere. I was barely hanging on here in development. I wasn't developing. I'd done some good work at a non-profit a few years ago, but the South Bronx Restoration Comedy Project never really took off. The university snapped me up at a bargain rate. I'd become one of those mistakes you sometimes find in an office, a not unpleasant but mostly unproductive presence bobbing along on the energy tides of others, a walking reminder of somebody's error in judgment.
But today some karmic adjustment seemed due. Just as Vargina slipped back behind the particleboard walls of her command nook, a painting major we knew a bit too well around here charged up to my desk, planted her bony fist on my Vorticist mouse pad. McKenzie was one of those girls who didn't eat enough, so that all one really noticed about her were the mole-specked rods of her arms, the lurid jut of her skull. Students had no reason to visit our office, but her father had paid for our crappy observatory upstate. She was in here a lot, to preen, complain. I guess it beat making her putrid art.
"Hello, McKenzie," I said.
"Hi, yeah, sorry, I can't remember your name."
"Sure, okay. Milo. Listen, Milo, we talked last week and you promised I'd be able to take the Impressionism to Regressionism seminar even though it was full."
"Yeah, you know, you promised you'd talk to the painting department and sort it all out. I mean, if I told my father-" "Hold on."
"I made no such promise. We have nothing to do with academic decisions, with curriculum or enrollment."
"Okay, maybe it was that guy," said McKenzie, pointing.
"Horace?" I said.
"Yeah, Whore-Ass," said McKenzie.
Horace wore a pained grin at his terminal.
"Horace hasn't been well," I told McKenzie. "Now, as I mentioned, we have no jurisdiction over any of these issues, but maybe we can all get together with painting and figure this out."
"Meaning we can figure this out."
McKenzie stared. How could she know I myself had once been a fraud, chockablock with self-regard, at an overpriced institution just like this one, still had the debt to prove it? How could she know she stared down at the wispy pate of a man who once believed he was painting's savior, back in a decade that truly needed one?
She spoke quietly now: "Listen, I don't mean to be rude, but you really are here to serve my needs. My father taught me that the consumer is always right. I am the consumer. You are actually the bitch of this particular exchange. But don't think I don't respect that you are just a guy, like, doing your shitty job."
"Thank you," I said.
"But maybe you aren't cut out to work with artists."
I guess what set me off was her effort to be polite. I should have just leaned on the painting department to make room on the roster for her, ruin the semester for some pimple-seared hump who shared his name with no stargazing facility. Nobody cared. I would be doing my shitty job. It was a good shitty job. I'd done it for a few years and it paid pretty well, enough to let Maura go part-time since the baby. There was a quality family plan, plus a quality theft plan, the paints and brushes I smuggled home for those weekends I tried to put something on canvas again, until the old agony would whelm me and I'd stop and briefly weep and then begin to drink and watch Maura cruise up and down the cable dial all night, never alighting on anything for more than a moment, her thumb poised like a hairless and tiny yet impressively predatory animal above the arrow button, Maura herself bent on peeking into every corner of the national hallucination before bedtime.
She liked reality shows the best, and then the shows that purported to be about reality.
So, yes, I should have just surrendered, cinched the entitled scion her little pouch of entitlements, put in my calls to the name shufflers, done my duty.
I thought about that moment later on. Maybe I got extra-tuned to the concept of bitchhood once I became Purdy's, though I must confess I've always found such usage of the term for female dogs distasteful. My mother was a second-wave feminist. I wasn't comfortable saying "cunt" until I was twenty-three, at which point, admittedly, I couldn't hold back for a time.
Or maybe it's just that I've always despised phrases like "that fateful day," but as time went on I found it hard to deny that the afternoon Horace launched his E Pluribus Pimpus oratory and McKenzie tried to reify my servility and I pictured titboning Vargina in a rare books room was pretty damn fateful. Or was it, in fact, just another random day, and it was I who did the fool thing, forced my hand?
What I said to McKenzie, there is no point repeating. It's enough to report my words contained nothing an arrogant, talentless, daddy-damaged waif wants to hear about herself. When I was finished she did not speak. A thickish vein in her pale head fl uttered. The blue thing seemed to veer and switch direction. Then she took a few steps back and, still staring at me, phoned her damager. What was done to me was done in hours. My outburst was deemed hate speech, which called for immediate dismissal. I could hardly argue with them. I think it probably was hate speech. I really fucking hated that girl.
Excerpted from The Ask by Sam Lipsyte Copyright © 2010 by Sam Lipsyte. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Sam Lipsyte was born in 1968. He is the author of the story collection Venus Drive (named one of the top twenty-five books of its year by the Voice Literary Supplement) and the novels The Subject Steve and Home Land, which was a New York Times Notable Book and received the first annual Believer Book Award. He is also the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship. He lives in New York City and teaches at Columbia University.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Funny at first, but that stops and the protagonist becomes just plain annoying. Not a likeable character in the book.
Sometimes you read a book that got good reviews up the wazoo and you ask yourself why. This is one of those books. Certainly it is an entertaining tale and the author is talented. But this novel is overwritten. Some of it is downright difficult to understand. Quite a few times while reading it I had to go back and reread certain sentences that looped back around each other making you wonder in the end what was the subject and what was the predicate. But after I gave up trying to decipher the writer's personal code, I did manage to finish the book. I was not amused.
I don't see what all the fuss was about. The book has unlikable characters acting out a predictable plot while mouthing banalities. If the plot really is "secondary to the writing," then the book is just another writer's workshop exercise.
Excellent prose. A great story. Highly recommend. This sold me on lipsyte, i will definitely check out his other works.
If you love the clever, complex writing style found in books from other literary periods, you will enjoy this novel as I did. (Ironically, the book is full of 2010 pop culture references that will likely keep it from being understood into future decades.) I very much enjoyed the unconventional story, giving readers a glimpse into the perhaps never before fictionalized world of higher education fundraising (albeit far from reality). I found this to be one of those books that keeps you reading until you finish. The only reason "The Ask" didn't get five stars from me is its heavy use of profanity. In spite of its relevancy in character development, it's still a turn-off for me personally. Great book regardless!
If you get past the first three pages without laughing, this may not be for you. I loved it. The most cynical and brutally funny look at life for the Gen X now 40 crowd I've read. It was described to me as an update to the classic A Confederacy of Dunces, and lived up to those strong words, for me.