I know I joke around a lot about having only one or two readers and, for the most part, I’m not joking. Like seriously, I see the numbers. There are about five of you—six on a good day—and I’m grateful for every one. But on this lovely day in June, I find myself particularly grateful to one reader in particular (no, not you mom) who by virtue of her totally enviable job in book publishing, sent me some freebies in a very official-seeming package that arrived at my office yesterday, forcing me to gloat to my coworker (another reader, bless her) about how totally awesome I am and how probable it is that in the not-so-distant future I will be far too famous for my book blog to bother with a regular 9-to-5 and she should probably get on my schedule now if she wants to still be friends in 2012.
So thanks, new favorite reader (I am withholding your identity because
I don’t want to get you in trouble for sending books to a reviewer with a 5-person audience one cannot predict the magnitude of attention you would get if I mentioned you by name.) It’s nice to write book reviews; it’s even nicer to think that someone, somewhere out there is enjoying them.
On to The Ask! I first heard about this book sometime last year, when it was reviewed not once but twice in the New York Times. (Seriously NYT, something like 200,000 books are published a year and you can’t bother to limit it to one review per? I just don’t know how my imminent memoir about growing up an upper-middle-class suburban white girl will ever break through.) Since I am criminally awful at summarizing the actual plots of books—have you guys noticed?—I’ll just steal a paragraph from Lydia Millet’s review:
“The Ask” describes a crisis in the life of one Milo Burke, a deeply cynical academic development officer, earnest binger on doughnuts, avid consumer of Internet porn, and devoted father and husband. Detailing the meltdown of Milo’s career and marriage, “The Ask” takes place in an exhausted and passive institutional workplace—the kind of futile office space we know from such cinematic offerings as, well, “Office Space.” … When Milo loses his job, then gets a chance to have it back if he can reel in a big fish—a major gift from an old college friend who’s now a Machiavellian tech millionaire—he starts down a grim and spiraling path.
That’s enough (unlike the Times, I don’t believe in giving away a novel’s entire plot in a review.) The bottom line: The book is about Milo, a definitive sad sack with artistic aspirations but limited motivation, who alternates his time between grandiose ruminations on “the meaning of it all” and just run-of-the-mill complaining. “We were stuck between meanings,” he writes. “Or we were the last dribbles of something. The fall of the Soviet Union, this was, the death of analog. The beginning of aggressively marketed nachos.” (Confession: This was the easiest quote to pull as it was referenced in not one, but both Times reviews. SERIOUSLY NYT, GET IT TOGETHER.)
Now, I’m not old. I mean, I’m getting older, but I’m certainly not old enough to feel myself in the throes of a mid-life, or even quarter-life crisis (the latter because I refuse to acknowledge its existence. You’re just indecisive and lazy, fellow 20-somethings; that doesn’t entitle you to some sort of esoteric gripe about reality.)
It’s precisely because of my youth, my flexible ideology and open-minded nature, my flawless skin and non-varicose veins, my acceptance of change and comprehension of Bieber (enough?) that I’ve long felt a disconnect between myself and authors of these Mid-Life Crisis (MLC) novels. It’s not that I’m too busy thinking happy thoughts and tweeting about my breakfast to contemplate the purpose of it all; it’s just that I don’t think I’m old enough to care yet. Time doesn’t feel like it’s running out, my body hasn’t betrayed me (unless you count an unsubtle reflection of my cheese addiction as betrayal) and I haven’t really made any unalterable life choices. I mean if it came down to it, I could toss my clothes in a bag, release my cat into the wild (of Brooklyn) and be gone. No mortgages to pay, husbands to leave, or babies to abandon. I may not be confident that everything in life works out, but I have yet to see the point in worrying too much about it.
Plenty of others do. I feel like I’ve read too many books lately whose main focus is a character’s stagnant existence, their mediocre job, slowly dissolving marriage, and growing desire to experience or even implement drastic life changes. These aren’t sad books per se—rarely is someone dying so much as slowly corroding emotionally—but they aren’t happy either. And there’s usually some sort of bizarre or unpredictable plot point to drive that message home.
The Ask is hardly the worst offender in the MLC genre. In fact, I quite liked it, primarily because Lipsyte is such a great writer. He has a superb voice and such a skill with satire that it’s hard not to like this book. The dialogue is awesome, and the prose has countless turns of phrase—”khaki-moistening hike,” “pimple-seared hump,” “daddy-damaged waif”—that are subtle on their own but when strung together make the novel incredibly enjoyable to read. Lipsyte, or I suppose in this context Milo, is also unabashed about discussing otherwise private topics—including his son’s uncircumcised penis, which receives a pretty fair bit of attention. This has the effect of making the novel simultaneously intellectual and profane. My favorite combo.
No, there are definitely books whose MLC vibe is slightly less subtle. (Moreover I know I’m not alone in perceiving The Ask this way; A.O. Scott is feeling me.) In A.M. Homes’ This Book Will Save Your Life, protagonist Richard Novak’s life changes when he discovers a gigantic sink hole in his backyard. In Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall, otherwise normal Manhattanite Peter Harris contemplates having a sexual relationship with his sister’s brother. In Joshua Ferris’ The Unnamed, Tim Farnsworth is sporadically afflicted with the need to walk, immediately and until he collapses from exhaustion.
I mean, what is all this about? Am I just not mature enough to appreciate the emotions of jaded 30-somethings? Am I missing the symbolism? Is there a totally obvious allegory? Have I never really learned the definition of satire?Because if the protagonist of “Single White Female” (the title of my memoir, for which I anticipate having absolutely no copyright issues) needs to live in a chicken coop or walk backwards 54% of the time to make the book seem relatable, I need to know. There are precious New York Times reviews at stake.
At the end of the day, many a beautifully written book has, for me, been tainted by whiffs of this mid-life crisis oddness. I’m puzzled by novels with characters or circumstances that don’t seem to jibe with reality, and even more puzzled by the feeling that said characters/circumstances aren’t supposed to jibe with reality and I’m just not understanding why. The Ask, thankfully, is too well-written to really be affected by this malady. Sure, there are parts of it that are strange, but not so strange that they distract you from Lipsyte’s writing, characters, dialogue, and (bonus!) generally spot-on observations about New York (“A man who looked a bit like me, same eyeware, same order of sneaker, charged past,” writes Milo of his neighborhood. “They were infiltrating, the freaking me’s. The me’s were going to wreck everything, hike rents, demand better salads. The me’s were going to drive me away.”)
Long story short (or long; it’s my blog, I’ll do what I want) this is a good book, probably one of the best I’ve read in the whole 21st century/woe is me/life is pointless subset of contemporary fiction. Mid-, quarter- or half-life crises aside, you should probably read it. At the very least, you’re unlikely to find another novel with as many uncircumcised-penis jokes.
TITLE: The Ask
AUTHOR: Sam Lipsyte
PAGES: 296 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Home Land, The Subject Steve
SORTA LIKE: The Futurist meets Dear American Airlines
FIRST LINE: “America, said Horace, the office temp, was a run-down and demented pimp.”