The Ask

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Book Review: The Ask, Sam Lipsyte (2010)

Milo Burke is a man in distress. He’s a man who was whelped in a liberal college that let him believe he was the future of visual art, but now he’s stuck raising the money for another such institution to prop upsimilar self-delusions. But he’s not very good at it. And so he’s fired.

A saving call comes from Purdy, one of his old college circle, the one that really made it, a scion of the financial elite who wants Burke’s help for his own dubious reasons, restoring his job as down-payment. Milo gratefully squirms back into his office, but soon finds himself some where much more complicated, employed as moral janitor for a millionaire’s misdemeanors.

Milo stumbles around, never quite sure how to react to the events in which he’s caught up. He visits Purdy’s parallel reality with a temporary visa, takes rest stops in his own mid to low range crappiness and tours the sincerely shitty world of Don, a mentally damaged Iraq veteran. But there’s only so much reality a man can stand, and Milo’s own self-deceit soon start to sufferfrom exposure.

Some reviewers have noted that creating an impressive novel with such a bare, or at least brief plot is testament to Lipsyte’s gift for prose. It is certainly the writing that captivates, providing the warm scalpel to accompany Burke’s caustic contempt. But the characters also work, even if they don’t really attract. We soon realise that Purdy’s confident and all-controlling affability is that of a man who has no friends, only associates. Burke, the perpetual loser, has neither, but he wins the reader over eventually. His scorn and disillusionment provides real penetration, and his unarticulated anger resonates with the generalised rage that is only now emerging.

‘The Ask’ refers to Burke’s job – big sum charity mugging, but it soon comes to reflect his plaintive struggle to figure out what’s happening. It’s a story about the lies people tell to drown out the truth, told by a man who only has his cynicism and self-hatred to keep him going. It’s a funny book, which is good, because it’s also nasty. It’s a book about trying to shed delusions and meet reality. The delusions are pretty funny, but reality is very nasty.

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