3 out of 5
Books can be about nothing. I’m okay with that. The ‘nothingness’ becomes their focus, and the often playfulness in dancing around that lack of subject can be entertaining, in a skilled writer’s hands. It can also veer toward somewhat obnoxious, of course. And my tastes on that have changed: while I think I was pleased to be distracted by obnoxious nothingess early on, I now prefer my texts to have some kind of reason for why they are the way they are.
Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask seems to be centered around this very question, boiling relationships down to things asked for and things given, and then putting a lampshade on that by having lead Milo work a job which is structured around those asks – begging for donations at the so-nicknamed “Mediocre University at New York City.” Milo’s employment is contingent on landing a particularly big donation, which has him stepping into more personal territory, attempting to reconcile The Ask with his despondent son, in exchange for The Give. This pursuit then rides alongside Milo’s exchanges with his own family – his mother; his wife – and hints at the transactional nature of each.
But Lipsyte can’t get away from the almighty appeal of talking about nothing. He’s moved on from the constant steamroll of puns and snark that was The Subject Steve, but he’ll still go out of his way to hit certain turns of phrase. These don’t do much for characterization, except to flatten everyone to the same non-stop spiel of sing-song nonsense; and somewhat more embarassingly, the humor and topics feel a bit “old” at this point (or at the point when it was published – 2010), a step behind modern times and trying to crack wise about it. If this waywardness – and the outdated vibe – were more ceded into the narrative, Lipsyte’s contemplations on the unforgiving churn of life would maybe land with some more impact, but instead, we always swerve in order to make a dad joke.
Countering this, though, are some moments of clarity, when we’re out of the winky dialogue back-and-forths and in Milo’s head, trying to sort through his thoughts and emotions, very bluntly, towards his own progress or lack thereof; regarding what he feels for his son, or his wife. Lipsyte still has Milo affect snide here, but it feels more honest, and gives the book a strong enough backbone to follow Milo’s experience: there is definitely something recognizable in his plight, and the head-just-above-water sensations he has throughout. This gets especially sharp in the final chapters, when events have stripped characters of the need to be clever. Again, Sam still can get his humor in there – it doesn’t need to be totally taken away – but it’s not at the distraction of the text, and suggests that, should Lipsyte evolve this style, there’s a truly striking, solid book to be written in the future.