Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Sam Lipsyte, _The Ask_

IN BROADEST OUTLINE, The Ask resembles (I would say) Lipsyte's previous novel, Home Land: witty, linguistically inventive no-longer-young man with foibles a-plenty, whose life has jumped the rails, struggles from disaster to disaster to apparent turnaround that nonetheless implodes into disaster, ending the novel no better off save for some hard-won nugget that may turn out to be wisdom, but probably not.

Milo Burke is the kind of main character that almost no reader likes; I can almost hear everyone in my book club and most of my students declaring, "I couldn't stand him." He is poignantly aware of this himself:

"No, I mean, if I were the protagonist of a book or movie, it would be hard to like me, to identify with me, right?
"I would never read a book like that, Milo. I can't think of anyone who would. There's no reason for it."

Besides reminding me of Lipsyte, Lipsyte reminds me of the early (pre-Brideshead, let's say) Evelyn Waugh. Yes, they are easy to tell apart; on the basis of the two novels I know, Lipsyte likes first-person narration, which Waugh rarely used, and Waugh's style is spare and tight-lipped, while Lipsyte's is an exploding jukebox. But both Waugh and Lipsyte walk a nice line between realism and satire; all the implausible exaggerations seem within whispering distance of the plausible (e.g., ideological schism among the teachers at an experimental pre-school). Both zero in on the softest, rottenest underparts of charlatanry of the moment and whatever special patois it speaks (e.g., "a balm that not only heals but promotes understanding, especially in a world, a globe, as global as ours, where isolation is no option, where the only choices are globality or chaos"). Both are utterly disabused of any idea that the wealthy and powerful are at all like you or me.

Different as their styles are, they are both novelists one would read for the joy of the style alone. Both may come up a little short in the Arnoldian High Seriousness category, which I think is the main reason Waugh is often overlooked as a great 20th century British novelist -- it's hard to seem important when you're funny. But if Vile Bodies or Decline and Fall deserve a place on the list of great novels, there may turn out to to be room for The Ask.

Loved the Cooper Black on the dust jacket. Hurrah for Charlotte Strick and whoever did the design for the Black Keys' Brothers.

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