"The Ask" Answers Life's Questions

Madeline Poage ’17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
The Ask, a satirical novel written by Sam Lipsyte and published in 2010 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, follows mid-life loser Milo Burke — husband, father, and doughnut enthusiast.
Milo works at what he describes as “the Mediocre University at New York” as a disenchanted academic officer: a depressingly institutional and cubicle-based job in the crosshairs of corporate waste and vacuity that raises funds for art students. He loses this job within the first few pages and spirals into the pit of the economic meltdown, dragging his wife and three-year-old son with him. But he gets a chance at his old job again if he manages to reel in an important “ask” — his old college friend, Purdy Stuart, now a wealthy eccentric. As Milo explains, “An ask could be a person, or what we wanted from that person. If they gave it to us, that was the give.”
The novel reads more like a mystery when Milo learns what Purdy actually wants from him — to pass hush money to his illegitimate son, Don, an Iraq war veteran with no legs who is consumed by hatred for both his father and his country. Juggling this, his crumbling marriage, money troubles, and ghosts from the past, Milo is forced to reconcile his distant hopes and his current realities.
Set in Manhattan, a place with such a wide wealth gap it becomes easy to slip through the cracks, Milo is caught between the rising tide of poverty and the ceiling of the wealthy. The tide doesn’t drain and the ceiling never cracks, and through this Lipsyte explores the power and privilege of the upper class Milo knows he will never be a part of. A character eternally entrenched in the lower middle class, Milo is on the sidelines, and observer with rapidly disintegrating patience and some of the dirtiest one-liners around. In typical Lipsyte fashion, he is an antihero, a barnacle clinging to the bottom of the barrel, a pervert. But he’s a pervert with perspective, and this creates an engaging and aware narrator who drinks in everything and vomits out some of the most beautifully disturbing sentences to ever grace the page.
One of the most surprisingly poignant parts of the novel is the commentary on father-son relationships, using flashbacks to Milo’s past to mirror his current attempts to control his toddler son, Bernie. Not only do Milo and Bernie have some of the funniest interactions in the story, but they have a distinctly nostalgic feel. An example of this is when the three-year-old completes the work of every other character in the novel by further stripping away Milo’s masculinity as he lovingly tells him, “You’re a nice pansy, Daddy.”
While The Ask is laugh out loud hilarious in its cryptic and cynical way, it also carries the weight of realism woven throughout. The book is undeniably funny, but no matter how hilarious the commentary or witty the observations, there is a sincere grief that accompanies each giggle. Unlike previous works by Lipsyte, each laugh comes with a slap of reality, and this grounds the story in its powerful exploration of the wealth gap, generational divide, and lost dreams. It is electrifying in its despair, and a joy to read every step of the way.

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