Like both of his prior novels, Sam Lipsyte’s new book, The Ask, is not embarrassed by its preoccupations. Consider its opening paragraphs, a blast of violent prose that declares, in the exaggerated voice of one of the more charmingly silly characters, what it understands to be the United States’ current predicament:
America, said Horace, the office temp, was a run-down and demented pimp. Our republic’s whoremaster days were through. Whither that frost-nerved, diamond-fanged hustler who’d stormed Normandy, dick-smacked the Soviets, turned out such firm emerging market flesh? Now our nation slumped in the corner of the pool hall, some gummy coot with a pint of Mad Dog and soggy yellow eyes, just another mark for the juvenile wolves.
“We’re the bitches of the First World,” said Horace, his own eyes braziers of delight.
Sam Lipsyte’s America, then, is in a bit of trouble. But for all the country’s woes, these sentences declare that the author’s art, at least, is well and thriving. The Ask is his first novel since Home Land (which seems more destined for cult classic status with each passing year, as word of its savage, hilarious, and addictive pleasures spread alongside the fantastic story of its rejection-filled road to publication) and it’s his bleakest, funniest, and saddest book, his most pitiless and essential work to date.
Quickly sketched, The Ask concerns the peregrinations of Milo Burke, a relatively unsuccessful advancement officer at an East Coast university, whose life is doubly disrupted by a fracture in his marriage and the reintroduction of an old friend, Purdy Stuart, whose wealth and status as a potential university donor have serious implications for Milo. Professionally indebted to Purdy, Milo becomes ensnared in a web of their old college pals and the sad life of Don, a double amputee Iraq war veteran who refers to his prosthetics as “his girls,” and who takes pleasure in discomfiting others by repeatedly massaging his stumps in their presence.
But as its opening paragraph signals, the novel’s real subject is America itself, and in particular a specific American moment, which we take to be analogous to the present day, but which, it’s worth noting, occurs in a slightly skewed version of our own reality. While it is in many ways a departure from Home Land, The Ask sustains the particular brand of vicious and gorgeous prose that has been a hallmark of his writing. It is a bleaker and broader read than either Home Land or Lipsyte’s first novel, The Subject Steve, at once funnier and less funny, harder and less hard; it’s a book that takes aim at a much larger target, and in doing so hits with a force less immediate but eventually more damaging. Consider one of Milo’s fractured interactions with Don, which plumb the distance between the soldiers returning from a problematic war and the civilians of the country that sent them to fight it:
“Don calls them his humps,” said [Don’s girlfriend, Sasha].
“His stumps. He calls them his humps. Everything is girls and humps around here.”
Don rubbed the rough knobs just below his knees.
“Tikrit,” he said.
“We’ve got a CNN watcher,” said Don. ‘How inspiring.”
“I tried to keep up,” I said.
“Yeah, must have been a real sacrifice.”
“I must sound lame.”
“No, I think I’m the lame one,” said Don.
“You move incredibly well,” I said, “considering, you know…”
“Considering I’m a double transtibial amputee,” said Don.
The Ask so consistently activates our unease with the contemporary situation that it’s difficult to continue, an effect that’s further heightened by the pleasures of the book’s prose; it becomes a novel you cannot stop reading and yet almost cannot bear to read. This relentlessness is Lipsyte’s greatest triumph, and in many ways the natural extension of a line of interrogation begun in his first novel, The Subject Steve. That slight, brutal book is a commentary on the devaluation of the citizen in contemporary society’s market-driven systems of citizenship — “The world is pain and early death for most, Slurpees for some, wealth and ease for a very few” — though we can find seeds of the civic existential crises that colour The Ask: “It was American educational music, that old warped hope in major chords.” Where The Subject Steve is a book about the decay of the individual, Home Land is a novel about the strangulation of a generation, embodied in the form of its thirty-something narrator’s twisted efforts to reconcile the sad, flatlined reality of his life with the narrative arcs that John Hughes movies promised for him and his peers.
With The Ask, Lipsyte widens his lens further, beyond even the borders of America itself. What is it, he wonders, to be required to live in a society that has broken with itself, and with the world? What exists in the space between the mighty hustler of a country that dick-smacked the Soviets and the slumped old bitch of the first world? (“You know what I am,” Milo tells Benjamin Franklin in a dream. “I’m a piece of shit. A man with many privileges and zero skills. What used to be called an American.” Franklin responds: “Not my kind of American. Fare thee well, Mister Burke. Good luck with that GameCube.”) These are the sort of darkly uncomfortable anxieties that many contemporary novelists avoid, but it’s the fertile ground on which Lipsyte’s building an increasingly ambitious career. One wonders where this leaves Lipsyte and his ever-expanding purview; what could be next for the novelist who’s moved from the individual to the fundamental character of a nation? Perhaps there are more expansive views to take, new histories to imagine: “I went to City College on the GI Bill,” says an old man named Lee Moss at one point in the novel. “This was back when there was America.”